Thursday, May 1, 2014

Leeya Mehta on "The Abduction"

At the beginning of “The Abduction” I construct a personal image of war. As I am writing this note to accompany my poem, I believe we are again at war for the idea of India.

“The Abduction” begins among the spires of Oxford University in England, where I was a student and first heard about India’s nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert. Some of the images in the poem are from my life at Oxford. My bedroom overlooked a crabapple tree. I rode my bicycle over Magdalen bridge, under which boats passed on their way up the Cherwell River.

Other symbols in the poem are specific to my own cultural heritage as a Parsi Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism predates Judaism and is considered to be the first monotheistic religion. My ancestors came to India from Persia fleeing religious persecution from Islam. In the poem I refer to some of those lost ancestors, who never made it to safety in India, and whose skeletons lie at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. The first Parsis landed on the beaches of Gujarat, the birthplace of Gandhi as well as the controversial Narendra Modi, India’s likely next Prime Minister. In India, Parsis found religious freedom and great economic opportunity.

The vision of India that I grew up with was deeply influenced by my socially liberal family and the school where I spent twelve years from pre-K through tenth grade. I came to see India as a special place with transformative ideas: democracy, non-alignment, ahimsa or non-violence, non-proliferation and religious freedom.

Fissures began to appear in this utopian landscape around the time I went on to a new high school. It started with the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and Hindu/Muslim riots in Bombay. When the carnage began, a school friend dismissed it saying, “Only twenty Muslims have been killed so far.” A Hindu friend said of a fellow Muslim student, “Why doesn’t she just go back to Pakistan, where she belongs?” I remember saying, “But she was born here, she’s never been to Pakistan. This is her home.” A new cycle of violence had begun, and in 1993, Bombay had one of its worst terrorist attacks by the Muslim underworld.

In “The Abduction” I make a reference to the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in 2002, after the Godhra train fire, which killed Hindu pilgrims and was blamed on Islamic terrorists. Muslim artist friends had to flee to neighboring states because they could not find sanctuary anywhere in Ahmedabad, the city of their birth, as hundreds of thousands of Muslims became internally displaced, lining the roads leading out of Gujarat.

Each time we repeat this cycle of violence, I am concerned that we are returning to that time when India was partitioned. Pakistan was partly created because Muslims believed that a Hindu India would not provide equal opportunity to its minority Muslim citizens. Muslim families were uprooted and went to Pakistan; Hindu families fled to India. A million people perished in this bloody cross-migration. In spite of this, India continues to be home to nearly 180 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world.

In “Watching the Fifth War,” a short story set after the Indo-Pak conflict in Kargil in 1999, I wrote about how a Hindu and Muslim family inadvertently exchanged homes after India’s Partition. I was interested in the way we inhabit the same space as simultaneously interlopers and brothers. In “The Abduction,” a similar dual nature is personified by twinned figures representing my inner battle between conscience and an alter ego, which in turn represents nationalism and a need to belong—to a country, to a parochial history tied to blood and religion. The Asho Farohar that the narrator wears around her neck is the Zoroastrian guardian angel symbolizing the soul’s battle between good and evil.

I visited Pokhran, where India's nuclear tests were conducted, shortly before going to Hiroshima in Japan. There it became even clearer that it made no sense to own what you will never use. If you have an atom bomb, you may, in fact, use it. For the narrator in “The Abduction,” the cycle of violence must end with her. This personal renunciation of blood nationalism is not an act of helplessness or futility even if she feels an overwhelming sense of loss.

The idea of India has always been contested. I fear that with the ongoing election there we might be heading into a dark period. This can perhaps be avoided if enough of us go through a struggle similar to the narrator's in the poem—one which Gandhi saw as an allegorical battle between our higher selves and the allure of blood.