Spaces of Confused In-Betweenness: The Paradoxes of Life and Decoloniality

by Aftab Nasir

Any traditional wisdom, be it Vedic, Aztec, Buddhist, Sufi, etc., while withstanding their key differences, seem to converge in a message, i.e., all of us are different from each other and from mother nature; yet one with each other and with her in the same instance. By definition, a paradox is a a statement or proposition which, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems logically unacceptable or self-contradictory. The paradox is at full play around us. In our own little worlds, we want to support climate change while enjoying the “luxuries” of a comfortable life that comes at the expense of injustice done to the environment. We detest war but trade with those waging them even when we know that territorial claims of the past century produced nothing but unprecedented scale of violence, and we witness yet another unfolding of war on the horizons. Though the current injustice received justified media coverage, we see many such wars happening in many parts of the world that go unnoticed as they don’t produce the click bits of a scale of the current crisis happening in Ukraine.

There is a local Urdu tale that goes like this. A father is sitting with his eight-year-old son, teaching him the importance of honesty and always speaking the truth. The doorbell rings and the son get up to open the door. The father instructs if Mr. X is on the door, tell him I am not home. The son proceeds and seeing Mr. X standing there, the son goes on to say, “my father is saying he is not home”. It seems we are the fathers telling our sons and daughters about the importance of upholding the truth and yet saying in the same breath that we are not home.

The paradox proceeds: I am the murderer and the murdered in this new story of ours. Wieso? Well, when I look closely I find that the void I feel so strongly in my chest originating from my divorce from the mother nature who nurtured my ancestors of past centuries. I am murdered (thanks to all the “scientific advances”), yet I am the murderer as I am complacent by the virtue of my silence in the deforestation of Amazon, in the pollution of Nile, and in the melting of ice at Antarctica. There is an Urdu couplet:

شریکِ جرم نہ ہوتے تو مخبری کرتے

ہمیں خبر ہے لٹیروں کے ہر ٹھکانے کی

Had I not been complacent in the crime, I would have blown the whistle on them.

As I know well the exact location of the looters.

What have I been complacent in? Where do I Stand? What is the crime? I read Urdu as my national language and speak Punjabi as my mother tongue, yet I produce my “intellectual work” only in English. Why? Is this scheme neutral, apolitical and natural? The answer is in the negative. This is where the wound is the deepest: in my perceptions and imaginations where dreams are born, concepts take form, and experiences are reformed. I have to “translate” them to another medium that does not emerge organically from my lived experiences, and I inadvertently enunciate them, punctuate them so that I get known and accepted where it matters. Though the very dichotomy of my immediate social reality is intertwined where much of these languages are mixed, my critique is pointed toward the outcome of such distribution. Even in such post-colonial socio-cultural realms of production and distribution of “legitimate knowledges”, the paradox continues ….

They say charity begins at home: I propose so does decoloniality. I personally am reluctant of any idea of change that is top-bottom, macroscopic or ideological in its fabric. Had these models had the ingredient of sustainability, it would have already made this world a better place. They say let us translate our words into actions, actions into practices, practices into behaviors, behaviors into theories on action and practice, theories into beliefs, and beliefs into well-guarded academic discourses that we are bent to defend on the same binary logic of “us” vs. “them”. Are we not back to square one? The fact that the world is now more perilous than before, I cannot help but draw an alternate approach. What needs to change is the idea that change has to come from within, not without, as would any traditional wisdom have it. While the shift from without to within means more effort, reflection, and action. Decoloniality is not a mental exercise, nor is it any philosophical ideology. It is a practice that originate in the day-to-day experience of millions of people around us. Let’s not forget them, their struggles, their positionalities. “Them” and “theirs” in the previous sentence are redundant or contradictory to say the least. This is the paradox. As long as we remain in “their” mode, we will keep reproducing fancy papers and seminars on how to solve this puzzle. NO, the struggle needs to be dismantled from being their or ours. The recognition needs to happen now if we want to survive on this planet beyond the immediate disasters our current ways of thinking and doing has brought upon us. The only solution is to turn this paradox into a dialectical relation, like that of yin and yang. While these two have absolute identities of their own as black and white, at the core each has a part of its opposite, i.e., a yin is incomplete without a tinge of yang at its center and vice versa.

How can we boil this down to the realm of practice, I keep wondering. I only know that this “I” who writes these lines is actually “you” reading them. How long before we develop a system of knowledge that transcends beyond this “I” and “you” into something I still cannot name as the language we currently have does not name this. This space I refer is not “we” either because “we” simply dissolves the boundaries and rather extends the boundaries from “I” and “you” to “we” and “them”. No, this new space must be something beyond and inclusive of every “I”, “You”, “we”, “them”, the categories that have been used ad nauseum. Any ideas where to go from here, anyone?

Aftab Nasir is Assistant Professor at the Department of Governance and Global Studies at Information Technology University (ITU) of the Punjab. He is also the co-founder of Convivial Thinking.