WHY AUTHORITY, MRS. TRIPATHY?
BY STEVEN T. BRAMBLE
A text-fragment dealing with historical guilt and its relationship to the politics of ethnonationalism.
Why did Rajshri desire authority on her death bed?
She wore an orange sari blooming with black flowers in the emergency ward of a New Delhi hospital, praying face exposed as a burnished circle, like a rock on time’s shores. The hospital bustled beyond her curtain. Nurses and doctors in yellow anti-viral suits, patients begging for answers and wailing in misery, and the sense that there was no order here, just a terrible rushing about, like life, a consuming vortex of chaos in which the misfortunate swirled, a soup of psyches so interfused as to be now and forever inseparable, and so the instinct overtook her as it always did to beam herself away on a whispered mantra into some imagined zone of well-regimented, peaceful existence. But it never worked for her, not the way she wanted it to. At best she could only ever beam herself inward, into the realm of her body where normally she did find a certain functional discipline in her own interacting systems, but that discipline had also been finally corrupted, giving way to inflammation, miscommunication, unevenness, pain, shutdown. Just so soon as she opened her eyes she saw the eggshell blue and faded banana yellow floor tiles, the hospital machinery, the institutional gray plastic.
She desired authority because she was desperate to be taken seriously. She was poor, suffering, uneducated, religious, disappointed, and sick, and she wanted to be taken seriously. She was always being told, “Well, the world is bigger than you. This life is full of Rajshris and you must wait your turn among them.” There were indeed many worlds, but she had only ever been allowed to inhabit one. She didn’t wish to hear talk of “everyone.” She wanted to hear of those she knew, who knew her, who could understand her and care for her. And she was always being told, “Well, you are guilty, Rajshri.” Even if not guilty personally, then guilty by way of history, guilty by the actions of others. “Oh, your husband and your son hate me and my children, they say terrible things to us on our way home from mosque and take everything that is rightfully ours!” She did not wish to hear of guilt. Sometimes, though, she started to believe in her own guilt, the guilt of her husband and son and family, until a voice that carried no guilt at all finally boomed and proclaimed, “No! We are guilty of nothing. Guilty of nothing but fighting for ourselves. Those who say we are guilty are those who try to undermine our victories because they are jealous of them. They say to us, ‘We would never claim victory over you,’ all while knowing very well what they would do if given the chance. They are the same as us, and that is why we know we are equals. They tell you to see the world the way it is not and never will be. You and your husbands and sons are guilty of nothing, nothing but standing up for themselves, proclaiming who they are, fighting for what they get! Those who say we are guilty will give us nothing willingly. They do not like that you are not guilty, because they know what lies in their own heart. You are not guilty.”
She needed authority—would sign her name to authority if need be, her own small name that would be forgotten—because she would not burn in the pyre of dead without her pride.