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Revolutions and Rituals

The anniversary of the Fall of Bastille will be celebrated on a chunk of Indian soil on 14th July – a rare ritual outside France. Does the memory of that great event still hold any significance?

Around the time this piece will be read, jolly sound of drums, flutes and songs would resound in the air of my city, Pondicherry. A section of the citizens would have participated and all would have breathed the spirit of a certain festivity that is unknown elsewhere in India.

But that festivity is the distant echo of an explosive event that shook the world two centuries ago – the Fall of Bastille – on the l4th of July 1789, heralding the French Revolution. Year after year Pondicherry which contains a native population of French citizens – has paid tribute to that historic day.

Pondicherry’s French connection dates back to the sixties of the 17th Century. However, the news of the 1789 outbreak reached the French settlement in Pondicherry only in February 1790, courtesy of a ship sailing via Mauritius. The French in Pondicherry immediately convened a “General Assembly”, after the Paris model. The territory of course swung, between the French and the English a number of times before the former would finally take hold of it in 1816 and rule it till its merger with the rest of the independent subcontinent. The annual observance of the Bastille Day may not be as gala an affair today as it used to be in the past, but outside France, Pondicherry is one of the few places in the erstwhile French colonial domain to celebrate it with some public participation.

“Revolutions begin in the best heads and run steadily down to the populace,” said Metternich. What is worse, its memory breeds rituals. And rituals almost always tend to highlight the form at the cost of the spirit.

The French Revolution, in its own time, had evoked two extreme emotions, one following the other, among the poets, writers and thinkers outside France. At first it was of a mighty awe and great expectations. Then it was of a horrendous repulsion. The second emotion was stirred all over Europe in the wake of the Reign of Terror. The leadership of the revolutionaries contained, as Macaulay saw it, “some of the worst men who ever lived.”

Nehru explains the phenomenon: “The politics of princes and statesmen have their own home in the closet and the private room, and an air of mystery covers then… But a revolution is very different. It has its home in the field and the street and the market-place, and its methods are rough and coarse. The people who make it have not had the advantage of the education of the princes and the statesmen. Their language is not courtly and decorous, hiding a multitude of intrigues and evil designs. There is no mystery about that, no veils to hide the working of their minds; even their bodies have little enough covering. Politics in a revolution cease to be the sport of kings or professional politicians. They deal with realities, and behind them are raw human nature and the empty stomachs of the hungry.

“So we see in France, during these fateful five years from 1789 to 1794, the hungry masses in action – It is they who force the hands of timid politicians and make them abolish monarchy and feudalism and the privileges of the Church. It is they who pay homage to the terrible Madame Guillotine and take cruel vengeance against those who had crushed them in the past and those whom they suspect of intriguing against their new-found freedom. It is these ragged, barefooted people who, with improvised arms, rush to defend their revolution on the battlefield, and drive back the trained armies of a Europe united against them. They achieve wonders, these people of France, but after several years of terrible strain and conflict, the Revolution exhausts its energy and turns on itself and begins to eat up its own children. And then comes the counter-revolution, swallowing up the Revolution, and sending the common people who had dared and suffered so much back to be ruled by the ‘superior’ classes.

“Out of the counter-revolution emerges Napoleon, dictator and emperor. But neither the counter-revolution nor Napoleon could send back the people to their old places. No one could wipe away the principal conquests of the Revolution; and no one could take away from the French people, and indeed the other peoples of Europe, the passionate memory of the days when the under-dog cast off his yoke, even though for a while only.” (Glimpses of World History)

The guillotine rarely had any respite – particularly between Robespierre’s nine-month stewardship of the revolution. If “equality” prevailed anywhere, it was at the altar of this hardy and simple engine of death. The wicked and the idealist, the prince and the pauper – thousands of them – felt its equally smart thwack on their necks and ceased to feel further.

But did they really cease? What about their dreams and aspirations, particularly of the young whose only fault was that they came of ‘noble’ stock or their idealism differed slightly from that of those at the helm of the movement on a particular day? The horrors of the revolution had inspired numerous works of literature. But this aspect of the tragedy – the dream slain – was brought out most forcefully by Washington Irving, in a story entitled The Adventures of the German Student:

Wolfgang, a young German scholar studying in Paris is groping his way to his room in a hotel one stormy night. He steps back aghast at suddenly finding himself passing close-by the guillotine, bathing in the rains and shining under intermittent lightning. Next to attract his attention is a beautiful and bewildered damsel seated on the scaffold, her long dishevelled hair reaching the ground, the torrential rain streaming down it.

Wolfgang learns from her how her entire family had been wiped away by that quiet machine then wiping the blood at its base under the torrential rain. He persuades her to accompany him to his room. They go on talking till it is dawn. By then they are in love and they decide to marry as early as possible.

The girl’s eyes, dazzling with tears of joy and sorrow, slowly close. The young man lets her fall asleep and goes out to look for an apartment, only to turn totally bewildered on his return. His would be bride “lay cold; there was no pulsation – her face was pallid and ghastly. In a word, she was a corpse.”

And so came the police. “Great heavens!” cried out the officer. “How did the woman come here?…. she was guillotined yesterday!”

Stepping forward, he then “undid the black collar round the neck of the corpse and the head rolled on the floor!”

As a concession to realism, Irving adds that the story was narrated by the German youth in a mental asylum.

Despite all its bizarre aspects and the aftermath, no revolution in history had meant so much to the world polity or had given such a shake to the elite or left a greater impact on the literatures of Europe and Britain and, through them, on other literatures, as the French Revolution. But is its idealism – liberty, equality and fraternity – still relevant? Relevant perhaps more than ever, if even its ritual celebration could inspire some introspection in us. And here is profound food for thought:

“Freedom, equality, brotherhood are three godheads of the soul; they cannot be really achieved through the external machinery of society or by man so long as he lives only in the individual and the communal ego. When the ego claims liberty, it arrives at competitive individualism. When it asserts equality, it arrives first at strife, then at an attempt to ignore the variations of Nature, and, as the sole way of doing that successfully, it constructs an artificial and machine-made society. A society that pursues liberty as its ideal is unable to achieve equality; a society that aims at equality will be obliged to sacrifice liberty. For the ego to speak of fraternity is for it to speak of something contrary to its nature. All that it knows is association for the pursuit of common egoistic ends and the utmost thing it can arrive at is a closer organisation for the equal distribution of labour, production, consumption and enjoyment.

“Yet is brotherhood the real key to the triple gospel of the idea of humanity. The union of liberty and equality can only be achieved by the power of human brotherhood and it cannot be founded on anything else. But brotherhood exists only in the soul and by the soul; it can exist by nothing else. For this brotherhood is not a matter either of physical kinship or of vital association or of intellectual agreement. When the soul claims freedom, it is the freedom of its self-development, the self-development of the divine in man in all his being. When it claims equality, what it is claiming is that freedom equally for all and the recognition of the same soul, the same godhead in all human beings. When it strives for brotherhood, it is founding that equal freedom of self-development on a common aim, a common life, a unity of mind and feeling founded upon the recognition of this inner spiritual unity. These three things are in fact the nature of the soul; for freedom, equality, unity are the eternal attributes of the Spirit. It is the practical recognition of the truth, it is the awakening of the soul in man and the attempt to get him to live from his soul and not from his ego which is the inner meaning of religion, and it is that to which the religion of humanity also must arrive before it can fulfil itself in the life of the race.” (Sri  Aurobindo: The Ideal of Human Unity.)