“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
The early days
Back when I was in school, I used to take part in a number of oratorical and debate competitions. I wasn’t bad at it and over the course of a few years managed to bag quite a few prizes and awards. My mum was the best coach I could have ever asked for. One of the best things she did was to compile a strong list of famous quotations and then train me on how I could tweak any topic to squeeze in a quote or two. As most competitions gave you anything from a few minutes to a few hours only as preparation time, using these quotes often helped me buy time at the same time making my speeches more impressive. Of course there were times when the quotes were quite profound and philosophical and I was not sure I understood them completely (and neither did the judges I am almost sure) but I used them anyway. If you keep throwing around names like Rousseau, Russell, Nehru etc., you are bound to win something sooner or later.
But anyway Rousseau’s quote (from the Social Contract) that I have mentioned in the beginning was not one that I would say that I didn’t understand at all. I would describe it more as something that I interpreted partially. I used it very often (way too often- it was part of the all powerful quote pantheon that I would try and use in almost every speech)- in contexts where I had to talk about political freedom, civil or fundamental rights. It was not until very recently when I was reminiscing on something else did I think once again about Rousseau’s line and about how much more profound it was in describing the state of mankind.
Lest we forget
Thursday last week was the Indian independence day. Years ago when I was still a child and when home entertainment via the tv and the internet had not reached the gargantuan proportions it has reached today, there used to be only one television channel- Doordarshan and on a few days every year- Independence Day, Republic Day and the Birth Day of Gandhi, Doordarshan would telecast Attenborough’s “Gandhi”. It was almost a kind of religious ritual- and because we didn’t have much else to do and also more importantly because the movie had some kind of connection, people would watch it with reverence. If it was a national (non-religious) public holiday we could be sure that Gandhi would be running in the afternoon. “You are a free nation and people and if you can enjoy this freedom today it was because of all these people who led us through to this freedom”- that seemed to be the message that was conveyed and we took it seriously.
Independence from what really?
Today, however, Independence day seems to slip pas almost unnoticed. Not the holiday itself. People make sure they check which day of the week it falls on and whether it would be possible to make it a long weekend or not. But independence day no longer seems to celebrate freedom from political domination, it seems to only celebrate independence (for a day) from the drudgery of office work. On the eve of independence day not even one person at work wished “Happy Independence day” to another.
I wasn’t particularly bothered by this absence of patriotic fervour. I hardly wear my heart on my sleeve in matters such as this but still I began to wonder if this day was losing its relevance in the mind of the people.
66 years is a short span of time in the course of history but almost eternally long in the minds of the people who’ve lived through it. Even though we learn about the independence struggle in history classes in school, it is very hard to imagine for the younger people today (and I include myself- of course!) all the implications of not having their fundamental rights and freedom. History therefore takes on the role of something abstract- almost like theoretical physics except without the complicated maths- you get complicated names instead- so who was Sir Stafford Cripps again? (I swear to God I have no idea why I thought of Sir Stafford Cripps!). No one (except the exceptions who are… well the exceptions!) understands why we are being made to learn the irrelevant information except as a kind of emotional torture- a kind of “Abandon all hope, you who enter here” a la Dante or “Studium macht frei” a la Nazis.
The point I am trying to make is that I wonder if Independence day still has the same significance for people that it did when India was still emerging as a nation.
Another kind of independence?
People today, at least in this country have their fundamental rights guaranteed to them, a fairly robust legal framework to protect their rights and a decent chance at prosperity. So shouldn’t we all be happy?
Of course we aren’t. This is because most of us have just allowed ourselves to sleep walk from one kind of domination right into another. And I realise that in a lot of cases, this enslavement is really the product of a necessity rather than a choice, something that cannot be shaken off very easily. But probably the most disturbing aspect of this enslavement is that people hardly realise that they are not free.
Metro, Boulot, Dodo
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of subtle slavery is work. Apart from the exceptions again most of us would range our feelings towards our desk jobs from ‘mildly boring’ to ‘as toxic as radioactive waste’. Over decades the rat race that often is corporate life and the cycle of never ending monotony that your life becomes unless you truly love what you are doing (and have worked hard and been fortunate enough to find an environment that nurtures this love that you have) has been the subject of much literary and intellectual output.
The Holstee Manifesto that became famous a while ago with its “Do what you love and do it often” slogan was just the latest in the series of outcries over decades that attempted to shake people out of their stupor.
The Holstee Manifesto
Of course it is not easy to just quit your job and do what you love doing. Money is something very practical and tangible so dropping out of what you are doing on a whim just because you don’t like it is really not an option. So the message is that “being aware of your situation and working towards a day when you would actually be free because of a, b and c is ok”. What is not ok is the state where you are either in denial or you haven’t even realized that you are a work wraith.
It is a universally acknowledged fact….
And while it is easier to identify our dependence to a career choice that we neither like nor might be the best option for us, it is much harder to resist and be free from expectations of those around us. The need to live up to or conform to what our families, friends, peer groups, colleagues, acquaintances, facebook friends (yes I place them in a separate category) have in mind for us is the worst kind of enslavement possible. At least family and friends in theory have your best interests at heart. The intentions of your facebook friends are dubious at best. Apart from this is the need to conform to what the norms and the mores of society dictate. It is so easy to become a slave to someone or something else- but so much more harder to realise this process of enslavement. As Dumbledore says “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends.”
Most of us are privileged to live in a days and times when we have the opportunity to enjoy far more freedom than any of our predecessors. And yet, we bind ourselves up in shackles doing things we needn’t have to do. Working in a job where we don’t want to, studying a subject we don’t want to, or marrying someone we don’t want to, or having children when we don’t want to- the list is endless. Once again it is not always easy or possible to be completely independent (in fact I believe complete and total independence is impossible as long as our lives are linked to others). It is all very easy to scream “O tempora! O mores!” but a lot more difficult to actually choose a path true to your heart. And the first step to freedom is in fact the realisation that one is enslaved or at the near risk of being enslaved.
I am sure I had other ideas for this post when it first entered my head, but this is in fact what it has turned out to be. I am not at all sure I have conveyed what I wanted to convey, or if this is even what I wanted to convey in the first place but maybe some of it will ring true in a few of your ears. Maybe in addition to our political freedom we should also think about our personal freedom in all these ways.
That line by Rousseau means a lot more to me now- not just politics but something about the fundamental nature of man which can enlighten or be enlightened only by contrasts. It is probably only by being a slave that you can enjoy your freedom completely.