Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Star Trek Memories

I love Star Trek, and I always have.

It was not until last night, however, as I was ruminating over recent events with a gin and tonic ("for the malaria, old boy..."), that the full brilliance of Star Trek as a social and political satire hit home. I'll try to explain the path taken to arrive at this conclusion. Watching the news from the BBC last night, there was a story about how the Sri Lanka cricket team was attacked by extremists in Pakistan as they were on their way to a test match. I had just finished reading "The Last Moghul", a historical novel by William Dalrymple that documents the brutal suppression by the British of a Muslim/Hindu "uprising" in 1857. Also, I recently completed a book documenting the relationship between Winston Churchill and Gandhi. This has provided some wonderful background information on the events that have shaped the Indian society that we are currently living in. The ruthless subjugation of the Indian people, and the incredibly bloody suppression of the 1857 rebellion by the English make it even more remarkable to me that I can walk down a street here in India with my family and be smiled at instead of lynched. One of the most interesting lines from the Churchill/Gandhi book stated that "imperialism and religious fundamentalism have always been deeply intertwined".

It was the ruling British that decided to carve out Pakistan as a Muslim state, and this forced separation was done in such an arbitrary way, that the dividing border ran through towns, and in some cases, the middle of peoples homes. In many ways, the attack on the cricket team, the attack on Mumbai in November 2008, and many others can be seen as merely the latest episodes in a bloody struggle, going back generations. It has roots in the actions of the British, who ruled India for quite a number of years. The British East India Company made vast fortunes off the backs of the Indian people, all the while playing Hindu off of Muslim, and basically doing anything they could to prevent Indian independence and maintain control over India's people and resources. Things can get pretty testy around here, especially around election time, when old and bitter rivalries bubble to the surface.

Star Trek fans, and by this I mean "The Next Generation" era, not the earlier delightfully cheesy vehicle for William Shatner's propensity for overacting, will remember a curious race of creatures known as the "Ferengi". These loathsome little men, with bad teeth and ears that were a cross between Dumbo and Prince Charles on a bad hair day, had virtually no redeeming qualities. Their only loyalty was to profit. They were untrustworthy. They would sell out their grandmothers if it meant earning an extra dollar. Lying, cheating, and stealing are de riguer. What you might not know is that "firangi" is actually a Hindi word meaning "foreigner", and its application is decidedly derogatory. That's when the brilliance of Star trek hit me. I realized that we (and by this I mean white people) are the firangi. All the unsavoury personality traits of a fictional race of space creatures have been demonstrated in the behaviour of Europeans, and their descendants, towards India.

Wow. Suddenly everything from The Crusades to 9/11 made sense.

Then, propelled further by the mystical qualities of the gin, I riffed a little more on the Star Trek theme. It became immediately obvious to me that the Borg was a metaphor for the Western perception of the failure of Communism. The Borg Collective, which was the arch enemy of the ostensibly democratic Federation of Planets, assimilated any individual into a rigid and humourless group consciousness that placed the well-being of the collective above the needs of the individual. A clear nod to the Western perception of Communism. Communism has been pretty much in our face here, as Kerala is pretty unique in having a democratically elected Communist government. And they keep getting re-elected for the most part. This is most curious, as communist ideology, at least from what I can gather, thrives on fomenting revolution, and tearing down existing government structure. I can only imagine the shock and surprise of the Communist Party here when they actually got elected, and were faced with the responsibility of forming a government! "Uhhhhh... gee fellahs. What do we do now?". One would think that thoughts of revolution would need to be put aside for a while. Resistance is futile...

The last ice cube melted in my gin, and it was definitely time to head to bed. There's no intelligent life here...


svenj said...

Rob, I take your point about imperialism. I would also suggest that the caste system has been equally repressive and exploitive within Indian society, but at least it is 'home-spun'...Perhaps there's a little bit of ferengi in all of us and that's why we revile them so much. By the way, the boys' long hair is looking very cool.....Back to my gin and tonic. cheers,

jcree said...

Make it so, Number One.

Rob Bailey said...

Doug, you're right about the caste system. Gandhi proposed eliminating it altogether, an idea which most (strangely, member of higher castes) found intolerable. Oddly, it was the rumour that the British lubricated their bullets with pig and cow grease that was the catalyst for the uprising in 1857. Any Muslim or Hindu that touched said bullets would "lose their caste". Live long, and prosper.