Choosing Chaos Over Control

The quest for our world now must be to find ways to navigate through uncertainty and chaos, not control it

I have been lost before. One of my earliest memories in life is of getting lost. I was only around five or six years old, so it is not an exceptionally vivid one, but has remained significantly etched nevertheless.

I remember it was a bright and sunny evening. I was excited to go to the park to play with my friends, while my father was getting ready to pick my mother up from her office. Those days there were no mobile phones or any other cordless communication devices. So, once the plan for the day was decided, all persons involved were simply expected to follow through. In other words, it wasn’t the most convenient time to have a child beginning to familiarise herself with the concept of independence. As a young girl beginning to nurture her own ideas, dreams, friends and customs, I wanted to go and play in the park. My father, with his responsibilities towards his pregnant wife, had to make sure he was on time to pick her up. As is customary for two reasonable, mature human beings to do in conflict, we arrived at a deal – he would leave me at the park unattended if my friends were also there, and pick me up later after bringing mum home. Simple and fool-proof.

When we reached the park, I saw some kids playing in the distance and hastily announced that my friends were here so he could leave. My father, being an ardent proponent of independent women (and girls), and also late to meet my mother by now, felt satisfied with my assertion and left.

Once I got closer to the tiny crowd, however, I realised these kids were all strangers, who weren’t planning to stay, so I couldn’t enjoy their company till my parents got back. At some point, I saw my father drive past the park, and desperately tried running after him. But, of course, that didn’t work out.

Now, I was out of the park, in the middle of some street in our society, and without any idea of what I would do, or where I would go. Though I’m sure I was frightened, I remember trying to trace my steps and find markings or identifiers on the houses to figure out which part of the society I was in, and where in relation to those my house could be. When I think of it now, I remember it as a fun exercise; a puzzle that I was trying to solve.

I realise that in that entire story, it wasn’t when I was trying to find my way back home that I was disturbed or upset. To be lost, in and of itself, is not an upsetting experience. It was the deprivation of control – from when I failed to catch my dad by running after his car, or when I found out that the friends I was hoping to meet that day weren’t in the park to begin with – that made me feel dejected and afraid. The moment that I did finally accept the uncertainty and chaos, however, was when I could start moving forward again. The moment of acceptance, in other words, became a moment of liberation. 

Our world too has arrived at a point now where it has been forced to face the stark underlying realities of its existence – the chaos, mess, and uncertainty. The illusion of control we enjoyed over our choices, our routines, our lives and our future has been shattered, exposing the many failures of the current design of human society. It has become inarguably clear that our species, with all its talk about being infallibly superior, is now utterly lost.

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A Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Creator: Bill Watrerson

One of the primary reasons for this remains our inability to accept and navigate through the complexity of our world. Instead of trying to work through it, we have tried to impose frameworks and systems that can neatly categorise and control its dynamics. Take for instance a case brought to light by Suraj Yengde recently, in his deeply insightful article about the parallel, and often merging, trajectories of the Dalit and Black Lives movements.

In the late 1940s, soon after independence, the Dalit Panthers in India had tried to build common ground with the Black Panthers, in order to build solidarity and a stronger movement for victims of caste and race. However, India’s foreign policy and international position at the time made it inconvenient for the diplomatic elite to acknowledge and accept the commonalities in both situations – both types of discrimination are defined at birth – and therefore hindered not only any possibility of building a stronger movement, but was also cited as one of the reasons for the resignation of the great Dalit thinker, BR Ambedkar, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet.

This tradition of side-lining and containing inconvenient truths has also followed us into the new millennium. Consider the case of the designated boulevard for dissent at the heart of the political capital of India – Jantar Mantar. Since 1993, this has been the default protest site for a number of causes, simply because this is the one area where section 144 (from the Criminal Procedures Code, which disallows the gathering of four or more persons at a time) is not imposed in times of dissent.

The problem is not so much that there is a space designated for protests, where dissent is permitted by the establishment in the name of maintaining law and order in the city. It is the intent to contain that can be strongly felt in the space itself that adds to the problematic. For the uninitiated, Jantar Mantar refers not to the large sundial and observatory built in the early 1700s – a tangible clue to the scientific inquiry promoted by the Maharaja of the time – but instead a secluded street right next to it, where, at any given moment, one finds several disparate individuals and groups demanding a variety of rights and justices. Inside this cul-de-sac, voices are isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, which conveniently remains unaware, unmoved and untouched by their cause.

A group of people walking in front of a crowd

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The Jantar Mantar cul-de-sac during anti-CAA protests, 2019. Image: Shivani Karmarkar

The importance of acceptance comes back to me when I experience or think of such strategies used by our political elite. It wasn’t my precocious five-year-old self, of course, that was able to intellectualise what I had understood on the experiential level then. That was a result of reflections in later years, especially in times when I was forced to let go, once again, of my false sense of control (such as now, during the pandemic).

This has also been reinforced by a few French men, who dared to dive deep into the underlying complexity of our world by unpacking its veils, and providing clues to where we could go from here.

Take, for instance, the philosopher and anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote about how our tastes, preferences and habits – our habitus – are heavily influenced by our cultural surroundings, and therefore defined by our class (caste, gender, race or any other) background. For instance, the delicacies that a ‘high-class’ person might enjoy – let’s take frog legs as an example – might sound absolutely ridiculous to someone with a more modest exposure to victual experiences. In this way, even something as basic as food imbues itself as a marker of class.

Further, a philosopher like Jacques Derrida has showed us that by deconstructing the world around us, we come across its many possibilities – each varying through the endless dimensions of time and the socio-cultural contexts. To try to find meaning then, or justice – a theme he often spoke about – is an effort towards finding nothing. But, in doing so, we are also introduced to the endless possibilities that can help us survive.

The third, and possibly most influential, is Gilles Deleuze, who, along with Félix Guattari, introduced the concept of becoming. According to them, the world is not a fixed ‘being’, but a constant ‘becoming’ – a fluid assemblage of differences, or multiplicities, that are constantly being made and changing through a contagious relationship with each other, something that is especially true in our shrinking, globalised and highly interdependent world.

So, our choices aren’t completely our own, our words are imbued with an im-possible variety of meanings, and no definition, idea or person is ever a fixed, finalised entity. What is it even that we can feign to try and control here?

Given the complexity of the world then, control or containment cannot be the answer. What we need are not ways to organise the chaos, but to work through it. That has to be the mandate of our intellectual quest in this post-postmodern world – a complete, uninhibited acceptance of the complexities of our world, and the development of ideas, skill and tools that can help us deal with them.

While this is not an easy task, I already see it having been initiated in the public space today. Across the Western world, we are now seeing statues that had marked the spatial landscape of public spaces for centuries in some cases, being brought down and dismantled from their privileged positions. Countless historians, psychologists and sociologists are coming out to talk about how the narratives that had set the world order for so long are, for the first time, being challenged in such a fierce and impactful manner. Perhaps the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka too had an inkling of the importance of setting narratives through edifices in the public spaces, when he inscripted more than 30 edicts across the pillars, boulders and cave walls of his land – all because of his belief that we could train to live as philosophers did, and that would be the way to the world of peace and harmony he had imagined.

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Protesters in Bristol, England, pulled down a controversial statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston at the weekend. Credit: Unknown

Now that we find ourselves lost, once again, we are also presented with the endless possibilities of the route we decide to take hereon. To find this route is not a question of radical fantasising and idealism. In the words of the beloved physicist Richard Feynman: “This stuff of fantasising and looking at the world imagining things, it really isn’t fantasising because you’re only trying to imagine the way it really is.” It is this world that we must strive to now come back in touch with.

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