A man smiled from underneath his Bengali moustache embracing the despair of his office surroundings. Fans, hanging from the high ceilings, provided scanty comfort amidst the rows of empty tables and chairs. Wooden chests of drawers, and partition frames speak of a busy time in these premises. A faint conversation continued with the early nineteenth century here. The Hooghly Dock and Port Engineers Limited started in 1819 – one of the first big industrial ventures on the lower Hooghly belt. The region on the riverfront of Howrah and Hooghly was to industrialize rapidly after the construction of the Calcutta Port and the installation of railways in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Locked steel cabinets labeled ‘Obsolete Documents’ spoke of a careful samjhauta with the past. Taken over by the central government in 1984, in order to address the needs of financial and infrastructural management, the campus of HDPEL stands on the riverfront of Salkia - a ghosthouse. Its salaries are paid by the government, it has no orders. The Nazirgunj campus, they say, has some orders. The Salkia unit is equipped with a dry dock and a ship-building yard. The ruinous architecture reads as an embellishment of the past on a decadent present. And makes for pretty pictures that they wouldn’t let me take. Aapni likhe deben eta kebol dhonshaboshesh. Please go and write that this is nothing but ruin.
July 8, 2012
Coal is the most potent example for the primary Marxian edict of production - beginning with awakening the depths of the earth. The most primitive of capitalistic attempts to unleash energy out of dormant material, coal traces our modernity back to the first railway wagon. Entrapped in mines, it must be scooped up, cleaned, weighed and transported to sites of actual assemblage of forces of production. In affirmation of the most basic rule of mass manufacture. Our colonists taught us this view of the earth. If you live on it, it’s homestead, if you cook it, it’s food, if you churn up its secret desires it will rise out of the ashes and all will be a productive whirlwind. I can’t tell if Anurag Kashyap meant to do this, but in the film Gangs of Wasseypur, he has illustrated the most intricate and neglected strand of Marxian thought. The coevalness of man and material. Each a reservoir of destructive, nurturing, conquering, annihilating, fragile components. As the film ended, I was getting ready to add it to my list of recent Bollywood of badland masculinity – of the Omkara, Ishaqzaade genre. The film fermented in me a couple of days. The staccato standalone documentary-like shots of coalmines, Nehruvian manufacture and nation-building elegies kept resurfacing as I tried to reconstruct the film within me. A sooted organism creeps out of the coal landscape, charts out the genealogy of a few generations of umbilical tugs of revenge, conquest, domination, and the relentless bombardment the nation-building project. This sooted organism – Sardar Khan, his successors, his enemies, his muses – is a metaphor of coal. That which creeps out of the crevices of the earth, burns in vengeful glory, gets kicked around by the authors of capitalist modernity, trampled as soot on the borders of roads to production, lines faces, salts tears and lies dead as dirt in the wake of steel and electricity. Sardar Khan is a ruthless, amoral, dirty man. He manages to churn up desire and disgust in his fellows, sons, wives and audiences. Like coal which fires up engines, and lines palms with loatheful soot. Both motors of desire and power. Both fragile against the forces of history.