HALLO FRANDOS I’M BACK.
(Shit Tanushka you’re growing on me.)
So my exams are over and I finally have the time to start a new venture. This new venture is a new series, called, as you see in the title, Prose-tinted Glasses.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that writing book reviews isn’t my thing, and this isn’t going to be about book reviews either. The episodes- let’s call them that- will be written while I’m reading a particular book, and will be posted when I’ve finished reading. They’ll basically be my nightly mental ramblings about the things explored in the book (because why should I lose sleep alone) and how I feel they connect to things outside the book. You can think of them as those post-book English class essays, but you’ll soon see they’re not really that. If you want book reviews, this series is not for you.
The featured image is a quick colour pencil drawing which I made at 11 in the night while my mom was yelling at me to go to sleep. And yes, this will be the featured image for all the episodes. It’s a series, after all.
Hopefully I’ll post an episode once a month, but it’s not a rigid schedule- nothing is ever rigid over here- and there might, or more appropriately, will be episode-less months. The theme for the first season (yes, there might be more seasons. It’s a whole thing.) is Books we all Pretend we’ve Read.
Now, I have already read some of these- not a complete ignoramus, thankfully- and they won’t be included in this series (they’re The Hobbit and The Alchemist, if you’re wondering). Nor are the books in this image the only ones which will be included.
With the intro out of the way, let’s get into the episode.
*cue theme music, which you’re free to imagine*
The first book on my list is the most pretended-to-have-read book ever: 1984.
I know, I know, countless other people have already written entire essays on the ~rElevAncE oF tHe bOok iN tHe 21sT cEntuRy~ but let me spew my thoughts over here.
1984 is just, brilliant. I wonder why I didn’t read it sooner.
Of course, Oceania is a highly fictionalised totalitarian state and such an all-encompassing level of dictatorship doesn’t even exist in North Korea, but I couldn’t help but draw parallels between that world and India itself, which is a supposedly democratic country. Like, the first thing I thought while reading it was that Shahji probably read this book sometime and made Big Brother his idol.
The first aspect of life we’re introduced to in the book is the telescreen, which receives and transmits simultaneously and thus can watch and hear people in their homes. Real-life TVs obviously don’t do that, but like the news broadcast on the telescreen, prominent news channels here are all, to put it bluntly, sold to the government. Not only do they advance its conservative propaganda but also cook up media circuses to hide from its failures. While the country is struggling with a pandemic, a falling GDP and unprecedented unemployment, the media is busy making an Ekta Kapoor daily soap out of the suicide of a young actor which occurred three months ago to distract from the disasters of the government.
The Thought Police, though, is what I think is uncannily similar to our own police and bhakts, who are the ‘utterly stupid, unconscious drudges’ like Parsons Winston mentions. The colonial-era sedition law, which still exists for some reason, is slapped on anyone who dares criticise Modiji and his government. That, and you’re branded an anti-national, and you get death/rape/torture threats online from the aforementioned bhakts. Even I was scared initially to write this post, but then I thought that whoever is educated enough to read 1984 or even my blog (notice how I said educated and not literate) will probably not be a bhakt (Feel free to comment ‘Ooh, that burnt harder than a Rajput queen on a johad pyre’). Have you ever seen how terrified Indian stand-up comics are? While doing political comedy, those poor bastards dare not name anyone in power and are reduced to alluding to them. “You know who I’m talking about”, “I’m not naming anyone because I love my family” are some of the common dialogues you’ll hear. In the USA, there’s a tradition of satirical late-night talk shows where they call their president names, and it’s all cool. Try that in India and you’ll never be heard from again.
The Ministry of Truth is what changes facts, statistics and even past records as needed by the Party. Past records aren’t changed here, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been attacks on the past or attempts to change the facts. At one time, the government tried to delete the entire Mughal era from the history syllabus. Roads, museums and other public places named after Mughal rulers have now been renamed. The saffron-clad militant monk CM we all know and hate calls it ‘moving away from the slave-mentality’ but he ain’t fooling nobody.
The next thing Orwell explores through the eyes of Winston is the life of the proles. The proles are the disregarded working class of Oceania, living in a perpetual state of poverty. Neither the state nor the better-off people care about them and they’re left to their own devices. They don’t even have telescreens in their homes. According to the government, ‘proles and animals are free’. In one conversation between Winston and his friend Syme, we learn that the white-collar workers and the party members don’t even consider them as human beings. They make up 85% of Oceania’s population, and objectively, it’s fairly easy for them to rise up in collective rebellion against Big Brother’s dictatorship since they are so many and aren’t monitored all the time. Winston writes, ‘If there is hope, it lies in the proles’. But the proles are caught up in their own petty little daily fights, their domestic lives and whatever work it is they do that gives them their meagre livelihood. Rebellion is as far removed from their thoughts as truth is from the Ministry of Truth. Even if any prole shows the slightest sign of intelligence or individuality, the proverbial vultures always circling overhead known as the Thought Police descend upon them. There’s a whole department in the Ministry of Truth dedicated to churning out crude, mindless ‘entertainment’ for them. The party remembers the proles only when it has to drum up a sense of widespread national pride for its own purposes.
Does all of this ring a bell?
The disregarded teeming masses of our country whiling away their entire lives in the primitive hovels they call home are what’s ringing that bell. Until a few months ago, they were toasting their asses off under the blazing summer sun, crossing borders, walking, cycling, hitching rides on trucks and tempos and god-knows-what, with just the hope of home in their minds. Nobody cared. The government finally launched Shramik Specials for them, but we all know the condition of those train trips and how many were actually able to benefit from them.
The government might have hundreds of schemes and subsidies for them, but do they even know about it? The parliament passes a law and then those in power think their work is done, while the ordinary person is left as unaware as they were before. Come election time, and you’ll see MPs and MLAs acting like they’re their biggest shubhchintaks. Participating in their rallies, gifting tractors to farmers, coming laden with gifts to the houses of labourers. This huge chunk of people is reduced to being a vote bank. Entire communities are reduced to the status of vote banks, but that’s another discussion for another time. Once these people are elected, poof go their glorious promises.
The ‘book inside the book’ is no less fascinating than the book itself. I am, of course, referring to that Brotherhood book which O’Brien gave to Winston. Chapter three, ‘War is peace’ presents some compelling ideas about the nature of war. That the real purpose of war is to destroy not just human lives, but the products of human labour, so that industrialisation still continues but doesn’t fulfil its purpose of progress, development and making human beings comfortable. That war serves no means other than its own, because the objective of a war is ultimately to be in a better position to wage another war. That war has monopolised scientific progress, in that it only occurs to develop newer, deadlier weapons. That the demonisation of foreigners serves Ingsoc’s interests; if the common man meets any foreigner, he’ll realise that foreigners aren’t really all that different from him and this war is meaningless.
Really, I’m just rephrasing lines from the book here. You really should read it yourself, if you haven’t already, to fully understand these ideas about war. The real question which I want to explore here is, can these ideas be applied to our world? Not completely, no.
The most obvious one that stands out is the one about scientific progress. Yes, most of the world has gone to the dogs, but science is not the monopoly of war, not even cyberwars. Apart from fancy technological developments like AI, ML, IoT, DA and countless other abbreviations which are all the rage today, R&D continues in the pure sciences as well. We’re slowly unravelling the mysteries of the world in Physics. Synthesising new materials in Chemistry. Developing cures for more and more diseases in Biology.
Terrible as war is, in our world, it does serve purposes other than its own. In the Brotherhood book ‘Goldstein’ says that war is self-serving because of two reasons. One, that the three superstates are evenly matched so that any one of them can’t be conquered even by the other two in combination. Two, that they are self-contained economies, so the scramble for markets and raw materials has come to an end. In our world, no economy is self-contained. Therefore, China vs India, USA and so many other countries. There’s also something which I like to call ‘being historically offended’ in our world, which I think is the fundamental reason for wars such as India-Pakistan.
There are some ideas, however, which can be at least partially applied to reality. The one about wasting industrial output, for example. Astronomical amounts are allocated to the defence budget every year even in less developed countries which really makes you wonder whether all of it isn’t just a scam to keep the masses from becoming too comfortable. Sounds like a conspiracy theory, doesn’t it? But is it?
Also, the one about foreigners. Apart from North Korea, there are no restrictions anywhere that don’t allow foreigners to carry their country’s newspapers, books, et cetera in the host country or don’t allow them to interact with locals, but look beyond the literal meaning and you’ll start seeing the similarities.
I can give you the India-Pakistan example. In both the countries, people from the other one are villainised in popular news. The only purpose of this is to drum up a brand of nationalism, or more accurately jingoism, which is conducive to the government’s means. After all, the people of the country you’re at war with make a convenient scapegoat for your own shortcomings. Also, when you mess up and something bad happens, you’ll always be able to fall back on ‘at least we’re better than Pakistan/India’ or the classic uncleji favourite ‘our soldiers are laying down their lives for the country in so-and-so frontier and you’re harping on about these petty things like poverty, unemployment and inequality? Shame on you.’
And as anyone who’s ever interacted with a person from the other country- even if only online- knows, Indians and Pakistanis aren’t all that different. We’re similar in our cuisine, in the movies we like, in our family dynamics, even in our slang. There are stories of how a student from one country went abroad to work or study and was feeling alone until they found a friend that was from the other one. But many continued to harbor that bigotry and refrained from talking to an ‘enemy countryperson’. In the process of pooh-poohing terrorists, we ended up pooh-poohing regular civilians as well.
But this chapter about war was the singular thing in the book which made me feel at least a little positively about the world. If you can call thinking ‘at least we aren’t a complete dystopia’ positive.
The other chapter of the Brotherhood book, ‘Ignorance is Strength’, is even more interesting. One of the things it talks about is how even after countless revolutions throughout history, society has ultimately ended up regrouping itself into the Low, the Middle and the High every time. They may have different names at different times in history, but the essential structure has always remained the same. The aims of these groups are entirely irreconcilable. The High want to maintain their position, the Middle want to replace the High, and the Low want a society without any class distinctions whatsoever.
This pattern became obvious by the nineteenth century and there rose schools of thought that proclaimed that inequality was the unalterable law of human life. The earthly paradise of complete brotherhood, devoid of brute labour, was an unrealisable vision and inequality was the price of civilisation. In effect, the new Middle groups announced their tyranny even before seizing power.
But with mechanisation and industrialisation, even though people could continue doing different kinds of work, it was no longer necessary for them to live at different social or economic levels. So, human equality, for the middle, became not just an ideal vision but a danger to be averted. The earthly paradise was discredited at the moment it became somewhat realisable.
These are ‘Goldstein’s’ thoughts, but you don’t need to go very deep to see how they apply to our world. Even our government has the power and the means to free the labourers and manual scavengers from this endless drudgery but it doesn’t. As with everything else, new laws and schemes are made but not implemented. Modiji once famously suggested that unemployed youth sell pakodas (fritters) to earn their livelihood.
It doesn’t free them because it doesn’t serve its interests if the teeming masses become too intelligent and start thinking for themselves. It doesn’t bode well if the poor man starts seeing these flaws in the system and realises that the system doesn’t really care about him. It doesn’t benefit them to lose this sizeable chunk of population that can be riled up and calmed down at will and that can be used as a vote bank.
That, is what is the essence of this Ingsoc motto. Ignorance of the Low is the strength of the High.
Before continuing, there’s a question a friend of mine posed when we were discussing the book that I’d like to add here. Her question was, is there a way for a group of individuals to exist as an efficient group other than being dystopian? At what point does respecting the leaders slip into ‘Big Brother is watching you’? It’s a disturbing question, which is why I don’t have an answer for that yet. I don’t have answer because I’m scared of the answer being yes.
Another compelling idea in this chapter is about the impermanence of hereditary organisations. We’ve always been taught to fight against ‘class privilege’, and while that’s a good short term goal, it leads us to falsely believe that what is not hereditary can’t be permanent. Quite the contrary, actually. An entity that’s only concerned with perpetuating its bloodline will die out sooner or later. An adaptive and adoptive organisation, however, will last. A ruling group that places more importance on perpetuating itself and its ideals and making sure they perist can last for a really long time. Congress, a quintessential hereditary aristocracy, is now beginning to die out while BJP, an adoptive organisation like the Catholic Church, is flourishing and will continue to flourish.
After these chapters from the Brotherhood book, 1984 becomes entirely downhill. It goes towards that vile ending which nobody in their right mind could’ve imagined. Spoilers follow, so I’d suggest you to skip this part if you haven’t read the book till the end. Because I’m so considerate I’ve kept the part with the spoilers in grey so you know when to start reading again.
The entire book is anti-hope, as my friend says, but until the end I’d been keeping it together pretty well by keeping my rumination within intellectual limits and not allowing it to stray to that endless pit of existentialism, but nobody can survive that end. It just left my mind in such a bad shambles that I didn’t even want to complete this post. How can you cut out and replace someone’s brain like that? How can a human mind come up with all those things O’Brien said about the party philosophy? It’s not even inhuman or cruel. No adjective can be applied to describe those things. No word exists in any language that can capture the sheer terribleness of it all.
The mood of the book never made me hope for the proles to rebel at the end, of course. And throughout the book, I’d never begun to ‘like’ it, in the traditional sense of the word; I don’t think that book is capable of being liked. But I held a deep respect and admiration for both 1984 and George Orwell- for the things it made me think about, for the things it revealed, for the sheer observant genius of Orwell. If Winston had simply been killed at the end by the Thought Police, those feelings would have persisted. That ‘curing’ business? It broke me. It made me yell words I never knew I had in my vocabulary. The last sentence of the book reads ‘He loved Big Brother.’ My last thought as I closed it was ‘I hate this book.’ And I still do, I hate that book, if only for the ending. Whenever I think about 1984 there’ll always be that loathing mixed with respect. Yes, you can have both at the same time.
After reading this book, you realise why and how the word ‘Orwellian’ really came about and why this is the book that literally defines George Orwell. Popularly, Orwellian is applied to totalitarian regimes and constant surveillance, and it’s obvious why. But when used like that, it doesn’t really capture the spirit, the complexity and the terrifying ideas of Orwell’s flagship work.
It encapsulates the much wider concept of using language, falsified information and propaganda to control people’s thoughts and opinions. Because if you don’t know that there’s another, better way for things to be, you will accept your current situation unquestioningly. And the possibility of accidental discovery is eliminated altogether. If there’s a man who’s lived in a cave and eaten beetles all his life, and he can’t venture out of that mountain or forest or whatever, he’ll never know there’s a different way to live and he’ll be happy in his cave with his beetle dinner.
On a deeper level, it’s about altering a person’s brain altogether so that they have no individuality, no emotions or thoughts of their own, not even their own vision of reality. They see what the party wants them to see, think what it wants them to think. And it’s not like the person is terrified of this structure and that’s why he remains quiet, no. He actually really thinks that way. He has literally no ability to think otherwise. There is no individual, only the collective mass. Reality has lost objectivity. Two plus two can make five. That’s what the Newspeak words ‘blackwhite’ and ‘doublethink’ are all about. ‘Crimestop’ basically means self-censorship, but doublethink doesn’t. Doublethink is this brain-altering I’ve condensed in a paragraph which Orwell explains much more eloquently.
The appendix about Newspeak is just as intrinsic to the word Orwellian. It explored how the nature of language, the medium which helps you think and express your thoughts, decides what you can think about. Newspeak is not external censorship or even self-censoring, it just makes the possibility of heresy non-existent. The language itself doesn’t have the means to think complex thoughts. Further, it is structured so that speech becomes only a function of the tongue, larynx, etc and not the brain.
That, is what I think Orwellian is really about. Oligarchies and constant surveillance are terrifying, yes, but they pale in comparison to what Orwellian really means.
And with that, we finally come to the end of the first episode which has languished for over a month in my drafts, which is why you might’ve seen me go from ‘1984 is brilliant’ to ‘I absolutely hate 1984’ in a single post. I hope it made you think, I hope it makes you read, I hope it makes you share your thoughts and above all, I hope you read the entire post and didn’t just scroll through because memes and instagram poetry has turned us all into attention-deficit infants. There, caught ya.
This post took much longer than I expected, so I don’t know when I’ll write the next one, but I will write it for sure. I think we’ll be looking at The Handmaid’s Tale next, but it’s not set in stone and I don’t have a definitive list of books for the other episodes either, so any suggestions would be great. *Puts on cheery Youtuber voice* Comment below and let me know if there are any books you’d like to add to this list of ‘Books we all pretend we’ve read.’