“From shadows to the stars”
The study of the history of travel will always be incomplete without a study of the history of maps. It is a fallacy, on our part, to imagine that only in our contemporary times, after having mapped out the entire world, have we begun to show interest in charting out the rest of the universe.
Men and women across the ages have sought to map out the stars and planets, so as to better understand the world they lived in; whether sailor or astrologer, the celestial spheres have played a vital part in mapping out the contours and boundaries of physical spaces and temporal periods, and in orienting mankind towards regions unknown and ages yet to come. Yet what remains unmapped, even today, is the ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.’
Where do we go when we die is a question whose answers vary from culture to culture, and religion to religion. Many of those answers involve the idea of regions in some way analogous to heaven and hell. Rather than trying to debunk these imagined spaces, we must look at the attempts to map out the spaces the dead travel to as highly significant to a phenomenology of travel itself. Such a phenomenology is generated only at the limit of travel. This finite limit is not constituted by the means of transportation available, but by a journey without destination or sojourner, a journey to the undiscovered country. It is this thought of death which makes us stretch the limits of our thinking and imagination, beyond the three visible and sensible dimensions of space in order to access that space which is an absolute nowhere, an ou–topia, we must all, in the end, travel to.
These meditations are not driven by a pure disinterested interest in the phenomenon of death. The truth is that we learn about death not just through our own imminent expectation of it, but most importantly, through our experience of the deaths of others. The death of Rohith Vemula, a doctoral student at the University of Hyderabad has quite rightly galvanised the students of this country into action, over the last few months. To understand why Rohith committed suicide we must, of course, understand the problems of caste discrimination in campuses, the state’s encroachment on the autonomy of the university, the pervasive presence of social and political inequality. We must all have read his suicide note, its short, staccato sentences driving home to us his deep personal grief and despair. But we must not read it as a text which reveals to us the hopelessness and desolation that young man felt before he decided to take his own life. If Rohith is to be our icon, then we must extract from his last words a message of hope; we must explore, in his letter, the intricate embrace that thoughts of death and thoughts on travel seem to have, and see how his legacy is not just a student’s movement, but a call to push on from the limits of what we consider possible or impossible.
It would not be wrong to say that today a spectre is haunting India, the spectre of Rohith Vemula. What Rohith was unable to do in life, his spectre has come to do in death. It haunts honourable ministers and prime minister alike; it is the rallying point around which gathers and revolves the nationwide student’s movement of 2016. His return after death as a symbol of the caste discrimination millions of Indians suffer daily has come to haunt the dreams of the powerful. But to understand his return, we must also understand his departure; we must comprehend in his own words, his leap ‘from shadows to the stars.’
It is in his belief that he could travel to the stars in his death, and know other worlds, that we reach the paradox and limit of both travel and death- how can one travel when one is no more? Such a question is linked with the question of where we go after we die. To push on from these limits is what is really needed to understand the significance of Rohith’s death for all of us, even for those among us who are privileged enough not to care for this movement; even for those among us who believe in the importance of maintaining the existence of their own hierarchical status.
On reading his suicide note, we find that Rohith was not a believer in ‘after-death stories, ghosts or spirits.’ Yet the paradox remains that he still believed that he could travel to the stars; that he hoped to know other worlds. Must we remain satisfied with a mere material and substantial thesis, which would advocate that the atoms and molecules which the body of Rohith was composed of, would one day reach other galaxies, settle as dust in other planetary systems? Or is our task greater than the fostering of such a placatory idea? Such a task would involve looking at him as one of the most ambitious of travellers; as someone who does not wish to restrict himself to simply journeying across the country, continent or planet, but whose arc of travel includes within its ambit the entire cosmos, stars unknown, worlds undreamt of. It is a tale of travel engendered by death. Yet we must steadfastly continue to ask, how Rohith believed in travelling to the stars and knowing other worlds when he could not believe in the afterlife, or even in the existence of a spirit which will survive his physical death. What is this idea of travel beyond physical existence, or even spiritual existence? What is this idea of impossible travel which finds expression in Rohith’s dying words?
We might not recognise it, but all our conceptions of time and fate, politics and progress, teleology and eschatology are simultaneously constituted and infected by an underlying assumption of the actuality of travel and movement. Such metaphors of travel infect all that we do, from the way we plan out our futures to the kind of progressive politics we believe in. A teleology of progress has also infected our political language, forcing us to believe in an actual destination we are inexorably moving towards. Rohith’s suicide note is acutely aware that there is no destination one travels to after death- there is neither a heaven nor a hell. Moreover, he also knew that there is no traveller after death, there are no such things as ghosts or spirits. Yet even at this limit, which is the impossibility of travel, he was still able to hope in the possibility of travelling ‘from shadows to the stars.’ This paradox seems absurd if considered rationally.
A psychological analysis of Rohith’s state of mind would perhaps arrive at the result that confronted with his own death he was forced to assuage himself with this patently false hope. Such an analysis would perhaps proffer an answer to the problem, but it would not reveal to us the true essence of the answer itself.
The true essence of hope is not linked with the consideration of possible situations, but with possibility as such. If Rohith’s suicide note has to be read as something which offers us hope, it is because it brings into existence an entirely new question- the question of the pure form of possibility itself. To extract the pure form of possibility is our greatest challenge in a world where politics has become the art of the possible. It is just common-sense in our current, global political situation to state that it is impossible to think of alternative, working systems for democracy and capitalism. A limit has thus been set on thought in the name of the impossible. But before we can actually overturn these particular impossibilities, we need to be able to grasp the pure form of possibility, which has been so undermined, not by political or economic systems, but by Reason itself. The pure form of possibility is in essence the limit case of possibility; that limit is nothing more than the possibility of impossibility.
Therefore the question we can raise will not just be an attack on the circumscription of thought by repressive forces which dictate what is possible and what is impossible. Rather, it is an attack on the entire edifice of Reason itself, which proclaims everything to be under its rule. Reason would have it that one can reasonably arrive at conclusions from rational laws; one can ratiocinate about anything actual under the sun. But one’s own death is that which exceeds reason and rationality, it is that which cannot be thought reasonably. Unlike the objects of natural and social sciences, one’s own death is not actual, but only possible; it is not just the limit of logical thought, it is its impossibility. We can think all we want about the deaths of others, but not our own. Rohith’s suicide note is above all his realisation of the impossibility of thinking rationally about one’s own death.
Perhaps if Rohith had stopped at saying he did not believe in a life after death, then we would have read his last note as devoid of hope. But he continued, writing that he believed that he would travel to the stars. Such hope does not stem from ordinary, rational expectation. We can expect change, progress, reform or even revolution- all of which can be mapped out, planned, or extrapolated from our current situation. But Rohith’s belief exceeds reason and rationality; it transcends the mere dialectic of the possible and the impossible. In realising the possibility of an impossible journey to the stars, Rohith also realised the possibility of his own impossibility or death. What we must extract from his last gesture, his dying words, is the pure form of possibility itself, which leads us to that ou-topia, that no-place, that undiscovered country which lies beyond the reach of all maps, atlases, and GPS systems. That pure form of possibility is Rohith’s greatest bequest to our impoverished understanding of the political.