29 Apr 2019 21:46 IST

Don’t let fear imprison you

A recent book reminds us of real-life lessons that we ignore at our peril

A small write-up in the newspaper today referred to something called ‘mortality salience’. What that means, to quote verbatim from a definition on the internet, is “the awareness by an individual that his or her death is inevitable”. The explanation goes on to say that “the term derives from terror management theory, which proposes that mortality salience causes existential anxiety that may be buffered by an individual’s cultural worldview and/or sense of self-esteem”.

In other words, when Hitler and others of his ilk, targeted the Jews, the sick, political and religious dissenters, gypsies and gay people, for selective annihilation, mortality salience is the principle that was put into play. How things panned out was that it burned so deep into the psyche of the entire population that it filled them with fear, leading to implicit obedience.

In the same way, when political leaders keep dinning into people’s heads that Pakistan is the evil genius, that Muslims are terrorists, that Christians are eroding our culture, that gay people will corrupt society, these ideas begin to instil fear in us because of mortality salience. What if we die? We will surely die. Gradually, we begin to believe these lies. And we know that politicians, especially those desperate for power, are glib talkers. They know how to sway people, manipulate them and imprison their minds. After all, the ends justify the means.

Elections, panic, dread

Right now, India is in the throes of mortality salience. In the course of these elections, more and more people are being seen to be held hostage by panic and dread. Perfectly reasonable people, who have grabbed all their opportunities with both hands and notched up noteworthy successes — such people, too, have succumbed alongside many in real distress. It is in this climate of democracy-eroding mortality salience that I came across Without A Country by Ayse Kulin.

The title reflects the times. We have the Rohingyas of Myanmar being hounded out of their homes and being refused refuge in the neighbourhood. There is every presidential indication that a massive wall, reminiscent of the fortification in Game of Thrones, will soon keep Mexicans and Hispanics out of the US. Hungary built a wall overnight to keep out Syrian refugees fleeing a country literally crumbling under a blitzkrieg. The wall along the Gaza Strip keeps Palestinians out of Israel; entry is severely restricted. While some people are being exhorted to leave India, others are being exterminated simply for asking questions or attending to cows, or for the contents of their one-pot meal. Humans, fauna, flora, even artefacts, must plant themselves somewhere: that’s the way gravity works. Home is another name for this.

Changing identity

Like India, Turkey has a long and rich civilisation built upon the influences of a mixed heritage. Today, though, Turkey’s political leadership is opposed to all things ‘non-Turkish’. How to find and ferret out ‘non-Turkishness’ from a well-marinated dish is a question for which there is no answer, in much the same way as finding and ferreting out ‘non-Indianness’ is from our rich and enmeshing history.

Without A Country is not Ayse Kulin’s most famous book, and is far from her best, but it is certainly thought-provoking. This process of thinking is sparked off right at the start, by the author’s note which expresses gratitude to “the scientists, some of whom appear by name in the pages of this novel, who helped modernise Turkish universities and educate a golden generation of my fellow countrymen. Hitler expelled these men and women from German universities in the 1930s simply for being Jewish, leftists, or critics of Nazism.”

The novel opens with a letter from a grandmother to a granddaughter urging the latter to leave – yes, leave – her country, in this case, Turkey. It’s an exhortation I hear all around me right here in India. In the story, the grandmother’s parents are forced to flee Germany because they are Jews. Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey welcomes them because Gerhard Schliemann is a scientist and professor, and Turkey needs good, capable minds to set up universities. The Schliemanns’ daughter, Suzi, grows up fiercely Turkish. She marries a Turk and is entirely Turkish in spirit.

This is the grandmother who writes to Esra how things have changed: “Back then, foreigners were treated well. People didn’t dwell on religious differences. In Istanbul, particularly, where Greeks, Armenians and Jews had lived with Muslim Turks for centuries, all faiths were respected. Muslims would light candles in churches. Christians and Jews would make sacrificial vows at Muslim shrines and distribute meat to the needy if their wishes were granted. … all that has changed.”

Hate and heartbreak

So much has changed in India too — or is changing rapidly. As Suzi goes on to say in the letter, “…bombs can explode and injustices are committed everywhere, but here, in a place where hate crimes go unpunished, you are no longer safe. These anti-Semites are filled with hate. At the very least, they will break your heart.”

The story then goes back to the beginning, 1933, when Gerhard and Elsa quietly escape from Berlin and make their way to Zurich where Elsa’s parents live. There, Gerhard’s father-in-law shows him a letter he has received from a colleague in Berlin in which he describes how books plundered from the university library are set on fire: “Thousands of books reduced to ashes because their authors are Jews, or Communist, or nihilists, but in truth because the power of ideas poses a threat to Hitler.”

The authors include Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Emile Zola, Maxim Gorky, Marcel Proust, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann… “The bonfire rose to the skies,” the letter continues, “and the students we are educating – ah, Paul! The students we have failed to educate – chanted and danced.” It is eerie, the parallels I can draw directly or indirectly.

Sweep of history

Without A Country spans four generations. The stories of the first two generations are told in fairly great detail; the next two, however, are skimmed over. The author appears more keen on recording disturbing events in history than on weaving a compelling tale and takes the novel right up to our times, specifically, the 2013 people’s uprising to protest the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Gradually the uprising spread across Turkey over issues such as the government’s assault on freedom of the press and secularism. Millions participated in something like over 5,000 demonstrations. The novel, therefore, is short enough to be read easily while simultaneously covering themes of displacement, rootlessness, new beginnings, multiculturalism, blinkered politics, migration, the scientific temper, relationships, the importance of languages and so much more.

However, it’s not just the underlying sense of déjà vu that gives Without A Country heft. It’s also the references to the familiar. For instance, Gerhard travels by the Orient Express from Zurich to Istanbul (Constantinople) that takes him through central Europe and into Turkey, with a view of the Sea of Marmara, round the Sarayburnu promontory and into Sirkeci station.

If you’ve watched Turkish films or television serials, you’d have seen scenes of men drinking raki, the national drink, a milky white concoction. In this novel I finally understood the ritualistic manner in which this beverage is consumed: it cannot be had neat, it requires to be imbibed between sips of water. In the beginning of the novel, Ankara the capital city is still in the process of being built, much like how Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh is coming up now, or how it may have been when Gandhinagar was emerging as the capital of Gujarat.

Being human

Suzi’s world is a happy juxtaposition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim ways of life. At one point, Fatma teaches her how to perform namaz. “But you don’t do your prayers five times a day,” Suzi comments. Fatma explains that honest labour is also a form of prayer. We see how Greeks are targeted and forced to flee Turkey. When Rafael Elliman says, “It’s always the minorities who get targeted when nationalism boils over”, we know exactly what that means.

In a telling sequence, you have a woman on the ferry yelling at someone, “You’re in Turkey! Speak Turkish!” After an altercation about the freedom or lack of it to speak the language of one’s choice, Suzi’s fiancé, Demir, says, “I’m Turkish, too, but that doesn’t give me the right to tell people what language to speak.” To which a man replies, “They live in Turkey. Turks should speak Turkish.” Demir responds with, “But their mother tongue is Greek!” And the man says, “They should be more Turkish.” Suzi then gets into the argument. “Maybe you should be more human!” she says.

In the end, Without A Country is about being human. As Suzi tells her daughter’s boyfriend Enver many years later, after she and her husband are shocked when he expresses admiration for Hitler: ‘ “I’m Jewish. And I grew up respecting people of all faiths.” “You said you were Turkish!” Enver protested. “If you’re Turkish you have to be Muslim.” “You’re confusing two very different things, nationality and religion. I know a lot of native-born Turks who aren’t Muslim.” ’

Being human means having compassion. Being compassionate means understanding the need humans have for home and homeland. Understanding this need means ensuring that everyone can live at peace in their own homes.

So, basically, we must think for ourselves and not be misled by other people’s agendas, right?