The Decolonization of the Mind

Continuing on the theme of paradigm shifts — there are, of course, those that occur as a result of particular experiences by particular people. Among the most significant ones I’ve experienced occurred when I was a 17-year-old fresh out of high school. In that dizzying period of freedom between the end of high school and the beginning of college, I went to the Himalayas on a trek. I was part of a recently formed group called Kalpavriksh, a loose-knit, unstructured collection of students interested in the environment (later to become one of India’s major environment groups: check out their site here). The lot of us, mostly New Delhi-based teenagers and a few college students in their twenties, took off that summer to study the Chipko movement. This is one of the most famous grassroots environmental movements in the world. Illiterate village women are its backbone — it is a non-violent movement that has no single leader. For the most part it is an attempt by the local people to save their remaining forests from the depredations of timber-hungry industries and the government, but it has also evolved into a movement for social change. Villagers in the Himalayas depend on the forest for survival, so to them this struggle is not about an abstract philosophical or sentimental idea. The word Chipko means “to stick to” in Hindi, and in fact the desperate tactic of the activists has been to put their arms around the trees and stand between them and the man with the axe.

We spent maybe twenty days traveling from village to village in the Himalayas, going up to remote villages at 10,000 feet, eating the peasant food that people shared with us, sleeping in wooden huts in blankets and sleeping bags. We drank water from mountain streams, got bitten by bedbugs and mosquitoes, forgot electricity and other home comforts, and once climbed a huge cliff in the middle of the night, following a village guide who had spent the better part of the day telling us his village was “just over there.” I lost my glasses down a gully when I slipped on the pine-needle-strewn path. We found porcupine quills one day where a panther had killed the porcupine only the night before. As we traveled, sometimes on our own and sometimes with Chipko guides, learning and singing the songs of the movement, it came to us how incredibly arrogant and patronizing we city-folk were in our assumptions about the rural poor. Some of these people had protected their forests, guarded them and revitalized them entirely on their own initiative, based on their observations of what happened when you over-cut or clear-cut. They had done this without ever having read a single environmental manual. They had taken the slogan of the government’s forest department, which went something like “What are the benefits of the forest? Resin, wood and trade” and converted it to “What are the benefits of the Forest? Soil, water and fresh air.” (It has a real lilt in the original Hindi). The full power of grassroots social change was, however, brought home to me near the end of the trip.

We were at a meeting of several Chipko-activist villagers in a high valley. They had come from far and wide in that region of the Himalayas. There was some kind of podium set up, maybe a loudspeaker, and quite a vast crowd sitting on the ground in front of it. Various men and women went up and had their say. I was standing near the back of the considerable crowd, a little tired, not paying too much attention, when it hit me. The woman on the podium was an older lady. She stood straight and tall, her lean face filled with passion, punching the air with her fists as she spoke. I looked around me and saw men and women, young and old, the divisions of caste and class blurred. Here was a place where tradition normally restricted upper-caste women to cover their faces in the presence of strange men. Here was a place where nearly everyone was illiterate, where the postman had to read people their letters when their relatives wrote from the plains. Some of the villages were so remote that they had never heard of coffee or television; in one village the women shyly asked if we were women (our shirts and jeans having confused them somewhat) before starting to talk with us. But this was also the place where village women had ganged up and smashed the illicit distilleries of men who, in their despair at the failure of agriculture, had taken to drink. This was also the place where an older woman could stand bare-faced, red-faced, fists in the air, and incite her people to continue their struggle. And guess what, she’d never read Betty Friedan.

So it came to me then in a sort of rush that a) feminism was not an exclusively Western phenomenon, and b) people, however poor and illiterate, could lift themselves out of environmental and social degradation without us. In fact it was possible for “brown folks” to fall into the same colonizing mindset as the British with regard to our own rural poor — and somehow, despite this, said rural poor could take their fate into their own hands. It was a simultaneously humbling and exhilarating realization.

Until that time I’d been a fairly typical Delhi middle-class student, educated in an English medium school, having learned English when I was about four. I had somehow internalized a lot of assumptions, growing up in the city. Like how the West somehow epitomized progress and feminism was a Western phenomenon. That as part of a ‘developing’ country we were only some way behind the Western countries on the same track to the same place. It never occurred to me until then that there could be models of development, or feminism, or environmental action, other than Western models.

I was born in a free India; my grandparents and parents were the ones who remembered British rule. I’d been brought up on stories of my grandmother participating in the Salt Satyagraha during the independence movement; my great-uncle permanently lost his health languishing in a British prison, and died young, as a result of which I never knew him. My grandfather’s own paradigm-shifting moment had come during the Salt Satyagraha, when (as a junior bureaucrat in the British government) he realized the power of Gandhi’s salt march to the sea, and came to question the British occupancy of India. Despite my family history and the freedoms I now took for granted, I hadn’t shrugged off that most insidious form of colonization, the kind that can remain generations after the conquerors have left: the colonization of the mind.

I want to make it clear what I’m talking about, here. There are, broadly speaking, two extreme responses to colonization (or to any dominant world-view that has influenced you). You either unquestioningly absorb the assumptions and perspectives of the dominant view, or you rebel and reject everything about it. If you rebel against the dominant view, you might dig into your own past and your own culture, and romanticize it, while rejecting everything that the dominant Other represents. This is the reactionary view. In their non-extreme forms both these approaches have been important ingredients in the Indian struggle for independence. The former helped people understand how the British thought and functioned, whereas the latter did the necessary job of enabling a conquered people to realize five thousand years of non-colonized history, and the achievements that came with it.

Decolonizing the mind is the third alternative. This involves approaching your own marginalized cultural paradigms as well as those of the dominant establishment with the same curiosity, appreciation, skepticism, interest, engagement and reserve. The first two alternatives are in a sense, two sides of the same coin. They are both responses to the dominant culture in which that culture is central. To be free of that kind of dualistic thinking is to go in another direction entirely.

My friend and fellow SF writer Anil Menon has a comment on his own realization of the colonization of the mind. (We’ll hear more from Anil later this week).

“Let me mention a concrete example: I love Hindi and Tamil movies. I’ve enjoyed them for a long time. I know a lot of the songs. I love the Walter Mitty scenes, dance armies, thunder-thighs, tearful heroines, mother-loving heroes, baby-producing rains, and of course, the demented villains. But for a long time, it was an embarrassed pleasure. I pretended I didn’t know the names of any of the heroines or heroes. I would adopt a half-amused, half-ironic pose in talking about Indian movies. I would never rah-rah about the often exquisite cinematography in a Bimal Roy movie the way I might with one of Scorsese.

”I remember visiting a Indian friend’s place in Cupertino, one late Sunday morning. His wife and kids and were watching a Hindi movie in the living room. As my friend walked me to the patio, he muttered something about the importance of keeping his kids in touch with “the culture.” He hastened to add that he never watched the stuff, but that “the kids and the missus seemed to like the crap.” It never occured to me to contradict him.

”To be ashamed of what one loves is, I think, the hallmark of colonization. We deal with the shame in various ways, and compartmentalization seems to be one of them.

”But I have a completely different attitude to Indian movies now. I talk about them, think about them, and watch them with the same attentive and appreciative interest that I’d give any western movie. Understanding the importance of rasa in Indian dramatic performance helped a lot in this particular process. Scholars like A. K. Ramanujan have provided intellectual ways for understanding our culture in intrinsic ways (a bit like intrinsic geometry), but the decolonization process may also be an emotional step in that one has to acknowledge that one values something without being ashamed about it.”

Anil’s example of Indian versus Western movies sounds a bit like genre versus literary fiction, doesn’t it? I don’t think one has to be from a once-colonized country to have little gerbils living in your brain, telling you what to think.

My own half-formed thoughts on the decolonization of the mind were first birthed in that high Himalayan valley. Realizing the implications is the work of a lifetime. This has taken my family and me in various unusual directions and kept us in an interesting place at the edge of mainstream culture (whether here or in India). From home-schooling my daughter for many years to my responses to scientific culture in and out of research physics, it’s been quite a journey. The edge of the river has turned out to be a fascinating place: here are strange eddies and flow patterns, and unexpected topographies that make it a far more interesting place than the middle of the stream. It is also a nice place from which to write speculative fiction.

Thoughts? Gerbils?

Comments

  1. says

    Great post. I think we can be conditioned to think in many different ways and the influences may be blatant or subtle. Experiences like the ones you had in the Himalayas are important in allowing one to break out of the conditioning but they can happen anywhere and any time. I think the key thing is when you really see other people for who they are rather than the labels or boxes we often unthinkingly apply.

  2. says

    We are fast moving towards adopting a cosmopolitan culture which is largely shaped by science and technology-so any other cultural differences may disappear albeit slowly in days to come.Whether we like this trend are not is a debatable issue.But I shall go far a scientifically inspired culture where there is no place for rubbish subjective norms/religious bigotry.

  3. says

    Reading this was a wonderful way to start my day. It says so much about what us normal people are capable of in spite of our leaders. Top notch.

    Anil Menon’s statement, “To be ashamed of what one loves is, I think, the hallmark of colonization” makes a lot of sense.

  4. says

    In the US, our not-so-polyglot culture feels shaped more by a misunderstanding of science and quick adoption of technology (maybe this is true most places). As a species are are we more adept at creating and using tools, and changing in response to the use (colonized or adapting) than in understanding their origins, purpose, and impacts, and how they can distract or help us? Same for symbols (it’s a very dramatic political year, so symbols are extra explicit). It feels like what really makes us human isn’t our viral drive to colonize (or be colonized), but to our ability to step back, explore, describe, and direct these processes. How does “colonization” shrink or grow our capacity and capability for self-awareness coupled with action?

  5. says

    I just read something in Corey Doctorow’s novel Little Brother that I think is relevant to the subject of all the so-called powerless people working together.

    In this book, the scenario is that another terrorist attack has taken place and the US government has gone surveillance-crazy in San Francisco. The teen-aged protagonist enters a Turkish coffee shop, asks for a cup of coffee, and tries to pay for it with his debit card.

    The Turkish proprietor says, “No more debit” and the kid asks, “Why not?” to which the proprietor explains (I have condensed these passages, as indicated by elipses, with apologies to Mr. Doctorow):

    “The government. They monitor it all now, it was in the papers. PATRIOT Act II, the Congress passed it yesterday. Now they can Monitor you every time you use your card. I say no. I say my shop will not help them spy on my customers . . . Why you think I left Turkey? Where you have government always spying on the people, is no good. I move here twenty years ago for freedom – I no help them take freedom away.”

    The teenager says, “You’re going to lose so many sales,” to which the man replies:

    “Maybe not so much anymore. Maybe my customers come here because they know I love freedom, too. I am making sign for window. Maybe other stores do the same.”

    The kid says he doesn’t have any cash.

    “Many peoples say the same thing. Is okay. You give today’s money to the ACLU.”

    See, even though Vandana Singh is writing about the environment and Corey Doctorow is writing about government surveillance, the passages indicate the potential of normal people working together at the “grass roots” level is .

  6. V says

    The Chipko movement is an inspiration! But the third way you speak of is very interesting, and Anil Menon’s comments especially caught my interest. I shared a “personal prayer” (short speech) last Rosh Hashanah with the congregation I am a member of at the urging of my rabbi and the process of acceptance I talked about was similar, if fairly mundane in comparison. I used to call myself an atheist because I was used to those I knew viewing folks with spiritual feelings as idiots and because my experience of the world had caused me to affiliate religion and narrow-mindedness, despite spiritual feelings I had on occassion. When events pushed me toward accepting the complexity of my true worldview and rising above my shame, I connected with other people in the process and learned to view them and their beliefs differently as well, and this has encouraged me in other spheres.
    How much of our condescension is fear or shame of what is within ourselves or our own pasts? Perhaps the first two responses ARE simply steps in a process . . .

  7. says

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments!

    Will, I agree. If only people would see each other as people first. If only! I wonder why we have such a strong tendency to label.
    Dr. Mishra — yes, a world without religious bigotry would be wonderful. One in which science is not under constant assault would be nice as well. (Not that there aren’t some rather fixed mindsets within science, but that is a post for another day).
    Kurt — as always you ask some deep questions. It is odd how science-illiterate (and uninterested in science) most people are, even as they use sophisticated technology. Colonizing the brain is related to the loss of the imagination, which is something that happens to most people, sadly, as they grow older.
    Bill, thank you! Hope that “regular people” can set about positive change is what keeps me going. And what a coincidence you mention the Doctorow book, which I am going to be reading next. Hello, V, thanks for sharing. Discovering that the world is complex is itself quite a paradigm shift, isn’t it?

  8. Tom says

    It is true that everyone must solve their own problems at home, wherever that may be. Why is a Chipko-like movement not possible in America — only a misled, ignorant Tea Party movement?? Everything here on this blog post is over 2 years old — perhaps several years/decades from this day ‘Tea Party movement’ may be an amusing historical fact — or the New World Order.

Trackbacks