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Sow nails, reap petals

Sumana Roy | Updated on February 19, 2021

Stand ground: There are idioms in our languages that mock the farmer for his dirty calloused feet   -  ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

The protesting farmers’ act of planting saplings marks a high moment in the political practice of ahimsa

* The thought of living feet on the nails stopped me in the middle of the many tasks during the day

* When the Buddha walked after Enlightenment, an event that is marked architecturally in Bodh Gaya, a lotus bloomed wherever his feet touched the ground

* It was the voltage of the politics of these religious associations that is significant — a moment of subordination and violence by those in power, whether king, god or government, transformed into opportunities of kindness

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In order to prevent farmers from protesting and marching into Delhi again, law enforcement agencies cemented nails on roads at Ghazipur, Tikri and Singhu. Anger and laughter came to me simultaneously: Anger at the violent imagination that had ordered this; laughter at the memory of young boys who used to put nails on streets so that the tyres on our bicycles would be punctured on our way from school. It wasn’t a happy memory at all, but that the State could behave like those desperate boys made me laugh aloud to myself. It was a very disturbing image — the thought of living feet on the nails stopped me in the middle of the many tasks during the day. At one point, I stopped in the middle of a sentence while teaching — it was as if the nails were inside my throat.

The next morning — or it might be a couple of days later — I woke up to find a photo of farmers planting saplings where the nails had been planted, covering them with soil, expecting the roots of the plants to do the rest. It was an astonishing feat of the imagination — to see fruit and flower in the future where nails had been and where blood was supposed to be; it was a brilliant response to the State’s punitive imagination. It was astonishing because the reaction of the farmers to the State’s violence was one of ahimsa; it was astonishing because of the wise and unexpected nature of the transformation of a battleground in front of our eyes, almost like turning Kurukshetra into an agricultural field. And yet, it was also the most expected thing to do — farmers were farming on the roads, planting crops as they did on the fields every day.

It was, without a doubt, a high moment in the political practice of ahimsa in our history. It was a continuation of something that had happened about a year ago — when a girl had responded with a flower to an attack by the Delhi police, an act that had been copied over the next few days during the protests against CAA and NRC. It had reminded me of Banksy’s flower bomber or flower thrower, a man throwing a bunch of flowers like one does a bomb.

A piece of artwork that had gone viral on social media had linked the moment into an iconography of a spiritual tradition. The bleeding of human feet, caused by the nails, was giving birth to flowers in the imagesigned by ‘Zinnia’. The nails had turned into flowers.

In them I found a mixture of Hindu and Christian iconography. Just as the 52 parts of the Goddess Sati’s body had given birth to 52 peeths that would turn into places of pilgrimage, so with the nails turning to flowering plants, taking on new lives. There were also the nails that had been hammered into the body of Christ like the nails that had been beaten into the body of the Earth. In this painting, they look almost like stigmata, which, in Christian mysticism, are scars or wounds that are reminders of the crucifixion of Jesus. It might have also been the visual association of the nails and the plants that reminded me of the crown of thorns on Jesus.

The sprouting of flowers from the touch of human feet also reminded me of another symbolism, this one from Buddhism. When the Buddha walked after Enlightenment, an event that is marked architecturally in Bodh Gaya, a lotus bloomed wherever his feet touched the ground.

It is possible that Zinnia had none of this religious symbolism in mind. And yet this painting, energised by the power of the political moment, of the manner of protests that the farmers had adopted in asking for the revision of agricultural policies that affect them and their livelihoods, had aligned with an anecdotal symbolism, so that it had, with great immediacy, invoked the presence of three different religions at once.

It was the voltage of the politics of these religious associations that is significant — a moment of subordination and violence by those in power, whether king, god or government, transformed into opportunities of kindness. That transformation — literal as it is, from one body or state to another — is a moment of grace (I am using ‘grace’ also with its older connotations of beauty and mercy).

There are idioms in our languages — chashar mawto paa in Bangla, for instance — where the farmer is mocked for his dirty calloused feet. These are, as we know, recent additions to the vocabulary, created by a culture of gentility that has become forgetful of soil and our relationship with it. It is, quite obviously, this amnesiac social class that is critical of the farmers’ protests.

The Buddhist scriptures tell us that the difference between this life and heaven is in what we walk on — pebbles that hurt our feet in this life, petals that bring relief in the next. I am going to look at Zinnia’s painting with the hope that the moment when our farmers can walk on petals is not far away.

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree;

Sumana Roy   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Published on February 19, 2021

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