Saturday, January 30, 2016

City Lights 6: Culture and the City

Religion precedes the cities while culture succeeds them. A city does not bring culture as a predetermined or established entity; culture grows as the city grows and interestingly it never stops growing. Mechanical views on culture always posit it as something that has started at some point of time and consolidated over a period and remains static for the succeeding generations to pick up, emulate, choose, discard or use it as a touchstone for furthering their activities. Culture, as we understand today as a pack of finer sensibilities developed by the people in country, city or province, is not really a system of finer sensibilities deliberately articulated for the future use. In the final analysis culture is the common characteristics developed and distilled in and by a society, that continue in different forms till the present. Though sectarian thoughts of today have made us to think about culture as created differently by different groups of people in a society exclusive of each other, in reality a culture cannot exist in exclusivity unless it is militantly guarded by exclusionary practices.

Eating, drinking, dressing and anything related to the public and private practices of human beings in a society carry the traits of the cultural peculiarities of a particular place. The idea of culture or the manifestations of it that we see in a given place is the continuity as well as re-adaptations of the cultural practices existing elsewhere. In the process, most of these practices are improvised, refined, added and re-positioned in the social sphere, which become the part and parcel of the awareness and social consciousness of the people who live in that particular place. Therefore a country’s culture is not really different from the culture of the neighboring country though apparently they look different in their manifestations. The overlapping that is palpable in the cultures of the two countries stand as a proof for the intermingling, transition and transference of cultural practices in the geographically connected areas. Even if the countries are separated by a mountain or by sea, or even if they are racially and linguistically different, one could see certain identical threads that connect the birth and death rituals, which confirm the erstwhile connectivity of those different cultures.

Even if countries are disjointed by mountains and seas, commerce that had started ever since the settlement of human beings in certain regions on earth (and even before that the explosion of human race from the mythological and biological places of origin to other parts of the earth through nomadic activities), cultures have been in communication with the other cultures though in a surface they all look different and separated by disparate practices. Considering that the primary conditions that differentiate one social practice from the other therefore forcing the cultures look different are weather, geography, food habits and source of economy, we have to understand that the apparent differences in cultures are consolidated by the above mentioned conditions. As the distance between two places increases the customary practices and the resultant cultural outlook also change accordingly. However, fundamentally they remain the same.

If countries are different in cultural practices, provinces within the country also could look different with the change of climatic and geographical zones. Commerce and colonialism since the origin of history have made considerable contributions to the composite cultures within the same region. Mythology has played a very crucial role in making the culture of a country through the common thread of mythological stories. As I have argued in one of the early chapters, religions help the cities form around them therefore culture also gets focus in cities mainly because the mythologies that help the culture grow and connect with the provincial cultures originate from the religions. All the finer sensibilities interestingly are developed around the religions. Mythologies are created and performed through grammatical articulations of the same in different forms of expressions mainly in the city centers where the patronage for such expressions are often found. The same grammatically oriented cultures move from the cities to the rural areas losing the grip of grammar slowly and take the form of very daring cultural experiments. It does not mean that the rural areas are passive recipients of the urban cultural practices. They in turn also imbibe the beauty and rawness of the rural expressions in order to embellish the grammatically structured cultural expressions.

Those who understand the fact that culture is not an exclusionary practice but an inclusionary one that develops over a period of time and is practiced by various kinds of people in the same place, making their own views on it also understand the cultures of different places and of people should be respected and if need be taken into their own lives. A city becomes interesting to live in when all cultures are celebrated as a part of living continuity and other cultures are not disparaged or resisted. The culture of a city is not just about having a lot of avenues to express the finer sensibilities of the people who live there, on the contrary it is the same people’s ability to live harmoniously with various cultures and celebrate all of them with some kind of participatory zeal. Unfortunately, our cities have forgotten this basic lesson of having divergent and vibrant cultures. In an attempt to make the city life unified in a monotonous fashion, the state and the people who hold power in various strata of social life make one culture dominant over the other thereby creating schism between people who uphold cultures different from the dominant one.

A city is a conglomeration of different provinces and the provincial cultures also migrate with the people from the rural areas and fringes. One could say that it is the arrival of nature into the platform of culture or in other words we could say that it is the entry of grammar-less structures into the grammatical structures. These juxtapositions further result into a new culture where everyone finds a bit of their culture within the dominant one or in other terms, each culture looks dominant therefore adorable like the pages in an interesting novel. Each time we read one page we find it so important to be neglected; while it remains as an independent narrative in itself, it constitutes the larger cultural outlook of the city.

With religion becoming the defining factor in the cities culture becomes subservient to the domination of the religions and pertaining narratives. People mistake culture as refinement in social manners. While one could be very much refined in social manners he or she could harbor extremely retrogressive ideas about the culture. It could range from holding one culture over the other to the refusal to acknowledge rest of the cultures. A city is a cosmopolitan space where culture is being produced and reproduced. There are so many factors that influence the growth of the culture. It is not a static entity that remains unchanged with the time. The changes that influence the general culture of city and society make it a part of the universe and not too different from the people living elsewhere. One we understand that the cultures are not mutually exclusive, then we would learn to respect all what is foreign to us. The respect does not mean that subservience. The moment culture renders us to be a part of the universe we automatically become universal citizens devoid of nations and religions, and at the same time carrying the traits of the nations and religions that we happen to belong to. Being cultured does not mean that being refined in taste. Being culture however does mean that accepting the other cultures with reverence and love. Somewhere we lack in this understanding that’s why on the same platforms we respect the art forms from different places but just hate the people and their religion and nationalities. That’s why we make war with the same people who sing for us. The day we recognize that culture is not personal refinement but making our personal existence a part of the universal existence and realize it in our personal lives, we could call ourselves really cultured or having a culture of our own. Till then we will remain barbarians who could hold a champagne glass, talk elegantly and listen to Chopin while we dine well. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

City Lights 5: Lonely in the City

(Cindy Sherman; Lonely woman in the city)

Cities engender lonely people. Loneliness is the reigning character of any city. Perhaps, that is why most of the cities have a lot of lights, discotheques, cinema halls, malls, shopping centers and too many distractions. Each sparkling thing in the city is meant to distract people from their loneliness. Shrouded in their aloneness and lost in the streets even within the crowds, people struggle with their left- aloneness in various ways. Some anchor themselves in chanting scriptures, some read books, most of them look at the screens of their smart phones, some people involve in empty chats, some look vacantly into the thin air, some sleep off and if you look at the hands of the loneliest people, you could see them clutching on something as if that is the last straw that would save them from the impending doom. It could be a hook that hangs from the ceiling of a bus or a metro coach. It could be a fancy clutch, it could be a computer bag or it could even be a faded umbrella- they hold on to them with that mortal fear of losing themselves into the gaping hollows of existence in the city.

Lonely people are alike everywhere that’s why most of the city people look alike. They go for the same fashion and all of a sudden all the girls in a city would wear a particular color in certain cut. All the boys without any rhyme or reason would sport the same kind of hairstyle, wear same kind of trousers and even walk and talk in the same way as the other boys in any other city. In their likeness they immerse their identity and individuality because they are so afraid of being unique and they are so frightened to let their individuality to flourish. They avoid their extreme aloneness by becoming one amongst the crowd. They in turn believe that they are the trendiest of people in the city. It happens with the office going middle class and the working class people. In one season all of them would wear the same kind of sweater in the winder, the same kind of shirt in the summer. They would wear the same kind of sari, consume the same kind of food- all in order to escape from their loneliness. They want to identify themselves with other people in the city therefore they could just disappear and be a part of the crowd and feel safe.

Recognizing one’s individuality is the fiercest form of aloneness and exercising it needs a lot of courage. Cities generally do not allow people to be alone. If people are alone, they would start thinking for themselves. Lonely people will walk alone and stand alone. The state and the corporates that rule the cities are afraid of lonely people who walk and stand alone. Religions, organizations, establishments and all those edifices where the state has a hold ideologically are afraid of the lonely people. To keep the people engage and to kill their loneliness and aloneness the state always provides distractions in the forms of entertainment and consuming. Food, travel, cinema, music, books, art and everything these days are organized as group activities. People no longer walk into a restaurant alone and eat or drink silently in a corner. Rare are those people who do so and they definitely are treated as nut cases and somehow they are kept apart and aside, and none just wouldn’t mess up with them because they are lonely people therefore dangerous people. Most of us these days do not watch movies alone, listens to songs alone; everything needs some kind of a group activity whether it is reading a book or enjoying art.

In literature you would see people or individuals exercising their right to be alone or enjoy loneliness. There is a small difference between loneliness and aloneness. Loneliness is often understood as a forced thing on an individual and he/she is lonely because of certain social pressures or lack of confidence or even that person’s inability to make friends. Aloneness on the other hand is understood as some social positioning of the self and one prefers to be alone in a given situation or otherwise. Some people have a general disposition to be alone. Some people prefer to enjoy loneliness that need not necessarily be interpreted as melancholic demeanor. One could be absolutely happy in one’s loneliness and one could joyful or even blissful in one’s aloneness. Standing alone needs a lot of courage and cities often give the opportunity to be alone, walk alone, talk alone and live alone. The more it gives such opportunities the more it takes away the possibilities to enjoy or exercise such loneliness or aloneness. Through the mix match of opportunities and possibilities cities always allure a person to be alone and at the same time indulge in group activities.

Lonely people prefer to walk into a building alone. The people who want aloneness prefer to use even an elevator alone. It is not because the other is hell but because the other could intrusive. The city has its very peculiar tendency to interfere with the individual’s life. The city prepares its own citizens to do that. One cannot just sit alone on a park bench; if he/she does some people would approach either to heckle them or to peddle something. But people who prefer aloneness fiercely fight for their freedom. They choose go alone into a theatre and ask for the seat of their liking. They prefer to sit alone in a library or a café. Neither they would poke nose into other’s matters nor would they let others do so in their lives. But somehow the society at large does not entertain the lonely people. In cities it has become increasingly difficult for single people to find accommodation though singledom of a person does not assure his or her loneliness. But mostly the single people are single because they value their aloneness and loneliness.

Cities themselves have this inherent quality to be alone. Have you ever seen a city from the outside; to see a city from outside one should live in the city for a long time, leave and then come back with some kind of affected disinterested-ness. As we approach a city we feel it like an organism trying to extricate itself from the clutches of uncouthness and the chaotic activities at the fringes. A city just does not happen all of a sudden. One has to travel along the vast tracts of farm lands and little hamlets before one reaches a proper town with buildings and activities in human scale. From there as one moves further the activities increase and the height and the glitter of the building grow in size both vertically and horizontally. The chaos slowly gives away to some kind of orderliness which would submerge into the planned lay outs and regimented movements. Even if the apparent movements and activities of people in a city look a bit chaotic and random, a deeper look would reveal that there is always a sense of order in those movements. The city slowly transforms before our eyes and becomes just a backdrop for varied human activities to take place. The city without its people is the loneliest sight in the world. That means people make a city; not the buildings and the streets. A city becomes a city in proper sense only when the people respond to the buildings and streets and also in turn create their own buildings and spaces. There is a constant stream of claiming the spaces by the people in a city which gives the final meaning to a city.

To understand the loneliness of a city, one should use imagination and erase the city away from the human activities that take place in a city both in day and night. The people would look absolutely lost in a nowhere space and suddenly all their movements and activities would lose their meanings. They would become the participants in an absurd drama of existence. That means, the physical structures of a city also give meaning to the lives of the people. Once separated, they are absolutely lonely and useless. One has to approach a city in the dead of night to know how lonely a city looks like. The same place that looked so buzzing with human activities look abandoned and eerie at night. Even if there is human presence certain places in a city look more dream like in night. Everything washed in loneliness at night in a city. The city itself is a lonely being with its tired lights refusing to sparkle and at the same refusing to die. The lights that fall through the blinds inside the hotel rooms and office halls that function at night give a special hue to the places that enhances the density of loneliness of a city. Even if there is traffic on the road in the midnight, each vehicle that moves looks like a lonely planet with one or two people trapped inside it eternally lost. One should see the people driving back home; you could touch loneliness there. One should see couple driving back home or driving around after a tiff between each other. You should see a young woman is picked by her husband, father or brother from the office in the evening and you should them driving back home. You can measure the depth of loneliness in their faces. However they try to distract themselves they remain lonely and alone. That is the loneliness of the cities.

The loneliest people eat alone. Perhaps, seeing a person eating alone in a restaurant or inside a room is the gloomiest sight in the world. It is gloomy because one could feel the depth of loneliness surrounding them in that darkness. One could watch them doing the act of eating in slow motion. Everything is focused. The head is hung. If it is held high (how one could) the eyes would be staring into something beyond. But only the sight of these people eating alone is a gloomy one. For them this must be a very enjoyable experience. One could repeat that ritual of eating in certain way for years on without getting bored. They are not bored that is why they continue with. Even if we feel pity for such lonely people, we do not understand that it is not their pathetic state that has put them into that condition but their ultimate sense of joy that is making them continue with the same ritual of eating alone. They are mysterious people as most of the lonely people are mysterious. Their mystery is depended on their aloofness. They arose some kind of curiosity or fear amongst the onlookers. And there will some moments when we also feel like becoming those people who are lonely and seem to be enjoying it to the hilt.

Lonely people also take selfies. But they take the selfies with their shadows. Sometimes they are interested in clicking their shadows alone. They are not interested in places, people, events, occasions, spectacles, beauty, excitement etc. They are simply interested in their shadows. They could look at their shadows for a long time. They could measure the size of the shadow and understand the time of the day. They hear the music of the unseen creatures. They travel in the unseen planets. They see the landscape of shadows where the memories of the loved ones whom they have never seen or would never see lurk like angels in a dream. Their effort to capture the shadow comes from the idea of capturing angels in silence. And each picture of their own shadow is framed by an unwritten poem and also by a thoughtless thought. There is a secret smile that sheds light on the shadow so that the edges of the shadow look like drawn by dews and shining snow. Lonely people would allure us with their shadow pictures but they should be let alone. Any attempt to make them your companions would end up in disaster because they are people who enjoy the company of their own selves. They love their cities because they know that the cities are also like them. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Photographing the Neighbor and the Neighborhood: Alternative Art of Manoj Bharti Gupta

(Photography artist Manoj Bharti Gupta at his interactive studio in Kirti Nagar)

India Art Fair is a day away and many art galleries in Delhi are opening new shows in the hope of increased footfall and discerning eyeballs. Few have the balls this time to show extremely unconventional works in their galleries and perhaps this is one last time they could anticipate a new life for the Indian contemporary art in the market especially in a time when some of the major Indian galleries have decided to keep off from the eight edition of the India Art Fair (2016) for making gold in art fairs including Dhaka and Dubai. Far away from the madding and maddening crowds of the plush art openings, there at Kirti Nagar in West Delhi, at a park in an inconspicuous middle class housing colony namely Mansarovar Garden, B Block, an exhibition of photography titled ‘Padosi’ has just opened in the august presence of the people from the neighborhood. I travelled twenty two kilometers to reach there because I like the photography artist, Manoj Bharti Gupta who has initiated this neighborhood project and also has been taking photographs of lonely women in the metro stations.

(Padosi exhibition)

Kirti Nagar is famous for a different kind of art; the furniture art and the interior furnishing shops. Huge shops resembling malls sell expensive furniture and decorative items but none in the area seems to have cared to visit an art gallery in Delhi. Manoj Bharti Gupta says that just behind the glitter and glamour of these furniture shops there lies a long stretch of slums where young carpenter boys play cricket during the recess that they eke out from their working hours. “They make wonderful furniture for dirt cheap prices but none buys from them,” Manoj Bharti says pointing out his bookshelf in which he has tastefully kept his art book and literature collection. “This came for Rs.6000/- and the same is sold for Rs.25000/- in the showrooms in the same locality,” he smiles. It is from these ground realities that Manoj Bharti decided to initiate a project like ‘Padosi’ in his own colony.

 (viewers of Padosi exhibition)

Looking at these works hung from the makeshift frames made of bamboo poles and the sharp white light flooding on the photographic images, one would think how alternative could an alternative art practice be. Can it be stretched to this level so that the project gets no attention from those galleries and community development art projects but is attended by those people who have become reluctant as well as willing participants in this project? Manoj Bharti is a photography artist who has a different view on things and whose first solo exhibition was the shadows of a shining India. Images culled from the working class who make the shining India and eventually discarded by the same India became the key subject for his first solo exhibition. In his second group show too he worked on the similar lines and this time turning his lens towards the workers who make the sprawling sub city of Gurgaon. In him there is a social activist but he asserts that being a Banya (the merchant community in India), he knows where his money is.

 (one of the exhibits in Padosi show)

‘Padosi’ means neighbor in Hindi. Manoj Bharti started working on this project that captures the varying moods of the people in his own neighborhood after an interesting confrontation with a six year old little girl from the same block. When Manoj and his family shifted to this colony couple of years back, on a day he met this girl in the park and he said ‘hello’.  But the girl immediately turned away from there saying that ‘I do not talk to strangers’.  This was an eye opener for Manoj. He says that Delhi has become such a paranoia ridden city that the kids no longer believe anybody. Their childhood has been taken away from them. “I cannot question the warning of their parents because they too are scared by the atrocities happening to the children in the city,” says Manoj. But he wanted to develop trust amongst people in the same colony through photography. He started photographing people without intruding into their privacy. As usual people took offence in the beginning but soon they grew friendly. Manoj kept on documenting the people and children and now he is the official visual chronicler of the colony. The large turnout of the people who perhaps never visited an art show before is a standing evidence to his popularity and the growing mutual trust of the people within the colony.

 (this is how the show looks)

To satisfy my curiosity, I asked a few kids whether they would like to become photographers and definitely they want to become one like ‘Manoj Bhaiyya’ (Brother Manoj). I overheard people talking about the meaning of the images that Manoj has deliberately created by making some of the pictures grainy and out of focus. The people, some of them the subjects of those photographs wonder why they look like ‘that’ in those photographs. I could sense the growing curiosity in order to find meaning in the day to day images. They may not be talking this deeply about the images if those were in fact from their own mobile phones. But here is an artist, who is also a social activist and has been doing this project, which for many a mad and useless pursuit for a Baniya boy, for a long time and if that is the case there must be some meaning. Soon comes a lady only to complaint that her daughter’s face is not visible in the picture. Manoj explains that his effort was to capture her drawing on her picture book from behind so that he could get her physical and mental focus on her act. But the mother does not seem to be satisfied.

(inside his interactive studio/archives)

Manoj Bharti has planned to keep the show on for coming four days with the same hope that some interested people would take the pain to travel all the way to see his works exhibited in an unconventional space. He hopes that people would see the truth of his act. Even if they do not really give much attention to his activities, Manoj is not worried. He has bigger plans. He has just rented out a small apartment in the same locality which he for the last two months has been using as an interactive space for photography. He has brought a lot of books that include the books of Prabuddha Dasgupta, Banksy, R.K.Laxman, H.D.Phadnis (Marathi cartoonist) and some interesting foreign designers; all collected from the second hand bookshops in Daryaganj. He invites his friends and his sisters friend there in the apartment and they start bringing interesting stories of their own.

 (display in the interactive space)

For Manoj Bharti, this apartment is an archives and a personal museum. He has brought out his personal archives in this space and interestingly this archives is not full of visuals rather they are all paper cuttings from Hindi newspapers. He points out that most of those paper cuttings which are meticulously catalogued, are mostly economic and political articles. Why so? Manoj has an interesting story to share. In one of his school vacations his teacher gave him an assignment to collect newspaper articles of his liking. He started doing it and even after leaving school for more than a decade he is still collecting those articles. Besides, he has developed personal connections with those writers as many of his exhibits are accompanied by these articles. He invites these authors for his exhibitions and they are happy to see how his visuals have taken inspiration from the points that they have argued in their articles. As the interactive space became active, Manoj slowly found out a few interesting people who had not stopped some kind of archiving that they had started in their school years. One of them is an insect collector who became fascinated with the insect life after she was asked to bring a couple of insects to the class as a part of some assignment. Another is a person who writes down the names of each person he has seen for some reason in his life. He has not stopped it yet. “It is a pleasure to bring them into my working scheme,” says Manoj. AT the same time he reiterates that his work is also like a home work which is never finished.

 (another view of the interactive space)

Manoj Bharti Gupta has another interesting contribution in his sister’s life and as she is also now groomed as a photographer by her brother. Komal Bharti Gupta is a close associate of her brother and is a keen learner. The story goes like this: Komal did not have good numbers to get into a college. She was slightly depressed. Manoj gave her the camera and asked her to click whatever she wanted. But that year she was lucky and she could join the famous Jesus and Mary College. She finished her graduation and also had her solo show of photographs in the college hall. Now she pursues her post graduate studies and helps Manoj in organizing his works and activities. If Manoj is an avid photographer of women in Metro, Komal registers the images of women in Delhi’s buses, which she hopes would grow into a very important visual document.

(JohnyML with Manoj Bharti Gupta)

Amongst the new crop of photography artists in Delhi, namely Vicky Roy and Vinit Gupta, Manoj Bharti Gupta also has made his niche in the emerging scene. A protégé of Dinesh Khanna and Aditya Arya, ace photographers, Manoj has deeper social interest than a party hopping ‘fine’ artist. With a political background (his father has fought local elections three times), Manoj has extensively documented certain political movements including the birth and growth of the Aam Aadmi Party purely using still camera. He was a video editor with Door Darshan (for Nalini Singh’s Aankhon Dekhein program) but never did he feel the urge to document these political movements in video. “I am a still photographer and I want to be a still photographer,” says Manoj. Is he ready to release his works on the political movement? “No,” says the artist. “I do not feel the urgency to release any of those images now. I want them to grow with time and become the document of a time than just registration of the passing moments.” People come around Manoj and wish him all the best. Some are really happy about his works and some are worried why their faces are in shadow. Padosi could be risky at times, but for the time being, Manoj seems to have struck the right chords with the people in his neighborhood. 

City Lights 4: Religions and the City

Which one came first, a city or the religious shrines? This is like the proverbial question pertaining to egg and chicken. While we cannot be so conclusive about this, in the case of cities we could say that the religious shrines came first and the cities came around it later. Religions of any shade, degree and strength are theoretical codifications extracted from the human beings’ ultimate quest to understand the meaning of his existence on this earth. This organization might have taken so many centuries before those dictums came to have gained larger acceptance. With the religions, there occurred two things; one, the origin of myths and two, the origin of human hierarchy. Human societies were not hierarchic as the way we see them today. They were loose structures with men and women alternatively holding prominence in the given life depending on the situations that included habitations and food gathering. When religions started forming, those people who happened to have become instrumental in codifying the social rules with a supra structure of divinities for adequate sanctions of the same became the automatic power holders in the society. They were expected to guide or lead the society based on the heard and remembered rules of divinity. And the rest of the people became the followers, perhaps willingly because it was good for all of them to lead a peaceful life in their transition from beast-nature to human nature and also from their nomadic existence to settled lives. That means, leadership is not the outcome of a person’s or a collective’s desire to become the leader but the society’s general need to create and posit someone to that position. The building of the cities thus became the responsibility of such elected or naturally selected leaders.

Whatever views we hold about politics and religion, the fact is that religion is the origin of politics; not the other way round. Religion established social order theoretically and to certain extent symbolically. But it was not enough to perpetuate the idea of order and supremacy amongst the large number of people who came to have shared the same language, gesture or the developing customs. The theoretical as well as the symbolical nature of the religions needed some sort of a practical expression so that the total hold of these could bind the rest of the society together without much conflict. But so long as human beings are different in thinking and outlook there are the possibilities of strife and differences. The religious leadership wanted such outbreak of dissents to be curbed and the dissenters be brought back to the fold. This needed persuasion of different types. The primary persuasion was through the religious and spiritual warnings by showing them the torturous after life for the dissenters. Most of the people confirmed with such ideas and remained in the fold accepting the dictums of the religious leadership. But still there were people who really did not give any damn to these social codes and the spiritual leadership. Such people were to be brought and kept within the fold. Coercion was one of the means and it had to be expressed through punitive measures. But how could one exercise the punitive right without someone holding that authority? Therefore there occurred a need for the religious leadership to carve out a civil leadership with divine and secular authorities and the right to punish the dissenting ones as sanctioned by the religious authorities. The origin of kingship or someone with political power became a reality by this.

Kings adopted two things; one the sword, the tool of punishment and two, the paraphernalia of religious symbolism. A king had to appear before the public with all these paraphernalia. He had to hold the severest of punishing machines as symbolized by a sword. And he had to wear befitting robes that resembled the robes of the religious authorities. Religions gave sanctions to these kings because partly they were representing and safeguarding the interests of the religions. Kings on the other hand had to develop severest of punishing methods not really to punish the enemies but to punish his own clan or tribe people. This established his authority over them. He became god and father rolled into one. He also at times replaced the religious authorities by holding both the secular and divine powers. He had to develop more and more different, exciting and frightening methods of punishment so that without exercising or using these tools he could keep the people under his control by simply evoking the fear amongst them. As people became his slaves and agreed more or less of his authority, it became imperative for the king to expand the scope of his power and also expand his jurisdiction. Territories were carved out and also territories were breached. In both cases religion stood with the kings to provoke, guide and even promote territorial aggressions.

When territorial aggressions became a reality kingdoms were formed and now the kings had to establish their power in terms of physical opulence. Mere symbolism would not have served the purpose. They had to loot, burn, pilfer, tax and snatch from the people in order to create kingdoms and also to underline the existence of the kingdoms, they had to build the cities that allowed people to live and do commerce and pay taxes to the king. Religions and religious leaders stood by the kings and before the establishment of cities, they established the places of worship. These places of worship were done under the name of gods or goddesses so that they automatically gained an unquestionable divine sanction. When kings came capturing the territories, they looted the religious centers first and then established a rapport with the religious establishment there via cooptation as the interests of the both parties were one and the same; exercising power over the people. Cities were built through the help of the religious funds and blessings of the religious leaders. Religious leadership made money in turn by instilling fear in the minds of the people. So both religion and politics helped each other in creating fear and also in establishing cities. People, despite all kinds of looting and burning, lived in the cities peacefully under the ‘benevolent’ watch of both the king and the reigning deity, because they thought that it was through the religious path that the cities came into existence.

This continued for a long time and in due course of all these centuries human history saw kings coming from foreign lands after a period of fighting and looting, making compromises with the already existing religious and political establishments and becoming the new kings. Political leadership in the modern world also does the same thing as they keep religion as a binding concept. So long as the religious authorities are in harmony with the political leadership, things would move more or less fine. The moment religious sentiments are hurt by the political leadership there will be problems. The modern world suffers from a new problem; that’s one religion claiming supremacy over the other religion. In fact the cities become the contesting platforms for these vying religions. The people and the political leadership that sway according to these religions forget the fact that whatever be the religion, their primary interest is to keep political power so that the petty interests of whatever nature could be protected. Here when we see the political establishments fighting with the religious dissenters what we see is not the real politics doing political governance but in a pathetic way protecting the primordial powers of the religion over political establishments and the people. Irrespective of the religious color or complexion, and irrespective of the kinds of terrorism that we face today what thrives is the commercial interests of the religious establishments who exercise their fatal power over people through political establishments. Even if people believe that one political establishment would save them from the other, nothing is going to happen because it is the vicious interests of the religion that is going to be protected.

Most of the people who live in the modern cities do not understand this. They in their own levels staunchly believe in one or the other religion and one or the other political parties. Interestingly, the political belief of a person is perversely connected with the religious belief that he carries. This was not the case for a long time. There were some kind of enlightened thinking and the application of scientific logic when it came to the socio-religious and political issues. So people could choose themselves to be secular even when believing in one or the other religion for their spiritual purposes. One’s religion could have been directly oppositional to his political belief. The religions were not really asking for steadfast adherence and blind faith from people. People could choose their political ideology and could discard their religions. People could become radicals and discarded both religion and politics. Yet the civil society could have thrived in harmony. But through some strange twists in history or perhaps the naked outlaying of the nexus between religion and politics, today people, even the level headed ones at times are forced to justify their religious extremism through a related political outfit or the political extremism through a related religious outfit. What suffers is the lives in the cities and lives of the cities because it is in the cities such antagonisms are played out. The recent history of the world proves that religion has become either a problem for the development of the human beings as the members of a society driven by logical thinking and goaded by the ideas of spiritual sublimation where religions do not play any role but the philosophies extracted from all the religions become directive principles.

The idea of saving the world from further crises perhaps should start from dismantling the cities that are created out of unholy nexus between religions and politics. But is it possible as we perceive it? One may think that it is impossible as things are intricately and inextricably connected, besides a majority of the people who live in the cities (in villages as well) has been brainwashed to believe that we cannot do without cities where religions and politics meet and make some nefarious pacts. One cannot say that we could disband the cities or as some people dream it that they could remove all the unholy relationships between religion and politics. It is not possible because if one is removed the other cannot exist in a vacuum. If religion is removed in an ideal situation then there will not be any need for politics because as we saw at the outset of this chapter, if there is no religious organization, none will feel the need to exercise and extraneous power over the people who by that time will be capable of controlling their own lives within the minimum alternative governance. If you remove politics from the human societies, then definitely there will be no role for the religion. If politics is played on economics and social welfare then where exactly one would find a reason for talking about religion. A person who needs health care is to be given health care; his religion will not be a hindrance at all in an ideal situation where religion has not relevance. If a person is to be given education, his religion should not be a problem at all. If governance is all about economics and human dignity, then who is really interested to outwit the other in terms of religion? One may strive for a better job based on merit and ability and the other may try to excel by bettering his possibilities by equal opportunity and competition. Who is going to stop anyone from prospering in whichever ways? If someone wants to prosper in spiritual matters why one should resort to a particular religion at all? If listening to certain spiritual discourse the way one listens to music or attends to kindness, then why the conversion and elevation of human mind needs the crutches of a religion? When religion becomes irrelevant, what will be the politicians basing their votes on? They will have to perform in a society that demands progress and dignity. If someone fails to give it, he fails as an administrator.

Such an ideal scenario would bring forth very interesting outcomes in our society. That ideal society will not ask anyone to stop eating anything that the other person does not like to eat. Eating will be based on healthy life styles. Nobody will think about killing someone for eating a particular food because the very idea of killing someone would make people laugh like anything. What a ridiculous idea will it be if someone asks someone else not to eat something? In that scenario, nobody will be offended by seeing a work of art because a work of art will be an expression of a human being which will involve divine creatures, spiritual beings, leaders and so many other things. Nobody’s sentiments would get hurt because nobody’s sentiments will be connected to such trivial things as religion and politics. People would look at those people in cars as the way they look at people who pass winds from their rear ends in polite societies or belch without apologies. Nobody will be offended to see someone wearing a particular cloth. Most importantly nobody will ask a woman to behave in a particular way only because she is a woman. If someone does that, they will look at him as if he is an alien and will be thrown away by the civil police without much ado. Nobody will feel like regulate the time of a kiss on or off screen. Nobody will speak of the color of a man’s skin. It will not be significant as the color of one’s eyes. The word censorship will ultimately become obsolete if religion goes out of our lives.

I am not saying that cities and countries would flourish if we do away with religions. I am saying that in the final analysis, in today world, to progress in this world and the world beyond, one does not need religion or politics. What one does need is an administrative system that gives equal opportunity and justice to all. What we need is a system that assures education and health to all. What we need is the distribution of wealth as per work. What we needs is a situation where consumption is based on discretion. We want a situation where food is a privilege to one and all. We have to develop a situation where one need not pay for air and water. We need cities where people could walk freely without fearing offending someone. We need cities were people could breathe their spirituality without blocked by religions. We demand a city where pedestrians could walk without the fear of being knocked down and the cyclists could reach home safely. We need a society where women are respected and we need a society where people will not punctuate their conversations with expletives. To facilitate that we need a society, which is not based on religion and politics. I am not saying that politics should go. It should be there as an assisting mechanism to people. When religion is not there to make rampant sectarianism politics will lose its ferocious nature.

I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one, as the bard singer says. I know that our cities are built by people and those people who believed and still believe in religion. As they believe in religion they cannot think differently from the conventional politics. Brick by brick the people have built the religious shrines and establishments. The sentiments attached to those structures created by the generations of people are so strong that they cannot be wished away. But as we progress, or as we take our society towards one that offers dignity to one and all, we need to shed those genetic codings that have made us very touchy people. In fact though our efforts are there in creating these cities based on religion and politics, nothing is better that leaving them behind when we understand for sure that these are the same organizations that we have given birth to today kill us indiscriminately, without even considering that we too belong to the same religion that is now striking the sword against our necks. Definitely the people are the makers of the cities. But unfortunately they are not the takers of the cities. They become slaves of the establishments that they helped in making. There is only one solution to it: forget religion and embrace spirituality. It is not an easy task. When one is spiritual there is no comparison. There is no white spirituality or saffron spirituality or green spirituality. Spirituality is like water. It does not have shape or color. It takes the shape of your and color of you. When everyone becomes spiritual, political establishments will wither away; even countries would, one day, why cities alone? 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

City Lights 3: Crime in the City

Cities are open places where people could move around without much social and legal restriction. There are sanitized zones and demarcated locations where entry is restricted by order in every city. Those edifices are either government installations or other strictly private enterprises where some amount of secrecy is maintained for the smooth running of such establishments. While they keep this secrecy in functioning they exude a sort of transparency and authority that eke out some kind of respect and admiration from the people who happen to pass by them. Despite the presence of security men, CCTV cameras, armed guards and policemen, barriers, metal detectors, body frisking, automatically moving walls, luggage scanners, warning signage and so on, people tend to look at these places as democratic set ups where they could seek service, support and justice. Cities thrive in such kind of deception. People who hail from different strata of the society learn to read the markings and markers, signage and restrictive presences with taking much offence and restrain themselves from entering into such places. Stories and news items that narrate the plight of the trespassers and the kind of punitive measures taken against them also function as social deterrents. To put it in others words, cities at once allow people’s movement and also in many ways direct their movement within the city limits. While anybody use public roads and streets, the roads leading to gated properties are often avoided even by the freedom loving people even if there are no signs that prevent people from entering.

This social conditioning pertaining to the free movement of people within a city considerably adds to the mental makeup of an ordinary citizen living there.  He/she learns to accept, judge, respect and fear both the visible and invisible restrictions without complaining much about it. The youth, who often breach social restrictions, also behave when it comes to the public and private establishments’ physical limits for the fear of them getting branded as terrorists in the newly emerged scenarios. This particular idea of control has its by products and repercussions in the social body and psyche. Most of the time, we could see a city getting vandalized by unknown people and also the cities witness the criminal graph rising, at times in uncontrollable pace. Compared to any other human habitats, cities are the places where increased presence of crime and criminals is felt. Most of the sensational crimes happen in the cities. Though the governments take so many measures to control the crime level in a city, criminals make their presence felt through the acts of crime. However harsh the punitive measures are, the criminals still repeat, ironically the silliest and the most atrocious sort of crimes in succession. At times, a particular kind of crimes like rape, passion related murders, heist etc., happen like a windfall. One may wonder why only in cities such things happen where people have freedom to move around, a sense security imparted by the security personals as well as the CCTV cameras. A deeper analysis of this issue takes us to an interesting answer and that answer is the inseparable nature of crime and the very idea of a city.

A city is an organized space with a dominant presence of governance as manifested in the town hall, assembly building, police station, military outpost, carefully planned streets, bridges, flyovers, parks, housing areas, offices, markets, commercial centers and so on. An individual who lives in a city is expected to negotiate between and through these spaces and places on a day to day basis even if he is not consciously aware of such personal negotiations. An ordinary citizen understands the city of his dwelling through different levels of narratives that include newspapers, television and his own personal journeys through the streets and other places of the city. A persona has to meet, confront and negotiate these spaces in different levels and together they make him/her aware of the general lay out and character of the city. Some people develop a deeper understanding of the city either by reading about it or by wandering through the lanes and inner layers of the city in order to know the complexion of the city life from close quarters. Most of the people however are not interested in such deeper and closer engagements with a city because of various reasons including the busy schedule one follows and the general apathy. The more people are disinterested in knowing a city from the close quarters, the more are the chances of the criminals moving around, mixing up with these disinterested people and behave as if they were just like anybody else. Their very knowledge of the people being disinterested makes their works easier for them.

However, the question is not who the criminals are, but why there are crimes in a city. As we imagine, a city and crime are not two different entities. The seed of both lies in the very notion of organization. When we say a city is an organized space/place, we need to see that what is left out in the organization form another parallel network or remain as scattered dregs in the social body which apparently looks organized. Interestingly, the people who organize the city themselves also cause the birth of crime when they create different interest groups within the organization. For the smooth functioning of an organization or a city, the governing bodies cannot take care of all the suggestions and opinions. This exclusion of certain opinions give birth to disgruntled elements within and without the organization that try to make their presence felt by acquiring power by other means. When the greed and avarice that precipitates within the members who are already a part of the organization causes the gravitation of the disgruntled elements towards them and together they start creating a power group through the amassing of wealth by the means of syphoning out from the public exchequer. This parallel power group is the primary cause of corruption within and without the organization that creates a series of networks that would help the primary corruption remain intact and undetected. But like any other organic system in the course development necessitates branching out and allowance of autonomy to such branched out systems this organic nature of corruption too makes other autonomous corrupted units that resorts to criminal means to maintain and exercise power by developing further parallel and intersecting networks.

A story of a murder reported from a city may apparently look ‘innocent’ (yes, innocent in its exclusivity and general nature at the same time) for many of us. But if one looks at with the above mentioned perspective one could understand that the ‘innocent’ murder is no longer an innocent murder or not even general in its nature. Let us take the example of an angry husband killing his wife suspecting of her extramarital affair. This is one of the commonplace incidents that we read in the newspapers reported from different parts of the same city or from different cities. This murder, from a shallow point of view looks like an innocent case, which is not connected to any political party, religion, caste, dowry issue or any such thing. The cause of the murder is the lack of trust or the actual finding of the husband. He got made and he killed his wife. In the same week perhaps we would read similar incidents reported from elsewhere too. Even at times we may think whether one incident caused the other. We need to see the ‘innocent’ murder as a complicated social outcome. The trust issue of the husband is not an autonomous issue created all because the suspecting nature or a psychological state of the husband. It may be created because the husband’s point of view must have been developed by watching a particular kind of movies or reading a particular kind of novel, or watching pornography, or his affiliation with certain friends who are interested in spreading such rumors about others’ wives, his affiliation with a political party that gives him some sort of legal insularity, his job as a very influential officer and above all his belief in his right as a man to have the sole power on his woman or his strong faith in the ideology of treating woman as the ‘mother’ who is saintly like the mother nation. The provocation must have been triggered by one of these. Even a daily wage earner who lives in a shanty does the same crime, if not any other reason, his idea of maleness must be one reason behind the murder, which renders the crime connected to a series of social, ideological, economic and political relationships that take us to the primary case of organization residues.

This particular case of a murder also cannot be generic because it is like any other suspecting husband killing a wife even if the circumstances are different. The crime cannot be generic because each murder like this is triggered by the aggressor’s blind faith in one of those powers that I have mentioned in the earlier paragraph. One may kill his wife because he thinks that he has money power and he could come out of the legal system using money. Another person may think that he has political power. Some may take knowledge as a cover and with the added knowledge of things he may think that he could hide from the legal hands of the state. So there is not generic crime as such; they may look alike but they differ from case to case. So is the case of rapes that are in the increase in many cities both in India and in the other developing countries. Rape is not a biological aberration or aggression that vandalizes the innocence or dignity or the gender of the victim. It is an assertion strongly clad in the desire for sexual gratification but in the fundamental analysis it is an act of male aggression of proving his right over the woman’s body. Hence, each rape is a byproduct or an outcome of the socio-political, economic and religious situation caused by the state as an organization. A rich man raping a woman or an inebriated laborer looking for some fun and raping a woman are fundamentally an act of the social dregs caused by the organization (of the city). In the mind of the aggressor, somewhere he feels the need to assert his authority and as he is rendered useless by all other means what he could use is his body as a weapon to prove on/against another human body.

This ideological nature of rape is the ideological nature of a city. In my view, a city creates its share of rapists, robbers, thieves, pickpockets, murderers, hooligans, goons, sharp shooters, molesters and so on. The more a city gets organized, put under surveillance and security personals are adequately distributed, the more these bad elements become active in a city. In a country where population is in a disproportionate state with the security measures and is on the increasing side, the magnitude of security measures is always less than expected. Even if it is increased to make people confident and the other parties fearful, still the crime rate in a city will not come down unless and until the cities reorganize and redefine the very idea of city organization. Rape, despite all awareness campaigns and punitive measures is on the rise in the cities. Why is it so? Rapists are conditioned by the society and the city as an organization in itself in such way that they feel the aggression that they show could be at some point pardoned and excused because  the city as an organization begets and at the same time anticipates such anti-social elements in the process. They almost look like the entities that add color to the general narrative of the society. The more a city tries to curb them the more they will come up with new ways of raping and doing mischief. If a robber is caught and taken away from the social narratives, many other robbers in waiting think that the very removal of a robber from the narrative assures a space for them to make an entry. And this absence of narrative is also filled in by the popular mediums including cinema by creating new and celebratory narratives about thieves and criminals who are basically do gooders happened to operate from the wrong side of the law.

When such popular narratives fill in the gaps created by the city in the process of taking away the rapists and thieves (generally the criminals) from the real life narratives, a rapist could appear like a person who was in love with the girl but was spurned by her. The rape was just an act of assertion and he at times is ready to marry her even! The new spate of incidents that involve the videographing of the act of rape and then proliferating it through the social mediums like whatsapp and eventual suicide of the rape victims cannot be seen as the extension of crime into the new medium but it has to be seen as the result of the allowance of similarly ‘exciting’ videos via whatsapp by the city/state itself. It happens in a society where the law makers watch pornography when the assembly or parliament is in session. So the spreading of a rape incident by the perpetrators themselves is an act that seeks social sanction of their ‘brave’ act. I am not implying that the state should clamp down on the social media and censor such connecting platforms, but I suggest that the city/state cannot act innocent as it is the city that has created the crime which could be documented in real time and sent across to a large populace via social media.

If the aspect of crime is removed from the fabric of city, then I would say a city ceases to be a city. A city needs to cater to the criminals too exactly the way it caters to the law abiding citizens. But the cities do not accept this. They always pretend that the crime is an after effect of the city; they refuse to accept that it is a byproduct that came out along the very organization of the city. When a city is highly organized with the help of the civic and military authorities, the criminals who are automatically generated by this centralized organization become equally strong. That does not mean that all the city organizations should be disbanded and a new structure should be put in place. No that is not the solution. The solution lies in the redefining and re-visualizing the very idea of city organization. The streets should be inviting the people to walk on more frequently than that happens these days. That is the first step towards the decentralization. When more people are walking in the city, the criminals cannot just strike a lonely victim. When everyone is walking the power of some within the cars or other vehicles automatically collapses. When technology is used for making the governance more efficient, people really need to go to a ‘work place’ to work. They could work from anywhere including home. When someone spends more time at home, people develop closer relationship with the family members.

City, compared to a country is a small unit therefore easier to govern. A city needs civic authorities to help the people out; there should be an elected body that oversees the development works and the security of the people. There should be expert bodies who would device plans for the city. There should be cultural giants who would be an integral part of the city administration. When a society is open both in the streets and homes, the crime rate will come down. Then the police will behave like friends. The cities should be claimed by people than by the authorities. The moment we give away the authority into the hands of a few people, with the centralization of governance, crime will automatically develop. People should organize themselves as culturally inclined and politically aware and socially integrated cosmopolitan people. This needs the basic killing of one’s ego and desire. One should think about freedom of movement within a city. The cities should be reclaimed by the people. They should say roads belong to the pedestrians. They should say the roads belong to the cyclists. They should say that polluting a city is the primary crime. We can do it, provided we take off a little bit of time off from the smart phones and look at the people who are just like us; half angels and half devils created by the organization called the city.  

Monday, January 25, 2016

City Lights 2: Mobility, Opportunity and Visibility in Cities

(speeding to some destination)

Cities allow mobility, offer opportunities and facilitate invisibility. This is a very nostalgic statement. Cities no longer allow mobility and facilitate invisibility. However, they still offer opportunities. It is not necessary that a city gives you all what you want but it gives you a platform to begin with. Depending on your qualifications and also other physical as well as mental abilities, you can grab the opportunity by its throat and demand what is due to you. There are a lot of people in the cities who start at some place and remain there for ever; there are some other people who start from humble beginning in some inconspicuous corners of the cities and become so big that the cities would be known even in their names. There is yet another lot that makes a steady movement from one end of the city to the other end and in due course become winners or losers. Winning and losing in a city is always relative and it is measured with the material gains or losses that one makes in his/her life. It is only money, ‘only money’ and affluence that determines one’s success in a city. In a village you could be a humble farmer and remain happy; you could be a humble teacher and still remain happy; or you could be a mendicant and still feel happiness. But in a city, whatever your spiritual sublimation is, one cares much for that. If you have opulence, then flaunt it; that is the only way to assert your position in a city.

That is the bad part of a city; it forces one to become a snob, a show off and a jerk. Vices grow as one’s need to succeed and show it off all for the people around him/her grow. It makes one a slave to the cravings that one feels to succeed in material life. In this race one forgets to see the subtleties around. There is beauty in the concrete jungles; there is beauty in the small piece of sky seen through a window or a balcony. A park or the piece of a forest ridge seen from the terrace is worthy of contemplation but you miss it. There is always an urgency felt by most of the city dwellers to prove something to someone. One really does not know what is there to prove and to whom it should be directed. When one really does not know what to do with this, there occurs a need for symbolic satisfactions. That’s why people look for better cars, go for better locations, eat from expensive restaurants and watch movies paying for expensive tickets. Nobody really knows why one does it all. It is not the excitement of certain achievement that makes one happy or fulfilled of an inner need but the knowledge of the sense of exhilaration that is anticipated and understood in certain predetermined fashion by visiting some place or consuming certain things.

(Busy with their smart phones)

Each effort to succeed in a city makes one believe that each achievement thus gained would provide him/her with an adequate sense of mobility and both invisibility and visibility. Cities do offer mobility if mobility is understood as faster and smoother commuting between two points within the city itself or a point in the city and another point elsewhere. Let’s us forget traffic jams and similar clogging that we face on a daily basis on the city roads. In an ideal situation, a city is supposed to give increased mobility to an individual either by personal vehicles or by public transportation. This is the case of physical mobility but there is another case of virtual mobility that is made possible by the fast internet connections and smart phones with a whole lot of apps for various purposes. The contrast is felt and the inadequacy of being in a village is understood when you are caught in a situation in a rural area where roads do not really help fast driving or the phones fail to pick up frequencies. But we have to ask whether the physical and the virtual mobility offered by the cities actually translate into quality life or happier life. A deeper look would reveal that both these movements do not fundamentally make the individuals mobile.

Mobility that a city offers is limited as the mobility comes with a price that is paid by human focus on things that facilitate the mobility. That means, if you are travelling by a car at a higher speed, then the whole focus is on driving. In case if you are driven around by someone else, still your apparent mobility is directly connected to the intended goal either of reaching a destination or of meeting a person and in both cases the fruit of it is assessed how these acts turns into real money.  Again we are tied up to the material or money as a benchmark of success. Now, let’s take the case of a person who is connected to his smart phone and believes that he/she has enhanced mobility thanks to facilities offered by the phone and the internet connection. The whole focus of the individual here is again connected to the quality of the phone and the speed of the internet connection. If one of these fails, then the idea of mobility collapses. People look into their phones for two apparent reasons; one, they want to know certain things by ‘connecting’ with the world through increased ‘mobility’ and two, they want to avoid the real time connections not only with the people around but also with the space itself around them. So mobility here happens in an extremely detached and disconnected fashion which fundamentally is against the idea of mobility. The fundamental meaning of mobility, as seen elsewhere is the ability to reach but when one is ‘disconnected’ with both people and surroundings, automatically the mobility is nullified. It will be as good as daydreaming on a hobby horse or fighting with a windmill or even running behind a gold thief, curiously taking more pleasure in being a thief than the policeman in pursuit.

 (Day dreaming)

Daydreaming has its own sense of mobility hence it cannot be really connected to the virtual mobility that gets nullified by being ‘disconnected’. My point here is that the cities generally curtail the possibility of the individuals daydreaming at their will. First of all, the enhanced and vigorous ‘mobility’ of the city life as a whole closes down the avenues for daydreaming and also they kill the ‘will’ to daydream. Daydreaming is poetic, illogical and is the best tool of a non-conformist who chooses a city rightly yet wrongly as a place to nourish his abilities to daydream. He wants to bring about a revolution and a revolution needs a resolution and a resolution needs a lot of imagination and imagination is a byword for daydreaming. As the city is fast and always in a flux (which is good for different kinds of churning of mind and body), it takes away the patience from people to sit and daydream. There are so many places in a city including cafes and parks where in fact one could daydream. But in reality these places have become further hideouts so that either one could continue with their smart phones or they could make some real time chit chatting. Whether it is a park or a café, people in a city have forgotten the way to sit idle or connect with the people who are living in the real time. But we believe that in cities we connect with people by travelling great distances by cars or covering such distances by smart phones. With the dulled will and wit, one becomes a human machine that has forgotten the very idea of dreaming or imagination.

In cities, imagination is the privilege of those people who despite their abilities to create methods of making human machines, really do not fall for the real or virtual disconnects. They are the people who invent new apps, write new software, create new avenues of making virtual business and render the people motionless while imparting a feeling of added mobility. Such people are real dreamers and gifted with a lot of imagination. They make social media and introduce innovative ideas; they live in their rural retreats, live organically, connect with people in real time and spend times in parks and cafes just to while away the time. They are not the people who really crave to prove through mobility. In fact they really do not move much; but when they move the whole world comes to know. They inadvertently make the world full of cities or rather they help in the gradual conversion of the villages into cities and make human machines that are happy with the idea of enhanced mobility by moving their lives into a city. These people who facilitate this imaginary mobility are not culprits of anything. We cannot accuse them of any guilt for creating such added ‘connectivity’ which disconnect people from people and events. They are the byproducts of a time that is created by the cities that demand more and more need for the people not only to live a sanitized life but also to measure their lives with the benchmark of success which materialistic in nature and invest them with the idea of flaunting it at the drop of a hat.

(You are being watched)

At the outset I mentioned that in today’s world cities do not offer invisibility. Cities used to be the places of opportunities because they could erase the social markers in a big way as people moved from rural areas to the city centers both as unskilled laborers and skilled workers. In India’s case, caste and creed, and the stigmas related to these could find lesser manifestations in the milling crowds of a city. People could move vertically and horizontally in city by not making much effort to hide their religion or caste which they had to in a closely knit village situation. In cities, through their labor and turning it into profit both for the employer and for themselves, they could transcend the religious and caste barriers. If one became a successful engineer or doctor in a city none asked his religion or caste. Even if the surnames showed their caste affiliations or names in themselves marked the religion of the name holder, the city life did not bother much about these things. One could gain visibility through making so many things about them invisible. Even they could become invisible in their own ghettos and just by being in a ghetto within a city they could become visible too and this visibility gave them both social and political power. While cities helped one to rise up in the scale economics through hard work and perseverance, by choice one could show absolute disinterestedness towards any such affiliations thereby making oneself both visible and invisible as an autonomous entity.

Gone are those days when people did not bother about caste, religion or creed even in big cities. Ironically globalization and added connectivity have made people more conscious of their genealogies and religious and caste affiliations. International strife regarding religious terrorism and ideological wars has facilitated a new situation where security of the state has become more important than the security of an individual. When the state is under threat and the state does not know whether the enemy is inside or outside and the complexion and religion of the enemy are not determined though there is a general assumption about the religion of the enemy, the state is always on the edge and it watches the citizens with the eyes of doubt and suspicion. An individual in a city therefore has become a potential threat to the state than an incumbent member who assures security to the state in turn. When the state looks at its own citizens with suspicion and treats him as a potential enemy, suddenly he/she become more visible than before. Each and every movement of a citizen is watched and noted and kept in compressed digital files. Except in the washroom and bed room, none is safe from the surveillance of the state. The invisibility that the cities had offered once upon a time has now absolutely become the visibility of the citizen. He/she is not sure when and where the state records his/her act. This Orwellian situation has now become so normalized that the absence of a CCTV camera induces some sort of anxiety and insecurity amongst the people in the city. One volunteers to be visible in such a situation. The irony is that the more one wants to be visible before the state as if in a very naïve effort to prove his innocence in a crime which he has not committed nor does have any intention to commit, the more he yield his right to be invisible in a city. 

(self flagellation for imaginary sins)

The cities have become treacherous spaces. We are no longer safe in a city. It is not because that we are in the wrong hands but because our over belief in the right hands which we are already in. We have given ourselves to the city authorities and we have given away our will to imagine and have surrendered our reasons to connect with the real people and spaces for and before the state. In a strange turn of things, we have become victims who demand more punishment from the master for the wrongs that we allegedly believe that we have done. In this sense, in the cities we have become more like religious believers who are forced think themselves as sinners and any kind of punishment that we voluntarily take is a way to salvage ourselves from the possible ‘punishment’ after life or after death. So this willing victimization has become a auto-erotic play for the people that they find all the satisfaction of being a victim in the added mobility both in the virtual and real spaces. The very knowledge that they are being watched wherever they go gives them a sense of protection. The ironic expression that ‘slavery is freedom’ as expressed by Orwell has become an absolute and readily accepted truth of our times. In the cities we have become immobile with lesser opportunities to transcend and have become too visible to be alone.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

City Lights 1

(Mumbai -pic courtesy Ketish Kothari)

A city lives in and by reminiscing done by people significant and insignificant, conspicuous and inconspicuous, and finally powerful and powerless. You may be living in a city for a so many decades yet if you do not remember your city in certain ways it ceases to exist as far as you are concerned. Hotel lobbies, airport lounges and such liminal spaces do not leave many memories in one’s mind. They do once in a while depending on what you did in those spaces or places. You must have kissed another man or woman for the first time in hotel room so, the moment you check into a hotel room and close the door behind you, suddenly memories flood in. A hotel room devoid of such memories is not really a space that lives in you. So are the airport lounges or such liminal spaces. Unless you have picked up a wonderful book that has changed your life once and forever, or unless you have met a long lost friend, and yet again, unless you have chanced upon such a beautiful woman, so cherubic that you thought the goddess herself has alighted before your eyes. I am a male writer, hence my views are gendered and I would like to include the female views for there is a female in me who seeks expression in many ways than one. In due course of my writing, I am sure you would be able to see that woman in me.

The city that you live in may have magnificent monuments, historical sites, wonders of the world, too many palatial abodes, dark and stinking street corners, cinema halls, play houses, museums, zoos, railway stations, botanical gardens, memorials, parks, fountains, shanties, skyscrapers and what not. Seeing all these through the eyes of a tourist may help you to remember all of them, perhaps one by one over a period of time since your arrival in the city as a migrant or as a person who grows up in the city. But most of the time we do not remember or reminisce about the sights and sounds of the city where we dwell perhaps due to our own over familiarity with it. We may think more about a distant land that we have left behind when we decided to move. If we do not remember and make our own stories about a city and our relationship with each and every aspect of the city, then one could say for sure that for us that city does not exist even if we do live there. Sometimes I see people living in a city without really thinking much about it. They go to their work places, come back and live a life confined to their own daily lives. They set up families, make homes, buy houses, cars, make babies, send them to school, see them growing up, see them getting married, making babies, and so on until they die. The city, for such people is almost non-existent.


At some point we all are bound to remember the place that we live in. When catastrophes strike, suddenly we remember. We have taken the city for granted. Now the city is in throes and it makes you remember it, think about it and feel for it. Tragedies strike with such vehemence that it makes one and all to remember for their rest of their lives. Writers and all those creative people including film makers, song writers, visual artists and so on, are lucky in that sense because the tragedies make their reminiscing too deep and philosophical. While the rest of the people wail, the writers turn their suppressed tears into ink and write; painters see their blood turning into different colors and they paint. Film makers etch the pangs of the city in their registering mediums. Song writers always capture the pain and wailing of the cities that have undergone tragedies in their rhyming lines so that the succeeding generations could imbibe the pain of the yester years even while jiving and grooving with the tunes of those songs. A city is not city until it is remembered for history is a way of remembering and each remembrance is a history personalized in non-academic fashion. Those people who do not remember and recount their city even when there are no catastrophes to disturb their lives live the lives of the mute creatures that come and go without leaving a trace.

Sometimes, I see people as stories or rather histories. I also see them squandering their stories into the wilderness as there are none to listen or heed to the nuances of those individual narratives. I see people talking over phones or each other either in a very flimsy or in a very grave fashion and in both cases they are not really talking about their city. They talk about their lives caught in the webs of desire and debts. They fritter away the precious moments of youth in casual talks and merry making. They speak about the monuments as the backdrops of their revelries or stolen moments of privacy. May be these are the ways in which they create their city in their own terms. Who knows such frivolity might one day turn into a great narrative of a love saga. Or who knows a person who heaves sighs for his or her losses in life wouldn’t come out one day with a novel or song. Anything could happen. But as far as I know people avoid talking about their city. They stop reminiscing about the world that they live in. The immediate surroundings are taken for granted and nobody notices the changes that the climate or the people facilitate in them. The life goes on, they say. They almost see the city as a backdrop or a huge make believe set which they are willing to accept as something that they need to negotiate on a daily basis. Where do they find time to look at a building being built? Where do they find time to see the skyline of the city has changed? They literally do not notice that something has realigned in the city therefore their lives too have been rearranged. But in the quotidian experiences of very ordinary lives that one makes for oneself helps one to avoid these changes.

 (an urban construction site)

Memories are obliterated deliberately, forcefully and at times almost with a purpose. One does not want to look at the growing city because he/she finds the growth menacing. It is fatal to the ordinariness of one’s own life. The moment one acknowledges the city’s growth both vertically and horizontally he/she has to accept the changes that would automatically facilitate in one’s life. None wants to go through that change. The changes would definitely make them to recount or remember. It is very painful for them. They may casually say that things were different. Why do people refuse to remember? They think remembrance is painful because the bygone days were not good. They were poor then. They did not have the affluence they believe to have now. Or the other way round; they were well off and now they are not doing well in their lives. But that is not always the case. People do not want to remember the city and recreate the city in their minds because they think that it is a futile act. Ironically, contrary to what I said earlier, they are ready to accept all the changes so naturally life fish in the water that they do not find the changes at all. In the place of a two storied building now there stands a skyscraper, the streets that were narrow, dirty and dark are now wider, cleaner and well lit. So what, they ask. That’s how the city grows, they argue. What all have changed with that? They turn their faces away from the question. Or they jog their memories and try to come out with something that makes sense unto them.

It is not necessary that everyone makes sense out of what they say. They speak from the sudden poking or at times they speak like a volcanic eruption; they have been holding so many things about the city back. It would surprise us who are professional day dreamers. I believe that there is a conscious need to make sense of one’s own city. It is not something like joining a cycling club and going to the old historical places which are now almost abandoned even by the tourism department. It is not like becoming historiographer of the city in an academic fashion. It is not even like a know-all of the city. One need not become a living city guide neither unto himself nor for others. One could develop a very special relationship with one’s own city; it could be totally out of the way or out of the mainstream ways of making connections. The orthodox ways of connecting with the city is always by becoming an expert of some area of the city itself or of the city life. I have seen so many people who know everything about the Sufi shrines in a city like Delhi. Somebody is an expert in the eatery trails. Some people are the experts of the flora and fauna of the city. But an ordinary man’s connection with the city may not have such grandeur. His/her may be connected to a very personal memory but it would define the whole city for him/her. When recounted for a wider audience or for the repository of the family saga, these apparently very personal stories become very defining moments in one of the histories of a city.


I would call it memory making. A writer is a memory maker. A writer makes memory not deliberately but his very existence is in remembering his/her life in a given space and time. And from that given and from the lived experiences of those given moments, he/she travels beyond those moments and creates a city which is more real than the lived one yet more believable and truthful than the actual one. That does not mean that a writer lives in his/her past. He/she lives in the present and looking at the past is not a deliberate thing for a writer. It happens so naturally that he would not be able to discern from the remembered and lived from the living. This does not mar the beauty of the present or it adversely affects the world view that has to be unbiased to certain extent. This is an interesting journey within the inertness. It is a book read from the last chapter to the first chapter and yet enjoy with the same enthusiasm of a normal and conventional reading course. It is like disassembling a song to its elements for the heck of it and then joins it one by one and sees how the song takes shape into one’s mind. It is a way of reconstructing the city the way one wants. For me, it is not necessary that I see the India Gate always there just at the end of the Rajpath. In reality it is there. But in my understanding of the city, it is in the erstwhile periphery of an old city. Its centrality is a later definition which I could disassemble through my understanding of the city as whole. I could make my memories differently and have a different city for myself.

It is true in the case of the city dwellers. A person who lives in the pavement looks at the city differently than the one looking at the city from the fifteenth floor apartment in the posh locality. Prof.Vinay Lal has devoted one chapter about the city of Bombay as seen from the pavement in his book on the Bollywood classic movie ‘Deewar’. There are ant’s eye view and bird’s eye view of the city. The perspectives are developed depending on the location and economics. A security man in a museum looks at the works of art displayed there and understands it in a very different way than an erudite art historian. Whose view on the work of art is right, could be an interesting question. I believe that the meanings derived by the security man will be much sharper and deeper than that of a seasoned art critic who walks into the gallery with his set theories and prejudices about the artist and the works displayed there. One’s relationship with the city is highly determined by his/her narrative about the city and I am interested in such narratives. I like the way people make their memories. There in Santiniketan in West Bengal I see a lot of rural folk come in hoards by tourist buses and reverently stand before the artifacts exhibited in the Rabindra Bhavan Museum. They are not Tagore scholars or not really worthy of being called the ‘bhadralok’ of Bengal who apparently claim to have understood Tagore better than anybody else in the world. I see people in Delhi metro going to the commercial Chattarpur Temple complexes where everyone knows that god is ‘shown’ for a price and go back with a lot of satisfaction. I see people in Delhi visiting Sarojini Nagar Market, Lajpat Nagar Market, Janpath Market, Palika Bazar and places like that only because they want to experience the market. Nobody tells them that the same stuff could be procured from the markets near their homes. People visit malls, eat at McDonalds or Dominos, or they visit water parks and indulge in ‘rides’ only because they want to relate the ways they understand the city. But there is a different way of connecting with the city.

 (India Gate, Delhi)

That different way of connecting the city is called memory making. You go to place and even if it is not so interesting in terms of glitter and glamour, you connect with that part of the city because you have something to do with that place. You might have lived there or you have been to that place and being that place had changed your life. When that actually happened you were perhaps alone. You and that part of the city had entered into a secret bonding. It is not necessary that you revisit the place again and again. But at times, you make a travel back to that place mentally. It is like a very pivotal piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Once you remember it, the rest of the city fall in place; the whole city makes sense suddenly. That’s sort of memory making and recounting it for the posterity is all about sharing your views about the city which may not be the kind of history that you have learnt about the city so far. I am about to start my journey through different cities and let me tell you that my primary concern is the city of Delhi which I had chosen as my city of living two decades ago. As I said at the outset, everyone has a story to tell. I am not different. But my story is different because my connection with the city is purely on an imaginary plane, which is an altered version and vision of the city. If none finds it interesting, at least at some stage in their lives, my children would see this writing and they would definitely appreciate it for it is a part of their memory making too.