It is not for nothing that Leo Tolstoy is so widely read, revered and referred to even today. I just marvel at how he becomes so supremely relevant in today’s times and how even the most unacclaimed of his works can inspire such profound reflection. I was reading one of his short stories “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and it amazed me to see how this relatively infinitesimal work next to his mountainous literary masterpieces, gigantic and of an overwhelming magnitude in terms of volume, depth and thought, is actually, in many ways, the quintessence, the concentrate of his thoughts.
The story, simply narrated, is that of a poor farmer who wishes to own some land of his own which he believes will bring him prosperity and dispense all his woes. The farmer finds his dream beginning to materialise as he is able to buy some land. With this he becomes prosperous but now he also becomes ambitious and is driven to buy more and more land, grows to resent and is in turn resented by his once fellow farmers and moves on to newer unexplored territories to buy more and more land for less and less money. Finally he goes to the very far off Steppes, to the tribe of Bashkirs, who tell him that all the land he can cover on foot in a day from sunup to sundown will be his. The farmer sets off and driven by desire for more, keeps walking to cover as much land as he can, breaking into a crazy, breathless run as it nears sundown and finally managing to return to the spot he started from only to die, as he is literally out of breath with all the running and the stress and the fear of never being able to make it before sunset.
The story ends simply, showing his servant digging a grave for him at the very spot and burying him in a six feet hole in the ground, miles away from his home, leaving us with a deep sense of foreboding and forcing us to reflect on precisely the exact amount of land a man needs.
The urge for land, the indomitable and indefatigable desire to expand and colonise, the addictive obsession to territorialise and lay claim on a piece of the earth is pretty much at the root of all problems and conflicts plaguing the world today: from terrorism to wars to agrarian crisis and internal insurgencies by displaced people against the state, to infiltration and refugee crisis, to blatant ravaging of the earth’s resources to climate change, to riots and intra-community violence to genocide and ethnic cleansing to racial atrocities and violence against women – all of these are fueled and propelled by the lust to territorialise, demarcate, occupy and claim as one’s own, a piece of land and in the process commodify all that fails to resist, including the earth’s resources, women and communities that are unable to put up a fight because they may be socially, culturally, economically or politically weaker. The craze to insist and jealously guard that which one feels belongs to them leads to the marking of land and bodies, in establishing borders and boundaries, in proclaiming geopolitical and cultural limits and in a whole politics of exclusion of less desirable, less viable, less valuable land and people.
What I just described is the logic of the nation state in the modern world.
Not so long ago, a nation state allowed a madly consuming fire to destroy vast stretches of green cover and still undiscovered flora and fauna, working up thousands of species in a chaotic frenzy, driving others to death and destruction of what is rightly called the “lungs” of the world, indifferent to its devastating repercussions as the whole world looked on, turning down offers of help from other nation states in fighting the fire. Another nation state comes down heavily on what it proclaims are its own people cutting it off from the rest of the world, pretty much like an authoritarian parent would lock up an insubordinate and hurt child in a dark room with no access to the outside world while another nation state busily engages itself in building a wall to keep out homeless people who are naturally undesirable and therefore dispensable because neither the piece of land they are chased from nor that which they are headed for is where they belong. Still another nation state lifts and transports whole groups of ethnic people from one piece of land to another piece of land to bring about an alteration in the demographic composition, and through it the cultural and social identity and ethos of that land.
A few good men sit down together and over rounds of tea and coffee and in the midst of cameras flashing and shutters clicking, decide the fates of millions – pass laws, make policies and draw statements with sentences that command the lesser people to die or disappear, to make themselves scarce, to self-obliterate, self-destruct, to vanish without a trace or to mingle with other lesser millions. If they resist they are ‘taken care of’, trenches dug, water canons uncorked, tear gas let off, internet disabled and sometimes just windows broken to let the cold air in or earthen pitchers shot at, which are a priceless commodity in a place where one has to walk miles to fetch water and can’t afford another pitcher.
And while all this happens, no one notices because some groups of people simply do not qualify to be grieved for, as worthy of or being entitled to a share of public outrage or collective grief or even a feeling or status of victimhood. They are conveniently invisibilised as the more equal men go about with the much important business of the nation state, putting in astronomical efforts and unbelievably vast amounts of money and resources to assuage their perennial ontological anxiety of identity, swiveling around the problematic and polemical notion of boundary and uniformity.
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