March 17, 2012

Narrating the Real World

(An excerpt from my discussion of non-fiction as narrative genre, and Katherine Boo's recent book. Read the rest of it here. )

Annawadi is as much a microcosm of power as the grand stage of the neo-liberal state is. As much as legitimate quarters of power keep alive this community of want as a source of political patronage, swinging between the threat of dispossession in a ‘demolition’ drive and gasping afloat over surprise gifts of brick and mortar, Annawadi throws up its own protectors and providers. Boo’s story, in a seventies Amitabh Bachchan movie, would have turned Abdul into a Vijay who romances the Hyatt-owner’s daughter, Parveen Babi, swings his ‘chor’-tattooed wrist, and collects his pound of flesh from a corrupt police officer. Boo’s story, in Aamir Khan’s Rangeela, might have turned Manju into an Urmila Matondkar who ‘by-hearts’ English poems and swoons atop sea rocks in sarongs. Boo’s portrayal of the deadening yet hopeful struggle for survival – ‘in relative peace’ of the ‘great, unequal city’ – resonate somewhat with the rustic Bollywood tales of desperation fortified by the foolish hope and flights of fantasy that only the Sunils and the Mirchis might encourage in their hearts. Bollywood shelters us from the gory suicides and treacherous in-fighting in undercities. When it does tell us of lockup-beatings, it packs with it the crucial condiment of justice at the end.

Boo takes on many structures of narrating want and desperation that are embedded in the Indian intellectual and reflexive worlds. She sees the under-subject not through the lenses of self-conscious empathy, overstated heroism, angered protest against the agents of capital, or despairing collusion with forces that be, but in a humanistic rhythm that distils a classic human motif out of the particulars of the Indian, postcolonial juggernaut. She narrates violence without enveloping it in the narrative tool of tragedy. She narrates want without resorting to the easy tool of aesthetisation. She steers clear of mirroring the standard-format-liberal-self on the under-subject which makes them seem closer home, seeing components of the liberal quest for freedom, privacy, and dignity in the piecemeal undercitizen.

March 12, 2012

Grateful Dead

We sit on dried grass next to a temple-like structure away from the boys playing football. This is a shoshan – shamshan. A humble chulha awaits the entry of the next one. We carry on our eager exchange next to the nonchalant goats. As if this were not eerie at all. Many friends and foes of indeterminate origin surround our forthright rational exchange. The footballers do not seem to mind at all. The goats carry on chewing dried grass and some plastic. The dead are inconsequential. In a place where space cannot afford to be a permanent description of being, the dead must be content with sharing space with footballers, rationalists and goats. They could join us if they wanted. For tea and biscuits.

March 1, 2012


February 27, 5 pm

I stand at the gate of Howrah Jute Mill next to a gathering being addressed by a speaker on the dias. He is speaking in Hindi, calling out to the workers to join the strike tomorrow. The posters for the strike of February 28, on the outer walls of the mill, are also in Hindi. At 5 pm, a shift of work at the mill, has probably come to an end. Workers thronging the gates, slowly move out on their bicycles. The crowd complicates traffic on GT Road (South). The entire stretch of the sidewalk lining the compound of the mill is guarded by Trinamool flag-bearers. A tricolor with the bi-flower in the place of the charkha slung over masculine shoulders. These men stand tall and proud, shepherding meek cyclists out onto the evening traffic of G T Road. Across the road stands a police van declaring the presence of West Bengal Police. The new sovereign takes on the old.

I walk along G T Road in search of a watch repair shop. My watch needs new batteries. Women in orange sindoor and polyester saris continue the evening argument over vegetable prices. Thickets of flag-bearers murmur anxiously at bus-stops and crossroads. An alley on the right, at Howrah Maidan, takes me into a crowd hurrying to wrap up business and pack their destroyables before the halt of tomorrow. Wiry men load gunny bags full of maal on cycle vans and take them to be loaded onto the trucks waiting by the riverside. A desperate attempt to minimize losses before dawn. The push of gunny bags takes me forward towards the huge and highly-walled compound of Burn Standard Company. The machines in this railway-wagon manufacturing yard are still groaning from evening activity. Work is afoot, even as workers trickle out on their bicycle. West Bengal Police waits at these gates too. Burn was one of the feathers in the Trinamool cap on the run-up to the elections last year, as Mamata Banerjee injected new resources for its revival from sick status when she was Minister of State for Railways. Behind Burn, on the riverside, it is pitch dark now. Desperation soars and cargo gets pushed onto trucks at a feverish pace. Get out of here before trouble begins – they seem to whisper. The river glistens in sweaty fervor.

I get on a crowded bus on Foreshore Road on the way back. The driver says, “Damage hole daam debe to bolechhe. Dekhi ki hoy.” (They have said they will pay if buses are damaged, let’s see what happens). He speaks of the Trinamool government’s attempt to allay fears of damage to vehicles by promising compensation to transport-owners. He finishes with a jaded smile. The women at the institution where I live, say, “Ei abar shuru holo” (Here it all begins again). They remember their long familiarity with inter-party violence. A friend, who is a Trinamool enthusiast, turns protective in personal conversation. ‘Madam, ki dorkar’, he says. ‘Ek dui kilometer porjonto cholaphera korun, tar beshi jaben na.’ (Madam, what’s the point? You can move around within one or two kilometers, but don’t go beyond that.) He cautions me the night before.

February 28, 10.30 am

The cyber café, where I am a regular, is at half-shutter. I peep in, and the owner tells me there will be no internet today. A bunch of boys are hanging out inside. Reminiscing about the typical Bengal strike, I walk past much cricket and football. Many sporting clubs in Dakshin Buxara have newly painted walls and plush fields declaring their upcoming football tournament. The football is a baking oven for churning out masculine confidence, waiting to be channeled into political displays of strength. The TMC government has recently declared a district-wise allotment of funds from which monetary support was to be disbursed to clubs. Young Bengal’s love for football has, consequently, recharged its batteries. People crowd around a wall-newspaper which bears today’s issue of Gonoshokti, the CPI(M) mouthpiece. Fruit, chai and cigarette shops are open at the Bakultala bus-stop. Police are stationed on a bench here. The Trinamool Tricolor hangs in the February breeze from the tin-roofs of these shops. They are protected for sure. The charkha on these flags is replaced with didi’s face. At Danesh Sheikh Lane, there is thicker tension in the air. More flags, more police. Young lads sashay on motorcycles triumphantly waving the Tricolor in February breeze. I walk towards the other cyber café, and happily find it open. Young folks are weaving dreamworlds on Facebook.

The industrial called by central trade unions had been appropriated by the CPI(M) in West Bengal and converted into a call for a general strike. News about the Trinamool’s iron fist, determined to thwart the CPI(M)’s call for a successful general strike, over the past few days, has focused on Mamata’s threat to enforce the break-in-service clause for government employees who did not show up at work today. Today’s Metro supplement of The Telegraph carried happy photos of employees at Writers’ Buildings, camping in the office last night. They had two powers to keep at bay now. They looked not to get into trouble on the commute to work, as also to avoid being pulled up by the government bosses.

Strikes are not new in West Bengal. But it seems something is new here when the call to strike is coupled with a nervous diktat to keep active, or appear active. Humdrum activity is displayed at the call of the new sovereign, while all effort is muted in pace, intensity and color, giving an impression of not defying the call to strike by the old one too brazenly. A population is feminized in an attempt to massage competing masculine egos. The new government was once the face of rail-oborodh and dharna theaters. It is seeks congratulation today, on making life go on, in the face of threats of sabotage.

Evening envelopes the anxious horizon with some respite. Men sit on the ledges of houses and shops with their lungis pulled up, speaking of the fruitlessness of it all. Buses are not running yet, but shops and bazaars have opened up. The daylong grit of teeth reminds one of competitive nuclear stockpiling by the two superpowers of the Cold War.

Colors of sindoor declare not only marital status, but the ethno-linguistic and religious allegiances of women and their familial overlords. Red would imply Bengali, Assamese, Nepali, Marwari; orange for Bihar, Jharkhand. The colors of banners, posters and flags speak of something akin to marital proprietorship. They declare not simply the nature of allegiance of the flag-bearer, but in their frequency, speed, tinge, they read aloud the current temperature of power. The mildest quivers in this precarious equilibrium reflect on the murky evening river.