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.

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