Sunday, August 05, 2012

Dirty rotten Bastilles

My mother has a halo of elegant grey curls, and a nose so aquiline that we’d be able to play LPs with it if we could only get her to hold her head just so. She walks into shops and speaks her need into the air, as if it will magically coalesce into the person required without all the bother of making eye contact and having a conversation. She likes nice crockery, though she tends to lock it up on the grounds that it’s too nice to actually use. And she has been genetically bred to issue orders she expects people to follow without question.

All in all, she reminds me powerfully of the ancien régime. That’s that French political system where a bunch of people in powdered wigs and fancy jewels ate cakes and danced while taxing the hell out of, and probably being very rude to, the bunch of starving peasants working their land. Their heads wore bewildered expressions when they ended up stuck on a pike, because their way of being was, to their minds, in the natural order of things.

Today marks the anniversary of the day the music died for those folks. In grade school, when we studied the French Revolution, I did a large sketch of the legendary storming of the Bastille (which was where the powdered wigs liked to imprison bolshy sorts). It was a copy of an illustration in my textbook, in which the sinister unwashed masses of France pour through the smashed doors of the fortress-prison, and it was chaotic and filled with menace. Smoke, rubble, and the rebel yell of a thousand weary hearts acting for a country—an inspiring crucible for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. My history teacher’s voice rang darkly in my ears: “The aristocrats were all gillitoned!” (By which she meant, of course, guillotined.) King Louis XVI, well-intentioned but pretty much detested by the revolutionaries as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the social structure, was gillitoned himself four years after the fall of the Bastille.

Every Bastille Day I wonder why we, in India, haven’t had a French Revolution yet. I mean, we’ve got all the ingredients: starving oppressed peasants, oppressors who wouldn’t see a revolution coming if it stood up and did the tango with them—which it kind of is doing in what we elliptically call ‘the red corridor’—and lots of toupees and talcum powder.

Now you’re going say that we did have a small hissy fit known as the Independence Movement, but really, how long are can we rest on those old laurels? We can proudly claim to have kicked out the evil colonisers, but at some point we’ll have to admit to, and address, the fact that some of us are continuing to give others of us a right royal rogering.

When the revolution does start lapping against the sides of the venerable capital, I’m going to have to hide my mother in the utilities cupboard below the stairs, and trot out the less ancien parts of her history, such as the brief period in her twenties when she, along with her cohort, brandished little red books and sang l’Internationale (oh, the ironies of life). I will no doubt have to hide alongside her, if only to provide her with an attendant. And if you’re privileged enough to be reading this, you should probably clean out a cupboard or two yourself.

India can be a bit slow about some things, but we cotton on eventually. If nothing else, we’ve proven that we like bashing things up. And so, while there’s still champagne and some oppressed sods to pour it, happy Bastille Day.

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