This post consists of excerpts of an article titled ‘Two Weddings, a Funeral, and Riots in Assam: Musings on Genes, Memes and the Psychic Unity of Humanity’, as written in July 2012. After the article was submitted to Himal Southasian, the editors of the magazine suggested me to shorten it considerably by focusing on some of the discussion the middle of the original piece. Thus, after cutting out some parts of the paper – which was originally nearly 8,500 words long – a shorter piece of less than 4,000 words, and bearing the title ‘Becoming Bangladeshi’ was, published. Later, another article titled ‘Humayun Ahmed, Himu and identity conflicts in Bangladesh’ was published in bdnews24, an online Bangladeshi paper. The excerpts published below mainly consist of remaining segments of the paper that have not been used in any of the two published articles referenced above.
The two weddings that I have in mind both involve grooms who happen to be of Turkish origin. One took place involving a reception, which I attended, in Dhaka during the first half of July 2012. The groom lives in Sweden, where he met his would be wife of Bangladeshi origin. He came to the reception venue on a horse drawn cart, escorted by a marching band, wearing a traditional Bengali Muslim wedding suit that is probably fashioned after regalia from times when Bengal was ruled by Turkish sultans or Mughal governors. A big contingent of family and friends of the groom flew in from Sweden for the reception, with tall Nordic blondes in sari or shalwar-kameez adding an extra exotic touch to proceedings. The other wedding took place at the end of the same month, in Scotland. The groom involved is a close friend of mine from my student days at Berkeley. Originally from Turkey, he is presently settled in the US. We have not seen each other face to face for 22 years now [as of 2012], but Facebook has recently helped us keep in touch more easily than was possible a decade ago. He married someone who I presume is of Scottish origin (not that it matters), as their wedding took place in Scotland. In any case, he had a kilt as his wedding dress, as he had mentioned to me, while exchanging comments over a Facebook post related to Inti Illimani, a Chilean musical group that we once often listened to together.
The funeral that I am thinking of is one in which thousands of Bangladeshis took part in person, and millions more virtually, by following live coverage of proceedings over a period of two days from July 23-24, 2012. I am of course talking about the celebrated Bangladeshi novelist-playwright-film director Humayun Ahmed, a master story teller, a magician of a writer, who had woven – through his novels, TV serials, drama and films – captivating tales that faithfully reflected, while also adding some color, humor and tenderness to, ordinary, mostly middle class, Bengali (Bangladeshi) lives. His death, which came in a New York hospital, has been mourned in an unprecedented manner by his countless fans and admirers in Bangladesh, and among the Bangladeshi global diasporas, with reminiscences, reflections, and commentaries flooding the print and electronic media, social network sites and the blogosphere. There has also been much drama and controversy surrounding the funeral, centering on disagreements among family members of the deceased (who had married a young actress after divorcing his first wife of thirty years) over the selection of his final resting place. There were more subtle tugs of war over the deceased and his legacy on the public domain, leading to headlines like, “Let Humayun Ahmed Die in Peace.”
The riots in Assam that have invaded my consciousness broke out in an area known as Bodoland in Assam on the same day (July 20) when one woke up in Bangladesh to news of the death of Humayun Ahmed. I had known for some time about the long standing problems in Bodoland. There, militants belonging to an ethnic group (Bodo) that once held sway over much of the Assam region and beyond is trying to hold onto what they see as their last remaining stronghold, where they feel threatened by the ‘encroachment’ of Muslims of Bengali/Bangladeshi origin. In the past, I would have looked at news related to this with a certain emotional distance or academic detachment. But this changed after a trip that I made very recently, in June, to Kokrajhar, the capital of Bodoland, where I went together with my wife and son to attend a seminar on Bodo history. The mention of my wife’s ethnic identity may not be out of place here. She is a Bengali Musilm, whereas I belong to a group (Tripura/Borok) that has close ethno-linguistic affinity to the Bodos. While making the trip to Kokrajhar, I had jokingly remarked to my wife that we were going to a place where Bodos and Bengali Muslims did not get along. But I never imagined that barely after a month after our return from a memorable trip to Bodoland – where my wife and I were both received very warmly – ethnic strife would flare up there on a massive scale, with 53 deaths and up to four hundred thousand people displaced as per latest news reports I checked (The Daily Telegraph, online edition, 29 July 2012).
The motivation and motifs of my patchwork
There is no intrinsic connection among the aforementioned events, except that in some ways each one reflects the increasingly globalized nature of contemporary human social life, with its intricate and endless connections at many different levels. However, at a personal level, as never-ending streams of images and words parade through our conscious and unconscious selves, our minds tend to sift through such material to come up with discernible patterns and meanings. In my case, for reasons that I need not elaborate here, lately I have also been sifting through a trunk full of personal memorabilia, some of which I have started sharing with family & friends through the Facebook. Being in this frame of mind, after attending the first wedding that I mentioned, I was thinking of my Turkish friend from Berkeley days (not yet aware that he too would be getting married soon). I was then reminded of a poem-like entry [posted as Of Tatars Down the Memory Lane in this blog] that I wrote down in my diary, twenty-two years ago [i.e. in 1990], when I was still studying anthropology at Berkeley. It began as follows:
Under the California sun
Twenty-two Tatars talk about the Psychic Unity of Mankind.
Just as I was wondering whether it would make sense to share the above-mentioned diary entry with my Facebook friends, the news of Humayun Ahmed’s death cast a huge pall of gloom all around. At the same time, the disturbing news of outbreak of violence in Bodoland began to catch my attention, through Facebook posts. So the idea of sharing my private musings from 22 years ago had to be shelved, or so I thought. But some motifs or associations that my diary entry contained, particularly the ‘Tatars’ and ‘Psychic Unity of Mankind’ as included in the second line above, would not go away from my mind. Instead, they started to act like key threads around which my mind started to weave together a personal narrative, drawing together disparate images, ideas and news that were coming my way.
Why Tatars? The reference to Tatars in my diary entry was probably a cryptic record, or poetic interpretation, of conversations that I had with my Turkish friends at Berkeley. Since the Tatars belong to the Turkic fold, I might have used their name as a straightforward code for ‘Turkish’. However, upon reflection, I came to realize that in my mind the word ‘Tatar’ has a deeper association, which I can trace back to two lines of a Bengali poem–by Jibananda Das–which I had read at a younger age, reproduced below (my translation). I do not remember the title of the poem, nor any other lines, but these two lines somehow got permanently etched in my memory, conjuring up a rather romantic image of the ‘Tatars’:
The Tatar marauders of life’s path
Have roared past raising clouds of dust
Apart from its association with ‘Turkish’, the label ‘Tatar’ also brings to mind some other related categories, like ‘Mongol’ and ‘Mughal’, which had ethno-linguistic and historical links with Turkic groups. In my mind, these labels serve to remind us of a kind of pluralism, from a previous era, that began to disappear with the emergence of modern nation-states. We know how the Ottoman Turks once ruled over a huge empire spread over three continents. Before them, the Mongols once reigned over an even bigger empire. The Mughal Empire too was quite vast, and very diverse in terms of the ethnic and linguistic composition of the people living in it. Today, in the age of globalization, we are familiar with high degrees of mobility of ideas and images, goods and services, and of people as well. But the empires built by the Ottomans, the Mongols, or the Mughals, were also all characterized by immense diversity, fluidity and mobility of ethnicities. Given all this, the word ‘Tatar’, and the images and associations (with Turks, Mongols and the like) that it conjures up in my mind, help me to weave together, in the form of a bricolage, some patterns that begin to look, feel or sound comprehensible.
Before I elaborate further as to what I mean, let me say a few words about the other terms in the title of this piece: Genes, Memes and the Psychic Unity of Mankind.
I am using the word ‘gene’ in its ordinary sense, as used in biology and known by all educated people. Therefore there is no need to say much about this term. The other term, ‘meme’ (pronounced /meem/) may be familiar to you, the reader, but I personally was not familiar with, or had just forgotten about, this term until I heard my 14-year old son mention it several times recently. It seems to have become a term that is quite popular among internet users, particularly young ones. Originally coined by Richard Dawkins, a British Evolutionary biologist and author of the popular but controversial The Selfish Gene (1976), ‘meme’refers to basic units of culture involved in the social transmission of ideas, symbols and practices. Among internet users like my son, the term probably refers to a combination of visual symbols and written words meant to transmit and promote new ideas, views, choices etc. (But my son insists that the real meaning is more complex than how I have described it here).
As for the notion of the Psychic Unity of Mankind, it is an anthropological postulate originally formulated by Adolf Bastian, a 19th century German polymath and humanist who is regarded as the ‘Father of German Anthropology.’ This postulate essentially says that despite great diversity in terms of race and culture, the minds of humans everywhere operate in the same way. This basic idea has been adopted by different schools of thought, accepted as a given, though often only implicitly, in diverse theoretical and conceptual frameworks. While the advent of post-modernism has established ‘incredulity towards grand narratives’ as a dominant intellectual trend, I think it is safe to say that the postulate of the psychic unity of humanity endures in one form or another in anthropology and other disciplines.
The notion of Psychic Unity of Humanity does not presuppose that all humans think the same things, or that they all feel as one. But it does hold that regardless of the different forms of cultural expressions, the underlying thought processes are the same everywhere. For example, different societies may define good and evil differently, but the fact that distinctions between good and evil tend to be made in so many different societies is seen as reflecting a fundamental tendency of the human mind. To give another example, when we analyze accounts of ethnic strife in Bodoland, or anywhere else for that matter, we will realize that different human groups tend to define themselves in opposition to the ‘other’, with the self-other dichotomy appearing as a cultural universal. Some would recognize this type of analytical approach as the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss’s brand of structuralism, which rests on the Psychic Unity of Humanity as a given. Here, let me try to give another example, representing an analytical framework from an earlier generation, but equally based on the same postulate. When a tug of war came in public view among the family members of the deceased writer Humayun Ahmed over the place of his burial, some commentators observed that from a religious point of view, the site of the grave was not as important as the need to dispose of the dead body as quickly as possible. Some suggested that the undue importance attached to the site selection might be a reflection of the influence of the mazar cult, consisting of magical beliefs and practices that are not necessarily Islamic. Such distinctions, that between ‘magic’ vs. ‘religion’, or ‘religion’ vs. ‘science’, can be found in the work of the anthropologist James Frazer (the author of The Golden Bough, once very widely read), whose analytic framework may also be said to take the Psychic Unity of Mankind as a given.
Side notes on ‘Becoming Bangladeshi’
[Excerpts under this heading mainly consist of unused segments of paragraphs that were incorporated in the published article ‘Becoming Bangladeshi’.]
Now, to go back to our ‘Turkish’ motif, let us recall the legendary Ikhtiayar Uddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiar Khilji, who, through his conquests around 1204~1205, ushered in Muslim rule in Bengal.
In order to establish their independence from Delhi, the Turkish rulers of Bengal had to develop closer and deeper ties with local populations, and in the process they developed indigenous, ‘Bengali’, roots!
What types of indigenous communities inhabited Bengal, particularly its eastern half, when the Turks and later Mughals came to rule the region? … Those familiar with historical linguistics of Bangla know that although this language is classified as belonging to the Indo-European (or Indo-Aryan) linguistic ‘family’, it owes much of its structure and vocabulary to non-Aryan languages, first of all to languages of the type belonging to the Munda branch of Austro-Asiatic ‘family’ (Santali belongs to this branch, whereas Khasi belongs to ‘Mon-Khmer’ branch of the same family and is perhaps the only language of its kind still extant in the subcontinent). The second group of languages that have influenced the emergence of Bangla, or more correctly, many of the so-called ‘dialects’ of Bangla (such as Chittagonian, Sylheti, Mymensinghi etc), belong to the Tibeto-Burman family, which includes many languages ranging from Bodo (including Koch, before the language was largely lost), Garo, Kokborok (Tripura), Meithei (Manipuri), Marma (and all other languages spoken in the CHT except Chakma and Tanchangya, which would be classified as ‘Indo-Aryan’ in terms of their current vocabulary).
Now, is there any evidence that indigenous groups belonging to any of the above-mentioned ethnicities transformed into modern day Bengalis? …
Franz Boas, the ‘Father of American (US) Anthropology’ and a student of Bastian, the proponent of the Psychic Unity of Mankind, was one of the pioneers in addressing the misconceptions and racist notions that existed at his time regarding linguistic and racial classifications of different groups. Clearly, people who speak a common language may come from different racial or ethnic origins, while people belonging to the same race or ethnicity may end up speaking different languages belonging to different ‘families’. In today’s world, this may seem obvious, but such observations are applicable in understanding past histories as well.
Unfortunately, as the popular saying goes, it is a bitter lesson of history that people do not learn from history. So racist and fascist thinking still pervade our minds in many parts of the world. That this is the case when people try to kill each other off just because of ethnic or religious differences is very clear.
When I attended the Seminar on Bodo History at Kokrajhar in June 2012, I heard many participants speak in terms of categories and concepts left to us by colonial British administrator-authors, e.g. seeing the Bodos as Indo-Mongoloid. Many also talked about how the Bodos were once treated as ‘Mleccha’, roughly comparable to ‘Barbarian’, since the time of the Mahabharata (Some Bodo groups, e.g. in Nepal and Koch Bihar, have in fact come to be known as Mech, a word that is most probably a derivative of ‘Mleaccha’). Now, Bengali Muslims who have emerged as a present day threat to the Bodos are also largely of ‘Mleccha’ origin, in the sense I described earlier. But here we are, one group of former Mlecchas fighting another. This is hardly surprising, particularly when human groups internalize notions and concepts imposed on them by dominant groups. …
At the seminar in Kokrajhar, where I had the privilege to speak without having prepared any paper on the topic assigned to me, “The History of the Boroks of Bangladesh”, I found myself raising more questions than answers that I could provide. For example, I asked, “Is history mostly about the past? Is it not more about where we want to go, what we want to be?” I also wondered aloud, invoking Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Community, “In the age of internet, how relevant is nationalism, which flourished during the time of print capitalism? Should we not be thinking of defining our identities in terms of the new imaginative possibilities that are opened up by communication technologies at our disposal?” I suppose these are questions that do not concern only the Bodos, or small ethnic groups like the Tripuras of Bangladesh. They are questions that should be and are being tackled in one way or another in all countries of the world, and not just in the context of modern nation-states, but in other contexts as well.
The ongoing ethnic conflicts … around the world can be collectively seen as the birth pangs of a new political-economic global order, though we do not yet quite know what it will or should look like. Will all the people of the globe want to make a concerted effort to imagine into existence a new world in which we can really live as one, or do we want to cling onto and fight to death over different pieces of ‘mother earth’? We earthlings have to make some very important decisions pretty quickly.
Some questions raised in the context of Humayun’s Ahmed’s passing
[Excerpts under this heading mainly consist of unused segments of paragraphs that were incorporated in the published article ‘Humayun Ahmed, Himu and identity conflicts in Bangladesh’.]
After the death of Humayun Ahmed (henceforward HA), a lot has been said, written, televised and uploaded on the internet about many facets of his life and work, his private life, his legacy and much more. It was clear that there was hardly any educated Bangladeshi who had not at least read a few of HA’s numerous novels, or watched some of his TV dramas or films. Many have commented, rightly, on how HA almost single-handedly developed a huge Bangladeshi readership, weaning them off Bengali writers from West Bengal, and hugely benefiting a fledgling publishing industry. One of the reasons given for HA’s huge popularity was his magical ability to tell captivating stories in a very accessible language, stories in which ordinary middle class Bengalis (of Bangladesh) found characters and environments they could easily identify with. Actually, even I, although not a Bengali as such, remember having identified with characters in a couple of HA novels I read more than two decades ago, as I mentioned in a post on the Facebook. Later, after seeing some comments, a question came to my mind as to whether HA ever wrote or said anything regarding the predicament and struggles of the indigenous people of this country. I posted my question on the Facebook as a comment to the original post, but have not found any answer yet. I have also followed with interest Facebook and blog posts by others, touching on myriad of issues, including one relating to the reported lack of adequate coverage of HA’s death in the West Bengal media. To me, many of the comments and questions that came up through such posts functioned as a reminder that that the imagined community in the form of the nation-state of Bangladesh remains an unfinished business. At one level, there is yet no satisfactory reconciliation between the Muslim identity of the majority on the one hand, and their Bengali identity on the other. At another level, many indigenous people of the country, or marginalized groups of all kinds for that matter, do not quite yet feel at home in a country that came into being promising equality and socioeconomic emancipation for all.
The problem of the ‘nation-state’ as just mentioned is actually there in different forms in almost all the countries of the world. For example, the recent outbreak of violence in Bodoland, which is just one among many places in India where longstanding conflicts of one kind and another have been going on, is a reminder of this. To take another example, and to return to our Turkish motif, we note that there is tension between secularists and Islamists in present day Turkey, where ethnic Kurds and possibly religious minorities also are not quite at ease. At a broader level, whether Turkey will, or will be allowed to, join the European Union remains a bigger question, bringing into focus some of the various possible directions that the new world order may take.
It has been a dream, e.g. as propagated by major world religions, for more than two millennia for the whole of humanity to live as one, free from inequality and injustice. We are still far away from that dream, yet the pursuit of that dream in many of its variants still continue. In many ways, we already live in a world which is already one single mega entity technologically and economically. Whether or not one believes in the Psychic Unity of Humanity, it is also clear that the lives of all humans are inextricably bound up in a world wide web of interconnectedness and interdependence of various kinds. Advances in genetic science have also told us something that religions and social theories have postulated long ago, that humanity is really one. At the seminar on Bodo history, there was a Bodo software engineer, who is originally from Kokrajhar now living in the US, who shared his findings from a genetic test that he got done for himself, trying to trace his ancestry. He said that he could trace the footprint of his genetic ancestry to faraway places and groups, including Africa and Africans! This would be equally true, albeit in different degrees, of all modern humans. Now, this is hardly a surprise to anthropologists, but it is good to have hard ‘scientific evidence’ of views that have been around as religious ideas, theoretical constructs or artistic conception.
Some evolutionary biologists tell us that humans, like all other life forms, are ultimately driven by ‘selfish genes’. This may be true on a geological time scale, but from a historical point of view, we need not be too worried about our genes whispering into our inner selves to do things that our intellect or our values tell us to refrain from. Whether Bodos and Bengali Muslims can come to peace in Bodoland, or Paharis and Bengalis will reconcile their differences in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, cannot be determined by performing genetic tests of their origins or differences. These questions will have to be resolved through dialogues, through mutually beneficial political and economic interactions, and ultimately through cultural processes that enrich the lives of all, without eradicating diversity. In this context, to use a word that I am still learning to use, perhaps we need to pay attention to the ‘memes’ – cultural units of ideas, behavior or style – that are being transmitted to, or circulating among, new generations.
Genes may be transmitted through the bloodline, but memes or cultures cannot. They have to be taught, and transmitted through education and cultural practices. In some ways popular beliefs in many parts of the world still equate human worth and cultural continuity with the purity of bloodline. Such thoughts are dangerous, as already noted. If genetic inheritance really dictated human cultural achievements, the world today would have been populated by Genghis Khans, as it is said that one in every 200 men are direct descendants of the great Khan! Although in Bangladesh we often say that there are too many leaders, too many people trying to establish chiefdoms in all sectors of life, we need not conclude that it is because many of us carrying Genghis Khan’s genes. …
I wish to bring my random musings to an end by reflecting on the question of identity in a way that relates to me on a personal level, but has relevance to large issues. Ethnically, I am a Tripura; my first language, my ‘mother tongue’ is Kokborok; and my national identity is as a Bangladeshi, though the 15th Amendment of the Constitution has made the matter a bit more complicated, by suggesting that I am a Bengali too. Anyway, it so happens that in Bangladesh ‘Tripura’ identity has been constructed a bit differently than what it means in the present Indian state of Tripura, where the Kokborok-speaking ethnic groups are classified as different ‘tribes’ as per the list prepared under the provisions of the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution. In this context, in Tripura state, there is as yet no consensus on a common name for all the Kokborok speaking people (in Bangladesh, ‘Tripura’ already serves this purpose). Some are in favor of using terms like Tiprasa or Twipra, which were the original Kokborok words that became Sanskritized into ‘Tripura’. Others are in favor of using the name Borok (Kokborok means language of the Boroks), a term which is closely related to ‘Bodo’ (which should really be written as ‘Boro’). But there is a catch. Among some groups of Kokborok speakers, the word Borok has already acquired an expanded meaning to mean ‘human’. On the other hand, in some cases, the word (in its variant forms like Bru or Brung) may have acquired a narrower reference, to mean just one’s own subgroup. Now, as I reflect on it, as a Tripura, do I want to limit my identity to a narrower conception of ‘Borok’hood, or do I want to embrace its expanded definition, as human? There is no easy answer to this type of question. It does not depend on my own individual answer, but has to relate to the historical experiences of a much larger number of fellow Tripuras or Kokborok speakers. In the state of Tripura, Bengalis, most of them Hindus uprooted from what is now Bangladesh during the Partition of 1947, and the Indo-Pak war of 1965, are the overwhelming majority today. Although politically a large number of them subscribe to communism (with CPM being firmly in power), my observations suggest that that deep down many of them are Bengalis first, and some possibly Hindus second, before being communists. There are also signs that Bengali political leaders of Tripura do not quite understand, or sympathize with, the ethnic or linguistic aspirations of the Kokborok speakers, whom they are happy to see divided in many officially recognized ‘tribes’. For a Bengali communist, there is not necessarily any contradiction between being a Bengali and a communist at the same time, but for a Tripura, raising the issue of ethnicity might be seen as stooping to ‘identity politics’. Faced with such experiences, could one blame nationalistically inclined political actors who may veer towards increasingly narrower, more militant interpretations of Borok or Tripura identity?
Of course there will never be a situation when all Tripuras will have uniform views of what being a Tripura means, or should mean, just as it will never happen for Bengalis, or for any other group. This is as it should be. At some point, rigid ethnic and national boundaries have to come down to accommodate other forms of identity and communion. My son, whose mother is a Bengali Muslim, is growing up in a country where religious identity (though not necessarily piety) matters socially. He is growing up with questions that we cannot help him have easy answers to. My wife and I have convinced him that he is first of all a human, a Borok in the larger sense of the term. But will Bangladesh, or the laws and customs of this country, allow him to define his identity in a way that he, or other children of his generation, would be most comfortable with? I imagine if the two weddings involving Turkish grooms that I mentioned at the outset lead to children, they will also have to grapple with hyphenated identities, including what to do with their Muslim heritage at a time when Muslims are being forced into stigmatized identities once seen with the Jews. The way we find the answers to questions raised above will vary from person to person, context to context. But one thing is clear: our children may carry our genes, but they do not have to be stuck with their parents’ cultural and political failings. They can make better, informed choices if we help them do so, not necessarily as a one way transmission of ideas and values, but also through learning about, and from, them, as I have, for example, (re)learned the concept of ‘meme’ from my son.