Categories
Essay

Are Some of Us More ‘Human’ than Others?

By Meenakshi Malhotra

Self-portrait by Amrita Shergil. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Post-humanism and the Anthropocene epoch have undermined the notion of human exceptionalism, the feeling that as a group or a species, human beings are superior to other species. It is time to interrogate the hierarchy of human/animal where we understand the category of the human as undoubtedly superior. One view is to see the human as a posthumous category, not just post-human. Most civilisations and philosophies across the world have privileged one set of values/qualities at the cost of another-thus categories like human-animal, man-woman, reason-passion, good-bad have become binaries where one term is considered better than the other. 

It is in this context that I turn to Catherine MacKinnon’s work, Are Women Human? (2006). In her book, she poses the question of women’s relationship to the category of the human. 

After almost a century from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which defined what a human being is and is entitled to, Catharine A MacKinnon asks: ‘Are women human yet?’ If women were regarded as human, would they be subjected to the privations and oppressive practices perpetrated in cultures? Would they, for instance, be sold into slavery and sexual slavery worldwide; would they be “veiled, silenced, and imprisoned in homes; bred, and worked as menials for little or no pay; stoned for sex outside marriage or burned within it; mutilated genitally, impoverished economically, and mired in illiteracy–all as a matter of course and without effective recourse?”

In the wake of recent events which have once again highlighted the scant regard in which women are held across nations and in societies, it is instructive to revisit the fundamental questions posed by Mc Kinnon. The Nirbhaya, Asifa, Unnao, Priyanka Reddy, Hathras  cases in India, events that unfolded recently in Afghanistan and innumerable instances the world over, are traumatic and traumatising as they are instances where violence has been unleashed, consciously and deliberately, on women, children and whole communities. These significant  events can be called ‘critical’ since they raise some crucial questions on the category and definition of the notion of the ‘human’ itself.

The category of the ‘human’, as Yuval Noah Harari and many before him discussed, became associated, in terms of evolutionary biology, with a large brain, an upright gait and other specific characteristics. Whatever its genealogies in scientific or anthropological parlance, the word acquired a specific set or cluster of meanings. The notion of ‘human’ gets associated with a set of inalienable rights(as in human rights), a set or cluster of affect/s such as kindness, compassion and sympathy/empathy. And yet, this is a term we revisit time and again, at important historical conjunctures. Sadly it is a term which emerges more in the breach than the observance. Further, it is one that seems to be taxonomically problematic and perplexing and  shores up the category in a peculiarly  exclusionary way. To substantiate and cite an instance, inter alia, were the Jews admitted in the category of the human by the Germans, the Dalits by upper castes and women by men? The problem here is not just of ‘othering’ but the fact that the persistence of asymmetric power relationships robs one group of a sense of agency and the power to name themselves and their experience. The other group, which calls the shots on how humanity is to be defined, becomes blind to its own oppressive behaviour, perpetuates atrocities and is condemned by posterity. It becomes a case where, in a manner of speaking, all of us are human but some are obviously more human than others. Thus the  suspicion that peppers our mind when we come across liberal terms like ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ also extends to the ‘human.’   

Working with issues that are sited on the cusp of law and culture and that are a vital aspect of transnational feminism affecting the  status of women, McKinnon in her essays  takes her gendered critique of the state to the international plane. Her book/essays is/are a trenchant critique of the inequalities of international politics, which turns a blind eye to the consequences and significance of the systematic maltreatment of women and its condoning by a skewed system. Her sharp critique points toward fresh ways—social, legal, and political—of  “targeting its toxic orthodoxies”.

McKinnon takes us inside the workings of nation-states, where the oppression of women is the common factor that defines community life and distributes power in society and government. She takes us to Bosnia-Herzogovina for a harrowing look at how the wholesale rape and murder of women and girls there was an act of genocide, not a side effect of war. She takes us into the heart of the international law of conflict to ask—and reveal—why the international community can rally against terrorists’ violence, but not against violence done to women. A critique of the transnational status quo that also envisions the transforming possibilities of human rights, this  book makes us look as never before at an ongoing war too long undeclared, unspoken and relegated to silence..  

It is important to recover voices like that of McKinnon since the self-appointed  custodians of the ‘human’ are more often than not dyed-in-the-wool liberals, paternalists, self-appointed purveyors of law and morality. Most of them are so entitled that they are entirely blind to their own privilege as they declare themselves to be the champions of human rights, having practised and perpetuated the wrongs that need to be set right.

As we ‘celebrate’ the month of the Woman in March, we need to revisit these questions which have gained a new urgency in our time. Only then can we perhaps understand the full implications of the human and work towards making it a truly inclusive category.

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Categories
A Special Tribute

The Many Faces of ‘Freedom’

Romanticised by writers and artists over time, freedom has been variously interpreted. There is the freedom of birds that fly, of the clouds that float across the connecting blue skies, of the grass that grows across manmade borders, of the blood that flows to protect the liberty of confines or constructs drawn by man, the river that gurgles into the ocean, of the breeze that blows.

The many-splendored interpretations of freedom and its antitheses in Borderless journal are presented here for you to ponder … tell us what you think. Can freedom come without responsibility or a tryst with circumstances?

Poetry

Then Came the King’s Men by Himadri Lahiri, tracing dreams of freedom through the ages. Click here to read.

Poetry in Bosnian from Bosnia & Herzegovina, written and translated by Maid Corbic, explores the freedom of speech. Click here to read.

The Storm that Rages from the conflict ridden state of Kashmir, Ahmed Rayees writes of hope, freedom and peace. Click here to read.

Prose

The Protests Outside

Steve Ogah talks of trauma faced by riot victims in Nigeria while exploring the bondage of tyranny. Click here to read.

A Prison of Our Own Making

Keith Lyons gives us a brief essay on how we can find freedom. Click here to read.

A Life Well-Lived

Candice Louisa Daquin discusses the concepts of the role of responsibility that goes with the freedom of choices. Click here to read.

The Parrot’s Tale by Tagore

Exploring the freedom from bondages of education social norms and more, this story has been translated by Radha Chakravarty from Bengali. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

Reach for the Stars

Courtesy: Creative Commons
“Nothing can be unconditional: consequently, nothing can be free.”


“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” 

-- George Bernard Shaw,  Maxims for Revolutionists, Man & Superman (1903) 

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a great writer and playwright, used these epigrammatic lines to bring focus on what people thought was liberty or freedom from oppression, from regimes that were dictatorial. While discussing concepts of freedom, one does wonder if political freedom solves all humane issues, occasions we celebrate with great aplomb, like the birth of a nation.

This month started with the observance of July 4th, the date of the American Revolution in 1776 and the publication date of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855. In between these two years, in 1789, ten days down the line, on July 14th, another significant occurrence has been handed down by history to be celebrated as the Bastille Day— the day prisoners were freed from Bastille, a major event that led to the overthrow of the insensitive monarchy in France, a symbolic resurgence of the common, exploited man that has often been seen as an inspiration for later uprisings to reinforce the concept of democracy or liberté, égalité, fraternité.

As we move forward in time, towards August, one wonders if liberty attained by these means was good for all fellow humans? France was part of the Allied Forces that with America taking the lead dropped not one but two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945, to end the Second World War. Did the ends justify the means? Reflecting the cry and suffering of these victims, we have poetry from Suzanne Kamata, a well-known writer from Japan. Michael Burch on the other hand has shared poetry with us which shows how the nuclear programme continued unrepentant despite the devastation it caused. One must give kudos to the descendants of the victims of the nuclear blast that they have forgiven the perpetrators, admitted their own hand in the Second World War and moved ahead. In that spirit, we have an essay on peace by Candice Louisa Daquin, who joins the Borderless team as a writer-in-residence.

We have much happening in poetry this time with an interview of American poet Jared Carter, a recipient of number of awards and fellowships, including the Walt Whitman Award and the Guggenheim fellowship. He walks us through how he created the poem ‘Yeti’ (first published in the May edition of Borderless) and talks of the impact of artifacts from China and India on his own thought processes, the impact of Du Fu (712-770) and much more. We have a poem in Du Fu’s style this time by George Freek and an interesting poem with a Chinese title by Carter, a title that can have multiple connotations and yet each seems to fit the poem perfectly.

Rhys Hughes has brought humour into our pages with both his poetry and essay on William Mcgonagall, who bore the sobriquet of the worst writer in the world through his life and had things thrown at him when he read his poetry in Dundee. Yet, his work survived the beatings, and he lives on known as the ‘Scottish Homer’.

More poetry by Singaporean poet Marc Nair gives us a glimpse of the little island as viewed by someone who has grown up on it. Poetry is always multi-hued, and we have Lorraine Caputo transport us to a Garífuna village in Honduras. Penny Wilkes takes us ‘Down the Path of Nostalgia’ with a mix of old and new photography, prose and poetry on how almost a decade after the end of the Second World War, she started her love affair with photography and nature. It hovers between poetry and musings, and this time we have a rare musing by Jared Carter too. Devraj Singh Kalsi continues cogitating with wry humour while arranging bookshelves. We also have the backpacking granny visiting Indonesia. Post sharing this trip, our granny — Sybil Pretious — plans a little break from publishing to complete her memoirs.

A riveting flash fiction by Kaiyi Tan celebrates the spirit of conquest in these dark times, weaving into the pandemic lore the quest for personal freedom. Stories this time carry a real life one by Jean Kortum on adoption — her own struggle. But then, stories can be real or unreal – draw a bit from both to reflect bigger truths or create alternates that sink into the human mind as a perceived reality and leave an imprint deep inside the heart, like that of Niles Reddick. My conviction is that some lived experiences of writers seep into each story, whether it is from Bangladesh or India or by our literary fictionist, Sunil Sharma. His narrative continues infused by suspense.

We have a complete translated story of Tagore by Radha Chakravarty as our book excerpt this time. ‘The Parrot’s Tale’, ostensibly part of a children’s collection, reflects Tagore’s response to conventional schooling — a reason for him to start Shanti Niketan perhaps. She has also shared two of her translations of Rabindranath’s songs from Bhanusingher Padabali (1884, Bhanusingh’s verses). Chakravarty generously consented to an interview and has given us a glimpse of her journey as a translator and critic.  We also have translated a long poem by Tagore on our pages, a poem that inspires hope, though it was named Dushomoy (1897, Bad Times) finally. The original name had been Swarga Patthe (On the Path to Heaven) as can be seen from a page in his diary. We have been fortunate in finding a recording of his voice reciting the poem in Bengali and the print of a sample page of the manuscript bearing his signature.

We continue with Akbar Barakzai’s poetry translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi – this time addressed to his daughter reminding for some reason of Nehru’s Letters from a Father to his Daughter — a book I read as a child.  In addition, we have translations from Korea and Bosnia & Herzegovina, from where the young poet, Maid Corbic, has taken up the concept of freedom of the self and of the nation, both together.

Keith Lyons from New Zealand in his very brief essay has quoted American novelist William Faulkner, “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” And perhaps we need to remember this if for no other reason, then, just to maintain our own sanity in these strange, almost unreal times as we attempt to unite as humankind to free ourselves from an unknown and unfathomable virus.

In a more sombre note, last week, untroubled by the virus, a victim of cancer, Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar, aged 98, breathed his last. Ratnottama Sengupta adds an unusual colour to the Borderless Journal with her tribute to this hugely acclaimed actor. In the process, she unfolds for us a brief history of the Indian cinema, and a glimpse of a world that transcends all man made constructs in quest of perfection.

We have an interesting set of reviews this July. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anuradha Kumar’s riveting short story collection, A Sense of Time. A murder mystery for young readers, Murder at Daisy Apartments by Shabnam Minwalla, has been reviewed by Gracy Samjetsabam. The Third Eye of Governance–Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research by Dr N Bhaskara Rao, reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, seems to be a non-fiction that looks forward to bridging gaps between academia and the real world, a truly felt need. Parichha has also given us an essay on a man who inspired Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, to make him a part of his lore, a journalist who moved around all of Asia with equal aplomb and a sense of humour – a truly global citizen called Richard Hughes.

I want to thank all our wonderful contributors for making this edition a reality. And readers, we leave you to explore the unknown… like that place we call outer space. A huge thank you again to not only all our wonderful contributors, our faithful readers but also to the fabulous Borderless team scattered across the world.  

Before I wind up, a little bird trills a song of hope in my ear. Business tycoons have started stepping into the mysterious void of space to eventually – let us hope — create affordable travel for common man, though it has started off as an expensive proposition. Will this be an industry that will generate more jobs on and off Earth and find new places for man to inhabit? After all, when George Bernard Shaw wrote his plays and essays, we had yet to cross the frontiers beyond Earth, had never even thought of flying across the world in budget airlines or mining moons!

Will we have a new world, a new outlook and a new set of hopes and aspirations as we stretch the frontiers of our home planet?

Wish you all a wonderful month of reading and thinking.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Categories
Poetry

Poetry from Bosnia & Herzegovina: The Right to Speak

Written in Bosnian & translated to English by Maid Corbic

THE RIGHT TO SPEAK

To be independent means to be free.
Look at the whole world of vibrant colours.
Even when others are wrong,
Being free is your choice.

Independence is given by clarity in speech.
The path to success is difficult.
Because with good people, anything is possible.
The right to speak is the right to freedom.

Each flower tells a story for itself.
People need to share knowledge with others
Because that's how they can create a more beautiful world,
Prosperous for your future.

Be just what you are,
Even if they call you crazy.
What do you care -- you are free --
Independent of other people's problems!

Maid Corbic is from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He lives in Tuzla and spends most of his free time writing. He is a global poet.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL