Lata Mani raises critical questions about life and the world but provides no satisfactory answers
For many of us, few things can be as overwhelming as the present.
We engage with the present not just as active participants of the change, but also as observers who are constantly trying to make sense of our own lives, vis-à-vis the changing world that in many ways defines the “present”, or what our life is about “now”. Based on our experiences in the past and the understanding we have gleaned along the way, we tend to look for patterns in the present all the time to try and make meaning of the world around us.
Lata Mani’s ‘The Integral Nature of Things’ is one such attempt to read into the present — some situations that please, and others that pain.
The author looks at life using her observations of a variety of things, including language, labour, media, technology, urbanisation, sex and neoliberal globalisation.
What is interesting about this book is the way it defies conventional notions of ‘structuring’ one’s work. She presents different facets of the present, at times in verse, and at times in prose.
Even as she explores the present and articulates her experiences as they occur, as if she were thinking aloud, she poses some critical questions through a series of nuanced observations presented as both sensory experiences and rational analysis. She critiques the tendency to see the world through a range of discrete things and processes, arguing that many of us are losing the ability recognise the interrelations between the different components and processes that inhabit the world.
Mani begins her reflections recalling an incident where she was listening to music and a goat by her window “danced” or moved in an unusual manner, prompting the goatherd to cane the animal. She observes that the goatherd’s response is only a reflection of the larger, prevalent distrust of the unfamiliar that, she says, dominates today’s world.
While one can relate to her broader opinion of this distrust prevalent in the world, her explanation based on her observation — in this case the “dancing” goat — is not convincing. Though this is only one of many points made in the book, it may be worth taking it up for some discussion, for she deems the incident important enough to set the tone for her book and introduce her fundamental argument on the need for us to look at the world through the web of interrelations, and as a whole.
Making a case for the goat’s autonomy and place in the world, Mani says had the goatherd recognised the animal as an equal, as being endowed with intelligence, she may have found it easier to be patient and not resorted to caning. True, human beings often tend to exercise authority over other species, but her analysis of this specific situation is problematic. To start with, she believes that the goat’s actions were in response to the music played, as these seemed synchronised to the chants, and that the experience was comparable to her own. While she sympathises with the goat, she finds the goatherd being insensitive to what could be the goat’s appreciation or response to the music.
If she judges the goatherd for panicking at the animal’s unfamiliar behaviour, Mani’s assumption that the goat was “transported” due to the music is also contestable.
The author accuses the goatherd — who probably understands her animals a lot more than we, as spectators might — of reacting violently to the unfamiliar situation, but her own observations of the goat “spinning gracefully” borders on glorifying or mystifying the unknown.
While it is possible that the goat responded to music, in the absence of actual evidence — which the author also admits — both the goatherd and the author can only be seen as treading the same path of the unknown. It cannot be deduced that the difference in their responses is because of a qualitative difference in their understanding or sensitivity. So, if the author’s point is to use this episode to illustrate how some of us are caught up in conventional, familiar patterns and are reluctant to engage with the unfamiliar, often losing sight of what she later refers to as a holistic, larger picture of the world with interrelated components, the example is not good enough.
However, the point Mani intends to make using the dancing goat episode is well worth reflecting on. Later, Mani argues that the very categories we create, for the purpose of understanding this world, begin dominating our perception. This, she says, may also lead to the risk of viewing the world itself through the said categories or identities rather than as a composite whole.
She argues that left or feminist arguments can, at times, reify the same categories they have painstakingly demonstrated to be social constructions. The point she makes, at best serves as a sweeping generalisation in the absence of specific substantiation. Any argument, left or feminist, will be considered sound and reasonable only when it demonstrates the instrumental nature of the conceptual categories it deals with.
Speaking of a connect that she has for a grass cutter she sees every morning, she says it exists despite the absence of any relationship or conscious interaction — often mediated by respective economic positions and social aspirations. The connectedness, she argues, exists well beyond all the categories that may define their identities, in terms of class, caste, gender, sexuality, rendering notions of hierarchy irrelevant to itself. She notes that “when concern about difference consistently outweighs embrace of our fundamental commonality we belittle who we are and could be to each other”. But, when the idea is to challenge the differences, it becomes important to see them.
By dissolving categories that are, as the author points out, abstract, social constructs, in order to privilege the said commonality, are we not paving way for this notion of commonality to become a cosmetic substitute for actual equality?
In a chapter on law and dharma, the author observes that dharma is affirmative, and is grounded in the rights perspective of an individual, while law is essentially negative, saying “thou shall not, must not…” etc. The demand for more law runs the risk of being counterproductive and even regressive she argues, calling for a vigorous public space for discussion of ethics. Mani also reflects on several other processes of the contemporary world, such as urban development and neoliberal globalisation, making sharp and useful observations. She also speaks of how technology has changed the meaning of communication itself, something that concerns all of us.
Mani’s work is relevant to our understanding of the present, for she raises very critical questions pertaining to different dimensions of life, seeking to drive home the point about the danger of losing sight of who we are, as an individual part of a larger whole.
(Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Sri Lanka correspondent)