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The Other

by Venky

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Collated from four lectures delivered by the universally acclaimed Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, “The Other”, is an eloquent, impassioned and civilised plea for recognising humanity for what it is: diverse, heterogenous and unamenable for stereotyping. Kapuściński urges his readers to shed entrenched dogmas that come with the baggage of Eurocentrism, and to develop a broader outlook and perception when encountering and dealing with myriad cultures and civilization. Daniel Bonilla Maldonado, a pioneering researcher on Modern Comparative Law and Associate Professor in a Law School in Columbia, defines decolonization as “the historical process by which European empires collapsed and former colonies became new independent states during classical and late modernity”. Kapuściński’’s thinking predates even this splendid definition. He lived the later years of his life, dedicated to understanding the distinct and different “Other”. His most widely read and quoted book, “Travels With Herodotus” is an unashamed and unabashed homage to the personal and professional sojourns of the “Other”.

The colonizer, in more ways than one, seeks to elide and eviscerate the very indigenous identity and Ontology of the colonised. This he does, by diplomatically and deviously – at times even brutally – superimposing the culture of the colonized by the colonizer’s own ways of life. Thus, the insidious impact of this superimposition being, even in a decolonised setting, the newly liberated colony, or a free state rather, is left to grapple with its traditions and ethnography by solely relying on the works left behind by the once marauding colonizer.  Kapuściński bemoans such a crude and cruel two-dimensional overlay and calls for preserving the roots and original ethos of the “Other”. This is the only definition of pure and untainted egalitarianism.

Kapuściński claims that the “Other” embodies within his/her persona, two different and distinct personalities. “One of these beings is a person like the rest of us: he has his joys and sorrows, good and bad days, he is glad of his successes and does not like to be hungry, and does not like it when he is cold…The other being who is overlapped and interwoven with the first, is a person, as bearer of racial features, and as a bearer of culture, belief and convictions.” This bearer of belief, cultures and convictions was the persona whom Europe tried to obliterate when donning the mantle of conquistadors, whether colonizing Africa, brutalizing South America, or demonizing India.

The beliefs, cultures and convictions of the “Other” is deracinated as medieval, derogated as pagan or heathen and finally demolished by the employ of brute force, force here referring to both physical assault as well as mental and spiritual ‘reeducation’. Not for a moment the colonizer/European stop to ponder about a most critical and necessary quandary. The colonizer is as much an “Other” to the colonized as the colonised is a mystery to his new and self-proclaimed usurpers of freedom. In this regard reference may be made to Neal Ascherson’s poignant recollection of a language employed by an Evangelical Church poster in Berlin that was addressed to Du und der Du neben Dir – “You and the You Next to You”.

Kapuściński relies liberally on the philosophy espoused by Emmanuel Lévinas, the Jewish-French philosopher. Lévinas, courageously and obstinately stuck to the principle that we are after all defined as individuals by our attitude to the Other. In addition to Lévinas , Kapuściński  also draws on an eclectic collection of works: Swiss traveler, thinker and scientist Albrecht von Haller, Montesquieu, Daniel Defoe, Goethe, The Upanishads, and Conrad are a few of the usual suspects.

Kapuściński lays down three barometers, taking recourse to which he claims that the “Otherness” is judged in this world. The first marker is the colour of one’s skin. If sharing the same skin colour is not used to bringing drawing people together, this failure denotes that there may be greater underlying distinctions in determining otherness. The second characteristic by which Otherness is judged is that of nationalism. In Kapuściński ‘s own words, “Nationalism, like racism, is a tool for identifying and classifying that is used by my Other at any opportunity. It is a crude, primitive tool that oversimplifies and trivialises one ‟s image of the Other, because for the nationalist the person of the Other has just one single feature – national affiliation”. The final characteristic by which Otherness is judged is perhaps the most impactful and controversial one, religion. Here it would be crucial to make a distinction between individual religious belief and institutionalized religious communities. The initial face to face interaction will determine one’s stance spiritually and with concerns of their personal morality, This needs to be weighted against the consensus and contradictions (as may be appropriate) from the perspective of the religious institution to which the Other is seemingly affiliated.

The colonizer by labeling the colonized as heathen, soul-less and of a deprecating stock, completely fails to comprehend the faith system and culture that is the prerogative of the colonised’ A key failing of the colonizer is to totally disregard the land-ontology or the pristine and almost sacred relationship that exists between the native and her land. A relationship based on a symbiotic reciprocity. The normative Western mindset, incapable of both deciphering and respecting such relationship proceeds to mercilessly pillage the land and enslave the native. In “The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian” by Joseph Epes Brown, writes, “their relationship with the earth was one of ‘reciprocal appropriation’, that is to give and receive, ‘in which humans participated in the landscape while at the same time they incorporated the landscape and its inhabitants into the most fundamental human experience and understanding’. The invaders, nursing a Judeo Christian OET that places man at the pinnacle of animate and inanimate existence, not just dehumanized humanity but also objectified nature. This, in addition to a forced displacement of the indigenous education systems, also resulted in a top down imposition of Christianity, and in some cases, even a subtle and covert ‘Christianising’ of the native faith.

Kapuściński leaves last words to one of his inspirations, Joseph Conrad’s: “the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts“.

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