“When I was a schoolboy in England, the old bound volumes of Kipling in the library had gilt swastikas embossed on their covers. The symbol’s ‘hooks’ were left-handed, as opposed to the right-handed ones of the Nazi hakenkreuz, but for a boy growing up after 1945 the shock of encountering the emblem at all was a memorable one. I later learned that in the mid-1930s Kipling had caused this ‘signature’ to be removed from all his future editions. Having initially sympathized with some of the early European fascist movements, he wanted to express his repudiation of Hitlerism (or ‘the Hun,’ as he would perhaps have preferred to say), and wanted no part in tainting the ancient Indian rune by association. In its origin, it is a Hindu and Jainas symbol for light.”- Christopher Hitchens
The only time in my life that I have ever seen a swastika and felt okay about it was when I first saw them film version of The Producers, a glorious film that should be required watching for all able-bodied film enthusiasts and Mel Brooks deniers. My parents, kind and responsible people that they are, showed me the movie when I was about 9 or 10, and although they had to explain the Kafka joke in the beginning, most of it made perfect sense to me, and solidified a childhood crush on Gene Wilder which I’ve never really dealt with and should probably talk to my therapist about at some point. Which is good, because I was totally running out of material otherwise….cue hysterical laughter.
Anyway, when they create a broadway production about Hitler (spoiler alert, I guess, but it’s the whole premise of the film and also why haven’t you already SEEN it come on!?) they have this musical number called “Springtime for Hitler” and you know what? How about we all just watch it real quick:
Fun fact, I don’t know about you but when I watched this video the required ad was for an Olay Face Whitening cream and I can’t help but think Hitler would have approved, don’t you? Shudder. Anyway, during the dance they make this moving swastika, and it was the first time I really felt okay seeing a swastika of any kind. Because for Jews, hell, for anyone whose history is affected by the European aspect of the World War II, the image is synonymous with the Nazi party, which for me personally is synonymous with genocide. And as a Jew I feel personally connected to that genocide, although frankly, as a human I feel personally connected to genocide, so I can honestly say I would probably react to the swastika similarly regardless of my religion, although some part of me thinks the full physical revulsion I feel when I see it might be specific to being Jewish. Then again, I don’t know, I’ve never been not-Jewish, so maybe everyone feels the same way I do. But I do know that I really don’t love seeing swastikas. I mean, who does?
Hindus. Hindus do. But not because they are all pro-Hitler (although I did meet this kid who was super excited to tell me about his distant relative, the freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, had met with important world leaders like Adolph Hitler and I had to find a subtle way to tell him not to lead with that the next time he meets a non-Indian) but because it’s a symbol of good fortune. It comes from the Sanskrit for “all is well”, and while it’s existed for thousands of years, and has, like so many other Hindu things, taken on a lot of different meanings over time and throughout the sub-continent. But it’s generally positive and associated with luck, fortune, well-being, and Lord Vishnu, and Surya, the sun-god. And probably like a thousand other things, Hinduism has an adaptability that rivals the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle in its mind-bending nature.
So although the Nazis perverted the symbol, making it a symbol of racial purity and supremacy, and therefore we in the West stay far far away from it unless we are making a World War Two themed film (just in time for Oscar season!) it’s everywhere here. Literally. Everywhere.
Or is it? It feels like it’s everywhere to me, because I’m not used to it being anywhere. It’s like cows. I feel like there are cows everywhere here. I see a cow most days. That is infinitely more cow than I’ve ever seen in a Western city. My expectation of the number of cows I should see in a city is zero. Therefore, there are cows everywhere here, because there are more than zero cows. Mr. India thinks it’s weird that I think there are cows everywhere, but that’s because HIS expectation for how many cows he should see in a city is anywhere from 10 to 10,000. So it’s all about expectation.
And I don’t expect to see swastikas. I don’t want to see swastikas. Swastikas make me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. But I can’t avoid them here.
When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers who is Indian and married a Jewish man joked about the swastika squad at her wedding, how she had friends pull them down if they saw them so her in-laws wouldn’t have to deal with them. But I can’t do that here, because it’s not India that needs to adapt, it’s me. I can’t ask the entire country to put away their swastikas (this is the most I have ever used the term swastika, ps) any more than I can rid cities of cows. My expectations don’t alter realty, they just make it harder to deal with, sometimes. But I don’t mind the cows. It’s really hard not to mind the swastikas. Of course, Indians will helpfully tell you that this swastika is going the other way. Which, that’s lovely, but come on, not exactly the point. After all, I don’t see swastikas here and assume that the people responsible for them are Nazis. I don’t assume India is a Nazi nation. But in the same way that I wouldn’t want to see images of guns everywhere, I don’t want to see images I associate with Nazism everywhere. Who would?
And yet, here I am. Living a life surrounded by swastikas. And it is a largely great life, much more like the musical in The Producers than the events the fake musical is based upon. And luckily, or unluckily, of the many things that can make you feel unsafe in India, swastikas really don’t feature high on that list. So while it might never be possible for me to change my first reaction to the symbol, the sensation of discomfort that I feel every time I see it, the bounce back is increasingly quickly. Maybe you can’t shift your instincts, but you can control your reaction afterwards, or at least you can try.
To some extent, being out in the world is all about a war between your expectations of what the world is, and the reality of what the world is. Perhaps not everyone’s move involves being confronted constantly with a symbol that makes them quite so uncomfortable, but hey, I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.
At some point a few weeks ago, I looked around, and I realized that while I still saw every swastika on the road, I didn’t notice them in the same piercing way I had initially. They have, to some extent, normalized for me. I do still think about the fact that I live in a world of swastikas, I do still see them, but they’ve become, to some extent, a part of the landscape of India, just another of the many things you have to accept as part of normal life if you live here. Cows, swastikas, open sewers, guys shaving in public. The list, as no doubt it is destined to do, keeps growing.
Maybe I can re-train myself to see Gene Wilder when I see them. Adaptation comes in many forms.