By-Shashank Reddy, NLS, Bangalore.
There is a breathtaking image playing out in front of me. Dense fog, an endless carpeted plain, the twin peaks of Mt.Virtue and Mt.Vice in the distance, and a man with shaggy hair proudly proclaiming, “How beautiful is my heaven!” The images are of the tiny village of Malana, high up in Himachal, as shown in Amlan Datta’s part-trippy, part-comedy, part-nonsensical and fully brilliant documentary, Bom, which I am watching as I type this piece out. The documentary touches upon a variety of issues, from the non-existent debate in India over the legalization of Marijuana to the clash of cultures between ‘Indian’ democracy and the traditional village ‘republics’. But what really strikes me as I see a NCB (Narcotics Control Bureau) officer convince the villagers of Malana to plant peas instead of ganja and then blame the villagers for a bad harvest, is the underlying theme of lost cultures.
Humanity, as far as the evidence suggests, did not spring forth from one ‘mother civilization’. It developed almost simultaneously at various points on the face of the earth, China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt,Crete, the Americas. But through the long march of history, there have been other civilizations, doomed to the lost sands of time or at most, footnotes in thick history books. Their crime is not building temples, or great walls, or massive cities. Cultures that are as human as the Indus Valley civilization but have been relegated to obscurity for not being ‘advanced’ enough. And in the relentless march of Western modernity that we aspire to, how many cultures have we knowingly or unknowingly trampled upon? I do not argue here whether our perception of development and modernity is right or wrong, but what I do want to question is whether it becomes our duty to preserve or at the very least study these cultures that will inevitably be subsumed in the ‘greater’ culture that surrounds them. Before we can even begin to think of answering this question, there is another, deeper question we must ask. How much do we owe to this ‘little’ cultures that have had next to no impact in the so called ‘greater scheme of things’?
The answer is, everything. These ‘Malana’ cultures tell us that there is another way, another way to live, another way to dream, another way to be. They are the necessary opposite poles to our dominant thought processes, liberating and invigorating and to a person with a libertarian bent of mind like me, they are the ultimate functioning anarchies. To understand these cultures, one is forced to shed all of the inhibitions, stereotypes and blinkered thought processes one had and begin, so to say, on a fresh slate.
It is for this reason that we must study them, and try to preserve them. The greatness of these cultures lies not in vast engineering feats or moving pieces of literature. It lies in the way they think, in the way they react, in the way they view the world.
The title of this piece alludes to a photograph in the TV show (shown above), Battlestar Galactica, which shows an unnamed soldier on his knees in front of a burning city. In the show, the photograph is put up in the briefing room of Battlestar Galactica and each pilot reverently touches it before setting out on their missions. The photograph is a reminder, of where they came from, the odds they faced and their common destiny. Malana to me is like that photograph. It seeks to make us remember our origins, the path that we have tread so far and the path that we are treading right now. As the documentary draws to a close, I am left with a sense of pity. Pity for us, caught up in the bandwagon of progress, who desperately need a new way of looking at the world if we are to survive, we who look at that picture up on the wall but refuse to see it and choose to forget.