The niece was in school in the US when she saw Nadia Comaneci live on TV at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
In India, one could only dream of such pleasures although the kindly radio ensured we wouldn’t miss the cricket action at Old Trafford, Karachi or Kanpur, thanks to John Arlott, Omar Qureishi and Bobby Talyarkhan weaving magic with the running commentary.
Coming back to Delhi the following year, the niece was greeted with fanfare reserved for people returning from a pilgrimage. She had seen the wondrous Nadia perform her fabled Perfect 10s on the beam and uneven bars. But, uncle, the schoolgirl moved quickly to alert me to a flaw in my eagerness. “Nadia is a communist.”
And so? Didn’t we like the Romanian girl’s captivating smile? “Yes, but, you know, communists are trained how to smile.” Probing her reading list in school in America, out came the resolution to the puzzle. George Orwell’s Animal Farm had taken its toll. The anti-communist primer had come up also for exams at our school in Lucknow, but somehow for most students it was water off a duck’s back.
When the Cold War was over, there was a sense of anticipation that the “free world” would tone down the admixture of cretinism and propaganda, which it spewed for decades to describe a communist’s horns and canines. One thought the shrill imagery would give way to a sober critique of many things that had gone wrong with communist systems. Within no time at all, however, the Cold War-era slogan for free democracies turned into an insidious prescription for “free-market democracies”.
Markets rather than democracy have been the driving force behind the west’s feigned opposition to totalitarianism. That should have been figured out as early as 1955 though, when popularly elected Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in Iran by an American-British intelligence-led coup over the prime minister’s nationalisation of the oil industry.
One of the triggers for Orwell’s outburst against communism was his disenchantment with Stalin, though the British writer never reneged on his own commitment to socialism, provided it remained democratic. Much of Orwell’s anger deepened with his experience of the Spanish Civil War, where he saw partisans turning on each other, aligning against Stalinists or supporting them.
As the world continued to see in the fable of Animal Farm the turning of an egalitarian dream into a nightmare, particularly for those that led the allegorical revolution, not much was said or discussed of Orwell’s ‘Man’ who symbolised the animals’ class enemy. It was Man in the form of the drunken farm owner, one Mr Jones and his perpetually snoring wife, whose untold cruelties set off the upheaval.
“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing,” the Old Major confided to the secret barn house meeting. The ageing pig probably representing Karl Marx was the intellectual fountainhead of the rebellion.
“[Man] does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilises it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin.”
Replace Man with Capitalism and Old Major’s speech reads like a fine précis of the Communist Manifesto. This critique of capitalism at the beginning of the book has been lobotomised from popular memory. The COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed it again to centre-stage, nudging societies to rephrase their worldview .
The millions we saw on the roads in the wake of the badly called lockdown in India were as much victims of a callous state as of a reality in which the rich are the privileged and the poor their grovelling minions. That equation may have been jolted forever. The world’s four best friends are definitely in trouble, deeper trouble than they would like us to know.
Benjamin Netanyahu has lost his popularity from 70 per cent approval ratings to around 15, and is facing a criminal case. The virus has ensnared Jair Bolsonaro in more ways than one. He has a rebellion brewing. Donald Trump is fighting everything and everyone except the virus. His lack of leadership, when it was most needed to save American lives, looks primed to cost him the election in November. Narendra Modi, according to The New York Times, has used the virus-related lockdown to arrest more critics, indicating he is on the back foot.
The Times mentions the case of Natasha Narwal, a student activist accused of rioting by the New Delhi police. When a judge ruled that she be freed for she was merely exercising her right to protest against a divisive citizenship law, the police slapped fresh charges of murder and terrorism, sending her back to jail.
Orwell should have been around to figure it all out.
(Edited excerpts from a column published in Dawn on July 21. Jawed Naqvi is India Correspondent of Dawn)