The lost culture of accepting the body of the stranger

Tabish Khair
Tabish KhairJan 07, 2016 | 17:19

The lost culture of accepting the body of the stranger

It is a story familiar to most Indians. Sudama, the childhood friend of Lord Krishna, visits after many years. The first thing Krishna does is wash Sudama's feet and apply sandalwood paste to them.

Even though, in this case, the gesture of washing feet takes place between two childhood friends, one a Lord and the other an impoverished Brahmin, Indian epics and scriptures also contain many narratives of washing the feet of travellers, including total strangers.


Similarly, another familiar story, that of Jesus breaking bread, has to be seen in the context of the Middle Eastern tradition of breaking bread with travellers and strangers. The gesture of offering food and water to travellers and strangers is stressed in many Middle Eastern traditions, including Islamic ones.

Wilfred Thesiger, the great British travel writer of the early 20th Century, who spent years with Bedouins and Marsh Arabs, often describes such occasions in his books.

The list can be expanded. Almost all cultures I am aware of have narratives that stress meeting the stranger with a bodily gesture. It is the body of the stranger that is addressed: feet washed, bread broken, water or shelter proffered, and so on. This is not immaterial.

One may or may not share language with a stranger. One may or may not share manners, cultures, religions, philosophies. But there is one thing we always share with a stranger: the body.

Hence, almost all ancient traditions stress meeting, greeting and accepting the body of the stranger. At least initially, it is not in language that we can welcome the stranger but through physical gestures: we might share no language or perspective with the stranger, but we always share the body, and its needs: hunger, thirst, clothing, shelter, cleanliness, rest, touch.


Actually, language is an ambivalent aspect of human existence: it connects and divides, it clarifies and obscures, it is a useful tool and a dreadful weapon at the same time. Perhaps that is why, as I show in my book The New Xenophobia, language is often used to construct strangers.

The New Xenophobia; Oxford University Press India; Rs 470

The stranger to be feared by xenophobes is first created in language: defined as a particular kind of threat and danger. Then, as Jews discovered in Nazi Germany, and as so many other people discover in so many places in the world even today, the body of this stranger is controlled, regulated or eliminated.

We have centuries of historical records depicting these versions of xenophobia. Some of them seem dissimilar, but they are not so.

A "negro" enslaved by European colonisers in the 18th century, a black American lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, religious sects (or differences) eradicated, "Persian" Shias versus "Arab" Sunnis, the Jew or gypsy marked and killed by Nazis, the "untouchable" physically segregated from large segments of society, Hindus murdered by Muslims or Muslims by Hindus during a riot, the woman pressed to dress or act in a certain way - all these tragedies contain aspects of xenophobia, even when they might contain other elements too.


However, as I also argue in my book, in recent years xenophobia is claiming other victims too: these are not necessarily people defined as different - and hence strangers - in visible ways. They might just be people whose lifestyles do not fit into the dominant conditions of neo-liberal or high capitalism.

That is why, one can argue, even many politicians in "enlightened" welfare states of Europe seem to be unconcerned about the increasing numbers of poor and unemployed people in their own societies, except when they want to use these numbers to derive electoral benefits from older forms of xenophobia by pointing an accusing finger at "immigrants".

That is also why we, middle class Indians in urban spaces, show so little real concern about farmer suicides in India. The list is long: now we also see some people as "strangers" not because of differences of race, language or custom, but simply because they do not seem to belong to our neo-liberal, "globalising", capitalist spaces.

But the result is the same: their bodies are ignored, denied, regulated, eliminated - or at least allowed to perish. This is not too surprising. Because finally, we have only one choice: either we accept the body of difference or we don't.

The choice is ours. Just as it was two thousand years ago, and further back.

The wise ones amongst our ancestors knew this, when they wrote stories about washing the feet of travellers or proffering bread to a stranger.

Last updated: January 08, 2016 | 11:38
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