Tintin in our Soul

If invaders play it easy, the mutiny can be forgotten

Ankita Chawla Delhi

As the arts revived themselves in Europe, they ticked off colour coding. White, yellow, brown, black - probably the only crayons on the palette then - and used very conveniently to colour the map of the world they do not live in. A world that really did not have much to do with them and wasn't a curious cat like them either.

Cartographers made little brown countries, little yellow lands, and black lines at their whim and placed it all suitably in miles and miles of blue, the fathomable sea. But it wasn't for guile, for glory or for gold. It was for the 'greater good'.

You see, they were burdened with the divine scheme of things. A burden to get rid off. What better place to do so than unknown coasts that can easily believe someone else's burden is their boon. They scampered off once the burden left itself behind. And we are carrying it like an honour for centuries now. It was then  the White Man's Burden, now it's the colonial fixation.

The past few years have worked brilliantly at dismissing racial disparity; however, discrimination makes way into our everyday life one way or another. The hullabaloo that follows reminds of the shackles the 'slaves' had to fight to break out of. But the shackles left white stains where they caught on for so many centuries. A little bit of the coloniser's blood spills into the consciousness of the one colonised. Spell this as the obsession with broken conversation in English, a wide profusion of beauty products to lighten your complexion, a stamp on the passport to a country you need a TOEFL to visit.

So, how can one blame a man for writing a comic book in the 1930s, about Belgian Congo, sitting comfortably at the imperialist end? The fact that he acknowledges it as a "the sin of his youth", claiming to have been influenced by the naive, colonist views of the time is more than one could bargain for. To get rid of the ingrained colonial views the edition was re-drawn in 1948 and a few more changes followed in 1975.

It is only understandable that the publishers of Tintin in Congo intended to make the youth aware of colonial values. The colonial values that defined the values of the world at large; masters and slaves, the education system, imperialist superiority and the inferiority of the ones who belonged to the land annexed.

As neo-colonialism became the order of the day, the lines that were drawn by Europeans became national boundaries. And the literature that defined the  colonial ethos has been canonised as must-read classics.

To do justice to my country, one with a bloody colonial past, I would push for members of the ex-colonies to rise and read between the lines. Why shouldn't the Jamaicans create uproar at Bertha Mason being the 'Madwoman in the Attic' in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre?  While Bronte's book is one of the classics, Bertha Mason is burnt and killed. Or why shouldn't Shakespeare be summoned from his grave, to clarify why exactly is Othello the violent Moor and why Shylock has to pay with his flesh?

The answer is that time has gone and the writers are dead. What they wrote was a depiction of a social situation and power dynamics of their time. Erasing sentences may not wash away history. And what good can questioning old ideologies do, when the change they have undergone over the years is not radical enough?

Neo-colonialism has kept the positions and equations intact. The economies, the cultures, are all a composite mix of indigenous roots and borrowed ideas. These are often seen as the fortunate after effects of colonisation. A world that has shrunk and where nothing exists in isolation. But the power equations have remained the same. Phrases such as dependency theory have made their way to sociology and economics classrooms; we continue to depend, even when we are finally given the autonomy to act for ourselves. We could be habituated to impress the establishment where money, power and superciliousness lie.

While making impressions and faking personifications keeps the equation alive in post-colonial times, the realisation of suppression is minimal. When racism drills the disparity deeper, the feeling of being swindled of our place under the sun is not as apparent. If we get a little India-centric here, we make ourselves believe that commercialisation gave us the standard of living we enjoy: Nikes, Benettons, Starbucks. But this reality also maintains that the multitudes who do not have access to this alien wave survive at the mercy of a central power that may or may not stoop low enough to check the grassroots.

The PDS fails or is compulsively eliminated by the 'open market mantra', flooded schools have no classrooms and girls can die in a stampede in the capital, and over-burdened, congested, unhygienic 'public' hospitals don't care or heal, while the privates celebrate 'business'. We are so used to being 'given' development or 'granted' freedom, that indigenous efforts lack innovation.

In most post-colonial nations, this follows established models without consideration of the obvious and vast differences between them. In a situation where we - in the 'third world' - seem to be doomed with the burden for eternity, an inversion of the colonial ethos could probably undo the effects.

The imperialist era came to an end after the war only in places that reversed the ethos of the long drawn treasure hunt. Look at Japan or Germany, though not ex-colonies, the countries were flattened at the end of the war. Germany was drained of its economic aptitude and Japan was literally razed to the ground. Today they stand tall as two of the most developed countries in the world. A part of this pattern could be attributed to historical-political liabilities. Israel could join the list.

I would not stress on their unique situations (as digression seems to be the only thread in this piece), as I possibly cannot do justice to the subject. What worked here was "guilt" and that is the main point of this wandering babble about colonial status quo.

Most ex-colonies do not cash in on the huge potential they have of prospering through reverse racism: let's call it the 'Guilt Economy'.  The social positions that sprang out of the exploration process were two-sided: while some were suppressed and discriminated against, there was an oppressor, one that discriminated. But the end that suffers the hangover is the receiving end only. If having been a 'slave race' a hundred years ago is (or was) a reason to be scowled at, I wonder why having been a conniving burglar does not exact a grimace?

Like Tintin in Congo raises pandemonium 70 years later, the literature of Joseph Conrad, Nadine Gordimer, Chinua Achebe and the likes could have helped tip the balance in favour of the oppressed. It is not a sin and their views are not naive. It is their social reality: colonisation, slavery, apartheid did define their positions and relations with their surroundings.

If the equations and intolerance are living, its insistence is burgeoning from both ends. Indirect domination, unrealised submission, racial prejudice and misguided insurrections keep empires alive. There is potential to discriminate and manipulate on both ends. That we haven't capitalised on that yet leaves room to breathe in the stuffy archaic scheme of things.
Next time, just remember, if Herge was all monkey business, 'white monsters with no toes' wasn't much of a compliment either. So, if invaders play it easy, the mutiny can be forgotten.

The writer has just passed out of MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2009