I remember this incident distinctly. A nephew was once, some four decades ago, being presented with the smallest bar of Cadbury Milk Chocolate and the presenter of the gift insisted that my nephew and he alone will have the chocolate to eat it all by himself. The presenter underscored her generosity by emphasizing that my nephew should not share it with anyone and then casting a glance around the room as if waiting for aghast faces at her exclusion for the rest of us, sank down the divan with a definite smirk. This is the ideal upon which boys in Bengali middle classes are usually brought up. In my family the rules are different. Even the smallest portions must be shared for among us and I say unabashedly, the better off families who have traditionally been materially and eventually culturally more prosperous than most, social relations and family ties have been considered to be stronger than consumerist individualism. But alas for the lower middle class, consumerism has been a way of challenging the supremacy of an entrenched social intelligentsia and while our cultures are more difficult to be emulated, levels of what we consume are far easier to attain. So the underclass of the intelligentsia, or the aspiring middle class have resorted to the maximization of consumption as a means of levelling out. In India, this, I feel is the crux of the story.
Right wing or left wing politics of cadres, the Partition, ethnic or nativist politics have more or less always emanated out of the class conflict between who is the acknowledged middle class and who aspires to be one and the level of consumption has often been made to the measure. The argument I pose here is not new for Prof M.N.Srinivasan spoke of this very early in his idea of Sanskritization which meant that when lower castes claimed the higher statuses of the upper castes, they often used the outwardly and apparent symbols like dress, sacred thread, hair styles, rituals and festivals to appear as though they were at par. Consumerism is not so much of digestion or even ingestion, as much as it is to be “seen” to consume by way of possession. This is why the lady who gave the smallest possible bar of chocolate to my nephew made such a fuss about his possessing the item rather than merely getting to eat it.
My point of this long introduction is to be able to understand the case of Mainak Sarkar. An IIT Kharagpur graduate, a Stanford post graduate and a doctorate from UCLA. At UCLA he was working on a complex coding project which monitors the functioning of the human heart. He was a much regarded scientist at the UCLA, a fondly remembered student for his brilliance in his school, St Michael’s in Durgapur and his academic career is all too sweet and hunky dory, a dream run for any student who moves from a satellite industrial town to the haloed portals of an Ivy League University. Yet he plans, as the grand finale of his life, not the Nobel Prize but a killing. He purchases two licensed pistols and kills his ex-wife and then his boss, Prof Klug. He wanted to kill Prof Garfinkel as well but unfortunately the last mentioned escaped the execution. Why did Mainak sentence the three to die to his bullets?
Prof Garfinkel says that Mainak wanted the output of his research as his own property but this was not possible because the UCLA had funded the research and the research rightfully should have belonged to the UCLA and not to Mainak. While Garfinkel was talking of money, Mainak was talking of authorship. Institutions repress individuals and often subsumes the most brilliant work under its label. What is even more annoying is that a brilliant worker is loaded with seven or eight non- performers as a “team” so that they can piggyback ride into fame. This happens all the time with research institutions where brilliant performers are rendered invisible and silent and are routinely absorbed and camouflaged under a team. What can be even more annoying is that mediocre bosses claim fame by plagiarism when their incumbency in the hierarchy allows them to access intellectual property of any member of the team. Team work is often subservience to ruthless intellectual exploitation of the brilliant by the mediocre. To my mind, both Prof Klug and Prog Garfinkel were using Mainak Sarkar to do the coding while appropriating his research and sharing the credit with the team at large, the team mostly consisting of their cohorts. Would it ever have mattered to put the name of Mainak Sarkar as the lead researcher, or as the team leader or as the principle scientist? But, the idea was not to give credit, the idea was to appropriate the intellectual property, to steal by stealth of the institutional set up and organizational structure and then embalm it through the plethora of rules and conventions of the IPRA which talks only of money and not of credit. American Universities are ruthless in this business. And don’t I know?
Universities and research institutes could be elaborate set ups for the systematic exploitation of the intellect in which gender, race and even social class is systematically oppressed and misappropriated. Most Indians seem to suffer all of this in silence with old parents to send money home, with wife and children to maintain lifestyles with and to compete with dollars against successful cousins earning lakhs of rupees back in India.
But Mainak was brought up in the same way that the elderly lady imagined by nephew to be, everything was to be selfishly guarded for sole consumption of the boy. It is easy to imagine that every resource in the home must have gone to the boy to hone his brilliance and feed fodder to his ambitions. He has been lauded and praised everywhere for himself alone, for what he has done for himself and to himself. His marks, his credits, his accolades were all his, and like the bar of chocolate only for his possession and consumption and so he, with his achievements and accolades was supposed to live for himself alone rarely ever sharing anything of his with anyone else. No wonder then his marriage was such a sham because he was simply not in the habit of sharing; let alone his possessions but may be his own self as well, his joys, his sorrows, his emotions, his successes everything belonged to him and him only.
Mainak and America thus clashed over what was similar to both, common to both, the desire to appropriate everything for the self alone. Against America, Mainak had no chance whatsoever; the rules, the structure, the system, the establishment and the power elite a la C Wright Mills made it certain that a mind notwithstanding how brilliant it was had to be dispossessed from its real owner and pinned on to America. There were team mates who sponged off his mind, there were professors to appropriate his credits, and then there was the entire excuse of the funder to relegate him to anonymity. Raised a Bengali in an industrial city amidst a regime of gritty worker bargain against mill owners and capitalists demanding their pound of flesh, and as a selfish boy who believes that the world must channelize every resource towards him the American University emerged as the very anti thesis of all that Mainak Sarkar was raised upon and oriented towards.
The murder of Ms Ashley Hastis is even more so symbolic for she was his American dream, she was his stepping stone to America. I think she noticed it and may have objected to her being used for his ambitions. But for him, he was used to always having his way, he was the cynosure of every eye in his milieu and imagined that America, its girls and its teachers, the peers in there would bow down to him just as everybody in Durgapur and Kharagpur had done unto him. This was a battle of egos, between Mainak and America and as is usually always the case manifested over the body of a woman, the ex-wife Ms Ashley.
The shootout at UCLA is thus the tragedy of a new form of decolonization; this is about the tragedy of the immigrant, whether their babies are washed dead ashore, or their men are shot at, or as scholars and intellectuals, professionals and entrepreneurs they are subject to the worst forms of exploitations as any riff raff in their home countries would be subjected to. In the land of the masters, these immigrants pretend to live fine, gulping down in secrecy their tears and swallowing humiliations and insults and turning out the oppressions upon them as vicious oppressions on their own ilk back in their native lands. Nonresidents are the most valiant supporters of right wing politics, of hegemony, distrustful of popular movements back home and spare no effort to construe those who stay back as losers. Mainak’s story is the secret out, the faux pas of what everyone wants to conceal under the bright smiles of Face Book selfies and photos of achievements.