Breaking Down Walls — Reading Kamla Bhasin’s Poetry In The Trump Era

Kamla Bhasin is one of the most vocal and active feminists of South Asia. A prolific writer who has tackled sexism and racism on the ground, her lines of poetry hold powerful meaning for our politically divisive climate.

I am not the wall standing at the border
I am the
daraarr on that wall

A “daraarr” is a crack. A fissure. Something small that tears the whole structure apart.

To have identity is to have boundaries. These can essentially be walls imposing a rigid isolation. While keeping people out, the darkness caused by such windowless walls causes myopia. Seeing things from another person’s frame of reference becomes impossible.

It has been speculated the reason behind the almost worldwide rise of what Baroness Warsi called “respectable racism” is to do with the interplay between societal racism and the racism seen as officially sanctioned. When policies are made protecting minorities, this angers those blinded by privilege. The reaction comes in the form of increased societal racism. Xenophobic sentiments and hate crimes increase. This is then catered to in the political arena by parties eager to woo the seething masses. When figures of authority reward racist sensibilities, this grants permission to bigots to test the waters of racism even further.

There are identities built on fear, and then there are identities with courage enough to break down the walls. A fissure slowly working towards a space to allow others in. Societal racism cannot win if we each question ourselves along Bhasin’s lines— am I the wall, or am I the fissure fracturing that wall? Am I the blank face of racism, or the crack undermining the very architecture of racism?

It is no easy task to avoid fear. In their struggle to hold onto power, leaders have deliberately created a culture of insecurities. This fear, if they are to be believed, is something only THEY can rescue their people from. Every story needs a villain, and in this story the “bad guys” are vulnerable groups, too disenfranchised to effectively fight back against the label. The villains of our narrative are those chronically “othered” — minorities, the differently abled, and women.

You can look at any country today and find this fear and oppression as the status quo. In America everything that can be said about privilege and racism can be seen in backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. In Saudi Arabia, Shia Muslim cleric Shaikh al-Nimr was executed in cold blood. In Pakistan a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, languishes in jail on blasphemy charges. In India a Muslim woman was attacked en masse on suspicion of carrying beef. In almost every country, women seeking the same lifestyle as men incur more financial and social losses.

Today the only identity that can bring about a better political system is one where we’re brave enough to not cower behind walls, but in spaces allowing others in. Not just into our countries and political systems, but into the narrative of ourselves. To see “us” in the “them,” and vice versa.

The wall’s function is more than something to disenfranchise others and keep them away from us and our resources — it keeps us infantilised and susceptible to brutalisation by those who seek to manipulate us. This is why many leaders in media, politics and business are so invested in creating a scripted narrative for us lacking a framework rooted in knowledge and reality.

Such a framework, focussed on breaking down the paranoias of the “us versus them” fiction, would lead to empowerment, and would emphasise the value of strategy over mouthpieces for racism and misogyny. This is not in the interest of regimes who have risen to power by embedding inhumane ideologies into their very fabric. Such empowerment would dismantle their very existence.

Kamla Bhasin is of the generation of Indians born as the subcontinent itself birthed several independent nations. The fairness of the 1947-established boundaries is something debated on to this day, and has led to violence and friction. While the existence of the South Asian subcontinental countries shouldn’t be questioned, how borders between those countries are enforced is in a sad state. It is often with pettiness, vitriol, and racism. Bhasin being of what she calls the “midnight generation” means she grew up in a time when, for better or for worse, countries sought healing in retreating from each other. This makes her sentiment about boundaries even more worthy of consideration. In the era of Trump, it would be remiss to neglect the lessons therein.