The Other Side Of Power

(An assignment for a writing class has made me explore different essays and ideas and here is a small result of what I’ve been reading)

The gangster’s ‘moll’ is a fascinating subject. The intensity and passion in her love for somebody who doesn’t follow conventional standards of morality, for somebody who is a bad guy has intrigued me ever since I can remember. She loves him. She hates him. She is consumed by her own turbulent emotions, poignantly caught in the last scene from Kurbaan (2009), where Avantika is complicit in her terrorist husband, Ehsaan’s death. Clinging lovingly to him as he lives his last moments, she asks him his real name. The reply frustrates her and she pushes him in hatred. He had lied to her about his name along with other things. The gangster’s moll is not envied by anyone. She is detested by most. Her thoughts are taken for granted and she lives alone in her own tumult, hating most the man she loves the most. The seemingly ‘arrogant’ newcomer who settles down immediately and begins impressing all teachers and acing all exams is an object of envy and at times, hatred. However, he is scared and trying to look confident. He overdoes the acting and begins to look arrogant. An ordinary British officer in the colonial Raj suffered due to his position. He was disturbed and aghast at the workings of the colonial rule but hated by the natives because he was a representation of the same. It is that feeling of power that has been an object of fantasy for many. We desire it, we love it, we envy it, we hate it. Of course, we acknowledge that with power comes responsibility and theirs is a tough job, but we don’t know or read about their moments of loneliness, moments of frustration, moments when they rue the day they ever took up the job, moments when they want to quit, to escape.

Power can be exuded everywhere. We give someone we hate power over ourselves. We give them power to affect our thoughts and consequently our judgment and actions. What we seldom see is the other side of power. Like George Orwell writes in his famous essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’(Orwell, George), he was hated by the natives when he was posted in Myanmar. He notes, it was the only time in his life that he was “important enough”(Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant) to be hated. However, “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked my job and got out of it, the better.” (Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant).  Quite contrary to the popular notion that the colonialists enjoyed ruling over us. Many of them probably did not like being away from their homes or families, forced to administer a ‘bunch of natives’ who hated them. Their life was one big irony. They were repelled by the workings of the Raj that they served but they were hated as representations of it. It is an interesting insight into the mind of the ordinary British officer, the ordinary administrator who did not get the advantages and pleasures of being a colonizer and was very like the natives he ruled over. He hated the atrocities and the punishments and wanted no part in it. However, it was the only source that afforded him some power. We would like to believe that they power of ruling over the natives would have compensated for all the other problems. However, such lowly officers were small cogs in the colonial wheel. They did not get the privileges of being the real rulers. They were mere employees. Their position was in one important sense worse than the people they were ruling over. At least the natives had the freedom to be honest.

The natives could openly hate the empire. They could revolt and rebel. The natives had no pretences to keep up. However, these inconspicuous rulers did. They were actually helpless in the face of a mob. When George Orwell saw the elephant that had run amok, his rational judgment told him that shooting is not necessary and therefore, wrong. However, he still shot the elephant. As he says, “They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer performing a magic trick” (Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant). He did it because the natives were following him in a crowd, wanting to enjoy themselves seeing their ‘sahib’ shoot the elephant. He was afraid of looking foolish in front of them if he desisted from shooting. He would never be able to earn their respect or have any authority over them if he didn’t shoot. The need to ‘look’ powerful and decisive; the need to ‘impress the native’(Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant) overpowered any other rational thought. He was afraid of the sneers, the laughing eyes of the natives, the contemptuous looks. All this when he was the one ruling over them! “And it was at this moment, as I stood there with a rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East” (Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant). He realized why Governments acted in a tyrannical manner, often unreasonably. It was not restricted to the petty employees. Even the big rulers were constantly worried about pleasing their people. Given that the Raj tried to pacify and please the colonized people, generally powerful people would definitely work to please those they controlled. They were fulfilling an obligation. They were not free to act by their own judgment. The symbolic figure of power became the standard that had to be adhered to.

Lord Rama’s banishment of Sita was on the same principle (Maharishi Valmiki; Ramayana). As King, he could not afford to set a wrong moral example. Sita had lived in another man’s house for many days. So, Sita had to take the test of fire to prove her purity. Morality was decided by the common mass intelligence, not Rama’s own education, judgment and faith. A washerman’s sensibilities made him banish Sita. He could not act out of his own rational judgment. He was powerless in front of the general sensibility that demanded Sita’s banishment. He would lose all respect and hence, a moral authority that a King must necessarily have if he did not act in this manner. He lost his wife as he became a puppet of his own position.

Being distinctly better than those around you gives a kind you a kind of influence and power. Then, it attracts a vicious circle of being hated for being good and becoming better in retaliation. A young fourth grader hated school. However, the teachers spoke glowingly of the confident, polite, helpful and happy child. The academic and extra-curricular results were brilliant. She was kind and generous to everyone. However, the constant comparisons with her achievements were probably more than her classmates appreciated. She was punished by her peers for being good, for having an original point, for being her natural self. She withdrew into her shell and spoke to no one. She found refuge in her work. She raised better arguments, read voraciously and drew references in all her essays, stories and projects. The circle was never ending. She was detested for being good and her retaliation was being better. However, she was deeply unhappy as her success was out of spite. However, she had no right to be, as people said. Just like Sherman Alexie who was an Indian living in Spokane. Indians who acted dumb in class were accepted by other Indians and pitied by the non-Indians. That was the norm. However Alexie thought differently, “I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky.”(Alexie, Sherman; The Joys of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me) He sought refuge in books to ‘save his life’. He read all the time because he loved reading. That brought him ridicule. Then he read to escape the same ridicule. His arrogance came from being smart and it later came from being defensive. Alexie was caught up in a circle of doing things that he would be hated for, then doing them to escape the world in which he was hated. It is a great peril of being in power or simply standing out. Alexie and the young fourth grade had no choice because as Alexie says, “I am smart. I am arrogant. I am lucky. I’m trying to save our lives.” (Alexie, Sherman; The Joys of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me)

It is true that being in power or being better than the rest have their definite advantages. They do bring with them enough resources to be able to battle or at least tolerate and handle unpleasant people and their reactions. However, power makes one very lonely. Also, it is to sustain this power, to keep these perks and resources close to oneself that one becomes a puppet in the hands of those he rules. One lives amongst those who may or may not like him and adjusts his intelligence and judgement to that of crowd. The crowd has to be pleased and thus, a powerful man becomes less free than the people he supposedly rules over. So eventually whether in a democracy or an authoritarian state – who is the final ruler? Who is actually free?


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