The life and death of ‘Chemical Nova’

You know how people pretend to win an Oscar or a Nobel Prize, right? Many years ago, I used to pretend to be the author of a fictitious but, blissfully unmindful of its fictitiousness, award-winning series of articles entitled Chemical Nova. In this series, I would pretend that each article discussed a particular point of intersection between science and culture.

The earliest idea I had along these lines concerned soap. I would daydream about how I was celebrated for kickstarting a social movement that prized access to soap and ability to wash one’s hands under running water, and with this simple activity beat back the strange practice among many of refusing to wash one’s toilet oneself, instead delegating the apparently execrable task to a housemaid.

The fantastic value of Chemical Nova should be obvious: it represented, at least to me, the triumph of logic and reasoning above class-commitments and superstition. The fantasy took shape out of my longstanding ambition to beat down a stubborn Creature, for many years shapeless, that often caused a good review, essay or news report to inspire only cynicism, derision and eventually dismissal on the part of many readers. It was quickly apparent that the Creature couldn’t be subdued with deductive reasoning alone, but for which one had to take recourse through politics and individual aspirations as well, no matter how disconnected from the pretentious ‘quest for truth’ these matters were.

Chemical Nova dissipated for a few years as I set about becoming a professional journalist – until I had occasion to remember it after Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014. And quickly enough, it seemed laughable to me that I had assumed upper-caste people wouldn’t know how soap worked, or at least of its cleansing properties. An upper-caste individual invested in the continuation of manual scavenging would simply feel less guilty with a bar of soap placed in his dirty bathroom: for scavengers to wash their hands and not be at risk of contracting any diseases.

The belief that ‘the job is theirs to perform’ could then persist unfettered, rooted as it was in some sort of imagined befoulment of the soul – something one couldn’t cleanse, out of reach of every chemical reagent, or even affect in any way except through a lifetime of suffering.

It was a disappointing thought, but in my mind, there was still some hope for Chemical Nova. Its path was no longer straightforward at all insofar as it had to first make the case that the mind, the body and the community are all that matter, that that’s how one’s soul really takes shape, but its message – “ultimately, wash your hands” – still was an easy one to get across. I was tempted and I continued to wait.

However, earlier today, the Creature bared itself fully, exposing not itself as much as the futility of ideas like Chemical Nova. An advertisement appeared in a newspaper displaying a pair of hands kneading some dough, with the following caption: “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand? Her hands may be infected.” The asset encouraged readers of the newspaper to buy Kent’s “atta maker & bread maker” instead, accompanied by a photograph of Hema Malini smiling in approval.

Malini has been the brand ambassador for Kent since 2007 and the incumbent Lok Sabha MP from Mathura since 2014. I’m not sure of the extent to which she knew of the advertisement’s contents before her face (and her daughter’s) appeared on it. Her affiliation since 2004 with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its favouritism towards upper-caste Hindus (to put it mildly), doesn’t inspire confidence but at the same time, it’s quite possible that Malini’s contract with Kent allows the company to include her face in promotional materials for a predefined set of products without requiring prior approval in each instance.

But even if Malini had never been associated with the product or the brand, Chemical Nova would have taken a hit because I had never imagined that the Creature could one day be everywhere at once. The chairman of Kent has since apologised for the advertisement, calling it “unintentional” and “wrongly communicated”. But it seems to me that Kent and the ad agency it hired continue to err because they don’t see the real problem: that they wrote those words down and didn’t immediately cringe, that those words were okayed by many pairs of eyes before they were printed.

The triumph of reason and the immutability of chemical reagents are pointless. The normalisation of exclusion, of creating an ‘other’ who embodies everything the in-group finds undesirable, is not new – but it has for the most part been driven by a top-down impulse that often originates in the offices of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah or some senior BJP minister, and often to distract from some governmental failure. But in the coronavirus pandemic, the act of ‘othering’ seems to have reached community transmission just as fast as the virus may have, finding widespread expression without any ostensible prompt.

And while Kent has been caught out evidently because it was the ‘loudest’, I wonder how many others don’t immediately see that what they are writing, saying, hearing or reading is wrong, and let it pass. As Arundhati Roy wrote earlier this week, the attainment of ‘touchlessness’ seems to be the new normal: in the form of a social condition in which physical distance becomes an excuse to revive and re-normalise untouchabilities that have become taboo – in much the same way soap became subsumed by the enterprise it should have toppled.

Examples already abound, with ministers and corporate uncles alike touting the prescient wisdom of our Hindu ancestors to greet others with a namaste instead of shaking hands; to maintain aachaaram, a collection of gendered practices many of which require the (Brahmin) practitioner to cleanse themselves of ‘spiritual dirt’ through habits and rituals easily incorporated into daily life; and now, to use machines that promise to render, in Roy’s words, “the very bodies of one class … as a biohazard to another”.

It started with a bang, but Chemical Nova slips quietly into the drain, and out of sight, for it is no match for its foe – the Creature called wilful ignorance.

Featured image: A snapshot of William Blake’s ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun’, c. 1805-1810.

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