One of the first followers of Zoroastrianism who I knew personally was my arts and crafts teacher, Mehr Contractor. I was seven or eight years old then. What struck me most then about her was that she was unlike most women of her age (late 50s-early 60s) that I knew. She spent a seemingly free life, unencumbered by family and children, she sometimes drove a car (a car itself was a rarity in my childhood, a woman driving it was even more so) and she hopped on the back of scooters driven by men to hitch a ride home. More strikingly, as far as a young boy unlike most Indian women I knew then - this was the early 1980s - she wore sleeveless blouses with her sari, which revealed her aging arms which trembled every time she tried to glue a paper mache or pull out a misshapen stapler. For some time, I divided women into two camps. Those who wore regular blouses that covered their arms, like my mother and others who I saw elsewhere, and those like Mehr Aunty who wore sleeveless blouses with their saris. It wasn’t just that extra two or three inches of naked skin that affected me - then again, who can really say, how children’s imaginations work - but that somehow I had begun to associate a sleeveless blouse with women who were ‘free’, who were independent minded, who traveled in the world of men freely, and were somehow exempt from the many codes of expectations to which other women I knew were subject to. Somehow these women with sleeveless blouses had managed to sidestep - or so I had mistakenly thought - familiar ideas of shame and discomfort about their bodies that weighed down many women I knew. It is hard to say if I had arrived at these ideas on my own or if in an conservative Hindu society, the Parsis were deemed exempt from rules. In retrospect, what I probably did find fascinating was the ease with which she could traverse worlds - between her own conception of self, the world of arts she lived in and the social relationships in which she had thrived.
At a more conceptual level, what now strikes me as remarkable about those early childhood days was my ability to divide the world of women, or the world in general, into twos. Those who wore x and didn’t wear x. Those who liked cricket and those who didn’t. Those of my school friends who came in the school bus and those who had cars. And so on. A world of mixtures, impurities, miscegenation seemed not just impossible but irrelevant. What I relied on was a willingness to construct binaries without prodding, without any training. It was as if I modeled the world in a way that comported well with the physical hardware of my brain. This conceptual tool - to divide the world into twos - was thus born out of me, like some old memory that I had forgotten about. Where, my grandmother asked me once, do the spider's strings come from? Not even a spider can tell, she had assured me.
Across human history, the idea of binaries as a way to organize the world has been powerful in a way almost few other mental tools are. Oppositional in quality, binaries help divide the world, our objects of enquiry, into distinct, mutually exclusive spheres, the sum of which exhaust our cognitive universes. Among the oldest of such efforts was crystallized in the Zoroastrian religions which cleaved the world into spheres of light and non-light, the Ahura Mazdas against the Ahrimans. The original Platonists used to think of the world as divided into archetypes and imperfect forms. The Islamic ideas of believers and non-believers is another such binary with a powerful hold on its adherents. By our times, with old empires in dust, nowhere are binaries more hardened into realities with real consequences, or seen more vividly than in the stories told by modern day nation-states about how it births identities. Indians versus Pakistanis, Americans vs Russians, Arabs vs Persians, Germans vs English and so on. Institutions, human contracts, religious dispositions, intellectual models - much else has accreted around the construction of dualities. A grammar of difference is enshrined in ways that we can no longer speak about the world we see without this language of dichotomies. This is particularly so, if one is a nation-state that is constructed from more diffuse identities of Asia in the aftermath of exposure, exploitation, resistance, admiration, supplication to the colonial experience. The urge to consecrate many realities into one, while understandable, provokes and often wounds. It is conceivable that individuals in the past carried along with them such dualities in their head, but unlike today, they most likely carried a portfolio of constructed differences and no one set of ‘differences’ dominated over all else. It was a democratic procedure, a committee of self-images, that managed and juggled between human prejudices.
A return to that old world, a state of mind before the parasite of nationalism had burrowed into our mind, is probably now impossible. As for he who offers to question this, I am reminded of C.P.Cavafy’s lines translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:
From his village near the outskirts of town,
still dust-covered from the journey in,
the peddler arrives. And “Incense!” “Gum!”
“The best olive oil!” “Perfume for your hair!”
he hawks through the streets. But with all the hubbub,
the music, the parades, who can hear him?
The crowd shoves him, drags him along, knocks him around.
And when he asks, now totally confused, “What’s going on here?”
someone tosses him too the huge palace lie:
that Antony is winning in Greece.