2020, and little sense of an ending

Shiv Visvanathan

A narrative of a year ending is sometimes more than a literary problem. Usually a year’s events can be assembled like a family album presented with a sense of awe or familiarity. But sometimes, events become surreal and it is not easy to even juxtapose them into any idea of linearity. 2020 was a strange year, full of historical events that somehow looked meaningless. One can list the headlines like a town crier, but as a narrative, the year makes little sense. One has to invent a new genre, a surreal accounting that goes beyond socialist realism or magical realism. Literature and sociology feel helpless before the cascade of events; where history enacts itself as trauma.

Covid showed that the migrant was an invisible creature, helpless in coils of exploitation. India watched the greatest migration since Partition like an empty event. Documents were classic — from migrants being sprayed with chemicals to a child sitting innocently next to its dead mother

2020 began with Shaheen Bagh and CAA. A little slum near Jamia Millia provided a lesson in constitutional history and solidarity in citizenship. Democracy seems to have been reinvented like a parable again, but Shaheen Bagh disappears as Covid demands its own attribution.

The Chinese intrusion added a touch of sombreness, but India acted as if it was a Bollywood movie. The Chinese were demons that our heroes Rajnath and Jaishankar managed to shake off

Covid is the one event that dominates 2020 and brings out our sense of stereotype and mediocrity. It operated along the faultlines of all major dualisms, formal, informal, public, domestic and created a world of shattering indifference. The documents were classic — from migrants being sprayed with chemicals to a child sitting innocently next to its dead mother on a railway platform. Covid showed that the migrant was an invisible creature, helpless in coils of exploitation. The pandemic triggered the greatest migration since the Partition and India watched it like an empty event. It was as if pain and suffering on this scale was impossible to grasp. Even Bollywood failed to create a myth of meaning from it. In fact, all it could offer was the saga of Bollywood through Sushant Rajput. One suddenly sensed Bollywood as fiction was more real than Bihar as reality. It was as if Covid was a parallel world which Indians entered occasionally.

The ridiculous and the banal dominated us in a way that is difficult to label. In the middle of the coronavirus, India pretended to have found a new leisure class discovering cooking and fitness. An Olympiad of death exponentially presented was no match for the excitement of stars in Maldives. Maldives became the promised Covid land and a film star without a Maldives shot was irrelevant.

In a strange sense, Covid declared the declining power of Bollywood. Bollywood was no longer a myth machine, but an extension of the ad industry.

The Chinese intrusion into India added a touch of sombreness, but India acted as if it was a Bollywood movie. The Chinese were demons that our heroes Rajnath and Jaishankar managed to shake off. A great civilisation degenerating into brutality hardly bothered our elite. It was as if the BJP wanted a touch of Chinese machines to stay in power. Geopolitics seems to be haunted by trivialities. Indian politics reduced the border to a sideshow where the internal dramas were taking place.

The world’s focus was on the US election, with Trump as an all-consuming obsession. Trump was the superhero of this era. A man who enabled America to caricature itself, becoming a display of threat and inanity difficult to digest.

Yet, as the events unfold, one realises it is not the events in their caricatured immensity that haunt us, it is the nature of narrative that is challenging. It is as if history — whether it is nationalism, globalisation, super power rivalry — makes no sense. All of them get reduced to banality and in the way we consume it. I think India discovered it had arrived as a post-truth society. We did not destroy an event, we embellished it through entertainment. Trump is a caricature of the American dream, Covid gets reduced to a Bollywood serial. People don’t care and the media, the most lethal casualty of the year, plays to audiences. Narrative and truth are no longer important. Politics as consumption is. A disaster has to be diverted into entertainment. A border war becomes slapstick, migrants dying an exercise in exponential magic.

2020 marked the death of narrative and news. It was presented as the end of the print era. Covid was an epidemic of the digital. Countries wallowing in backwardness competed for digital acclaim, Guinness book style. It was as if the news supplement had colonised the editorial page. It did not make a difference whether it was WHO or Bollywood that was the source of news. Nothing seemed convincing except as caricature or entertainment. The year discovered two new words: digital and exponential. Both labels marked India’s entry into science fiction territory. What haunted one was the enormous gap between the enormity of historical events and the inanity of interpretation. One would need a surreal Hegel or Marx to grasp the poignant emptiness of the era. It was as if middle class India and the media decided History with a capital H made no sense. It was better seen through the lenses of Bollywood or TV, presented as an inane serial or a piece of digital gossip. Bigg Boss, or Kangana Ranaut made more sense as metaphor than the best of our social science intellectuals.

It was not merely India alone. The world seems to have embraced this epic of nonsense; the Nobel committee gives a peace prize to a Nigerian leader who then proceeds to decimate a community. It showed that Kissingers are alive and well in every culture of power.

The farmers’ crisis in one sense becomes the exemplary event of the year, exemplary only in terms of the nonsense it evoked. The regime immediately suspects it of Khalistani, Naxal, anti-national, pro-Chinese, pro-Pakistani pretensions. There is no sense of guilt that Parliament has not even debated the Bill effectively. India, which boasted of a rural imagination, suddenly seems to have lost sense of agriculture as livelihood. The Swaminathan Report is treated like an Old Testament document. There is little empathy for the farmer in the regime as the unity of farmers becomes the real Opposition. The sadness is there is no coherent narrative or policy beyond allowing the intrusion of corporates into agriculture and accelerating the level of vulnerability.

In fact, right in the middle of this, Narendra Modi, who has become a background figure, presented the Central Vista project of a new Parliament as if it was an architectural Christmas cake to the nation. It is as if neither democracy nor agriculture makes sense. Central Vista embodies the Haussmannic mentality of Lutyens, of centralised powers, indifference to vulnerability and informality. The ceremony of Central Vista becomes the year-ending ritual for a regime that does not care, where a Home Minister handles all issues as if they were internal security problems.

It is not just that narratives collapse. A sense of democracy collapses with the end of storytelling. 2020 becomes the year of inanity and mediocrity in power locally and globally. The storyteller as witness watches helplessly as events unfold without meaning. One has to change dictums that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power corrupts and the inanity of power corrupts absolutely. A regime loses a sense of problem solving of welfare as it moves into authoritarian control.

— The writer is a noted academician

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