déjà vu

They are like a re-enactment of things that have happened before. Or, my imagination has been jolted into overdrive by the horrific events of the last few weeks.

In the Afghanistan-US collision I fancy I hear echoes of the first encounter of Out-of-Africa Homo sapiens with the local Homo neanderthalensis nearly 70,000 years ago. The US and Afghanistan could very well be divergent evolutionary systems and have nothing in common.

I imagine the Rohingya in Burma, Tigrayans in Ethiopia, and other clashes taking place right now on earth, also echo the past and reflect fault lines. Are there deep intangible differences between ethnic groups that can’t be bridged because they can’t be named, described, understood and resolved as they’re beyond the reach of language? Have democratic people created a collective delusion that we are all exactly the same, to which others don’t subscribe?

Are wars actually a face-off between species, then? Setting aside the fact that scientists are now revising the definition of ‘species’, are there actual evolutionary differences in how people’s brains are wired, the way we think and behave because of differences in genes inherited from different remote ancestors and subsequently altered further by adaptation?

Surely it matters, considering that genes decide who we are and what we prioritize in life. The differences can’t be put down merely to culture, which is a superficial construct.

Our common ancestor Homo erectus evolved from chimps in Africa about 7 million years ago and his descendants migrated to different parts of the world in waves. Each group of ancient people adapted to life as they found it: desert, ice, grasslands, dense tropical forest, altitude, level of UV radiation, availability of water and food, etc.

Over time, adaptations generated genomic signatures of natural selection. So, though we share basic emotions like joy, sadness, excitement, anger, hate, etc., the nuances differ enough to sometimes not be able to relate to people who think very differently from us.

There were at least 21 human species that existed on earth at different times. These species were different from Homo sapiens, and interbreeding between some of them happened thousands of years ago. All the other species died out, but left some of their genes in the cells of different groups of Homo sapiens.

Some populations living now have 2-4% neanderthal genes from Eurasia. The indigenous people of Oceania have 4-6% denisovan genes from Siberia. So do Native Americans, whose ancestors entered America via the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia.

Does that explain why people of different ethnicity differ beyond just skin colour? I wonder, because the same people, when transplanted in a different environment, adapt and assimilate within one or two generations. Maybe neuroplasticity offsets inherited traits, or maybe these traits lie dormant and don’t manifest unless triggered by insecurity, distrust, fear or anger.

The Chinese government has accepted the new Afghan set-up with no reservations. Again, in my imagination, an echo from the past: Timur admired Genghis Khan and tried to emulate him! While Timur killed 17 million people, Genghis Khan killed 40 million. What might these allies get up to! Will they endanger India?

Of course, I’m not stereotyping regular citizens of either country by saying this. Citizens anywhere can only protest, and taking out processions doesn’t work in any country, which is why governments allow them in the first place! The subaltern history of any place is summed up as a footnote: the citizens rose up against the state but the uprising was successfully quelled by police with lathis, teargas and firing in the air.

Strangely, there are no stories about indigenous Indian kings with the sensibilities of these two men and their descendants. Though the Mauryas, Guptas, Cholas, Pallavas, Karkotas, Ahoms and all the rest continuously waged wars, killed people and wreaked destruction, I haven’t come across accounts that indicate they crossed the line separating soldier from psychopath.

Of course, it’s possible such records existed in the Nalanda or Vikramashila universities that were destroyed by primitive marauders whose idea of treasure didn’t go beyond jewelry. A re-enactment of this wanton destruction happened in 2001 when the Bamiyan Buddhas, a fine specimen of Gandhara art from the 6th century, were blown up. Déjà vu.

I do wonder if present day Chinese leaders and the Afghans that currently hold sway tap into a deep intuitive knowledge of one another’s minds. I mean, do they recognize themselves in the other and instinctively know how to transact business with them?

India doesn’t have that best-friend thing with any country, though some say we do have a genuine connection with Russia and Israel.

We see how India completed several civil projects in Afghanistan over the last 20 years but didn’t forge a friendship. One can’t force friendship – it’s like college roommates, some are merely roommates while some become friends for life. What we had going with Afghanistan is closer to the former.

Treaties, pacts, partnerships, MoUs, promises and assurances don’t carry quite the same meaning and sanctity in all cultures. People with fewer scruples may use them as expedients, bait, or devices to achieve immediate goals. To unscrupulous people ‘a gentleman’s word is his bond’ means ‘a foolish man who deserves to be taken advantage of’. This is illustrated by one version of Prithviraj Chauhan’s fate that has gained publicity recently.

As an Indian I feel a niggling unease, as if the Ghori-Prithviraj interactions in the two Battles of Tarain 1000 years ago might be re-enacted anytime. The US is either as innocent as a child getting into a car with the ‘nice’ man he just met, or incredibly stupid, or there’s a clever foreign policy that is beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals, or there’s a conspiracy involved. It’s hard to believe the US didn’t know where its ‘aid’ was going for twenty years.

Perhaps the aftermath of the 20-year Afghan war is to Americans what our 1000-year history of being under relentless attack is to us, hopefully making them a little more circumspect in future while dealing with people who live by a different set of ethics.

Words like president and minister in the context of a government in Afghanistan sound contrived because people holding those posts have different qualifications and job experience in our world. Since it is not an elected government, the nomenclature doesn’t sit well with many of us. All they want is the $$$$$, the bag of goodies they feel entitled to receive from the international community, and everybody knows it.

But the images coming out of Afghanistan of malnourished and sick children, vacant-eyed mothers sitting by the hospital beds of their little ones, women howling in pain on being beaten up, these are tugging at people’s heartstrings all over the world.

We empathize, because we’ve seen this before, whenever there is an upheaval somewhere in the world – Serbia, South Sudan, Burma, Honduras, Chechnya, Ukraine, Spain, etc. – and in our own country. Hopefully, the $1billion collected yesterday for food and basic necessities for the Afghan people reaches them.