13 February 2015

Remembering the lessons taught by the cockroach

Eduardo Galeano has some pertinent things to say about history, in particularly the makings of history. People tend to think that "history" is about event and personality, about things that happened and about people who made them happen. It is also made of things left out, the absences, the forgotten and most of all the process of forgetting or making people forget. Galeano puts things in perspective this way:

"During the year 1998 the globalized media dedicated the most space and their best energies to the romance between the president of the planet and a plump, voracious, talkative woman named Monica Lewinsky. In every country we were all Lewinskyized. We had her for breakfast, reading the papers; we had her for lunch, listening to the radio; and we had her for dinner, watching TV. I think something else happened in 1998, but I can’t remember what."

I believe that what is most violent in the unfolding of history and the writing of history is the process that produces the confession, "I can’t remember". The erasing of memory is not a random, unplanned phenomenon; too often it is actually orchestrated. Monica Lewinsky was not "planted" with the intention of making people forget what else happened in 1998. When she had her fling with Bill Clinton, she didn’t know that she was providing the memory-erasing industry with so much fuel, I am sure. But she, Bill and their "thing" was recognised by these people for its real worth and this is how the world came to consume the "affair" for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And how Galeano came to realise that he can’t remember what else happened in 1998.

I wondered, what had I forgotten of what I had seen, heard, thought of, read, been angry about, being sad about? I remembered. I remembered hearing about Patrice Lumumba the first Prime Minister of the Congo. I remembered having forgotten about the extents to which the CIA went to murder him in 1961 after he was forced out of office and to silence those who wanted to expose the CIA’s role in the assassination. I remembered how we were taught to forget Maurice Bishop, the leader of the socialist New Jewel Movement of Grenada, assassinated in a Washington-sponsored coup in 1983. I remembered how we were taught to remember the Gulf War as the liberation of Kuwait, how George Bush’s recent adventure was dubbed the "liberation" of Iraq, and how "aggression" and "invasion" were wiped off the dictionaries used by CNN, Reuters and other media giants.

I wondered, have we heard all the stories of 1971, all the stories of 1983, all the stories of 88-89? What came up from the political soup salted and otherwise spiced by "official version"? What didn’t? Who didn’t? Are there things that I had forgotten to forget? By the same token, should we remember to remember things, people, thoughts, events and "histories" too? What is the key to forgetting? Are there keys to recall as well? How does a person or a people insure him/herself/itself from these things? At the end of the day (or at the end of history), will it matter at all? Would it suffice to remember our wedding anniversaries, our children’s birthdays, the day we get paid, and the debts that people owe us? I worry. I worry that I might, in this wild journey with its sad mix of remembering and forgetting, I might lose my way, lose myself, and forget who I am, where I came from and where I was planning to go.

It is a long distance from "history" to "evolution", but I can’t help thinking that the whole farce called "history" has something to do with cockroaches. Cockroaches are extinction-defying creatures. They have not been "erased", not by Runbug, Baygon, Mortein or any of the pesticides manufactured for the exclusive consumption of domestic pests. Forget the bug-defying industry, ordinary people have never been able to forget them. Not for millions of years!

My friend Ayca is terrified of cockroaches. She has many cockroach stories, some of which she would describe in mortifying terms. A couple of days ago, a cockroach "strayed" into my brother’s room, where we were all sitting. Ayca jumped and arrested what would, if allowed freedom, have been a shriek that might have woken up the neighbours. I came to her rescue and used a newspaper to drive the creature away.

"Did you kill it?" she asked anxiously. "No," I replied. "Why not?" she demanded. So I told her my cockroach story.

"About 11 years ago, I was in a small room in Pilimatalawa with a couple of friends. The time was around midnight. We were drawing posters with which we would be plastering the city of Kandy in the early hours of the following day. A cockroach appeared from nowhere and one of my friends took the broom, clearly intending to kill it. He missed. He brought the broom down once again, with greater resolve. Missed. Two swats more and the cockroach disappeared into a corner where neither his broom or murderous intent could follow. A couple of hours later, when we were about to be done with the posters, the other boy said, ‘Where does the violence come from? He missed so many times, but with each miss his resolve grew stronger. The cockroach was not causing any harm. It was not disturbing us really.’ From that moment, I haven’t been able to bring myself to kill cockroaches. Why do people want to kill cockroaches? Is it because they are ‘invading’ a space which we think and claim belongs to us?"

Ayca, fully conscious of all her cockroach stories and being the perceptive intellectual and committed revolutionary that she is, said: "This ends my cockroach story". Those four words contained much more than a reference to cockroaches.

I believe that history, if it is democratic and inclusive, ought to be like the cockroach. It has to survive pesticides, pollution, and other efforts at extermination. It has to invade the spaces that have been procured by force and/or by wealth. The "despicable" and the "irritating" must intrude, again and again, contesting the ownership of these spaces. On the flip side of the coin, any emancipatory drive must have the guts and the compassion to look the cockroach in the eye and recognise in that sturdy creature the strength of character most lacking in human beings: the will to fight and to return whatever the blows the process may invite. I believe Ayca believes all this too.

As for me, I finally remembered the other things that happened in 1998 which Lewinskyization persuaded me to forget: cockroaches coming and going, insisting that they exist and that they will not allow anyone to make anyone forget the fact. I remembered that resistance must peek in and instill fear in the heart of the oppressor. And in the long run, outlive the oppressor and oppression. The cockroach, strange to say, gives me hope.



Anonymous said...

beautiful ode to a cockroach!Do you know that roaches are one of the most eco-friendly creatures on earth though they are repugnant to humans? It is perception that creates the thought that the roach is harmful, but in reality it is no so! Food for thought any one?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story. Why we are scared of them ? Because we do not know where they are going to land .Indefinite route make all panic :)