Reading the fourth book of the series ‘Asking, we walk: the south as new political imaginary’ is like roaming the streets of a busy hamlet atop a hill and halting at different homes, listening to the stories of those who dwell there. The diversity of voices you hear will range from founders of social movements, representatives of aboriginal tribes, chroniclers of an uncared for planet, and survivors who battled different kinds of violence. The collection, edited by Corrine Kumar, a part of the Centre of Informal Development Studies (CIEDS), a collective based in Bangalore, does not focus on a single issue. Biodiversity, human rights, history and future of social movements, commons, and justice are just a few of the themes the book meanders through. What connects these stories is not what they focus on but what they seek – a vocabulary to describe a different world.
If you accept that a different world, an alternative to the one we live in, marked by inequality, militarism, and patriarchy, is needed, a trip to this hamlet is easier. Once you accept this need, the question then is, how do you describe this different world? The approach the book takes is summed up in the title, ‘Asking, we walk’, coined from the slogan of the Mexican revolutionaries, the Zapatistas. ‘This attitude toward knowledge undergirds all new social movements,’ an essay on emancipatory politics explains. It is an attitude that recognises ‘the limits of one’s own knowledge’ as well as the ‘necessity and possibility of acting while remaining open to what one does not know.’
The collection, a quilt of letters, reminiscences, works of satire, as well as academic-style essays that end with a few pages filled with footnotes and references, has a homespun quality to it. Perhaps, it has something to do with the poems scattered at random as well as the introductions to the author before every piece. These introductions written by the authors themselves illuminate the link between the personal and the political. For instance, a journalist relates an anecdote of how he met an 18-year-old native American woman who gave him a map of reservations where she had sketched the sites of Uranium mining, which set him off on his journey to record the struggles of Navajo families against Uranium mining.
In ‘From quanta to the seed’, Vandana Shiva describes how she visited places in Himalayas where she grew up only to realise that the forests and streams had disappeared to make way for dams and roads, and experienced a sense of personal loss, which she dealt with by fighting for biodiversity.
These journeys, stepping from realisation, to commitment to a certain course of action, and finally searching for alternatives to change the world, seem to mirror the structure of the book. The introduction, which weighs itself down with the task of summarising all the stories in the volume, and collapses with the burden of that effort, informs us that the book is divided into three parts.
The first part ‘The Master wears a new mask’ is about different ways in which globalisation and neo-liberalism seek to establish control through patenting regimes and promoting monocultures. It is akin to naming the opposition and creating awareness, the first step to realisation. The second part, ‘Challenging master houses, houses of reason’ is about different courses of action adopted in different parts of the world. There are essays on how the World Social Forum, a diverse trans-national activist network, operates, providing insights into the difficulties and challenges of a forum that accommodates diverse social, political and personal perspectives, as well as stories about local collectives like CIEDS.
The third section ‘Challenging Master Houses of Justice’ is about a search for an alternative focusing on the concept of justice, exploring new notions of justice, moving away from retribution to reparation and reconciliation. This section includes a fascinating essay by Lawrence Liang, a Bangalore-based lawyer, where he speaks of ‘Courts of women’, courts that replicate formal courtrooms but lack any kind of authority.
He wonders first what such a ‘theater of justice’ would achieve and then goes on to describe a transformative experience, of listening to women speak of their individual struggles which challenges the very language of law and justice being used. What these ‘courts of women’ provide is the possibility of an alternative, a spark for imagination to kindle and conceive the new. A true story narrated in one of the essays ‘To love the marigold’ illustrates the power of that possibility. A poet is being taken away in a truck from the concentration camp to a gas chamber. Everyone is silent in the truck. Suddenly the poet jumps up and starts reading an inmate’s palms and predicts a long life filled with children and laughter.
As the poet reads more palms, the mood of the guards changes too. Death somehow does not seem inevitable. Disoriented, they take the prisoners back to the camp. Those who doubt the power of imagination to transform would probably prefer to complete the story with the fact that the poet did not survive the camp; he died of typhus a few days later.
In that doubt rests the challenge the book has to face. For, preaching to the converted is not difficult. As mentioned before, the trip to the hamlet is easier if you accept the need for a different world. The converted have gone past the most crucial step, they have realised the need for change and they will seek out the hamlet and find comfort in these stories. As it stands now, the book is more suited to speak to those who have crossed that first step. The others need bridges, fresh language that can spark their imagination without alienating them. Perhaps, that could be the next step in the journey of this anthology.