SAFFIYAH EDOO

There is a family of three, living in a reasonably affluent area. Their home, or what we get to see of it, is tastefully decorated. The woman, attractive, the man clearly in love with his wife, both adoring parents of their little girl. What unfolds, however, is a devastating and horribly frightening story which leaves the viewer unable to shake it off for a couple of days, for such is the power of Deepa Mehta’s storytelling in Leila, a dystopian Netflix series of six episodes.

Set in 2047, Leila is the story of a Hindu woman, Shalini, who is abducted from her home on a pretext, sent to a “purification camp” for having sullied herself by getting married to a Muslim man, and who goes out searching for her missing daughter, Leila, in the totalitarian country of Aryavarth. Leila’s “purification camps” are places where women are taken in, made to wear similar clothes and undergo a series of “rituals”. There, they are brainwashed by being subjected to forcibly watching propaganda videos and reciting mantras in which the nation is sovereign, made to have an even higher status than family ties. The women are also given pills every day, the nature of which remains to the speculation of the viewers.

In a BBC documentary aired in June 2019 entitled “Searching for truth in China’s Uighur ‘re-education’ camps”, viewers get an insight into what China calls “re-education camps”. The majority of people in these camps are Uighur Muslims, believed to amount to more than a hundred thousand. The people, who were carefully selected to be interviewed, state having “volunteered to have their « thoughts transformed »”. Officials stated that these people were detained and put in these camps because they were “viewed as a threat not because they’d committed a crime, but because they might have the potential to do so.” However, Uighurs who have been able to flee the country, state that people of their community are mostly targeted because of their faith. They have been under strict surveillance by the state for decades and are now arrested for going to hajj, or for the “crime of learning to pray”. A mother who has been in one of the camps, tells her son in a letter: ““I let the party and the government down. I let the society down… I am grateful to the party and government for giving me the opportunity to change! I will always follow the party, I will always listen to the party, I will be grateful to the party””. Recent reports have revealed that a number of women from the camps has recounted no longer having their periods following injections that they have been given there.

Dystopian societies are meant to be limited to fictional stories, to entertain, scare and widen our imaginative horizons in equal measure. For scores of years, classics like H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s 1984, have warped our minds to make us imagine societies which we believed might have remained in the realms of the imaginary. Dystopian literature generally contains similar characteristics, such as a revered and equally feared figurehead; an oppressed society where a semblance of order exists to manipulate the masses into control, where people are constantly under surveillance to prevent any risk of defection, for such a risk will entail a possibility of rebellion.

« The Silence is the Loudest Sound »

In George Orwell’s 1984, the society is ruled by a power which believes in “tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes” according to what the leaders want. History is distorted, language is transformed, information is manipulated, and people are under such surveillance that even reaches their homes that the only freedom left, is that of thought. Recently, a control centre of the cameras of Safe City project was inaugurated in Ebène.  The fortuity of an incident that was solved thanks to one of the cameras of the project which took place on the very eve of the inauguration will not leave the sensible citizen indifferent. In a day and age where governments are taking the most intimate information from citizens for social security purposes and remain tight lipped regarding what is done with the information, the question posed in Le Mauricien of Tuesday 20th August 2019, “Sur quelle banque de données se fieront les spécialistes du Police Command Centre pour les vérifications dans le processus d’identification?” needs to be seriously pondered upon.

The recent shocking events that unfolded in Kashmir prompted Arundhati Roy to write The Silence is the Loudest Sound, published in The New York Times, in which she states: “Amid these vulgar celebrations the loudest sound, however, is the deathly silence from Kashmir’s patrolled, barricaded streets and its approximately seven million caged, humiliated people, stitched down by razor wire, spied on by drones, living under a complete communications blackout. That in this age of information, a government can so easily cut off a whole population from the rest of the world for days at a time, says something serious about the times we are heading toward.”

The world is seeing the rise of nationalist leadership, which is gradually becoming extreme. Leaders, who at a certain point in time, were considered as ridiculous public people at best, are now in place and shamelessly putting forward their agendas of discrimination, persecution and violence, in the name of restoring order or for the too oft-touted “greater good”. They are doing so in such a carefully manipulated way that a large number of people is beginning to constitute a flock behind these extreme leaders. And this is where the danger lies. For leaders need the mass to put their frighteningly questionable intentions into action and there is but a fine line to cross for the leaders to sit back, soak into the power that has been given to them, by the masses who will start losing any sense of discernment and humanity and watch the latter tear each other apart, without doing anything.

Fiction has the ability to entertain, scare, widen our imaginative horizons, so much so that we are able to see snippets of the stories play in our heads. Dystopian fiction has the ability to make our minds stretch so far as to imagine the worst that could happen to societies. Today, it seems that the minds of authors of dystopian fiction are coming to life, not necessarily on the silver screen, but in real life. The challenge remains for the layperson to recognize the signs of manipulation, distortion, and other questionable actions undertaken in the name of power and retain and uphold the capacity to see through and above. Since dystopian fiction is slowly turning into reality, it becomes the duty of anyone who feels remotely concerned by what is happening around the world to go through the world of H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, when they used to be only limited to words on pages.

References

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/14/uighur-man-held-after-leaking-letters-from-xinjiang-camp-inmates-says-family

https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-48700786