Comrade, take the word austerity.
Where I came from, austerity meant suffering that let you achieve the grand things: paradise, a lover back from the dead, an end to the cycle of birth and rebirth, eternal life, eternal youth. It was only in the English translation of the epics that I ever encountered this word. It was a word that regularly occurred along with, or in place of the word penance. From what I recall of that religious childhood — austerity, at least in the bite-sized versions handed out to us, was associated only with sages and saints, with gods and godheads, with the avatars and incarnations, and with guilt-ridden demons who wanted to turn a new leaf because they hankered after absolvement and the afterlife. It was suffering that let you be seen, let you be heard, that forced the gods to leave their heavenly abodes, leave their cosmic lovemaking, and step down to earth to address pressing concerns.
It was the demon king Ravanan cutting his head as an offering to the god Shiva, night after night, day after day, and the god, tired of having to make it regenerate to let him carry on his penance, granting him ten heads and battlefield invincibility. It was the ageing Bhishman lying on his bed of arrows so that he doesn’t have to be born again. It was Kaaman standing on one toe for one thousand years so that the gods would grant him one wish, and he would reply, could I see my wife again, just one more time? And they would ponder, and deliberate and arrive at a middle-ground boon, you can see her, but only you can see her — no one else can, and he will be pleased, and he will go and live in that state of hallucination. Someone sat on corpses. Someone stared at the sun for days on end. Someone sat in the middle of four blazing fires.
In the way I understood that word as a child, austerity did not come after you to cause you grief or inflict its horrors. It was mortification of the body, self-inflicted suffering that gave you bargaining power with arrogant gods. Stupidity and tenacity were at the heart of this torturous enterprise, but it got things done.
When I first hear the word ‘austerity’ in this country, the word is not recognizable. It does not wear its wounds with the same flamboyance on this island. I do not see the exaggerated mutilation. Here, it is not some chosen suffering: it seems to denote something held back (benefits), something taken away (meals for school children), several doors closing (downsizing).
These things I see around me, my Tamil girl response labels ‘white poverty’ but Comrade, I hear you use the austerity word instead, to mean fucked-by-the-system and driven-to-destitution. You turn to diagnosis and pathologizing as if you were indeed a doctor roaming these streets. When you come back home one day, from the Walthamstow market, you tell me of the shady characters you have seen, of the visibly mentally disturbed, their numbers rising, of a man walking with three white rabbits inside a supermarket trolley, and between the dishevelment that you describe and the word you use for this man: ‘austerity victim’ — I see a circle struggling to close.