Personal Notes


Arvind Narrain



wapna and Sucheta committed joint suicide on Feb 21, 2011 in Nandigram, West Bengal, as society made it impossible for them to live their lives together. Though their lives were extinguished by societal intolerance, the brief period of their lives, marked as it was by their mutual bond of love was lived with such luminousness as to signpost possible futures of creative existence.

Chelsea Manning in her life showed what it was to be truthful both to an ideal of justice as well as who one really was. In her life Chelsea struggled both against the rigid norms which defined Chelsea (a woman) as Bradley (a man) as well as the racist norms which refused to see those outside the dominant culture as human beings worthy of equal respect.

While both Swapna-Sucheta and Chelsea Manning had to pay an extraordinarily high price for choosing to live their life in a manner consistent with an ethical notion of who they were, yet the creative possibilities embodied in their lives convey a vision for the future.

This paper will seek to trace the utopian possibilities of queer lives by paying close attention to the creative possibilities embodied in these three different lives.1 Firstly there is the idea of a defiant and subversive love of two people with an intensity and passion, which marks the experience of what it is to be human. Secondly there is the cultivation of a sensibility which allows one to go beyond the love of the individual self to empathize with the suffering of strangers. To love a person regardless of gender or sexuality and to empathize with seemingly distant causes is to dissent from the status quo. This paper will argue that there is an ethical and political stake in the practice of this form of love and cultivation of this form of radical empathy as both have within them the seeds of a very different world.

Swapna and Sucheta: Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers in that Quiet Earth

What insistently reminds us of the multiple stories underlying the suicide of Swapna and Sucheta, is a haunting picture by a police photographer who documented the deaths. In this photo we see Swapna and Sucheta lying on a stack of hay, in an image of peaceful repose calling to mind a deep intimacy. There is a dupatta (stole), which joins both of them at the waist. Their faces are turned towards each other and their hands are lightly pressed against each other.2. The picture in its peacefulness and tranquillity unwittingly calls to mind the powerful conclusion of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Such is the power of stillness, peace, and a sense of eternal repose which the picture communicates that like the narrator in Wuthering Heights, we can’t imagine unquiet slumbers for these two young lovers.

What accounts for the death of these two young girls who seem so wrapped up in each other even as they seem to lie in tranquil slumber? The work of Sappho for Equality, an organization advocating for the rights of sexual minorities uncovers some part of the story of what lay behind that awful image of great serenity.3

Swapna and Sucheta were two cousins who were very close to each other. Sucheta was the older cousin who had been giving tuitions for over one and a half years to Swapna. Sometimes the two girls would stay over in each other’s houses after the tuitions. The two families ostensibly got worried by the ‘closeness’ of the two cousins and jointly decided to do something about it. Doing something about it meant that Sucheta’s parents decide to get her married. Sucheta tried to resist the family pressure by saying that she was not interested in getting married as she wanted to study further. The family however forced her into getting married.

According to Sucheta’s husband, regardless of the marriage, the bond between the girls was so deep that they would still meet each other regularly. This story of an incredible, all embracing deep friendship, which marriage was not able to destroy continued to trouble the two families. There were hints dropped by Sucheta’s father and mother that such levels of closeness between two girls is not good. Similarly Swapna’s father also observed that maybe the girls were too close and that not all people took that relationship well. Swapna’s father also notes in a telling comment that they tried to isolate the two girls from each other.

On the fateful day, Sucheta had come to her parent’s house to go to a fair and after some time she was not to be found in the house. When her parents went to look for her they found the bodies of both Sucheta and Swapna lying together in that image of peaceful togetherness, which seemed to sum up the aspiration of their lives. In death they seemed to have found the togetherness, which was impossible to achieve in life. What gave an added poignancy to the joint death was the suicide note, which expressed their desire to be cremated together. It is almost as if their wish was to find another more tolerant and accepting world, which would honour their deep desire to be together. The suicide note left by Swapna gives some more clues as to what lay behind the awful deaths:

Then I started talking with Sucheta. She was very naughty then. She used to do whatever pleased her. She made me laugh with her strange antics…. We got more into talking and hanging out. Then she loves me very much. I love her very much too. ..If I didn’t see her one day, I felt like my world was lost. Her family members misunderstood us… They didn’t accept our love…. That’s why I have decided to leave this world…. If we die together, please keep us at the same place, however that is possible. And if we live, we will go far away, far, far away, and will never return….4  

The tragedy of the death is compounded by the unwillingness of the family to fulfil the wishes of the dead girls. The girls wished to be together in death and strikingly the Inspector of Police offers help to the two families to cremate the two bodies. However in a painful rejection the families do not even claim the bodies. Unclaimed bodies will be burnt along with other abandoned bodies without the rituals of mourning which accompany the sending off of a loved one. There is a particular poignancy in the fact that not even death is able to reconcile the families with their daughters. The ties of kinship are irrevocably sundered by the acts of love between the two girls and in the eyes of the family the girls have no greater claims on them than those of strangers.

This is a tragedy comprising many elements. It is a story of deep love that did not fear to look death in the face. It is also a story of a chosen death, the protagonists of which were unafraid to proclaim boldly and bravely why they preferred death to life. It is also a story of a betrayal of deep bonds of kinship that link fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters as well as husbands and wives. When those who owe sacred duties to one so close in blood to them do not even claim their bodies, how does one account for it?

The Idea of Love: Self Completion, Mania and Philia

To understand the nature of this deep bond between Swapna and Sucheta, we need to delve into their own words. The word Swapna uses unambiguously is “love”. What does love mean for Swapna and Sucheta? There are at least three ideas of love one can trace in Swapna’s letter.

Eros as self-completion

The most powerful articulation we get from Swapna and Sucheta about the nature of their love is that of the lover completing oneself. As Swapna’s suicide note says:

‘She loves me very much. I love her too. More than my life. But I don’t know why. But if I didn’t see her or talk to her, I felt very bad. She also felt this way. She herself loves me very much.’5

The idea of the lover as a person who completes oneself has deep roots in thinking about the idea of love. We need to go back to the Greeks and Plato’s The Symposium to understand this idea of love. In The Symposium, Aristophanes makes his speech about love in which he invokes a time before time when there were three human genders. The male gender originated from the sun, the female gender from the earth and the combined gender from the moon (Plato, 1999).

What was unique about these three genders was each person had two heads, four legs and four arms and was like a ball, complete in himself/herself. These human beings were fully self-sufficient and paid no heed to the Gods. In fact they were so arrogant that they tried to climb up to heaven to attack the Gods. Zeus, wondering what to do about this rebellion, decided that the best course of action would be to split these beings into two. Being split in two by Zeus, the two halves longed to reunite with each other and according to Aristophanes that is how the idea of love was born.6 In this ancient Greek idea of love the gender of the lover was irrelevant. The Greeks would not have been surprised by Swapna’s passionate declaration that ‘if I didn’t see her or talk to her, I felt very bad. She also felt this way.’ It was natural for women to love women, men to love women as well as men to love men. The only thing which mattered in this rendering of the myth was to account for the passionate feeling. The passion or intensity for the other spoke a deep truth. The reason for the passionate attachment lay in the original split and the human desire for completion. Within the terms of this myth there is no natural and unnatural desire, there is only a simple accounting for why it is human for us to fall in love with another human being.

Eros as mania

In Swapna’s suicide note she says:

She loves me very much. I love her too. More than my life. But I don’t know why. But if I didn’t see her or talk to her, I felt very bad. She also felt this way. She herself loves me very much. Perhaps more than I do. If I didn’t see her one day, I felt like my world was lost’.7

We need to go to Plato’s Phaedrus for an account of what it means to be possessed by the mania called Eros (Plato, 2005). Socrates describes the mania of love in the following terms:

it does not willingly give up (the pleasures of love), nor does it value anyone above the one with beauty, but quite forgets mother, brothers, friends, all together, loses wealth through neglect without caring a jot about it, and feeling contempt for all the accepted standards of propriety and good taste in which it previously prided itself, it is ready to act the part of a slave and sleep wherever it is allowed to do so, provided it is as close as possible to the object of its yearning; for in addition to its reverence for the one who possesses the beauty, it has found him to be the sole healer of its greatest labours. This experience, my beautiful boy, the one to whom my speech is addressed, men term love.’

If we think of the powerful unbreakable bond between Swapna and Sucheta and relate it to the idea of Eros as described by Plato, we begin to understand something more of that relationship. Clearly the bond cannot be described within the contemptuous terms of either carnality or as mere ‘friendship’. There was something in the relationship which disturbed both families. The mysterious indefinable ‘something’ which disturbed both families can best be described as the manic pull of Eros. The mania of Eros overshadowed every other consideration as far as Swapna and Sucheta were concerned. They were not willing to ‘value anyone above the one with beauty,’ and their love ‘but quite forgets mother, brothers, friends, all together’.

It is this utter absorption in each other to the detriment of conventional societal obligations which both families seem to have found difficult to tolerate. Clearly this bond is not of this world, does not have the mundane quality of ‘dispensing miserly benefits of a mortal kind’ (ibid., pp. 38) but rather partakes of some part of the mania described by Plato.

Being possessed by Eros is about experiencing a heightened state of being. This is not to be scorned at. As Socrates put it, ‘…the ancients testify to the fact that God-sent madness is a finer thing than manmade sanity’ (ibid., pp. 24).

The lives of Swapna and Sucheta embody this way of living, in which one is completely alive and the meaning of life and living is never in question. In a contemporary context, where love and living are domesticated by the market, family, community, religion and nation, the example of what being possessed by ‘mania’ could mean for the very notion of the good life is vital.

Eros as philia: Language and laughter as forming togetherness

A bond cannot be sustained on sexual passion alone. It needs to be nourished by other ways of human interaction. Perhaps the most powerful way to nourish this bond is through the art of being together, ‘sharing in speech and reason.’ For that is what it means for human beings to live together, not just to ‘pasture in the same place like cattle’ (Nussbaum, 2001, pp. 369). Conversation and laughter are the two gifts which human beings have that are crucial tools in forging togetherness. The suicide note invokes the power of these everyday forms of togetherness as embodied in both conversation and laughter.

Then I started talking with Sucheta. She was very naughty then. She used to do whatever pleased her. She made me laugh with her strange antics. I scolded her and she used to leave. She never listened to my words. Then I started liking her. We got more into talking and hanging out….’8

This notion of ‘talking and hanging out’ as well as laughing as an invaluable part of the bond forged by Eros is evoked in literature and biography down the ages. Two moving examples are the bond of Penelope and Odysseus as evoked in Homer’s Odyssey as well as the love of Karl Marx and Jenny Van Westphalen. In Odysseus’s long journey back home, he ends up staying at an island inhabited by the goddess Calypso as her lover. In Homer’s description, though Calypso is beautiful as only Goddesses can be, and the sexual bond is pleasurable, Odysseus longs to go back home to his wife Penelope who he knows is not as beautiful and who will become even less beautiful as time goes by. Calypso promises him immortality and a life free of the pains he is destined to encounter should he go back home to Penelope. Yet, Odysseus requests Calypso to let him go. The reason why Penelope who ages and will become less beautiful is preferable to the deathless goddess, emerges most poignantly in the scene when after a separation of twenty years, Odysseus finally gets back to his home and meets Penelope:

‘But the royal couple, once they’d reveled in all

The longed for joys of love, reveled in each other’s stories,

The radiant woman telling of all she’d borne at home,

Watching them there, the infernal crowd of suitors

Slaughtering herds of cattle and good fat sheep-

While keen to win her hand-

Draining the broached vats dry of vintage wine.

And great Odysseus told his wife of all the pains

He had dealt out to other men and all the hardships

He’d endured himself-his story first to last-

And she listened on, enchanted…

Sleep never sealed her eyes till all was told.’
(Homer, 1996, pp. 465)

The joys of the bond of Eros as captured in the joy of togetherness and conversation is what Homer so movingly describes. The multiple ways in which human beings relate to each other and the relational richness of Eros is what we get in this powerful description of the bond between Odysseus and Penelope. We don’t get a hint about Penelope’s jealousy that Odysseus has slept with Calypso: what we get is an affirmation of what makes the bond between Odysseus and Penelope rich, multifaceted and irreplaceable.

In a moving recollection of her father, Eleanor Marx says that, while Karl Marx was thought by many to be a ‘morose, bitter, unbending, unapproachable man’ the contrary was true. He was ‘the cheeriest, gayest soul that ever breathed’ ‘brimming over with humour’. Eleanor Marx sees her father’s personality as intrinsically linked to her father’s love for her mother, Jenny Van Westphalen. According to Eleanor Marx, ‘Karl Marx would never have been what he was without Jenny von Westphalen. Never were the lives of two people – both remarkable – so at one, so complementary one of the other’ (Marx & Aveling, 2003, pp. 203).

While the bond was at one level a political one, forged by a common commitment to the working class, Eleanor Marx emphasizes the seemingly quotidian bonds which kept them together.

“And I sometimes think that almost as strong a bond between them as their devotion to the cause of the workers was their immense sense of humour. Assuredly two people never enjoyed a joke more than these two. Again and again – especially if the occasion were one demanding decorum and sedateness, have I seen them laugh till tears ran down their cheeks, and even those inclined to be shocked at such levity could not choose but laugh with them. And how often have I seen them not daring to look at one another, each knowing that once a glance was exchanged, uncontrollable laughter would result. To see those two with eyes fixed on anything but one another, for all the world like two school children, suffocating with suppressed laughter that at last despite all efforts would well forth, is a memory I would not barter for all the millions I am sometimes credited with having inherited.’
                                                                                                      (ibid. pp. 208)

Clearly the vitality of the relationship of Swapna and Sucheta finds an echo in the loves of Karl and Jenny Marx as well as Penelope and Odysseus. The bond of Swapna and Sucheta formed as it is by both laughter and conversation, evokes an older history of being together. As such, the vitality of the bond points to something integral to happiness in human lives. In the contemporary context, marked as it is by grave and continuing injustice, laughter and conversation can make life livable.

Taking forward the lives of Swapna and Sucheta   

Remembering as an act of defiant creation Swapna’s suicide note ends with a poignant plea as well as a dream of another world:

If we die together, please keep us at the same place, however that is possible. And if we live, we will go far away, far, far away, and will never return.’9

Of course this dream is not fulfilled, as Swapna and Sucheta did not go far, far away nor were their bodies cremated together. In fact their bodies are not even given the dignity of a send-off by their loved ones since their respective families even refused to publicly mourn their deaths. This powerful crisscrossing of the currents of love and hate, recalls the story of Antigone written almost 2400 years ago by the Greek dramatist Sophocles. The tragedy of Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, is perhaps one of the most influential in western thought, having opened out innumerable creative possibilities in western culture (Steiner, 1986).

In the play, Antigone’s two brothers engage in a fratricidal struggle for the throne of Thebes. Polynices attacks Thebes to take the crown from Eteocles. In this conflict the two brothers kill each other and Creon, Antigone’s uncle, becomes the king. Creon decrees that Polynices the traitor will be denied the rites of burial and his carcass to become the prey of dogs and vultures. Antigone willfully disobeys the King’s order and goes on to attempt to bury her brother Polynices. Being discovered by Creon’s guards, she is produced before Creon. Creon asks her how she could bury her brother who was a traitor.

In a powerful confrontation with Creon she asserts her right to bury her brother by claiming that Creon’s manmade edicts are not strong enough to overrule the unwritten, unalterable law which compels her to give her brother the dignity of a burial (Sophocles, 1984). As a result of this defiance, Antigone is ordered to be buried alive by Creon. This elemental confrontation between manmade law as embodied by Creon and the call of conscience as embodied by Antigone has given voice to numerous struggles around the world.

In a famously subversive rendering, Jean Anouilh performed his version of Antigone in front of the German SS officers when France was under occupation, where Antigone to the watching French, stood for the French resistance against the German occupation (Anouilh, 1946).

In South Africa Athol Fugard wrote a brilliant play called the Island where prisoners on Robben Island perform a two man version of Antigone called the Trial of Antigone and this play was performed before the prison guards as well as all the prisoners. Antigone in a metaphorical sense stood in for blacks in apartheid South Africa and Creon stood in for the apartheid state (Fugard, 1976).

In Argentina, Griselda Gambaro wrote Antigona Furiosa, in which the unclaimed body of Polynices stood in for the 50000 people who were ‘disappeared’ by the Argentine military. Antigone represented the Mothers and the Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo who insisted on the right to have their children back. Gambaro’s work gave voice to the disappeared, defended those who died, and demanded a proper burial as an act of ‘defiance, mourning, and remembrance’ (Paulson, 2012).

The story of Swapna and Sucheta, partakes of this global history of ‘defiance, mourning and remembrance.’ There is something elemental in that story of them being joined in love while to hate is the nature of their society. Like Antigone and her willed suicide, the two Indian Antigones prefer to embrace death, rather than give in to societal prohibitions of their love.

The failure of the parents to claim the bodies of their daughters, tells us about the limits of kinship. Antigone’s will to mourn her brother speaks again not in the simple terms of the name of the family against the state but rather about a bond formed at the limits of family.10 If the family chooses to disown their daughters by not claiming the bodies and publicly mourning them, who then will speak on behalf of Swapna and Sucheta?

 The challenge which Swapna and Sucheta are posing to us is to ask the question as to how shall we mourn them? The only answer can be that we need to remember the intensity of their lives and the tragedy of their needless deaths in the same way that Jean Anouilh, Griselda Gambaro and Athol Fugard choose to remember the tragedies of their societies. In Gambaro, Fugard and Anouilh the confrontation is between an all powerful Creon and an Antigone who only has the intensity of her moral passion. Our two Indian Antigones really stand in for ‘a millennially outraged, patronized, excluded womanhood’ (Steiner,1986, pp.150). They stand in for the principled assertion that yes, we will lead our lives in accordance with our own inner convictions and that rather than allow these deeply felt convictions to be trampled upon by a barbaric society which does not understand or accept our love we will rather consciously and bravely embrace death.

The importance of mourning is that it is an act of remembrance of those who can no more fight for justice, or those whose voices have been stilled. If they are not to be forgotten, then it is the speech of the living which must remember them. We owe it to these girls and many others like them to multiply their stories as signs of queer existence and challenge the orders of Creon which forbid the mourning of lesbian deaths.11

To remember these deaths is to make a commitment that whatever happened to Swapna and Sucheta will not happen to others like them. To work for a society that will be more accepting of lives like theirs is the only genuine tribute one can pay to Swapna and Sucheta.

Chelsea Manning: Broadening the circle of empathy   

“Are other ways of loving?” In his poem, ‘Don’t ask me for that love again’, Faiz Ahmed Faiz powerfully articulates this question. Faiz begins by describing his beloved in the sublime language of love poetry:

A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.
The sky, whenever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.
If you’d fall into my arms fate would be helpless.

This creation of a private utopia composed of the beloved and he, is however insistently challenged by the world outside. As the poet put it:

As I went into alleys and in open markets
Saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.
I saw them sold and bought, again and again.
This too deserves attention.

On an almost wistful painful note the poet concludes:

There are other sorrows in this world,
Comforts other than love
Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.
(Faiz in McClatchy, 1996, pp. 395)

The conclusion that Faiz came to is not one favoured in the contemporary world. Clearly one of the ‘lacks’ in the contemporary world is an unwillingness to open one’s eyes to a world outside the private and personal. The injustices that are perpetrated on a global scale, by forces too large to comprehend let alone fight, create a sense of personal helplessness. In fact one can argue that in the contemporary world, the retreat into the private and personal may be a default position for the large majority too bewildered by the forces which perpetrate injustice on a global scale.

In times such as this, when the desire to retreat inwards is immensely attractive, we need the examples of lives that seek to deepen the bond of empathy. We need empathy to move outward in concentric circles, breaking the shackles of prejudice to embrace suffering humanity. Such is the challenge before us in the contemporary era increasingly divided and subdivided by loyalties of class, caste, region and nation. When people owe their greatest loyalty to their nation and are prepared to kill on its behalf, that we need ethical voices to remind us of our common humanity.

In the contemporary world, one such remarkable figure is Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. A loyal soldier of the US Army, Private Manning becomes one of its most courageous dissenters. At the end of this journey from loyal soldier to dissenter Manning also transitions from the male gender –Bradley Manning– to the female gender as Chelsea Manning.

Private Manning was an information analyst with the US army who leaked information regarding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as thousands of diplomatic cables with respect to US foreign policy. Manning was arrested, kept in solitary confinement in a small cell for a period of over nine months for twenty three hours a day. During the pre-trial detention, Manning was tortured using Guantanamo Bay techniques including harsh lighting, stress positions and enforced nudity.

After three years of pre-trial confinement, the trial was finally conducted and resulted in Chelsea Manning being sentenced to thirty five years in prison for violations of the Espionage Act. The serious consequences of making public US military documents must surely have been known to Chelsea Manning. What motivated her to place at risk her personal freedom and liberty?

To understand Chelsea Manning’s motives one can do no better than refer to her statement at her trial. Chelsea understands the significance of the documents she is releasing into the public domain,

This is possibly one of the more significant documents of our time removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare.….’12

By “asymmetric warfare” Chelsea Manning is referring to the enormous power at the disposal of the US military to kill on a mass scale. This power to kill should come with a deep rooted responsibility, and what Chelsea Manning responds to almost viscerally is not only the lack of responsibility but rather the almost inhumane joy in killing which seems to motivate the US troops. One of the videos that Manning made public exposed the cold blooded killing of twelve civilians including two Reuters journalists, by a US Apache helicopter crew in Iraq. The killing was initially justified by the US Military as an act within the rules of engagement even as the US military refused to release the video. Manning chanced upon the video documentation and she was shocked by what she saw:

‘The most alarming aspect of the video to me, however, was the seemingly delightful blood-lust the Aerial Weapons Team seemed to have.………….
They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.’13

   Chelsea Manning’s shock transforms into a conviction that the American public needs to know what happened:

‘I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan were targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare.’14

There might not be much in common between Chelsea and the Iraqis who were the victims of the US invasion. Yet Chelsea Manning chose to speak out and bear witness to wrongs her country has done. What describes best this sentiment of solidarity and empathy towards those who are so different, is what Christopher J. Lee calls radical empathy. According to Lee, radical empathy can be ‘provisionally defined as a politics of recognition and solidarity with community beyond one’s immediate experience’ (Lee, 2015, pp. 191).

In Lee’s understanding the exemplar of the politics of radical empathy was the anti-colonial writer and activist, Frantz Fanon who was born in St. Martinique, yet in the course of his life became a comrade in the Algerian liberation struggle. Reflecting on what drove Fanon to empathize with the Algerian cause, Fanon’s wife Josie Fanon, says ‘people have often wondered why he should have taken part in the liberation of a country that was not his originally. Her reply was that only ‘narrow minds and hearts’ for whom race or religion ‘constitutes an unbridgeable gulf’ fail to understand, there was no contradiction or dilemma for Fanon, only necessity’ (Lee, 2015, pp. 31).

Like Fanon, Chelsea transcends the limits of her origin and is able to establish a human connection with those who are very distant in both geographical and cultural terms. Chelsea Manning embodies a contemporary politics of radical empathy which pushes forward the heroic struggle against forms of neo-colonialism by exposing its brutal face. Chelsea Manning is a dissenter in the best sense of the word.15

The Importance of Being Chelsea Manning   

Interestingly, there is a deep internal dimension to Chelsea’s remarkable act of dissent. Just when she is sentenced to thirty five years in prison, makes public her gender identity. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning read out a statement:

As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.’16

No less than the public act of speaking out was the act of speaking out the truth of who she wanted to become. There is not just a public and outer dimension to Chelsea’s deep moral convictions but also a private and inner dimension.

The importance of Chelsea Manning’s life stems from one fundamental aspect. To Chelsea the self was not a given, something like an inert object. Rather in Chelsea’s understanding the human self was always in the process of becoming. In Emerson’s terms, Chelsea’s voyage of discovery is about working on the realization that the self is ‘unattained but attainable’ (Emerson, 909). Chelsea’s journey is also one with Foucault’s journey who famously said that ‘The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning’ (Foucault, 1998, pp. 9).

What is truly remarkable about this journey is that it goes deep within as much as it goes outward. There is a recognition that something is not quite right with the world as it exists, just as there is recognition that there is something not quite right about oneself.

The recognition that there is something wrong with the world is an understanding that to unthinkingly conform to the demands of society is to do serious damage to the self. Conformity said Emerson produces a life lived in ‘secret melancholy’ and for Thoreau it describes ‘the mass of men living lives of quiet desperation’ (Cavell, 2004, pp. 25).

Conformity is responsible not only for individual unhappiness as Thoreau and Emerson saw it, but also the infliction of needless suffering through heedless wars whose necessity is never challenged. Thus Chelsea Manning’s impulse to tell the truth about the Iraq war, regardless of the consequences, is at one with the impulse of other heroic dissenters like Thoreau himself in his day as well as Socrates, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

 Where Manning goes beyond is in articulating the fact that working on the self is not only about broadening the range of ethical concerns but also about being true to who you are in the deepest sense. By questioning the ‘truth’ that a person born biologically a man should live his whole life as a man, Chelsea Manning challenges the socially imposed borders of gender and sexuality, thereby giving the notion of freedom another dimension.

Being transgender and her willingness to be herself, truthfully and without adornment or artifice is of a piece with her strong moral drive to make her government accountable even at high personal cost. Chelsea Manning exemplifies an ethical life, that is, a life devoted to a practice of freedom.

Imagining utopia

What utopian vision can one derive from the lives of Swapna and Sucheta and Chelsea Manning? All three lives are pregnant with utopian possibilities and gesture towards ways of meaningful living in the contemporary era.

The lives of Swapna and Sucheta are exemplars of how the love between two people can be passionate, playful, meaningful and subversive as well as open out possibilities for future generations. Swapna and Sucheta invoke the little joys of life which should be a part of any utopia. The idea of love encompasses the everyday joys of laughter and togetherness as well as the ability to live with the person of one’s choice. These are little joys which become even more significant in a context in which they are denied to human beings.

In India Section 377 criminalizes the intimate lives of LGBT people and constitutes a denial of the right to human happiness. From the perspective of the LGBT community, utopia lies in the absence of a criminal law that sanctions LGBT lives and the loosened social and religious orthodoxies constraining all efforts of the LGBT community to form intimate attachments.17

However utopia cannot just be a personal utopia for the LGBT community. In a world marked by grave and continuing forms of injustice, to achieve some measure of personal happiness (important as it is) can never be enough.

Part of the problem in the world is that even in progressive communities, our empathy is divided up. If you are gay your empathy is only for gay causes and if you are a religious minority your empathy is for religious minority causes alone.

In such a situation, there is a case to be made for broadening the grooves of empathy so that the heart feels more keenly the suffering of the stranger and the ‘other’. Utopia would surely be a state where the human heart is moved by all forms of suffering.

A utopian vision would be a space where social movements move from a focus on single issues to an understanding of the connections to other forms of suffering inflicted on human beings.

This utopian aspiration for the future of social movements, is best gestured to by the life of Chelsea Manning who in the remarkable actions of her life, embodied a politics of radical empathy towards strangers in distant lands. Of course this inspirational aspect of Chelsea Manning’s life finds echoes in other lives as well.

To take an example from contemporary India: in 2016, India was convulsed with the suicide of a young Dalit scholar, Rohit Vemula, at the Hyderabad Central University. Rohit was persecuted for his political beliefs and actions by a vindictive university administration he was unable to cope with. He left behind a suicide note which movingly recalled a creative life so tragically lost. In his note Rohit wrote:

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust; in every field – in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.’18

The eloquence of the suicide note hinted at the remarkable life that was lost. The life that Rohit Vemula lived was as inspirational as the note he left behind. One aspect of Rohit’s remarkable life was his passion for politics not defined as single issue politics but rather politics as a broad tent.

It is precisely this broad tent approach to politics that allowed Rohit to view not only discrimination on caste lines as an issue of importance but also discrimination against Muslims and issues such as the death penalty.

In fact it was the stance taken by Rohit’s organization, the Ambedkar Study Circle, on this broader terrain of politics which got him into trouble. The fact that the Ambedkar Study Circle conducted programmes on multiple human rights issues (including the anti-Muslim pogroms in Muzzafarnagar and the death penalty) resulted in vindictive action by the university authorities.19

It was the broad platform that the Ambedkar Study Circle espoused which the state found very threatening. Unlike single-issue identity politics, this form of political thinking and action could not be easily managed and controlled, and instead needed to be silenced.

The silencing of Rohit parallels the thirty five year prison sentence for that other heroic dissenter Chelsea Manning.20 There are echoes of Chelsea’s bravery in the actions of the young Rohit Vemula who refuses to see the world within narrow ‘identity’ frames. They both call out to us to embrace a politics of radical empathy that broadens the notion of what it is to be human.

All these lives gesture towards is the possibility of another world. We should not have to suffer death for wanting to live with the one that we love. Similarly we should not be tortured and imprisoned for seeking to speak the truth about the injustices our societies inflict.

In seeking to bring into being a fragile utopia in an insensitive world, these visionaries keep alive the future. The fact that they dared to act against what society expected of them and in accordance with their internal selves, has introduced an aspect of magical possibility into everyday, quotidian and humdrum lives. To attend to these lives is to demand that their dreams become our present.


1. The word ‘queer’ itself inhabits a new political wisdom. For some it is a re-imagination of ideas of love and relationships; and for others a restructuring of the law, politics and society and a challenge to the way we inhabit the world. It represents those who fall out (and/or choose to stand out) of the contours of the hetero-normative social order.
2. The image of Swapna and Sucheta as captured by the photographer can be viewed in a documentary film made by Debalina Mazumdar titled ‘The Unclaimed’, (accessed 10 August, 2015).
3. The narrative documented is from Mazumdar’s documentary, mentioned above.
4. Suicide Note on file with Sappho for Equality, 2011.
5. ibid.
6. As Aristophanes puts it, ‘that’s how, long ago, the innate desire of human beings for each other started. It draws the two halves of our original nature back together and tries to make one out of two and to heal the wound in human nature. Each of us is a matching half of a human being, because we’ve been cut in half like flatfish’ (Plato, 1999, pp. 24).
7. Suicide Note on file with Sappho for Equality.
8. ibid.
9. ibid. 10. Judith Butler in her reading of the myth of Antigone, observes that Antigone’s relationship to Polynices is complicated. After all they are both the children of Oedipus who married his own mother. Antigone’s story according to Butler posits the emergence of new forms of relationships which are formed outside the traditional kinship ties that bind, for example a brother to a sister.
11. See Mazumdar’s documentary film, op. cit.
13. ibid. 14. ibid. 15. Edward Snowden expressed powerfully the value of acts of dissent such as the one by Manning – ‘The individuals who make these disclosures feel so strongly about what they have seen that they’re willing to risk their lives and their freedom.They know that we, the people, are ultimately the strongest and most reliable check on the power of government. The insiders at the highest levels of government have extraordinary capability, extraordinary resources, tremendous access to influence and a monopoly of violence, but in the final calculus there is one figure that matters: the individual citizen. And there are more of us than there are of them’ (Scahill, 2016, pp. xviii).
16. (accessed 12 September, 2015).
17. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes what it calls ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. The law allows for deep intrusions by both state and non state actors into the domain of one’s private and intimate life putting in jeopardy the right to dignity, privacy, equality and expression. For a more in depth analysis of the impact of Section 377 on LGBT lives see the essays in Gupta & Narrain (2011).
18. (accessed 12 August, 2016).
19. (accessed 12 August, 2016).
20. At the time of going to press Chelsea Manning has been released by a Presidential pardon. 


Anouilh, Jean, 1947, Antigone, New York: Random House.
Butler, Judith, 2000, Antigone’s Claim, New York: Columbia University Press.
Cavell, Stanley, 2004, Cities of Words, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1909, History cf. in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol II, New York: Fireside Edition, (accessed 5 October, 2017).
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 1996, ‘Don’t ask me for that love again’, cf. in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, J. D. McClatchy (ed.), New York: Random House, pp. 395.
Foucault, Michel, 1998, Ethics, New York: New Press.
Fugard, Athol (with John Kani & Winston Ntshona), 1976, Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island, New York: Viking.
Gupta,Alok and Arvind Narrain, 2011, Law like Love, New Delhi: Yoda Press.
Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles), 1996, Odyssey, New York: Penguin.
Lee,Christopher, 2015, Frantz Fanon, Towards a Revolutionary Humanism, Ohio University Press, Athens.
Marx, Eleanor Aveling, 2003, ‘Karl Marx: A few stray notes’, in Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm, New Delhi: Bloomsbury.
Nussbaum, Martha, 2001, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Paulson, Nancy Kason, 2012, ‘In Defense of the Dead: Antigona Furiosa, by Griselda Gambaro’, Romance Quarterly, Vol. 59(1), pp. 48–54.
Plato, 1999, The Symposium, London: Penguin.
Plato, 2005, Phaedrus, London: Penguin.
Scahill, Jeremy, 2016, The Assassination Complex, London: Serpents Tail.
Sophocles, 1984, ‘Antigone’, in Three Theban Tragedies, Robert Fagles (ed.), New York: Penguin.
Steiner, George, 1986, Antigones, Oxford: Clarendon Press


Our Notes
© Arvind Narrain
--Reproduced with kind permission from “Alternative Futures: India Unshackled” edited by Ashish Kothari and K.J. Joy Authors Upfront. Delhi. 2017.
--Chelsea Manning was not released from her 35-year sentence by a Presidential “pardon.” Mr. Obama in January 2017 commuted her sentence. Her conviction Chelsea Manningstill remains on record.  
--The visual (not part of the reproduced text) is from:
---Some stylistic changes have been made to the original text
--The Summary from the original is not included in this text.
--On September 06 2018 the Supreme Court struck down Section 377 on consensual gay sex. For full text see here:
View: Anand Grover talks on the Section 377
Also Read:
--‘Laughter as Subversive Weapon
--Idolatry of Nation…

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