We Are Never Too Far from Our Tribal Past – Here and in Africa

In “A Bend in the River” which I am now reading, VS Naipaul – he of the fluent prose that incorporates so many different layers that one is amazed how he writes it all – writes about a certain tribalism in the interior of Africa where Salim goes to set up his many-splendored shop selling daily necessities. The president of the country even dresses in an African chief’s dress to impress his citizens. He even rules like a tribal chief putting down dissent before it can progress to rebellion, or, in short, his overthrow. Such tribalism in this ancient land reminds me of the tribalism of the metropolitan agglomeration that is Bombay, a city that has absorbed people from different tribes, castes, communities, religions, languages. Each time you speak to someone you are probably probing into his tribal customs, some surprisingly familiar and some bizarre.

So this thing of “Khap Panchayats” of Haryana and their form of jurisprudence about which friend Manjul Bajaj has written in her novel “Come before Evening Falls” (reviewed here by another friend Julia Dutta), seems of interest to me in the context. (Read the book, it is beautifully written.) I have heard about cases of honor killings in the New Bombay area where I live in Bombay. A girl and her husband were shot dead in full daylight by her relatives as she married out of caste. That too, in a teeming city where thousands live.

When I think of some of our leaders I am reminded of this tribalism. So where are we? Are we enlightened and rational people living in a democracy or are we a tribal society? These are questions that need to be asked, addressed. Or, else, we would be treading a long wasted journey, not knowing where we are progressing as a people, which is the impression I got from Reading Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River.”

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