Not-Seeing as He Not-Saw

In his autobiography, Babur casually describes the taking back of Samarkhand. There were a last few Uzbeks hiding, he says, and they were “stoned to death like mad dogs”. He moves on, as coolly as any mercenary newsreader, to the important matter of how juicy the apples and pears of Samarkhand are. How does one respond? It’s tempting to judge him, compare him to Gandhi or the Buddha. But that is effectively wishing he were someone else — like wishing he had been less of a drunkard or had less acme than he did or was a bit nicer to passersby when on a horse. What does it mean to meet him on his own terms? Perhaps it means accepting his handicaps: not just seeing as he did but not seeing as he could not see. He may or may not have thought: “What am I doing, charging across Central Asia year after year, burning and pillaging? Why do I not stand on one leg or inquire into sentences such as ‘Where there is smoke there is fire’”? I cannot impose such an inquiry on Babur — not while reading him as a text.

Which same thoughts crawled around in what Descartes called the mind — and what I, after one term of Philosophy here in Manipal, am no longer sure of nor have any word for — while Daryn Lehoux kicked off the the conference with a crisp presentation that reminded me that we are at our most interesting when we are deeply interested ourselves. Lehoux is not Hippocrates, he is not Aristotle, he does not believe that the weak seed leads to the birth of a girl-child, but the two Greeks he has decided are worth his attention did believe in things that will seem outrageous to us. Lehoux is loyal to the texts throughout. Why? Because it would the spoil all the fun otherwise, as it would if a detective tampered with evidence. It is like a good sun-burned archeologist digging patiently under the desert and then being hopelessly excited at finding a thumb-size piece of crushed china. The first question from the audience somewhat missed this, in its anxiety for medical accuracy.  Whether the Y-chromosome is weaker or not was beside the point, because we were not interested in the truth here: we were interested in what someone believed was the truth, and why. We were stepping out of ourselves.

Whether it interferes with such a game to bring in Indian texts, I don’t know. I suppose it’s all right as a comment but unfair as a question. But by now everyone was shivering in the hall, not because Dr. Ghevergese was about to launch into what we thought was an ode to a flamboyant Indian male bird, but because someone’s idea of hospitality was to make the hall feel like Canada when we were in thin cottons. Even the Canadians shivered, for god’s sake. And then it was a bit too warm after lunch — we had over- corrected. After two superb lectures in the morning, a decent lunch and finally the perfect temperature, somewhere near 20 degrees C, in conditions that many species would find ideal for mating, people began to nod off. They mumbled, dreamt, awoke with a jerk, nodded vigorously in agreement with the speaker, only to slide again into irresistible sleep. Some fought admirably, even reaching for the pen, but notes became scribbles, scribbles became doodles in a language that was no longer recognizable as English, and doodles trailed off into some liminal eternity between sleeping, waking and producing scholarly responses. Of course, of course, people must have been jet-lagged. Besides, it’s India. The shock of finding cows standing on the street, the heat, tigers and elephants and snake-charmers all over the damn place, or else the 20$/hour software programmers…

Three random conversation-topics during lunch: (1) feminists and science (2) horse-breeding in the middle east (3) beer with test cricket.


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