31 August 2012

31 July 2012

30 June 2012

31 May 2012

A Visit to Hans, being some notes on alterity and cinema

To Prashaste Sinha, 
“Brave in her shape, and sweeter unpossessed.” 

Cinema is such an integral part of much of urban human life that quite often we don’t concretely articulate what we might have to object to it. Like most experiences and commodities, engaging with alterities in this case too provides a range of valuable insights. 

First, the conditions of cinematic reception, the ways in which movie halls are constructed and prostituted – made available as part of the commodity market – easily become naturalised. Cinema, as the critic has noticed, is such an instantaneous form of artistic consumption that it engrosses and orients wholly towards its own internal dynamics much more than to the conditions of its immediate consumption. Given that, the module of consumption which offers greater tangible comfort in a basic sense of being finds easy acceptance and is readily integrated as natural and indispensible. 

Comfort, however, is not quite the objective universal. True, there is a sense in which comfort can be standardised and conceived in qualitative terms as a hierarchy of instant and utter sensual gratification, but the contextuality of the concept still coexists and so makes comfort also a matter of choice, perception and circumstance. Part of all of this, of course, is the economics of comfort, the cost of creating, sustaining and consolidating comfort – or comforts as the unacknowledged case usually is. 

The case of movie theatres seems somewhat similar. Comfort devolves on seating, on air conditioning, on screen, projection and sound quality respectively and on the availability of snacks. More than these tangibles, however, comfort is a corollary of the successful creation of an illusion of comfort, of the presentation of signs – from flooring and carpeting to sanitary fixtures – associated with comfort. Cinema is in any case a peculiar art form that has since its inception continuously reinvented itself to be ahistorically contemporaneous; not surprisingly, then, the visual paraphernalia of a sanitised modernity has more or less unquestioningly been an inherent part of its fashioning as the carrier and site of progressive prosperity. The movie theatre as much of Hindustan seems to know it today is precisely the consolidated product of these motifs and impetuses: we associate comfortable cinematic reception with the multiplex module not as much because that is comfortable in a comfort qua comfort sense – if such a sense does exist – but because it represents and fulfils aspirations of class and national mobility and the attendant desires for sanitised, instantly consumable entertainment. 

In such a scenario, the fact that entertainment, and the same form of entertainment, has different modules is an undesirable truth. A visit to Hans Cinema in the Azadpur area of the Capital reinforces as much. Hans is what in middle class colloquialisms is usually dismissed as a cheaparh hall, the bastion of Bhojpuri cinema frequented by destitutes and low income parts of the populace. The bourgeois visitor to Hans is at first more or less naturally struck with the exotic, and disturbing, otherness of the prospect. Class prejudices being too pervasive, the cheaparhness of Hans is, again, a factor of perceptual economics and all the attendant notions of comfort and respectability, cheapness itself being an essentially comparative qualification premised on fiscal dynamics. 

But even given the validity of these bias induced standards – for standards there must be, criticism being impossible without them – Hans is not cheaparh in many ways. The tickets are, to say the least, inexpensive, ranging from a maximum of thirty-five to a minimum of twenty. The movies are usually family dramas in the currently understood and appreciated stereotype of family dramas – romance, action, suspense, tragedy, union – and are mostly sourced from Bhojpuri and other allied, so-called regional industries. The hall itself is situated on the junction of the Grand Trunk Road with the city’s Inner Ring Road and stands opposite to Azadpur gaon and Azadpur industrial area and is flanked by high income Model Town residencies on one side and the service sector industries of Bara Bagh area on the other. It does not, from the outside, give an impression of neglect, but neither does it give the reassuring sense of unceasing maintenance of the quintessential multi-chain multiplex. 

The crowd too was of a socio-economic composition that can be thought of in similar terms. Most of the patrons seemed locals from the nearby gaon and slum cluster and seemed qualified, by their appearance, for censure from bourgeois eyes: one expected hooting, whistling, jeering and comment, just as one expected, mainly by the appearance of the theatre, semi-pornographic, crude cinema. Yet, such typical biases proved unfounded and the patrons seemed possessed of as much demeanour as those of any of your posh multiplexes. The movie, certainly simplistic in much of its technique, had as much skin and crassness as any of your regular, mainstream Hindustani cinema and the plot, nothing much to boast of, required as much willing suspension of disbelief as much of our conventional blockbusters. Most interestingly, the hall itself, the theatre from inside, was remarkably egalitarian in its structure, allowing, like the Elizabethan stage, all economic classes – vis-à-vis ticket purchasing capacity – the same, albeit gradated in terms of air conditioning and upholstery, access to the same entertainment. 

Of course, the very fact that demeanour and decency were considerations in this scenario, and at that considerations premised on distinct economics of being, indicates the continuance of biases even as they are challenged and interrogated on other planes. We tend, that is, to take such experiential economics as is out of the common currents of our analyses and engagement in ways indicative of our own biases and though that seems natural in many ways, it is nonetheless responsible for much avoidable injustice to peoples, places and perceptions. 

A visit to Hans demonstrated as much. The movie, nothing much to speak of in the untrained audience’s sense of judgement, was still entertaining in its own right; the hall, nothing much to speak of by bourgeois standards, was still comfortable in its own way. The own of here is significant: one judges by one’s own standards, but faced with alterity and difference one must consider one’s own loci and their fundamentals as much, if not more, than the other’s existential basis. We who are accustomed to the comfort economics of multiplex cinema must interrogate the basis of that comfort, the conditions on which it is provided and what that persuasively invisible process of availability entails: if other industries, as much regional – or national – as so-called Bollywood, can work and be consumed on more equitable basis, on basis reflective, even if unintentionally, of economics comparatively less discriminatory of class and the largely superficial paraphernalia of culture and taste, then there seems no convincing reason for the supposed mainstream to not operate similarly. 

That it does not indicates not as much the exigencies of recovery or the indispensability of comfort as the pervasive hold of extensive, unscrupulous profiteering on these forms of production, dissemination and consumption. In that sense, to be used to certain modules of consumption and to have sets ways of conceptualising socio-economic dynamics is perfectly alright, as, to a lesser degree, is holding on to them when faced with alterities. What we must endeavour when faced with such alterities, then, is to interrogate the basis of our own conditionings and rationalisations and see whether they themselves cannot be bettered in ways which would make them more equitable and oriented towards a communal sense of welfare and well-being, the community being, as the proverb goes, of all, for all and by all. Cinematic consumption has the potential to set such standards and Hans, even if unintentionally, leads the way.

27 May 2012

On Family Life

Does your family also work like a constitutional monarchy? Recent events and sustained observation has forced me to conclude that mine does.

The parents, of course, are hierarchical heads of state, a joint position inherited by blood and marriage and as such in continuance of the divine right. The sad burgeoning of the bourgeoisies has over time diluted the strength of the crown and powers are increasingly devolved onto the middlings, but the prestige and respect attendant on the double throne still survives. In any case, the constitution is but unwritten and compound more of tradition and convention that clear-cut legalities of a law.

Politically, therefore, the state is a form of feudal federalism in the fluid style of the Stuarts. The thrones share and control a number of important ministries, but a few are still the preserve of lords of the chamber and yet more are shared betwixt the crown and its dependencies. The Treasury, for instance, is shared equally amongst all revenue generating members of the state and the Exchequers jointly deliberate the expenses of the realm. The Foreign Office too is shared by all major members of the Royal Council and relations with other potentates are determined as much by individual agency and effort as by combined writ of the Council.

Of course, like all mechanisms one hardly realises the amount of behind-the-scenes work which goes into making this fluid yet fixed structure keep going seamlessly. It’s only when some rupture disturbs the normal functioning of the realm that you become aware of the underlying layers of complexities which prop the system. These ruptures can be of various kinds, but what their occurrence provides is an insight into the ways in which the state functions.

Such a rupture occurred recently with the issue of the state car. A new vehicle being purchased for the purpose, the matter of disposal of the old one became contentious. Much of the Council argued in favour of an immediate phasing out, but the member for affairs cultural and supernumerary arguing strongly for continuity and heritage a reluctant case was made out for conservation of the car.

Therein ended the first of many meetings. The issue being so tangled, a series of deliberations could not settle it. Inter-ministerial memorandums of understanding and mutual interest were come to, lengthy analyses conducted and reports prepared. Comment was invited from experts financial and mechanical, the Foreign Office consulted heads of other allied potentates and a holistic white paper was prepared.

Of course, that wasn’t just it. As in all senatorial setups, debate categorised the process at all stages, but what mattered the most was not the rhetoric of the moment but backstage alignments and confederacies. Members of the Council sent feelers to each other, the thrones themselves issued bilateral negotiations and the black clouds of chaos so threatened the matter that the original issue stood the risk of obfuscation amidst piles of red tape and tangential deliberation. All seemed lost and at the risk of becoming a dreaded official secret erased from public memory till, as, again, is wont with such forms of governance the highest power issued a directive and so the matter resolved. Backstage considerations must indeed have been involved, but in the best traditions of family life all was conducted with that sign of imperious command that put the matter to rest: fully, completely and amicably.

17 April 2012

How to be a Man: A Conversation

M: Ohh...wat about gf's....huh....
    i think it's tym for u to get commited.......

P: Haha! And why is that so?

M: cmon man....ur an adult now.....

P: And by that logic...?

M: did i need to explain u....ur not mature enough to get wat im saying.......
    cmon *** be a man....

P: Ah! Explain
    How does one become a man, Vivek?

M: i give up.......

P: Don't
   Carry on for a bit
   Are you a man?

M: obviously yes......

P: In what way are you one?
    And what did you do to become one?
    Who, precisely, is a man?

M: you r the man ***.....
    u r the man of principles....

P: Come now, you're giving up
    Men don't do that

M: if ur telling me that men don't do that........
    then u also knw wat precisely is a man....
    got u now,,....

P: I'm working on an inverse logic
    If, according to you, you are a man and giving up elicits a sad emoticon from you, then
    that is clearly what men do not do.
    What, one wonders, do men do?
    Do answer
    Most insightful

M: they enjoy life.......

P: Tch tch tch

M: when we meet i'll explain u in detail
    by the way how come u online at this tym....

P: Oh, I was bored and watching porn

M: lolllzzzz......

P: You?

M: chattin wid gf......

P: Ah! That's how you become a man, hmmm? How long have you had this particular "gf"?

M: frm last 2 years.........

P: Good, good. What base are you on?

M: Im going to marry her......

P: Oh, seriously? Well! I suppose I must congratulate you.
    A bit young to be marrying though, eh Vivek?
    And that too in just two years
    First love?

M: nopes..... Last .....

P: So one hopes, so one hopes

M: hmm....
    it was nice talkin to u *** after a long tym......
    bubbyeee for now....

P: Sure. Good night!

M: u enjoy ur porn........
    nite bro......

P: Yeah, I will.

M: ur funny.....

P: If you say so

M: rofl.....

29 March 2012

On Dancing

I can’t dance. And I can never figure out what to do when people around me are.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Not, of course, that you might be thinking this idiot can’t dance but that it’s difficult to decide what to do when people all around you are grooving to glory and you’re transfixed like this gargoyle of an eyesore on the dance floor. The music’s nice, the beats are just fine and something within you is responding, but you just can’t make the moves. And so you’re left there standing, looking around sheepishly, wondering what the heck to do.

Yes, what do you do? What does one do in a situation of that sort? What, if one may, are the ethics of the matter?

Oh no, that’s not far-fetched now. There are ethics involved most of us aren’t struck by them because we don’t suffer from any such debilitation, but that doesn’t change it one bit, What, precisely, are the ethics of looking at people dancing?

Not an easy question, that. Think about it, what is dance but a letting loose, howsoever temporarily, of inhibitions, of those notions of propriety and so-called dignified conduct which guide us in most of our everyday interactions? Each spontaneous jig is a momentary blow to socialisation and though dance as an institution makes sure that such blows are well contained and institutionalised as acceptable articulations, one really can’t deny there’s something atavistic, something immensely primal about dancing. Again, excepting formal forms of dance which are premised on certain rules, much of dance, the dancing which most of the untrained polity indulges in, seems to be precisely about doing just what comes to your mind. There are, of course, modules, people imitate what they consider fashionable and quite a lot of formal dance, or dance in which you get training, is about creating the impression of spontaneity, but more or less dancing does seem a form of purgation.

Or so it would seem. Dance is a form of purgation, but how does one explain dance pour dance, dance just for the sake of dancing? Not just because you feel like dancing but because there’s music and you, as I’m told, just can’t help it. Is it a form of purgation? Do people who spontaneously break into jigs have more pressures, tangible or not, which they break through regularly via this unconscious prance mechanism? Further, not all dance can be explained as that, as purgation: what of the early morning variety, the type which some people are reputed to break into when they wake up because they feel so nice and fresh and can’t but prance about. In that case, is prancing also dancing – or, differently put, dancing all but modified forms of prancing?

Regardless of these considerations, our moot point still remains: how should one look at people dancing? It’s easier with formal, classical dance: it’s safely confined within its own space, audience interaction is seldom invited and, like drama, dancer(s) are all but part of their own realm of creativity of which the onlooker is only an incidental, if important, part. The problem arises with the so-called spontaneous variant, when people break into celebratory jigs as part of some event or party.

Again, it’s easier – for me, i.e. – in the case of men. I mean, of course its awkward witnessing all sorts of respectable looking patriarchs and upcoming studs pumping to some popular tune, but it’s still not half as embarrassing as in the case of women. With men you can still wear the silly, sheepish grin when they dance to de daaru, but what do you do when women, and that too women you know as family and friends, dance to chikkni chameli?

You continue with the dashed grin of course, but you furiously try locating some interesting spot to comment upon in an obscure corner of the venue. You’d think as an onlooker your dharma is to appreciate the beauty of the going-ons, to partake some of the sensuality which all of dance unleashes but then you don’t particularly wish to be doing that when the unleashing agents are your own sisters. I can’t see why all parties need to have a music system and some sort of dancing. I mean, agreed, it’s the most visual way of expressing one’s joy and of celebrating something, but why all the time? And even if you have to have it, why such songs as make you squirm with embarrassment? Things which deliberately declare you to be some sort of meatball which needs must be dished up and devoured as soon as possible because apparently that’s what men and women do it each other – why, I ask, why does it have to be that?

Is one supposed to have the critical eye when all that’s happening, see them but only see so much physical movement, so much expense of energy and nothing else? Or should one openly register all that’s happening, consider the bon-bon and the bootylicious as what they really are because dancing is in anyway accentuating and bringing into direct notice your having them? Should one do both of these, consider the human ensemble as just so many creatures and everything else as part of them and their gyrating motion deserving all attention and merit because that’s what an onlooker should be doing, appreciating all that effort i.e.? Yet, is doing that possible? – for what one claims then is a asexually sexual gaze, a perspective that takes in all the sensuality of a dance and is moved to appreciating it but only in a way which considers the body not as the body, as the site of desire, but as a manifestation of beauty. Is that possible, can one, for instance, see a naked body and be struck by its beauty but not have any desire for it? Is it, in effect, possible to separate desire from sight, to see and feel beauty but not experience desire?

Mosquitoes and Civilisation

The fact that there are mosquitoes in this room is a sign of a deep rooted civilisational malaise. It’s an absolute blot on humanity, a disgrace on our entire civilisational effort, a matter of deep shame for all of mankind that there are mosquitoes in this room.

Or perhaps it’s not a disgrace on our science, on our technological might which can atomise whole worlds, but a comment on existence itself. That there are mosquitoes in the same world as there are humans is a reminder not just of the ultimate animality of our species but also a strong comment on the undeniable animality of our civilisation.

Yes, the animality of our civilisation. After all, progressive civilisation as we’ve come to know it is based essentially and inextricably on unsustainable exploitation of resources and peoples. We are humans and have laptops and the internet not simply because one bloke long back had the ingenuity to tame lightning and direct it with wires but also because we have the mechanisms, tangible and intangible, to dig up mounds of soil to make miniscule little chips and blow up mountains and rocks to make slender, fine wires. All of that digging and blowing – and that is just a very, very general understatement of all that goes into laptops and the internet – is achieved at the expense of a variety of ideas and organisms, human and otherwise. To be civilised is to be fashionably brutish.

Of course, there is no one way of being civilised. Progressive, liberal, growth oriented civilisation is what we know the most and live through, but civilisation can be various states of being and relativity, various diverse modes and degrees of exploitation and engagement with ideas and objects and their respective interactions with each other. Yet, over the past hundred years or so our civilisations have been tending towards a singular, modular civilisation, towards a more or less composite, set way of engaging with alterities and otherness and of conceiving the self in relation to itself and to these alterities exterior to it.

The fact that despite jaalis there’re still mosquitoes in this room is indicative of the coming to age of this homogenising, super-civilisation. A civilisation which directs the gaze inwards, which gives agency but sequesters it to leave much of experience outside the pale of action: we are citizens of more or less democratic communities which engender notions of free will, free press and free speech, but democracy and freedom themselves are temporal subjectivities prone to subtle domestications.

It is these domestications which, ultimately, allow macchars a free reign in the troposphere. Contemporary politics gives us the freedom to romance, the access to schooling and the choice to gainful employment, but it increasingly presents all of these in such pleasant provisos as limit their exercise for progressively transparent, equitable modes of socio-economic engagement. Market logic dictates that focus should be the self and selfhood the primary, even exclusive, domain of action – what lies outside is the responsibility of the state, the communal, the increasingly atomised yet faceless collective.

The politics of mosquito repellent merchandise is an exemplary instance of such invisible yet potent diversification. The macchar-chaap coil and machine, the mosquito repellent cream, the fly zapper, all these are symbols of a larger, global impulse towards the barricading of interiors, of the polarisation of home and world in ways which put all possible premium on the former and relegate all possible responsibility towards the latter to the ethereal yet ever strengthening arm of the state. We can control only what goes on in our own little homes and so we have jaalis on our windows and subscribe eagerly to even stronger chemical combinations to kill those who invade our domestic castles. The state does its bit in conducting fumigation once in a while, disseminating information against mosquito breeding and conducting investigations on actions taken by citizens in their homes and so the responsibility of the opens is comfortably devolved onto agencies and factors outside individual control. Whether that responsibility is undertaken to the fullest and whether such a delegation of powers allows any significant scope to the public individual is, then, a matter of and for more or less self-limiting academic debate.

Be that as it may, one can’t deny that in its entirety individual control is a happy impossibility. Still, the very fact that individual agency needs, increasingly, to find legitimate outlet through institutionalised effort is reflective of the ways in which the private is obfuscating the public even as the public is restricting the private. As long as our civilisations move towards this ideal of civilisation, individual agency and endeavour will continue finding gainful realisation in the private and macchars, for all that our achievements and economies are worth, will continue finding safe haven in our homes.

17 February 2012

Some commemorative verses in memory of festive times

Of –rash and the chicks I sing,
That fugitive from Rajputana,
Enemy to tofu and soya, she
Who journeyed from far and over
The many ribbed backs of
Fast moving engines of massed steel
And found home in the land of victory.
She, a victim to the great wrath
Of the enthroned gods, who
From her land and ancient hearth
To undying lands of the free did
Journey, to found amongst the free
A temple sacred of Love and Joy,
An abode of great happiness, mocking
Those above in their splendour and glory.

Was it this, Muse, that roused the jealous
Pride of the gods? Did her feasts pale
The ambrosial gatherings of those
Arbitrators of our fate? Twas great Hera,
Mother, divine keeper of bridal vows,
Who first voiced the general dissatisfaction.
“Look, husband”, said she to the mighty
Thunderer, “how the mortals sport,
See how they live and love and feast!
They carry on without a thought to us
And what is rightfully ours, for we
Being eternal, eternal joy too must be
Ours, not the keep of these
Uncertain playthings of Time!”

It was you, brazen Mars, who spoke next,
Complaining of too great a peace,
Lusting for blood, battle in your eyes,
You spoke next. “Love or not,
Feasts or not, the gods must
Have their sport! Mortals may
Sport, aye, but so must we,
And, making them our sports,
Play with their dust! Hades has too long
Been empty, sinners live too much,
To war, then, to war!”

The Cytherean then suddenly rose,
Tall and stately was she, her hair
Long and kept up with a golden brooch,
A gift by her skilful husband, the
Lame One, she rose, her bosom
Heaving with dismay at her brother’s
Sharp words and so addressed the
Gathered gods: “Must we be
Vindictive, as of old? Must we
Grudge the unfortunate their fickle
Joys? These that we speak of
Are favoured by me, my particular
Friends, their house my special favourite.
Many are the times that I have
Joined in their sports, infused their love
With greater vigour. Let us not
Grieve over mortal joy, when eternity is
Ours, and so eternal delight!”

Faithless Strife, great enemy of gods
And women alike, saw a chance
To avenge an earlier slight, and
Aiming to divide the council,
Spoke thus: “You speak well,
O well-chosen consort of the Deity
Of our universe. Mortals must mortal be
And when they do presume upon
Us and ours, must hard lessons be taught.
Hear her, Conqueror, and grant us this wish,
That the free be enslaved, and slavish
Passions and yet more deeper, darker
Turmoils ensnare them!”

Great Chaos followed this, the council
Broke up divided, gods stood opposed
And all spoke in a general melee
Till their Supreme Father,
Wielder of Lightening, silenced
Them thus. “Peace, gods, peace!
Let silence reign here, let there be
Peace amongst us! Hear me now,
And hear me well. I instruct my son,
Great Dionysus, to breathe the spirit
Of Maenads amongst these mortal.
Let them sport, let them dine, but
Let madness reign, let Hades spew
Agave’s shameful ghost, and
Strife inspire –rash to a deeper shame.
Daughter, fair mother of impish
Cupid, you must not protest,
This is my will and I will not be thwarted!”

As he spoke the skies darkened, thunder split
The clouds asunder and fear came into the
Hearts of the assembled gods All nodded assent
And Dionysus, chosen for this task, was
First to leave the brazen portals of
Hoary Olympus. He was followed
Closely by Strife, greedy of mischief.
They appeared amongst their midst,
Unknown to all, and did as were bid.
Soon, where gentle love and feasting
Reigned, came in Dissatisfaction.
The stars hid in shame and Moon,
Aphrodite’s close ally, drew a
Curtain of clouds across her
Teary vision. But Strife, when aroused,
Knows no check and soon noble
-rash was an image of that mad
Theban mother. Whirling and chanting,
Her dark hair tearing the night,
Her eyes ablaze with a fury of delight,
She tore into her own precious chicks,
Broke them part by part, her hands
Bloodied and ate of the gore.

Thrice did her sea-born mistress
Send her warning, thrice did the
Winds, Aeolus’ special charge,
Attempt the accursed handful
From her bloody hands, but
The Fates’ will would be done.
She brushed aside all warning,
Driven to deeper shame in her madness
Till, sated, she dropped in her frenzy.

Who shall say what happened then,
Muse? How will I describe –rash’s shame
When rosy Aurora touched her cheeks
Into consciousness? How sing of her
Pain, the great pain, the turmoil
Which held her gripped in a vice?
Aid me, divine power, and you Apollo,
Unparalleled patron of song, give me
Skill to accomplish this unprecedented
Task, so greater glory be yours!

She woke, op’ed her eyes, and thought
The world before her. O, mighty mistake,
Grievous error! She lay in bed,
Thinking of her strange revels,
Pleased still of her feast, Memory
Deigning her happy thoughts
Before the pangs of reality would strike.
So she lay, remembering, and when
The Sun’s great chariot was halfway through
Its daily course, determined to arouse
Her company. But lo! Here she stands,
And, standing, is doubled in pain!
She sit, stands, sits, a very
Symplegades of trouble torments her
Soul, great waves of distress crashing
Over her earthly frame, her noble body
Sweaty, reeling in sickness and despairing
Of relief, to the skies so she prays.

“O, is it for this that you mighty gods
Shape us mortals, to so see us bent in
Shame? Do we forget you or your
Share of honour, dignity, respect
That you mock us thus, send us such
Plagues to torment the innermost
Secret recesses of our fragile frames?
How, O how have I erred, how
Offended you deities, for these
Tribulations, these tumults are your
Sending, I know it, they are your doing
For some fault, some mistake in me.
On this knee do I supplicate you,
O mighty ruler of destiny, ease
My pain, alleviate my suffering,
Give me release!”

Hearing this, the Thunderer was appeased,
He heard half her plea, and the rest willing air,
Decreed “Let her be free.
Let air and matter combine,
Let conches blow, let matter flow,
And as a fast flowing mountain stream
On the slopes of sacred Ida
Sweeps away accumulated mud from the banks,
Let her too regain purity, peace,
A hollow emptiness – let her be free!”

Lo! Divine signal, behold! No sooner
Than the Omnipotent’s words escaped
His lips, no sooner than the Sisters spun
To his command that on earth a mighty
Revolution occurred. Thrice the ground
Shook, thrice did the sea its bounds forsake,
Thrice thunder rule in sky and then,
As all came to a close, up rushed –rash
To her sacred closet, downed her robes
Of black and blue, and upon the hole to
Hades deep did discharge her unpleasant keep.

31 January 2012

Some notes on the railway station: Or reasons why Orientalism makes some sense

There’s some point to Orientalism, you know. Of course some of its tenets are completely preposterous and only so much bosh, but you can’t deny that in some ways it does make sense.

Rail travel makes that abundantly clear. All you have to do is take a train from any of the more frequented stations on our vast rail network in the subcontinent. You can always tell a station is near by the sheer chaos which rules the roads leading up to it. Teeming crowds coming and going, numerous roadside vendors, countless men peeing, all sorts of road transport, from rickshaws to state buses, everything that can be there in all its varied variety. Start walking in and it only gets worse. People and luggage of all sorts sprawled all around in all possible free space, all along platforms, stairs and corridors. Incessant announcements which you can hardly ever make out in the din and confusion. Hurry all around.

That’s what I could not but feel when I was last at Old Delhi Railway station. The train was two hours late. Of course, that wasn’t announced in advance, we got to know that over the period of those two hours as it got late first by ten minutes, then twenty, then an hour and then indefinitely, coming only around at the bewitching hour of twelve, some two hours behind time. There weren’t many benches and so, of course, we had to stand and when that got too much somehow manage on top of our luggage. We could’ve gone to the waiting room, yes, but even if those weren’t crowded the fear of missing the train – the display kept us hoping that it would be chugging just any minute now – kept us glued miserably to the spot.

So we waited. People rushing by, big, slimy rats running across the tracks and hopping along the platform, carts being pushed from one end to the other, babies crying boisterously, the din of expectation all around. We waited and we waited and we waited and so finally, two wretched hours of waiting, we finally had our train comfortably putting in along the platform.

That’s the Indian station and Indian railways for you. Chaos all around, almost nobody knowing anything and yet professing everything, all sorts of people confusedly jumbled together. There is some sense to Orientalism, is there not, when this romantically chaotic image of the busy thoroughfares of the exotic East is posited? If not too romantic, they most certainly are chaotic. So much so that I can sympathise with a Victorian merchant who travelled all across the subcontinent in the 1862 and, being amongst the first Occidentals to experience rail travel in India, wrote about it as part of his memoirs.

We started from the Howrah terminus of the East Indian Railway, then pen to Raneegunge, a distance of 120 miles; and it may be premised that the characteristic features, according to the example here furnished, of a ‘railway station’ in India, would afford Mr. Frith, who has immortalized the subject in England, a fresh and lively theme for the pencil. The native mind does not take matters easy while travelling, and the presence of a leisurely person on the platform is quite a phenomenon. The place is therefore a Babel of sound and confusion, in which the varied tones of manhood mingle with the shrill call of women and children, more or less lost to one another in the crowd. Dark eyes flash, dishevelled turbans stream and white togas flow, in the impatient rush for places, as if such hot haste afforded the only chance of securing them...the confusion is further enhanced by the presence of such articles as cooking-pans, clothes, and bedding, which the owner desires to carry around him...

So writes John Matheson, manufacturer and commercial bigwig of Glasgow, of his first impressions of a rail station in India. Allowing for perceptual biases, one can still not deny that there is no mean degree of truth in this description. No matter how much the poor Ministry tries to modernise them, Indian rail stations are like that.

Charmingly so though, hmmm? True there’s lots of noise and confusion and things tend to not go as they ought to, but it’s not as if it doesn’t work, right? Now, I’m not making an argument for corruption and attendant inefficiency here. What I am arguing for, instead, is that very sense of chaos and confusion which Orientalism tacitly implies as undesirable and a sign, even if somewhat quaint, of social primitivity. I don’t think it’s a sign of primitivity, but just because it has been presented as that I’m also not willing to dismiss the truth of the matter.

It’d be unnecessarily pricklish to do so, wouldn’t it be? When we object to Orientalist writing, Orientalist descriptions, to the very idea of Orient, we obviously seek to demolish the racial biases which underline these conceptions and unearth the ways in which economic needs and practices shape such discriminatory conceptions, but at some level do we not then also desire an equality which is clearly Western, Occidental in nature? If, as in this particular instance, we’d rather that our railway stations were well organised and everything in perfect order, then aren’t these notions of good organisation and perfect order clearly corollaries of what the Enlightenment and industrial capitalism have made them in Europe and the US of A? Whether there’s something undesirable about these notions is another debate but regardless of that, doesn’t Orientalism in some ways make happy sense?

After all, things do work that way. The (supposedly) Oriental way i.e. Chaos on streets, haphazard urban planning and shared, common public spaces are all markers of an Orientalism which is as much the so-called Orient’s as it was the Occident’s. Accounts of medieval European cities and medieval town planning indicate as much, hint just such an apparent confusion in all walks of public life. If the Orient is necessarily primitive because it’s chaotic, then for me that chaos is a cause for celebration instead of a roundabout condemnation, for when I do condemn it, I assert the diktats of an Occidental Rationalism as universal, supreme and undeniably the height of perfection. That is so because that chaos, that confusion is created so, is conceived in those terms because the lessons of an Enlightened Rationalism have been too deeply internalised for other basis of discrimination to be successfully sustained. Again, whether that is desirable or not is a different though not unrelated discourse; what interests me more here is the persistence of this supposed chaos, this apparent irrationality of public organisation and interaction which, despite centuries of mind games, we subcontinentals have still not let go. Ultimately, it is also in that sense that Orientalism, as a consolidation of all this chaotic irrationality, makes some sense.

On Calcutta, occasioned by a first trip to Bengal

Even though Calcutta is more a notional place than an actual city, it’s interesting visiting it. It’s a place you’d want to go back to.

I mean, of course it has its drawbacks. Its jams are incredibly infuriating, so much so that even bus drivers shut down the motor and get down to stroll by the road as hapless passengers fume. It’s incredibly crowded, so much so that at times you’re literally pushed off the pavements. More than that and anything else, it’s full of Bengalis. I know that sounds incredibly ridiculous, but for a person geared to academic thought in Departments of Bongali-English the very idea of a place exclusively Bengali is a sort of a nightmare. Calcutta, full of Bengalis, was at first sight precisely that.

But still, a place to go back to again and again. There’s something charming about that place, something quaint and engaging which grips your attention and calls you to itself. I know I give that sort of charm in some way or the other to almost every blessed place I come across, but Calcutta seems to have an inherent, intrinsic magnetic quality about itself, an air of timelessness which still conveys decay; as if the past was trying to live up to the future and failing – and, knowing so, still trying.

That’s the impression I made while walking in some parts of it on the last day of my very short stay. Too little time to make definite lasting impressions, I know, but the queer thing about going to a notional place is that you’ve already imagined it and made some views about it. Of course, one creates notions about all sorts of places beforehand, but when it comes to such notional places as Calcutta, preconception is too inevitable to resist. One reads of its anglicised splendours in Victorian and Edwardian account, of the trade which consolidated an empire, a port which made Hindustan India. Simultaneously, one hears of its decay, of its falling in into itself, of a dead city stuck in the past, refusing to move. Remnants of the Raj all over, struggling to keep up with more contemporary neighbours, paint and plaster coated and recoated and still the damp air undoing all effort, blurring past and present, the very air holding the city back.

Things have changed, of course, and fortunately too one may assume. Calcutta exists no more, but like a spirit that lingers on, a memory that never dies, Calcutta impregnates Kolkata. It looks at you in its crowds, in the narrow streets cutting towering heaps of old brick; in trams which give you change in paisa, on rickshaws which remind you of times when man was cheap and class all. Calcutta is in many senses an originator, cradle of the Indian bourgeoisies, fount of much of what we have consolidated as urban and middle-class. Visiting Kolkata, one cannot but see Calcutta, and seeing Calcutta, one cannot but see the past, a past which combines and rushes with the force of history into the present; seeks, determines and dominates what we see and how. I suppose this is a matter of intensely subjective sensibility, but being so, being place without the tangibility of space, Calcutta is too hard to resist.