November 25, 2013

Vanishing Points and Urban Horizons

[An excerpt from my AAA 2013 paper.]

As the landscape measures urbanity in the flailing and rising rhythms and paces of movement, be that across the highway, or in the heightened flight into Bollywood dreamscapes through headsets, there are attempts to narrate and relocate the landscape in varies registers of time. These time-switches could be seen as flights of fantasy out of the clutches of the small-frame of time – the immediate, or as political acts of framing one’s ‘urban horizon’ across a wide tapestry of historical and political events.

Shibendu Manna, one of the foremost Howrah historians, has written books about the district and his hometurf - Jogotbollobhpur in north Howrah. I ask him how his historical inquiry about Jogotbollobhpur emerged. He says it went right back to when he was in Class VIII in 1954. It emerged from a love for the area, a piece of land, in which one may have grown up or may have struck roots in because of occupation. He was intrigued by the fact that a concentration of shipyard industries emerged in the Ghusuri area, on the westbank, and not on the Calcutta banks. This prodded his historical curiosity towards the geographic shaping of history. In 1872, Abanindranath Tagore writes about his travels in a kheya boat on the Hooghly and watching this frenzied transition. The limitation of the historical point of view, he says, is that what you can see is supplemented by many things you cannot see. Many things from the Mughal time - in terms of land records and territorial jurisdiction, persists to date, in the form of language used in land transfer deeds – for example, in the demarcation of pergunnnahs even in Kolkata areas, where there are no pergunnahs any longer. It comes from Todar Mal’s Jummah-Ikhtiyar of the Akbar era. You may leave the Mughal era behind, but it will not leave you.

He had studied geography in school, but he asked himself - where in this geography does my surrounding piece of land fit. That question haunted him. During the desilting of a river, an artefact was unearthed. This became a sensation. It pulled him. He did not go to college. First, he got involved in the Library movement in 1960, traveling from place to place, raising funds and trying to get people to read. What was the significance of this? I ask. See in those days, there weren't so many schools and colleges. For many people the world of books was far removed. We wanted to create a space where working people could come at night and read and be exposed to the world of thinking.

Archaeological evidence – paathure promaan[1] – is important in the nation-building project. He talks of an incident where an artefact was found in someone’s house, and the family started worshipping it. The police intervened and they resisted. Then the police called the District Magistrate, and with his assistance the deity was salvaged for greater archaeological archiving and research. I ask if this is ethically justifiable. He says the Treasure Trove Act of the British era mandates that things of archaeological significance are national assets, not private ones. Like mines and minerals, I say. What is its use? – I ask. He says, when Swami Vivekananda went to Alwar and he was asked about idol worship he said, why don’t you pull down the portrait of one the Raja’s ancestors, and spit on it. The people were aghast. Swami Vivekananda said – why, it is not the Raja or ancestor himself, only a photo. Why not desecrate it? Manna was keenly aware of the presence of the ‘sacred’ in the makings of nation and history. People, he lamented, think that Howrah has no history as a landscape. But I say, he said, things have never just come to be, there has to be history to make sense of the way it has come to be in the present. It was Manna’s attention to geography in reading history that sharpened my awareness of the role of landscape in the nature of historical present in Howrah. In his book Howrah - Itihash o Otiijhhyo (Howrah – History and Heritage), he traces the identity of the landscape to the dead river Saraswati (2011: 44-48). The Saraswati – a mediator of longtime is a key ingredient for Manna to conceptualize the history of a village.

Manna draws historical authority from the most diverse range of sources – the dead river Saraswati, the colonial map, the entry and presence of nationalist leaders. It appears that the archaeological relic ‘pulled’ him towards longtime, informing his subsequent historical enterprise of connecting dots between his home-village, Mughals, ancient relics and dead rivers. A range of links are used in Manna’s texts to link a cluster of villages, strung together administratively as a block within a district, to the larger map of things that enjoy the focus of historical luminosity. It’s the conversational (or confrontational) pose vis-à-vis state forces that helps Manna appropriate for his home-village some of the historical luminosity available to state agencies. Manna draws from multiple streams of time – the longtime of the triangle formed in land by the intersecting riverways of the Saraswati, Kana Damodar and Rupnarayan making the area a jolodurgo – water-fortress (2011: 63), as also colonial definition of landscape as spelt out in the Imperial Gazette.

The river is a key mediator of the energies of industrial capital, and associated historical scale. Charnock arrives at Uluberia, upstream along the river. The entry of outsiders such as Charnock is heavily laden with possibility and expectation. The recommendation to the Company appraising Uluberia’s merits as a potential factory-town made brought the exhilarating possibility of historical luminosity to the westbank, one that history finally bestowed upon Sutanuti on the eastbank.[2] A riverfront is addressed in a range of texts, as the key citation of this landscape and its appearance on the stage of history.





[1] Translates literally as rocky evidence, but implies archaeological relics.
[2] An anecdote that is found in C N Banerjei’s text (1872), and appropriated and rendered in varied ways in the recent Howrah histories written by Sampad Dhara, Hemendro Bandyopadhyay, Asit Bondyopadhyay.

November 18, 2013

The Discreet Charms of Tea Gardens: Or Sublimated Desire and Cowardly Love in the Himalayan Foothills



Something about the business of men and women plays out differently in the mountains. Estranged lovers meet by accident (brought about by automobile trouble) in Ray’s Kapurush (1965) and Rituparno’s Titli (2002). Both male protagonists leave Calcutta for Bombay to pursue a career in film. Both female protagonists got married to wealthy teaplanters and settled in the environs of tea-plantation foothills in north Bengal. In Titli, the Urmila (played by Aparna Sen) has a high-school daughter Titli (Konkona Sensharma) whose teen-crush is Rohit Roy (played by Mithun) the film personality. Titli does not know that  her dream-boyfriend is her mother’s lover from her youth. Their history is not spelt out in clear terms. Rituparno switches to black-and-white to depict the estrangement caused by his film ambitions and her betrothal to a groom of appropriate prospects. Ray spends a good part of the first half of the film cinematically in their youth. Madhabi plays Karuna, an art student and Soumitro plays Amitabha - the restless, young man and aspiring actor. They are estranged in an exactly similar fashion. The desolation, desperation, affluence and agony of teagardens form the backdrop of both episodic narratives. A chance encounter. Estranged loves sharing glances of burnt desire guilt bitterness. Unfinished stories tend to sublimate and leave residues on the material environment. Such a layer of dust of sublimated desire is seen across the melancholic hills. The hills surround the collision of wounds. This collision is brought to sharp relief in Titli with a young girl’s adolescent fantasy.

The winding mountainous road to Ghum designed by monasteries, pine trees, hill cultures and languages (presumably Lepcha, Khasi and/or Nepali) makes Titli also a story of life on the frontiers of hill and plain, elite and subaltern, nature and culture. The romance associated with the drive from Bagdogra to Darjeeling is a familiar one in upper-middle-class Bengali  society. But the drive, the car-breakdown and the sudden implosions of locked-away-baggage disturb the romance, tranquility and equilibrium of the mountains.

In Kapurush, the life of a teagarden manager manifests in deliberate indulgence and lonely habitation of power. One presumes some adultery must have occurred. For that is the story that runs between British owners and native women laborers, and later their brown-sahib legatees. But what of our Bengali-in-Bombay hero Soumitro? One who seeks shelter in his ex-girlfriend’s marital home for a night, when he is stranded on his drive downhill. One who beseeches her by the end of the night to join him in his glorious current life, an offer that he lacked the conviction to make, many years ago, when she had asked. She is insulted at this offer now.


In Titli, the mother-daughter dyad implodes as the innocent teenager senses something is up between her mother and Rohit Roy. Or else why would she recite poetry to him amidst the woods. In her romantic vocabulary, reciting poetry is not a romantic act. But she senses the romance therein. She checks with her friend later on their walk from school, asking her, if she recited poetry to her boyfriend when they went on walks. The friend dismisses her saying ‘…he is my English teacher of what?!’ The mist floats away as a girl gives up her fantasy. The films stand as mountainous tales of men who loved but did not dare, and women who found the strength to hold on and pull away.