Murderers can decide when they will grieve---if they grieve for their victims. Military commanders can decide when they will grieve---if they grieve for the warriors whom they send into harm's way. Death and destruction envelop the rest of us when they choose to do so. We exert our will and agency only through prayer, preventive techniques, and the songs, poems, and memorials with which we mourn.
December 1 was the first day of the last month of 2008, a blessed and a cursed year. It was World Aids Awareness Day. But I also saw, on a concrete plaze on West 4th Street in New York City, the writing of a new chapter, "Transnational Mourning," in the ancient book of grief. University students organized a brief, border-crossing vigil in honor of the dead and wounded in Mumbai, India.
The people there were transnational in their countries of origin, passports, languages, and arts of mourning. The killed and hurt in Mumbai were also transnationals. Representatives of three faiths spoke at the ceremony: a Hindu chaplain, a Muslim chaplain, a Jewish chaplain, and the rabbi of the Chabad serving the university.
This transnational gathering might have had nothing for which to give thanks as people thought of and felt the destruction that took place in Mumbai during the American Thanksgiving holidays. Their daring was to reject nihilism. They quietly remembered the dead and then, out of their disparate identities, created a sense of unity that must precede, and follow, human compacts. A projector threw images of burning candles spelling out One/Soul/Life on a screen. I heard a student murmur, "I don't remember a lot of Jews and Indians being together before."
The organizers distributed candles for us to light and hold. Candles are the wax, self-consuming pillars that traditionally illuminate lamentations. Yet, the vigil drew on the technologies that enable and mediate transnationalism. The Mumbai Massacre had been on many screens, including those of TV. Many of the students had spoken to family or friends on their ubiquitous cell phones.
Despite this transnationalism, the vigilant were aware of national identities, their own and that of others. Transnationalism elides but does not abolish nations. A student told me that she had talked to her family on her cell phone. A relative works in the travel business and did long shifts in an airline office in the Mumbai suburbs. The main office, near the Taj Hotel, was closed. "People were flooding in, even without their passports," she said, "All they wanted to do was to get home." She added that she had become even more aware of being an Indian citizen. She vowed to go home as soon as she finished her education and work to reform her country.
On the sidewalk a block away a young man was handing out flyers for a panel discussion that was "OPEN TO THE PUBLIC!" Its subject was to be another form of transnationalism: the world economic order. Its title? "The Deepening Economic Disaster: Causes and Opportunities for Change."
On the plaza: a poignant scene of transnational mourning. On the sidewalk: a promise to expose the dangers of transnational capitalism. A deep pun was at work. On the plaza, people were establishing transnational bonds, the ties among them. On the sidewalk, the advocate of a lecture series was talking up an event that would shred the concept of transnational bonds, financial instruments to be bought and sold. Such are the layers, juxtapositions, and collisions of our globality.
Catherine R. Stimpson