A thinky post! That pulls together all kinds of different things I am thinking about! Including Thanksgiving, so it’s a holiday post.
Thanksgiving is a funky little America only holiday so I am not sure how much my non-American readers know about the origins. And the origins are really interesting, and in a greyer area than you think.
In the late 1500s, Europe was going crazy with reform movements. The Catholic church had dominated religion, and in many ways all of civilization, for hundreds of years. But now through out Europe rebels were speaking up, were demanding a new way. One of these groups was the Brownist Puritan Separatists in England. They were actually separatists of separatists. The Church of England split from the Catholic church not just because King Henry wanted a divorce, but because there was increasing resentment through out England of the power of the Catholic church. England seized the wealth held by the churches and created a new more egalitarian religion. But that wasn’t enough for the Brownist separatists, so they split from Church of England. What they wanted was an entirely democratic system of worship, elected elders and total self-determination, no priests. The English authorities started to come after them a bit, so they moved from England to Amsterdam. They lived there for a few years, some of them finding employment at the local university or in industries. But it was hard for them to live in a country that spoke a different language and had a different background than their English heritage. So they decided to take a risk and travel to one of the new colonies in the American continent.
This was far from the first settlement in the North and South American continents. Columbus had founded his little slavery/rape/torture kingdom, that was fun. And Jamestown had already happened down in the warmer southerner areas of the coast, and failed. The big thing to know is that the Pilgrims were arriving to a civilization in decline. America had settlements and history and all of those things just as much as Europe or anywhere else in the world. But when the first Europeans wandered into the continent, they brought with them diseases. By the time the Pilgrims arrived, the East coast had already been literally decimated (only one in ten surviving) by disease and it was sweeping westward fast.
The Puritan Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Rock, which was a TERRIBLE place to land!!!! It’s all rocky, you can’t grow anything, just horrible. But the advantage was that the local Masachussetts speaking communities were already struggling in the wake of other European invasions. While other colonies ended up quickly destroyed by the established communities, or else forced to turn into armed camps in enemy territory, the Puritan Pilgrims got to comparatively just stroll in and settle down. Their only challenge was the land itself. Really, I cannot say enough bad things about Massachusetts as an agriculture state. Just TERRIBLE. Big rocks everywhere, bad weather most of the year, huge storms coming through. STUPID. Thank goodness, there was an English speaking member of one of the Massachussetts communities who decided to help them out and gave them some agriculture tips. They still starved to death all over the place, but they made it through the winter. And next year, when their harvest was good enough to ensure survival through the winter, they had a big party of “Thanksgiving”. Which is where our holiday comes from.
The thing is, this is a very nice story and one every kid in America learns at a young age. But we don’t really think about what kind of people the Puritans were. They were so independent, so unbending, so uninterested in being part of a larger society, that they traveled all the way across the ocean to get away from governments. They were willing to die (and did die) in order to be “free” of any regulation on their lives.
And this brings me to Raees (haha! You probably didn’t think I could get there!). The Pilgrims didn’t actually live “alone”. They were surrounded by the larger Masachussetts civilization. But they held themselves apart, they didn’t interact with it. They figured out ways to be more or less self-sufficient (once Squanto had helped them understand how to farm) and just went their own way. That’s the kind of community that I think, to this day, is far more common America than anywhere else. Not just people choosing to go into the wilderness and be “off the grid”, but who communities that live that way.
The easy comparison in Indian culture is all those villages where the old Landlord family, or else the Panchayat, rules everything. Where modern Indian laws (like, say, marriage age) have no effect. But I don’t actually think that is the same. That is people who are stuck in the passed, living by rules that far preceded modern India. There’s something different about a community that has pulled farther away from “modern” life and moved forward to create it’s own new rules. Like the Puritans, Separatists of Separatists, looking for a newer new way.
The community in Raees was that. People living in urban areas in modern India, loving modern India, but wanting to go even farther. No return to Panchayats and child marriages, instead using illegal means and an illegal society to fund schools, free kitchens, all kinds of new ideas that are even newer than the old new ideas.
The thing is, when you isolate your community from the world, you can create change in that community without needing to drag everyone else forward with you. In Raees, Shahrukh’s character understood that the whole community was already part of the illegal alcohol trade just by looking the other way. He decided to take it even farther, spread the wealth, spread the employment, make a society within a society that was structured around alcohol, but became so much more than that. Raees is sold as a movie about a bootlegger, but really it is a movie about Pilgrims, about people forming their own society outside of society. The real shocker of that film isn’t all the alcohol smuggling, it is that this outlaw society was more fair, more safe, more right, than “real” society.
And that’s why they had to change the ending. In real life, the person Raees was loosely based on wasn’t killed. He was elected to political office and was successful. It worked. “Crime” did, in fact, pay.
And in America, that’s why we have to change the beginning of the Thanksgiving story. It isn’t about a bunch of radicals who broke from civilization and formed an outlaw society. It is about Noble Pilgrims who settled and made a boring safe stable society. Because if you start to think too much about the Pilgrims, or the American Revolution, or any of that, you may realize that the outlaws sometimes are right, and sometimes win.