Delhi. Did Virginia Woolf write about the heat while she was traveling in Italy, Greece and Turkey? I cannot remember. I can remember nothing in this heat. There have been days where the temperature was over eight degrees Celsius higher than normal. The previous month was the hottest since India started keeping records 120 years ago. People dying from heatstroke; schools closing early or simply shutting down; power outages. Before the heat here I was at the British Library in London, looking at Woolf’s notebooks from her travels over 1906 –1909. When I bought my own notebook at Heathrow, I made a little calendar in plain imitation of how Woolf had drawn her plan of travels during October 1906. Milan, Siena, Perugia.
In Delhi the heat is chemical, something unworldly, a dry bandage or heating pad wrapped around the body. I sent a note to my friend Ravish, who was an anchor on NDTV’s Hindi show Prime Time. I asked Ravish that if Inuit supposedly have more than fifty words for snow (a specific word, for example, for snow used to make water), why don’t we Indians have more words for heat? Ravish asked members of his audience to respond to this question. Words and phrases that Ravish and I didn’t know, in a mix of Indian languages, came in from different cities and parts of the country, adding nuance and variety to what the newspapers were only calling a ‘heatwave’. Ravish concluded his monologue by saying that if you forget the many words for heat in your own language, you will also forget the names of your neighbors or the fact that people of two different religions used to live peaceably together. You will also forget why you are beginning to forget.
My publisher provided a car for me to go to bookshops and sign copies of my books. At one point I passed a billboard that showed a fighter jet in the sky and above it these words: Join IAF and give your career a flying start. That Indian Air Force ad hadn’t changed for forty years. I remember seeing it from bus windows in my late teens, and how, because I lacked any sense of direction, I would imagine myself in a jet, my head in the clouds.
There are new billboards too. A ubiquitous one is that of Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s Chief Minister, sitting in a yoga pose on green grass. The ad promises that a yoga teacher will be in touch if you call the number provided. Nehruvian secularism, with its separation of state and religion, is now a thing of the past; more dangerously, religious identity, specifically a Hindu identity, is conflated with the national identity. To be Indian is to be Hindu. On the campaign trail, Kejriwal recited from Hindu prayers and sponsored government-paid pilgrimages for the elderly from Delhi, most egregiously to places like Ayodhya, where a sixteenth-century mosque was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992 as a part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ascent to political power. No one, not even an opposition politician like Kejriwal, who should stand outside the ruling party’s Hindutva fold, dares show a distance from what is fast becoming – no, what has already become – the culture of dominant majoritarianism. Hindutva, in its hard-edged form, is brazenly genocidal. As an ideology of ethnic absolutism, it decrees that India is only for Hindus. During the riots in Delhi in 2020, one of the slogans was ‘Hinduon ka Hindustan’ (India is for Hindus). In this scenario, yoga is only soft Hindutva. Let us focus on our inbreath and outbreath while the rest of our co-religionists lynch Muslims on the streets.
A journalist friend tells me that in his youth he watched Hindi films in which the hero, invariably an angry young man, wreaked havoc on his enemies. When the film ended, my friend would step out of the cinema hall feeling superhuman, his nerves tingling. He was telling me this story because, he said, that is the feeling now gripping Narendra Modi’s followers. They imagine themselves as the protagonists in a powerful story about the destruction of their enemies. There was a Ram Navami procession in Delhi my friend watched, a traditional occasion celebrating the birth of Lord Rama, who has been adopted as the reigning deity of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign for a Hindu nation. The crowd in the procession was chanting obscene anti-Muslim slogans. My friend looked up from where he stood and saw two young women filming the procession on their mobile phones from a high balcony. It would be normal, my friend said, for these upper-middle-class women to feel uncomfortable when confronted with open displays of thuggish behavior. But not the two he saw on the balcony. Their faces shone with enthusiasm. Each one pumped a fist in the air. The women reminded my friend of what he was like as a teenager, his imagination fired by a delusional masculinist fantasy projected on a screen.
Umar Khalid is a scholar and activist who earned his doctorate from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Khalid has been in prison since September 2020 under the notorious UAPA law (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). Originally passed in 1963 to grant the government extra powers of detention, it was amended by the BJP in 2019 as a so-called ‘anti-terror’ law that allows an individual to be arrested and detained without trial. A huge number of the arrests made under UAPA in recent years have been of the government’s critics, journalists and activists. Khalid is accused of inciting riots in Delhi in February 2020, in which fifty-three people died, most of them at the hands of Hindu mobs. Kapil Mishra, the ruling party politician who openly called for violence against Muslims during that time – the man who allegedly instigated the riots – hasn’t been named by the police in the case.
Today I wrote a letter to Khalid, which a friend forwarded to his lawyer. I had heard that Khalid had read more than a hundred books in prison. Umar, can you tell me what you have been reading?
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