Jonathan Swift – A Masterclass in Satire

Jonathan Swift, with A Modest Proposal, unleashes a scathing attack on the state of affairs in Ireland, at society’s inaction to improve the deplorable state and at the Government for what he perceived to be willful inaction.

Ireland was suffering, at this point, from a host of problems including overpopulation, unemployment, severe poverty, disease, and starvation. Swift saw this all too clearly, and his keen insight brought him only frustration as he recognized both the severity of the issues that faced society and their unwillingness to do anything about it.

Wielding his sharp, morbid satire to bring the farce into the limelight, Jonathan Swift plays the part of a good Samaritan trying to find a solution to the most pressing issues that plagued Ireland at his time. A Modest Proposal starts out seriously enough and transitions far too comfortably into its satirical tone. The transition is so seamless that the reader is left fidgeting at the introduction of Swift’s solutions because he is not entirely sure how much is spoken in jest.

Swift’s reasoning runs thus: Ireland, being a Christian country, frowned upon abortion or foeticide. A woman, once pregnant, was expected to go through with the pregnancy and rear the baby no matter what the consequences. This often led to women of the lower classes being encumbered with unwanted pregnancies and then slogging the rest of their lives to provide for a child who was surplus to their requirements or wishes. This had the knock-on effect of miring them even further in the depths of poverty, resulting in the child being brought up amongst squalor and meagreness.

Swift, using faultless logic, shows how there are no positive outcomes to this scenario. The mother’s adult life is consumed in trying to keep up with the additional expenses. The unwanted pregnancy, usually out of wedlock, results in ostracization of the family from society. The child, out of desperation or poverty, often turns to a life of crime. There are no winners. Moreover, all the while the populace stares on, disenchanted and unperturbed, as family after family is dragged into the mud.

But here, Swift steps in. Surely, says he, there is a better way of going about this. Surely a nation as enterprising as Ireland must not bow in subjection to a problem as small as this. Swift’s pride and patriotism shine through and cannot be concealed even by the heavy sarcasm that liberally coats the text. And so he sets the platform for his proposed solution.

A child was suckled for close to a year before it is weaned off the mother’s milk and fed solid food. The provision of solid food to a growing child is what proves to be the greatest drain on a parent’s finances. Swift reasons that it is at this point that the mothers need to make a change.

His “Modest Proposal” is that when the child has reached the age of one, he/she should be sold to the aristocracy as a delicacy to be consumed. A simple solution, the positive repercussions of which affect every segment of society.

The parent, being paid more for the child than its upbringing would have cost in a year’s time, would make a profit and avoid all the required expenses, hence alleviating their poverty to some extent. The measure will discourage abortions, which would be seen as a positive in a Christian society. And the aristocrats will have a new delicacy to fawn over. Swift suggests marketing the new dish to the upper classes as an exclusive experience that is reserved for only those residing on the uppermost rungs of the societal ladder. The aura that accompanies such exclusivity will result in the prices always being comfortably high so as to guarantee the parents of the child do not get the raw end of the deal. And, as Swift so succinctly puts it, the aristocrats have made a habit of feeding off the lifeblood of the masses in any case, and so a chance to literally feed on them will not be taken amiss.

And finally, as if we needed any more convincing, Swift brings to our notice the amount of attention, and as a result, the tourism, that will be attracted to Ireland by this practice. People all over the world will flock to Ireland to witness this never-seen-before industrialized consumption of infant meat. Swift even conjectures that this may be the beginning of a worldwide phenomenon, of which Irish pioneering thought would be the fountainhead.

This, then, was Swift’s modest proposal to solve Ireland’s various issues. It may be seen as a classic of the genre of satire, from one of its best ever writers. But more importantly, it is a reminder that bears much relevance even today. This book was Jonathan Swift’s way of telling us that if we continue turning a blind eye to societal evils, and let the status quo dig us deeper into our grave, then it is only through drastic and disturbing measures that we will be able to salvage anything as a species. The eating of the infants is a delicious use of symbolism by Swift, signifying the depraved world that we are leaving our children in. The world where dog-eat-dog is considered pragmatic and wise, and altruism holds no place in reality.

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Reclaiming My Family Name

A few years ago, I sent my passport in for renewal. I filled in all the forms, checked and double-checked all the details, using my trained editors’ eyes to their fullest capacity. I can, with utmost confidence, claim to have submitted a perfect form. However, things like that rarely ever matter when it comes to dealing with the Government. Some underpaid, overworked employee somewhere managed to omit my surname from the new passport, and just like that, I was transformed. From Haji Mohammed Usman, I became Mohammed Usman. I could, as the reader will point out, have applied for a correction, but the red tape I had to navigate to get my passport at all had been such a dreadful ordeal, I decided my surname was the lesser sacrifice to make.

At that moment, it was a simple decision, borne out of laziness and a reluctance to deal with bureaucracy. However, as often happens with these things, the true significance of my actions (or lack of) came to me quite some time later. How was it, I wondered to myself, that an irritable, nitpicky guy like myself had no qualms giving up something that was so integral to my identity? How was I lounging nonchalantly in my bedroom, knowing full well that the incompetence of a nameless employee had robbed me of my familial name? Did it mean that I did not value my family? Did it mean I had already severed ties with them mentally, and this accident was only a happy coincidence?

On reflection, the case appeared to me to be the very opposite. It did not bother me to lose my surname on paper, because to me, a Haji was not a title, or a surname, or an identity, but a way of living. A way of being. A weltanschauung.

I was never one for identity labels. I never found the solace of communal harmony in being called a Muslim or a Kashmiri or an Indian or even a human being. I never tried to hide my origins, I am not ashamed of them in the least, but I never wore them as badges either. They were circumstances, not defining traits. My surname was another title, a label, one that mattered only as far as official records go. What mattered to me was how I felt, and no passport would change that. That was the reason behind my equanimity. It did not matter whether my name officially contained the word “Haji”. What mattered was that I felt like one. As a person, I live as Hajis live.

This train of thought naturally led me to consider what Haji-ness actually means in my book. I have tried to capture it as faithfully as I can. It is never easy to describe what is felt innately. And I have never felt anything more naturally and unconsciously than my own Haji-ness.

As a rule, our over-riding trait is stubbornness. As is usually the case, extremes of any trait usually cause as many problems as they bring benefits, and this case is no different. If a Haji is convinced that it is right that he try and get a boulder to the top of the mountain, then the eternal nature of the Sisyphean task is no longer an absurdity, but simply the logical outcome of his stubbornness. The image of Andy Dufresne chipping away at the prison wall for nineteen years is one a Haji will feel quite at home with, provided he have the conviction in the worth of the endeavor.

There are the usual cons to this behavior. A Haji can seem pig-headed, obdurate, obstinate and all the usual adjectives that apply. It is easier to convince a lioness to give up her cubs than to convince a Haji to concede a point. But this stubbornness does not exist as an anomaly, all by itself. It is carefully fostered, from the very beginning of our lives, in tandem with our other over-riding trait: Confidence.

When I think back to my earliest memories, it is clear to me that even then, as a bumbling, clumsy, forgetful, stupid little child, there were not too many feats that I considered to be beyond my capability. And this was not something I was born with, but something that permeated the very essence of the way I was brought up. And the living examples of my paternal grandfather, my father, and my sisters waltzing through achievement after achievement without a fuss only served to reinforce that self-belief. However, I do not use the term “self-belief” in the manner that it is commonly understood. The construct of my self-confidence has a bit of a military feel to it. Individually speaking, at core, I was and still am more prone to self-doubt than self-confidence. However, there is an external wall, a shield of confidence, not in myself, but in my breeding, so to speak.

In case that was not clear, allow me to elaborate. When faced with the prospect of a task I am not accustomed to, I face two thoughts, one internal and personal, and the second almost imposed upon me, as if by a disembodied superego.

My first and personal thought would be along the lines of, “I don’t think I can do this.”

And almost immediately, the external thought follows, “You’re a Haji, you’ll manage just fine.”

It is this confidence, often bordering on arrogance, that propels me daily to do things I would shrink from, had I been born to different parents. And this confidence extends to the entire clan. The expectation of excellence prevails whenever any member of my paternal side of the family is in the equation. It is almost an assumption.

Another offshoot of this confidence, one that has since been pointed out to me, is the need to strive for extremes. The application of this dictum is felt in the littlest things. If it is considered normal to eat half a pizza, a Haji will try to eat two or abstain completely (Hades forbid). If a task is assumed to take two days, a Haji will try to finish it in half, or not do it at all. If a man normally sleeps for eight hours, a Haji will sleep for either two, or sixteen. There is an aversion to the golden mean. It is always all or nothing. This is viewed sometimes as a need for attention, however, personally, it has more to do with a constant fight to find my limits. To push and push till I have reached the edge. One could almost call it a result of morbid curiosity.

And, naturally progressing from the above two traits, the third trait is pride. Every Haji has a supreme sense of self-worth, which allows them the ability to stare down the entire world if need be, without batting an eyelid. Our family is diverse; my immediate family is almost unbelievably so. No two people are even remotely alike, and yet there exists a mutual respect and confidence that each has the capability to forge their path with the customary Haji flamboyance. We may disagree on the very fundamentals of what we are as people, but I cannot recall a single instance where I felt afraid that a particular situation was too much for a member of my family to take.  That elementary fear of their basic survival somehow being threatened is completely absent. Even against the most incredible odds, I am always upheld by this feeling that they will pull through, and with style, at that.

Of the other traits, less pronounced and more prone to variations, Hajis tend to be reactionaries. Every generation, there is not just an evolution, but a right obliteration of the principles and values set forth by the previous generation. This makes for great drama, but also guarantees exceptional individualism. Because their stances tend to be reactionary, they are constantly challenged in their choices, and forced to justify it and defend it over and over again, which has no other effect than to steep it ever more firmly into their psyche. Ideological trench warfare is a constant battle. It has no victors, but both parties become hardened veterans in the art of justification.

The forming of judgements and opinions is a deeply rooted tradition, and one that has seen no decline in favor, despite public trends making it almost criminal to judge anyone on anything. A Haji will, with an absolutely clear conscience, judge people on any criteria whatsoever. They will later gladly admit they were wrong if they happened to be mistaken in any case, but this never deters them from making the original judgement. You’d be hard pressed to find a topic a Haji doesn’t have an opinion on.

And lastly, a trait shared by Hajis the world over is a sense of detached harmony with one another. There is a marked absence of emotional intimacy between Hajis. There is mutual respect, general affection and silent support, but none of the expressiveness of other, more emotionally evolved families. Our language of love is sarcasm, our encouragement takes the form of banter, and our constructive criticism can only be viewed as constructive by people whose skins are as thick as ours.
This often makes an outsider, or an initiate into our family, think that we are cold-hearted or emotionless. I, personally think it is just a difference in modes of expression. When you are reared with the inability to crumble, then superficial niceties do not need to be observed in expression of feelings anymore. Hajis can be, and usually are, scathing. But threaten one, and you have a formidable host staring you down.

Personally, when my exposure to the non-Haji world was limited, I never quite realized how much I valued it. Adulthood and separation from the family home brought to light the easy brilliance of Haji wit and its relative scarcity in others. I had often wondered where my need for a crowd that most would consider “brutal” came from. I wondered why I could never gel with the “nice” crowd. It took me a while to make the connection. In essence, I am a Haji looking for home away from home.

And so, though my passport may tell you otherwise, I reclaim for myself Haji-ness.

I am a Haji.