Category Archives: Urbanity

রোহিত ভেমুলা ও ঘরের কাছের অন্ধকার

১৬ জানুয়ারী ২০১৬ অর্থাৎ যেদিন প্রধানমন্ত্রী নরেন্দ্র মোদি  ঘোষণা করলেন যে ২৫ কোটি টাকা অবধি দরের ‘স্টার্ট-আপ’ কোম্পানি খুলে ব্যবসা শুরু করলে ৩ বছর আয়কর দিতে হবে না, শ্রমিক অধিকার ও ভাতা ঠিকঠাক দেওয়া হচ্ছে কিনা, পরিবেশ দুষিত করা হচ্ছে কিনা, এসবের কোন কিছুরই সরকার ৩ বছর অবধি পর্যবেক্ষণ পর্যবেক্ষণ করবে না, ঠিক তার পরের দিন,  গত রবিবার একজন ছাত্র আত্মহত্যা করেছে। এরম আত্মহত্যা তো কতজন করেই থাকে, কতরকম কি হয় আজকাল – প্রেমঘটিত, অবসাদ, ‘ড্রাগস’। একজন পিএইচডি গবেষণারত ছাত্র আত্মহত্যা করেছে।  সে ক্ষেত্রে আবার যোগ হতে পারে ‘স্ট্রেস’। কিনতু তারপর যদি বলি গ্রামের ছেলে, ইংরেজি মিডিয়াম নয়, দলিত – এমন একজন আমার-আপনার শহরের নামী বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে দু-চোখ জোড়া স্বপ্ন নিয়ে এসে আত্মহত্যা করেছে, তখুনো আমরা একটু হাতরাবো একটু ‘স্ট্রেস’, একটু প্রেম, একটু ‘ড্রাগস’। কিনতু তারপর যদি আরো বলি যে তার বৃত্তির টাকা পাঠাত সে বাড়িতে, তা দিয়ে তার বিধবা মায়ের চলত, তখন হয়ত ‘ড্রাগস’টা বাদ পড়বে। তারও পরে যদি বলি যে সে স্বাভিমান নিয়ে প্রকাশ্যেই বলত যে সে বাবাসাহেব আম্বেদকরের  আদর্শে বিশ্বাসী, সে মৃত্যুদন্ড বিরোধী – তা সে ইয়াকুব মেমনেরই হোক বা কাশ্মীরে কুনান-পোসপোড়ায় কাশ্মীরি নারীদের গণ-ধর্ষণ করা সৈন্যদেরই হোক (পরের মৃত্যুদন্ডটা হয়নি, কোন দন্ডই হয়নি) এবং সে কারণে সে ছিল আমার-আপনার রাষ্ট্রের ঠিকাদারী নেওয়া বিজেপি দলের ছাত্র সংগঠন এবিভিপির চক্ষুশূল, তালে হয়ত বলবেন ব্যাপারটি ‘গোলমেলে’। এবং আরো যদি বলি যে মৃত্যুদন্ডের বিরোধীতা করে মিছিল বার করার জন্য বিজেপির এক সাংসদের অঙ্গুলিহেলনে নতুন  দিল্লীর হুকুমে জো-হুজুরি করা এক কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় উপাচার্য্য তাকে ছাত্রাবাস থেকে বহিস্কার করে।  যদি বলি যে তার সেই বৃত্তির টাকা, তার হকের টাকা সে পায়নি বেশ কয়েক মাস? যদি এটাও বলি যে তাকে দলিত বলে সামাজিক বয়কটের মুখোমুখি হতে হয়েছিল নতুন দিল্লির কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের এদেশে চলা হায়দ্রাবাদ কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে? আর কি কি তথ্য লাগবে, সত্যের আর কত পরত ছাড়াতে হবে এইটা বুঝতে যে হায়দ্রাবাদ কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের বিজ্ঞানে পিএইচডি-রত ছাত্র রোহিত ভেমুলার মৃত্যু স্থুলভাবে একটি আত্মহত্যা হলেও একটি অন্য সর্বার্থেই একটি রাজনৈতিক হত্যা?

এই রাজনৈতিক হত্যা কে করেছে, তার একটা সহজ এবং চালক- দায়সারা উত্তর হয়।  সেটা হলো ‘সমাজ’। কিন্নতু  তাকে কি দলিত সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি হিন্দু সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি মোসলমান সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি উচ্চ-বর্ণের হিন্দু সমাজ মেরেছে? বৈষম্যের পৃথিবীতে সমাজ বলে কিছু হয়না, বৈষম্যের টানাপোড়েনে, ঘাত-প্রতিঘাতে লিপ্ত থাকে নানা গোষ্ঠী, নানা সমাজ। বৈষম্যের কারণে এই বিভক্তি আবার এই বিভক্তিই হলো শক্তি। কারণ বহির্শত্রু নিপীড়ক গোষ্ঠীর বিরুধ্যে আত্মশক্তিকে সংগঠিত করার জন্য দরকার আভ্যন্তরীন ঐক্য। আর নিপিরিতের এই নিজে নিজে গোষ্ঠী তৈরী করে নিপীড়ক-কে মোকাবিলা করার প্রয়াসের বিরুধ্যে নানা পাল্টা চেষ্টা চলে, চেষ্টা চলে বৈষম্যগুলিকে বাদ দিয়ে নিপীড়কের ধান্দা অনুযায়ী বিশাল একতার দোকান খোলা, এমন দোকান যার প্রধান মালিক হবে নিপীড়ক, অংশ-মালিক হবে নিপীড়িতের মধ্যে থেকে তৈরী করা দালাল আর লাভের গুড় খাওয়া হবে সকল মানুষের ঐক্যের নাম।  নিপীড়কের ঐক্যের নানা দোকান আছে – সেসব দোকানের নানারকম নাম আছে – যেমন হিন্দুত্ব, ইসলাম, ভারত, ইন্ডিয়া, সমাজ, সুশীল, ইত্যাদি। রোহিত ভেমুলা এইসব স্বপ্ন দেখত এইসব দোকান ভেঙ্গে একদিন খোলা মাঠে মানুষের হাট-বাজার তৈরী হবে।

আমরা বঙ্গবাসী। রোহিত থাকত দূরে। সেই দূর থেকে তার বন্ধুরা জানিয়েছে যে দলিত বলে, তেলুগু মাধ্যমে পড়াশুনো করে উচ্চ-শিক্ষার স্বপ্ন দ্যাখার ধৃষ্টতা দ্যাখানোর জন্যে রোহিতকে এবং তার বন্ধুদের শুনতে হতো টিপ্পনি , হাসাহাসি করা হত মফঃস্বল গুনটুরের গন্ধ গায়ে লেগে থাকা স্বপ্নালু মানুষগুলিকে নিয়ে। আজকে চুনি কোটালের মৃত্যুর প্রায় ২৪ বছর পরে আমরা এমন এক শিক্ষা-

সংস্কৃতি তৈরী করেছি যেখানে মেডিকেল কলেজগুলিতে শহুরে আইসিএসই-সিবিএসইর রমরমা (যদিও পশ্চিমবাংলার ১০% ছাত্রছাত্রীও এইসব বোর্ডে পড়ে না), উত্কর্ষ-কেন্দ্র প্রেসিডেন্সিতে নানা বিষয়ের প্রবেশিকা পরীক্ষা যাতে বাংলায় না হয়, তার পাঁয়তাড়া করা হয় এই বাংলার মাটিতে থেকে, বসে, খেয়ে মোটা হওয়া একধরনের আরকাঠি  গোষ্ঠীর চক্রান্তে, যাদবপুরের তথাকথিত ‘কুল’ বিভাগগুলি থেকে বাংলায় কথা বলাদের পরিকল্পিত ভাবে হতে হয় হীনমন্যতার স্বীকার, সেখানকার  ইতিহাস বিভাগে বাংলায় স্নাতকোত্তর স্তরের উত্তর লেখার জন্য লাঞ্চিত হতে হয় প্রতিবন্ধী ছাত্র রামতনুকে, অন্য সময়ে ভুলে যাওয়া দিনে এই রকম-ভাবেই বাংলায় লেখার জন্য হেনস্থা হতে হতে আত্মহত্যা করেছিল যাদবপুরের ইতিহাস বিভাগের ছাত্রী পৌলমী সাহা। এই বাংলা বাংলা করলাম এতক্ষণ কারণ বৈষম্যের জন্য  বাংলা একটা উছিলা মাত্র। বাংলা মানে শহর কম মফঃস্বল বেশি গ্রাম আরো বেশি, বাংলা মানে বড়লোক কম গরীব বেশি, বাংলা মানে হাতখরচা কম টিউশনি বেশি, বাংলা মানে গাড়ি কম সাইকেল বেশি – অর্থাৎ বাংলা মানে সেই সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ যাকে জোর করে হারিয়ে দেবার চক্রান্ত চলছে আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশে। প্রেসিডেন্সি যত বাংলা-বিরোধী শহুরে-ইংরেজদের আখড়ায় পরিণত হবে, ততবেশী অসবর্ণ  অধ্যাপক  মহিতোষ মন্ডল লাঞ্ছিত হবেন এই-সকল ‘সুপার-কুল’ পোস্টমডার্ন আখড়ায়। মেডিকেল কলেজগুলি তত বেশি করে গুরগাঁও, নয়ডা ও ক্যালিফোর্নিয়ার ডাক্তার তৈরীর কারখানা হবে। বাংলার গণ-মানুষকে, অন্তজ জনতাকে  জোর করিয়ে হারিয়ে দেবার এই চক্রান্ত বন্ধ হওয়া দরকার। দরকার জনসংখ্যার অনুপাতে সর্বস্তরে সংরক্ষণ। দরকার বিরাট একতার বুটিক দোকান ভেঙ্গে হাট-বাজারের দাপাদাপি। রোহিত ভেমুলার  সুইসাইড নোটটি ইন্টারনেট-এ পাবেন। সেটিকে পড়ুন। বামুন-কায়েত বিপ্লবী আর রেডিকেল-দের অপরাধ-বিলাসের জন্য চে গেভারার মৃত্যু অবধি যেতে হবে না। রোহিত ভেমুলার মৃত্যু আমাদের অন্তরের অন্ধকারগুলিকে  প্রকাশ্যে আনতে সাহায্য করুক।                                        

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উবার চড়ে যাচ্ছি কোথায়?

খুব বেশিদিন আগের কথা বলছি না, কলকাতায় একটা সময় ছিল যখন গাড়ি চড়ে কোথাও যাবার মানে ছিল হয় প্রাইভেট গাড়ি বা টেক্সী। কিন্তু স্মার্টফোন ভিত্তিক আপ-এর দৌলতে ২৮ ঘন্টা  তত্ক্ষণিক ভাড়া গাড়ি বুকিং ব্যবস্থা ভারতের কিছু কিছু শহরের এক বিপুলভাবে জনপ্রিয় হয়ে উঠেছে। উবার বা ওলা গোছের কোম্পানিগুলি এখানে খুবই ভালো ব্যবসা করছে।  এছাড়া তাদের জোরদার বিজ্ঞাপনের ফলে তাদের নাম ছড়িয়েছে যথেষ্ট। আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশের পশ্চিমাংশে  তাদের এমনই রমরমা ব্যবসা যে উবার কোম্পানি জানিয়েছে যে মার্কিন কলকাতাই তাদের  বাড়তে থাকা বাজার এবং তাদের এই বৃদ্ধির হার তাদের লন্ডনের ব্যবসার চেয়েও বেশি। ভারতে  কলকাতার পরে তাদের সবচেয়ে দ্রুত গতিতে বাড়তে থাকা বাজার হলো মুম্বইর। এই ধরনের পরিষেবা বিশ্বের অনেক জায়গাতেই চিরাচরিত লাইসেন্স প্রাপ্ত টেক্সী ব্যবসার লাভের গুড়ে থাবা বসিয়েছে। সেটা এখানকার ক্ষেত্রেও সত্যি। ফ্রান্স থেকে দক্ষিন আফ্রিকা, নানা জায়গায় ট্যাক্সি চালক তথা মালিক ইউনীয়ন্গুলি উবারের ব্যবসা পদ্ধতিকে অনৈতিক ও বে-আইনি বলে প্রতিবাদ জানিয়েছে – যে ধরনের সরকারী নজরদারির স্বীকার সাধারণ তেক্সীরা, বা যতরকমের কর তাদের দিতে হয়, তার ফলেই উবারদের সাথে তারা প্রতিযোগিতায় পিছিয়ে পড়ছে। উদাহরণ স্বরূপ, টেক্সী না যেতে চাইলে আইনে জরিমানার ব্যবস্থা আছে, উবারদের ক্ষেত্রে এমন কোন আইন-ই নেই। সাধারণ টেক্সীগুলি বেসরকারী মালিকানাধীন হলেও সে ব্যবসা বেশ ভালো পরিমানে সরকারী নিয়ন্ত্রনের আওতায়।  টেক্সী ভাড়ার তালিকাও সরকারের সাথে বোঝাপড়া করে ঠিক হয়। উবার-ওলারা তাদের রেট্ ঠিক করে ও বদলে নিজেদের ব্যবসা মাফিক, নানারকম ছাড় ও অন্যান্য বিপণন-ফন্দিরও তারা সাহায্য নিয়ে থাকে, যা সাধারণ টেক্সী আইনত পারে না।

এই ভাবে যখন কোথাও এক ধরনের ব্যক্তিগত ব্যবহারের জন্য বেসরকারী পরিবহণ ব্যবসার একটা রেকর্ড প্রসার ঘটে, তখন সেই জায়গার গণ-পরিবহণের অবস্থা ও মান সম্পর্কে প্রশ্ন মনে চলেই আসে। তাই ভারতের প্রধান শহরগুলির গণপরিবহনের মান বিশ্বের নিরিখে দেখে নেওয়া যাক। ‘ফিউচার অফ আর্বান মোটিলিটি ২.০’ নামের বিশদ একটি জরিপ-ভিত্তিক গবেষণার ফল সম্প্রতি প্রকাশিত হয়। এই জরিপ রিপোর্ট-টি প্রনিধানযোগ্য কারণ এতে বাজার-আদর্শ ও শ্বেতাঙ্গ-বিশ্ব ‘প্রগতি’ ও ‘উন্নয়ন’ বলতে যা বোঝায় (মূলতঃ চওড়া রাস্তা ধরে হুস-হুস করে যাওয়া রাশি রাশি সমাজ-বিছিন্ন প্রাইভেট গাড়ি) , তার কিছুটা বাইরে গিয়েও গণপরিবহনের মানের একটা মানাঙ্ক কষা হয়েছে বেশ কিছু গুরুত্বপূর্ণ ফ্যাক্টরকে মাথায় রেখে। এই সব ফ্যাক্টরের কয়েকটি হলো – মোট যাত্রা-সংখ্যার মধ্যে গণপরিবহনের সাহায্যে করা যাত্রার হিস্যা, স্মার্ট কার্ডের ব্যবহার, রাস্তার ঘনত্ব, গণপরিবহনের বৈচিত্র এবং সেগুলি কত সময় অন্তর অন্তর আসে, সরকারী পরিবহণ ব্যবস্থার ক্ষেত্রে নেওয়া উদ্যোগ, ইত্যাদি। সারা বিশ্বের ৮৪টি বৃহৎ শহরে এই নিয়ে গবেষণা ও জরিপ চালানো হয়।  তার থেকে পাওয়া ফলগুলি এইরকম। ভারতে দ্বিতীয় স্থানাধিকারী মুম্বই-এর হাল মার্কিন রাজধানী ওয়াশিংটন ডিসি-র চেয়ে সামান্য ভালো, লস এঞ্জেলেস পিছিয়ে আছে চেন্নাই-এর থেকে। অনেকের ধারনায় ভারতে ‘উন্নত’ দিল্লির হাল এই বহুমাত্রিক গণমুখী ফ্যাক্টরগুলির নিরিখে বেশ খারাপ – সেটির স্থান ৮৪টি শহরের মধ্যে শেষের দিক থেকে ৫ম। কলকাতা হলো ভারতের মধ্যে শ্রেষ্ঠ – ৮৪র মধ্যে তার স্থান ৩১, যার মানে আমরা নিউ ইয়র্ক, মন্ট্রিয়ল, টরন্টো ও সিডনির থেকে এগিয়ে আছি। জনসংখ্যার অনুপাতে ব্যক্তিগত গাড়ি মালিকানার হার ভারতের মেট্রো শহরগুলির মধ্যে কলকাতায় সবচেয়ে কম। পয়লা স্থান অধিকার করে হংকং। প্রসঙ্গত এই পরিমাপে ঢাকার রেঙ্ক করাচীর থেকে খারাপ কিন্তু বেঙ্গালুরু বা ওসাকা বা মায়ামির থেকে ভালো। এই রেঙ্কগুলি আমাদের যদি অবিশ্বাস্য লাগে, তার থেকে এই বোঝা যায় যে দুনিয়ায় উন্নয়ন ও প্রগতির জনবিরোধী হেজিমনিক ধারণা আমাদের কল্পনা ও ইপ্সাকে কতটা গুলিয়ে দিয়েছে যার ফলে আমরা সামনে ঘটমান বাস্তবকে দেখেও দেখি না, হাঁ করে অন্যত্র তাকাই। মাথার মধ্যে ভালো-খারাপ-গণমুখী-জনবিরোধী এইসব ব্যাপারগুলি কেমন গুলিয়ে মিলিয়ে দিয়েছে বাজার ও ক্ষমতার যুগলবন্দীতে তৈরী আমাদের এই ‘কমনসেন্স’। আর কলকাতা ও মুম্বই-এর তুলনামূলক ভালো স্থানের কারণে এরই রহস্যময় ও বেমানান লাগে সেই প্রাথমিক তথ্যটি – যে ভারতে উবার যে ধরনের  ব্যক্তিগত পরিবহণ ব্যবসা করে খায়, তাতে তারা সবচেয়ে সফল ঠিক এই কলকাতা ও মুম্বই-তেই।  আসলে ঘটছে তা কি? আমার কিছু আন্দাজ আছে।  আর সেই আন্দাজের হাত ধরে মনে আসে কিছু আশঙ্কা।

ভারতের শহরগুলির প্রায় সবকটিই অতি বিভক্ত শহর – বিভক্ত শ্রেণী, জাত ও অন্যান্য নানা ফেক্টর দ্বারা। আমরা এলিট বলতে বুঝি টাটা-বিড়লা।  আর বাকি সকলেই নিজেদের মনে করে মধ্যবিত্ত – অথচ এই মধ্যবিত্ত প্রায় কিছুতেই কোন কিছুর মধ্যস্থান অধিকার করে না – অর্থ-সামাজিক ভাবে তো নয়-ই। এই উপমহাদেশে এই গোষ্ঠিকে তুলনামূলক-ভাবে কম এলিট বলা যেতে পারে, কিন্তু এলিট তারা বটেই।  এই গোষ্ঠির নিজের গাড়িতে চেপে সবসময় সবজায়গায় যাবার সামর্থ্য নেই, যার ফলে তাদের অনেক ক্ষেত্রেই না চাইলেও অগত্যা গণ-পরিবহণের শরণাপন্ন হতে হয়। তাদের জীবনের এই অংশটি তাদের খরুচে ‘ট্রেন্ডি’ জীবনযাত্রার সাথে খাপ খায় না। গণপরিবহনে তাদেরকে এমন সমস্ত মানুষজনের পাশে বসতে হয়, এমন সমস্ত মানুষের গায়ের গন্ধ ঘামের গন্ধ নাকে আসে, ভিড়ের মান্ঝে এমন মানুষের থেকে ঠেলা ও গুঁতো খেতে হয়, নিজে দাঁড়ানো অবস্থায় এমন সব মানুষকে বসা অবস্থায় দেখতে হয়, যাদের কিনা তারা তাদের জীবনের অন্য সকল অঙ্গন থেকে নির্বাসিত করেছে সফলভাবে – নানা ধরনের প্রকাশ্য বা ছদ্ম ভৃত্য ভূমিকা ছাড়া। উবার-ওলার সাফল্যকে এই আঙ্গিকে দেখা প্রয়োজন। প্রথমতঃ।এর ফলে ‘পাবলিক’ থেকে নিজেকে স্থানিক-ভাবে আলাদা করা যায় – অর্থাৎ একই জায়গায় বসে যাতাওয়াত করতে হয় না, একই যানের মধ্যে বসে। দ্বিতীয়তঃ, পাবলিকের থেকে কালিক ভাবেই আলাদা হওয়া যায় – তাদের ২৪ ঘন্টা তত্পর পরিষেবার কারণে। অর্থাৎ সাধারণ মানুষ যে সময় গনপ্রবহনের অপ্রতুলতার জন্য বেশি ঘোরাফেরা করতে পারে না, যেমন ধরা যাক গভীর রাত, এই শ্রেণী সেই সময়গুলিকে কেন্দ্র করে নিজেদের জীবনধারা সাজিয়ে নেয়। সমাজের কিছু পাত্র-পাত্রীর মধ্যে জনসাধারণের থেকে নিজেদের আলাদা করে স্থান-কালের মালিকানা নেবার যে মানসিক ইপ্সা, উবার-ওলারা সেই বৈকল্যের ইচ্ছা-নদীতে সাঁকোর কাজ করে।  তার উপর দিয়ে আমাদের মত কিছু মনুষ তরতরিয়ে চলে যায় ইপ্সিত ওপারে, ধরা-ছোঁয়ার বাইরে, সুরক্ষিত ভাবে। বৈষ্ণবঘাটা-পাটুলি থেকে লেটনাইট পার্টি করে হিন্দুস্থান পার্কে ফেরত আশা হয়ে যায় জলভাত। শহরেরএলিটদের  জীবনে কিছু নতুন স্রোতের জন্ম হয়। কে কোথায় কখন কি ভাবে আসছে-যাচ্ছে, তাতে কারোর কিছু এসে যেত না, যদি না এই অর্থ-সমাজিক গোষ্টির প্রভাব ও প্রতিপত্তি তাদের সংখ্যার তুলনায় দৃষ্টিকটু ভাবে অনেক বেশি না হতো। কিন্তু বাস্তবে, তাদের উদ্বেগকে পাত্তা দেওয়া, তাদের সুরক্ষাকে সিরিয়াসলি নেওয়া, তাদের ইছাগুলিকে প্রশমিত করা হয়ে ওঠে  নগরের সরকারী ও বেসরকারী অধিপতিদের প্রথম কর্তব্য – কারণ যে মাছের মুড়ো এরা. তারই পেটি হলো উবার-ওলা শ্রেণী।  সংবাদমাধ্যমের বড় অংশও এই ক্ষুদ্র অংশের উদ্বেগ-সুরক্ষা ইত্যাদিকে এমন ভাবে ফুলিয়ে ফাঁপিয়ে একটা ‘গণ’ চরিত্র দেবার চেষ্টা করে যে মনে হতেই পারে যে আমরা ইতিমধ্যেই একটি আর্থ-সামাজিক বৈষম্যহীন মিডিল ইনকাম সমাজে পরিণত হয়েছি।

এর একটি কুফল দেখা গেছে সম্প্রতি।  যখন ভারতে রাস্তা-ঘাটে নারী নিরাপত্তার মত একটি গুরুত্তপূর্ণ বিষয় নিয়ে বেশ একটা জনমত তৈরী তৈরী হচ্ছিল, উবারের একজন চালক দ্বারা এক মহিলা যাত্রীর ধর্ষিত হবার ফলে নারী নিরাপত্তা সংক্রান্ত পুরো বিষয়টি এই প্রতাপশালী গোষ্টির উদ্বেগের জোরে পর্যবসিত হলো উবার গাড়ির নিষিদ্ধকরণ ও উবার চালকদের নিয়োগের আগে পূর্ব অপরাধ বিষয়ক খোজখবর নেওয়া গুরুত্ব ইত্যাদিতে। ভারতে, নারীদের এক বিপুলভাবে সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ অংশের কাছে  ভাড়া করা বা নিজ মালিকানাধীন গাড়িতে একা চলাফেরার সুবিধে-বিপদ সংক্রান্ত যে আলোচনা, তা একদমই অপ্রাসঙ্গিক কারণে তাদের জীবনের বাস্তবতার সাথে এর কোন সম্পর্কই নেই। অথচ ‘নারী নিরাপত্তার’ মোড়কে মিডিয়ায়ে আদতে চলল এলিট নারীদের নিরাপত্তার পুঙ্খানুপুন্ক্ষ আলোচনা।

যখনই সমাজের ক্ষমতাধারী ও গনপরিসরে-কি-আলোচিত-হবে-তা-নির্ণয়কারী গোষ্ঠীগুলি সর্বসাধারণের জন্য তৈরী পরিষেবাগুলি থেকে নিজেদের গুটিয়ে নেয়, তখন সেই সেই পরিষেবার মান নিম্নগামী হয়। কারণ পরিষেবাগুলি থেকে নিজেদের গুটিয়ে নিলেও সেই পরিসেবা চালনা সংক্রান্ত সকল ক্ষমতা এই গোষ্ঠীই কুক্ষিগত করে রাখে। তখন এদের নির্দেশে-উপদেশে সরকার যা করে তা হলো অপেক্ষাকৃত গণতান্ত্রিক ভাবে বন্টিত গণপরিষেবা থেকে অর্থ শুষে বার করে তারা ঢুকিয়ে দেয় এমন সব পরিষেবায় যা আপাত ভাবে সর্বসাধারণের জন্যে হলেও বাস্তবে কাজে লাগে মূলতঃ এলিট শ্রেনীর-ই। পূর্ব্বে উন্নত মানের এবং নির্ভরযোগ্য সংস্থা যেমন বৃহৎ সরকারী হাসপাতাল বা সরকারী ইস্কুল এই গোত্রে পড়ে। এলিট শ্রেণী এক-কালে এসব জায়গায় যেতো।  তারপর যখন তারা সরকারী ভর্তুকি ব্যবহার করে নিয়ম বদলিয়ে বেসরকারী পুঁজি দিয়ে এসব ক্ষেত্রে নিজেদের বিকল্প ব্যবস্থা করলো, তখন সরকারী সংস্থাগুলিতে তাদের আর কোন আগ্রহ রইলো না।  যে সর্বসাধারণের গরুর দুধ তারা রোজ খেতো এবং সেই কারণে বিচালি দিত, পরিষ্কার করত, সেই গরুর দুধ বেচে তারা তৈরী করলো নিজেদের মালিকিনাধীন গরুর  প্রাইভেট গোয়াল। কলকাতায়, টিবি হাসপাতাল ১ টাকা দিয়ে বেসরকারী সংস্থাকে বেছে তৈরী হলো কেপিসি হাসপাতাল।  ঢাকুরিয়ার এএমআরআই হাসপাতাল ও সরকারী মালিকানা থেক বেসরকারী মালিকানায় দেওয়া হলে ১ টাকার নাম-কে-ওয়াস্তে অঙ্কের বিনিময়ে।  শর্ত থাল এখানে একটা বড় শতাংশ বেদ থাকবে গরিবের জন্য সংরক্ষিত।  বলাই বাহুল্য, সেই সংরক্ষণ থেকে গেছে কাগজের পাতায়, এগ্রিমেন্টের দলিলে। আমি যেটা বলতে চাই সেটা এই যে ভারতে সরকারী হাসপাতাল বা ইস্কুলের মানের নিম্নগামী মানের সাথে এলিট শ্রেণীর স্বাস্থ্য ও শিক্ষা ক্ষেত্রে নিজ বিকল্প করে তলার ব্যাপারটি অঙ্গাঙ্গী ভাবে জড়িত। দুটো আলাদা ঘটনা নয়। তাই আশঙ্কা হয়, হারত সরকারের জোরদার প্রাইভেট গাড়ি তৈরী ও বিক্রির ক্ষেত্রে নানা রকম আর্থিক উত্সাহপ্রদানের যুগে উবার-ওলার বিস্ময়কর ব্যবসায়িক সাফল্য দেশের মোটামুটি ভাবে চলনসই গণপরিবহন ব্যবস্থার জন্য কোন অশনি সংকেত বয়ে আনবে ? আরেকটু ব্যাপক ভাবে বলতে হলে, যে দেশ ও সমাজের শক্তিশালী নীতিনির্ধারক অংশ ব্যাপক গণ-মানুষের কোনরকম ছোয়া থেকে নিয়েজদের দূরে রাখতে চায়, এমন বৈসম্যযুক্ত সমাজপতি-ওয়ালা সমাজের ভবিষ্যত কি?

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আমার শহর, আমার আশা

সামনেই আমার শহর কলকাতার পৌর নির্বাচন। এ শহর আমার জন্মের শহর। এখানে বস্তিবাসীকে নিমেষে হটিয়ে দিয়ে শহর ‘পরিষ্কার’ করা যায় না – কাউন্সিলর এম-এল-এর বেনামীতে প্রমোটারী ব্যবসা সত্ত্বেও। এখানে প্রধান প্রধান রাজপথে লক্ষ লক্ষ্য হকার সৎ ভাবে আয় করেন – মানুষের পেটে লাথি মেরে সূর্যোদয়ের বিরূদ্ধে দাঁড়ায় এ শহরের সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ মানুষ। এ শহরের পথে বিহারের দ্বারভাঙ্গা জেলার গরীব খাটিয়ে মানুষ বাংলা ভাষার জ্ঞান ছাড়াই ক্ষুন্নিবৃত্তি করে। অন্য কিছু শহর যেমন বাঙ্গালিকে হিন্দুস্তানি বা ইংরেজি বুলি বলতে বাধ্য করে, আমার শহর সেই পংক্তিতে পড়ে না। এ শহরের মন বড়। এ শহর আমার গর্বের শহর। তাই শহরের পৌরসভায় আমার প্রতিনিধিত্ব করবে কে, এটা খুব এলে-বেলে একটা সিদ্ধান্ত নয়। তেরঙ্গা পতাকার রাষ্ট্রর থেকে এই শহর আমার রোজকার জীবনে অনেক অনেক বেশি প্রাসঙ্গিক, অনেক বেশি বাস্তব।

আমার এ শহর নিয়ে ক্ষোভ আছে – যেমন মানুষের থাকে একদম একান্ত নিজের কিছুকে নিয়ে। আমার ওয়ার্ডের পৌরপিতা আমাদের এলাকার নতুন কাজ বা পরিকল্পনা নিয়ে অরাজনৈতিক নাগরিক সভা করেন না। আমার এলাকায় আমার প্রতিনিধি যিনি, তার কাছ থেকে এইটুকু কি আশা করা খুব অন্যায়। আপনারা যারা এবারও আমার পৌর-প্রতিনিধি হবার ইচ্ছা রাখেন, এলাকার নানা পরিকল্পনা দলের রং না দেখে, নাগরিক-দের সাধারণ সভা ডেকে করবেন – এমন কথা দেবেন? এই টুকু চাইব না? অথচ আমার করের টাকাতেই তো পুরসভা চলে। বাড়ির বাচ্চাকে আলু-বেগুন কিনতে বাজারে পাঠালে আমরা পাই-পয়সার হিসেব নিই, আর কোটি কোটি টাকার বরাতে কর্পোরেশনের বাজার-রাস্তা-ইস্কুল-ত্রিফলার হিসেব নেব না ? হিসেব চাইব আমি নাগরিক হিসেবে। শহরের সৌন্দর্যায়নে আমার আপনার মতামত নেওয়ার দরকার নেই আমাদের প্রতিনিধিদের? নইলে সে কেমন প্রতিনিধি ? আমার আপনার ভোটে জিতে সে তাহলে কার প্রতিনিধিত্ব করে?

যে চরিত্রহীন, তার হীনমন্যতাই তাকে বাধ্য করে অন্যের চরিত্র ধার করে নিজেকে চরিত্রবান প্রমাণ করাতে। যার গায়ে কাপড় নেই, সে অন্যের জমকালো কাপড় গায় জড়িয়ে লজ্জা নিবারণ করে। যারা কলকাতাকে লন্ডন-নিউয়র্ক বানাতে চান, তারা না চেনেন কলকাতাকে, না চেনেন লন্ডন-নিউয়র্ককে। তাই তো তারা পরমা আইল্যান্ডের ‘পরমা’ স্থাপত্যকে ভেঙ্গে দেন অবলীলায়, বৃটেনের সাম্রাজ্যবাদী আগ্রাসনের প্রতিবাদ করে ইংল্যান্ড থেকে কলকাতায় এসে আস্তানা গড়া বিশ্ববরেণ্য বিজ্ঞানী ও সমাজচিন্তক জে বি এস হলডেনের নামাঙ্কিত রাস্তার নাম বদলের পায়তাড়া করা হয়। মধ্যমেধা ও মধ্যকল্পনার সাথে চাটুকারিতা ও দুনম্বরী মেশালে তিলোত্তমা গড়ার তিলের যোগান হয় না, লন্ডন-সিঙ্গাপুরের কয়েক তাল স্থুল অনুকরণ গড়া যায় ঠিকাদারী ব্যবসার মাধ্যমে। এ শহরের নিজস্বতা, এ শহরের প্রাণ-ভোমরা – শহর সাজাতে যদি তাকে যদি মন্থন না করা হয়, তখন সৌন্দর্য্য হয়ে ওঠে নগর ও নাগরিকের মধ্যেকার একটি দেওয়াল। সে দেওয়ালের উচ্চতা দেখে ভয় ও সমীহ হতে পারে, কিন্তু কেউ সেখানে গিয়ে চুমু খাবে না, আল্পনা দেবে না।

এ শহর দাঁড়ায় সিঙ্গুরের পাশে। তাই এ শহরে বিজনেস ক্লাসে উড়ে আসা লোক কম। আর খুব কম সম্বল করেও অমাবস্যার রাতে একটুখানি চাঁদের আলোর স্পর্শ পেতে চাওয়া লোকের সংখ্যা অনেক। আমার শহরের নায়কেরা শহরের নাম ভাঙিয়ে ক্রিকেট দল খোলে না , বিনোদন টেক্স বাকি রেখে নেচে কুদে ‘আই লাভ কলকাতা’ বলে বোম্বাই পালিয়ে যায় না। আমার শহরের আসল নায়কদের একজন হলো শমভু সিং। এ শহরের দক্ষিণে গগনচুম্বী বহুতলের খোপ-ঘরের আধুনিক হুল্লোড়ের উপর ঘুরপাক খায় জয় ইঞ্জিনিয়ারিং-এর নিহত কর্মী শমভু সিং-এর বিদেশী আত্মা – অপরাজিত সৈনিকের মতো। এহেন শহরের যথার্থ প্রতিনিধিত্ব করা যে-সে কাজ না। এ শহর দিল্লি-বেঙ্গালুরু-নয়ডা-গুরগাঁও হতে চায় না। এ শহর এখুনো দোকানের নাম ও রাজনৈতিক পোস্টার লেখে মাতৃভাষায়। এ শহর হিন্দুস্তানের মরুভূমিতে মরুদ্যান নয়, ভাগীরথী-হুগলীর ব-দ্বীপের কোল ঘেঁসে গড়ে ওঠা মহা-গঞ্জ। এ শহর নিখিল বাংলাদেশের বৃহত্তম শহর। এ শহর অতীত-বর্তমান-ভবিষ্যতের সকল বঙ্গবাসীর।

আমার শহরে থাবা বসিয়েছে অনেক দুর্বৃত্ত। তারা শহরের রাজপথে সাইকেল চালানোকে বে-আইনি ঘোষণা করেছে। তারা গাড়ি থামিয়ে মানুষকে সিগনাল পারাপার করতে একটু বেশি সময় চায় না। তাদের কাছে ট্রাফিক মানেই গাড়ি, রাস্তা মানে শুধুই গাড়ীর পথ। আমি চাই আমার পৌর-প্রতিনিধি এদের সমঝে দিক। আমি চাই আমার শহরে গাড়ি কমুক, বাস বাড়ুক, পথিক বাড়ুক। আমি চাই আমার আগামী প্রজন্ম সুস্থ থাকুক, ভালো ভাবে শহরে নিশ্বাস নিতে পারুক। যিনি আমার প্রতিনিধি হবেন, তার প্রতি আমার দাবি অনেক, আশা অনেক। তারা পারবেন-ও, যদি ইচ্ছা থাকে। আর যদি থাকে শহরের প্রতি ভালবাসা, শহরবাসীর প্রতি দরদ।

আমি চাই আমার ওয়ার্ডে আরো গাছ লাগানো হোক – ফলের, ফুলের। সবুজ রং দিয়ে শহর মুড়লে সবুজায়ন হয় না। নীল রং দিয়ে মুরলে নীলকন্ঠ হওয়া যায় না, পাপ পাপ-ই থেকে যায়। সাদা রং করে পবিত্র হওয়া যায় না – প্রায়শ্চিত্ত করতে হয়। লাল নিশান ওড়ালেই সংগ্রামী হওয়া যায় না – তাপসী মালিকের কাছে ক্ষমা চাইতে হয়। আসন্ন নির্বাচন পুরনো হিসেব বুঝে নেবার নির্বাচন, নতুন দাবি রাখার নির্বাচন।

আমার শহর দেশভাগের শহর। এ শহরে একাধিক বাজারের নাম বাস্তুহারা বাজার। এ শহরের অনেক হকার প্রথম-দ্বিতীয়-তৃতীয় প্রজন্মের রিফিউজি। এ শহর বিস্থাপিতের অভয়ারণ্য। এ শহর শুধুমাত্র মধ্যবিত্ত ও উচ্চমধ্যবিত্তদের দিয়ে তৈরী ‘বস্তিহীন’ হকার-হীন ‘ছিম-ছাম’ ও ‘শান্তিপূর্ণ’ নকল শহর না। বাস্তুহারা বাজারের প্রতিনিধিত্ব বড়বাজারের দ্বারা সম্ভব না। ওসব এখানে হয় না।

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কলকাতার গাজী ইলিয়াস

কলকাতার পথের মধ্যে গল্প থাকে। শীত কাল বলে সে গল্প ভালো করে শোনা যায় – শীতে নিখিল বাংলাদেশে মানুষ একটু কম ঘামে। গল্প চেঁচিয়ে কথা বলে ফাঁকা রাস্তাতেও। তাই অনেক গল্প পথিকের মিস হয়ে যায়। এই তো কদিন আগে আমি ভাগ্যক্রমে এক গল্পের সাক্ষী থাকলাম যেটা কিনা একটু হলেই আড়ালে ঘটে যেত। কলকাতার সেই ছোট গল্পের আগে ঢাকার একটি গল্প দিয়ে একটা  গৌরচন্দ্রিকা করব।
সে ছিল আরেকটি শীতের মরশুম। ২০১০-এর ডিসেম্বরে ঢাকায় লাইভ প্রোগ্রাম করতে এলেন হিন্দী চলচিত্র জগতের জনপ্রিয় নায়ক শারুখ খান, ‘কিং’ খান। হয়তো অনেকেরই মনে আছে। সেদিন শারুখ ছিল স্টেজে।  দাপাদাপি করে সে জনতাকে বিনোদন দিয়েছিল।  এটাই তার পেশা ও কাজ। লাইভ শোতে একটি জনপ্রিয় ক্যারদানি হলো  হঠাত করে দর্শকদের মধ্যে থেকে কাউকে স্টেজে ডাকা। সুপারস্টার ও ভক্ত – এই ব্যাপারটি নিয়ে একটি তাত্ক্ষণিক নাটক মঞ্চস্থ করা আর কি। হঠাত করে ডাক পাওয়া ভক্ত স্টেজে উঠে নায়ক-কে বলবে আপনি মহান, আপনার জন্মদিন-বিয়ের তারিখ-সন্তানের অন্নপ্রাশনের তারিখ সকলই আমার মুখস্থ, কোনদিন-ই আপনার একটি বই-ও মিস করিনি, এখুনো বারবার দেখি বউবাচ্চা নিয়ে, চিরকাল ইচ্ছে ছিল আপনার গা ঘেঁষে একটু দাঁড়াই , আজ সে সুযোগ পেলাম, যেন লটারি-ই জিতলাম আর কি, ইত্যাদি, ইত্যাদি ।  নায়ক-ও ধন্যবাদ জানাবেন, একটু ‘মাটির মানুষ’ বা ‘আমি তোমাদেরই একজন’ গোছের একটু বিনয়, একটু  হাসি ঠাট্টা করবেন আর কি।  এমনই  দস্তুর। সব কিছুরই নাকি একটা ব্যাকরণ আছে অর্থাৎ সকলে তথাকথিত ভাবে ‘সর্বজ্ঞাত’ অনুযায়ী নিজের নিজের ভূমিকা পালন করবে। ‘কিং’-এর শুনবে, আহ্লাদিত হবে, প্রায় পায়ে পড়বে আর এহেন ‘ফ্যান’-এর গ্যাঁজলার গন্ধে  দর্শকেও মত্ত হবে।  প্রোগ্রাম তার ব্যাকরণ মেনে হবে সুপারহিট।
 কপট হয়েই হোক বা অকপট হয়েই হোক, এই ব্যাকরণ যখন লাইভ প্রোগ্রাম-এ কারুর দ্বারা কোন  ভাবে ভঙ্গ হয়, তখন আর এডিট করে ব্যাকরণ-মত করার সুযোগ থাকে না।  বরং ব্যাকরণ  একটি ভান, একটি আস্তরণ, একটি কিম্ভূত নির্মাণ, সেটাই প্রকাশ হয়ে পরে নগ্ন ভাবে। যে পৃথিবীতে কোথায় কেমন ভাবে ঠিক কি করে আচরণ করতে হয়, তা জানা এবং না জানা দিয়ে মানুষের ভাগ্য ও ভবিষ্যত নির্ধারিত হয়, সেই পৃথিবীতে যারা অজান্তে হোক বা জ্ঞানপাপী হয়েও হোক, ব্যাকরণ ভাঙ্গেন, তাদের সাধুবাদ প্রাপ্য। তাই সাধুবাদ দিতেই হয় গাজী ইলিয়াস-কে।  মনে পরে গাজী ইলিয়াস-কে? শাহরুখ খান যখন তাকে স্টেজে ডাকে, সে এসে বলে যে সে বাংলা জানে, দাবি করে যে সে হিন্দী জানেনা। না জানাটাই স্বাভাবিক। ইলিয়াস কিন্তু একরকম চালিয়ে দেবার ইংরেজি জানে। এরপরে সে লম্ফঝম্ফ করা শাহরুখের জন্য রাখা জলের বোতল চেয়ে জল খায়, পিপাসা নিবৃত্তি করতে। তাকে দেখে মনে হয় সে ‘নার্ভাস’, কিন্তু তবুও যখন শাহরুখ বলে যে স্টেজে সকলে দেখছে, ইটা লাইভ প্রোগ্রাম, তাই ‘ঠিক করে’ আচরণ করতে, ঠিক স্টাইলে দাঁড়াতে, তখন ইলিয়াস জানায় যে শাহরুখের স্টাইল এক, আর ইলিয়াসের স্টাইল অন্যরকম।  মঞ্চের কাঠামো অটুট থাকলেও ব্যাকরণ ভেঙ্গে পড়ে।  এর পরে ইলিয়াস আবার বোতল থেকে জল খায়, সবার সামনেই। অনেকের কাছে সে হাসির খোরাক হয়। সে উপযুক্ত ভাবে তার ভূমিকা পালন করতে পারে নি। ইলিয়াস কিন্তু তার নাম ভূমিকা পালন করেছিল সেদিন। গাজী ইলিয়াস ছিল গাজী ইলিয়াস। আর উজ্জ্বল নক্ষত্রের সামনেও গাজী ইলিয়াস থেকে যাওয়ার ফলে শাহরুখ খান-এরই কিছু সময়ের জন্য  করতে হয়েছে, ইলিয়াসকে ধমক দিতে হয়েছে, তারপর ‘ইমেজ’এর স্বার্থে দ্রুত সামলে নিতে হয়েছে। এরই মাঝে এক মেরু-দণ্ডযুক্ত বাঙালিকে শাহরুখ তার বলশালী মারকুটে পাঠান পরিচয় দিয়েছে এক হুমকি-ইয়ার্কির মাধ্যমে। কায়িক বলের এই খেলাচ্ছলে আস্ফালনের জবাব দেয়নি গাজী ইলিয়াস – দিতে পারত। দিলে আরো রসভঙ্গ হত। শাহরুখ খান অভিনেতা।  ইলিয়াস গাজী নার্ভাস কিন্তু অভিনেতা নন।  তার জল পিপাসার ফলে জল খাওয়া শারুখের প্লান-মাফিক মায়া তৈরিকে হঠাত করে রুদ্ধ করেছে।  শারুখের অভিনয়ে গাজী ইলিয়াস সাময়িক যতি চিন্হ এনে দিয়েছে – স্ক্রিপ্ত্হীন নায়ক-কে একটু ঘামিয়েছে। শাহরুখ যে আসল নয়, সে যে অভিনয়, তা ওই সাময়িক যতির কারণে আরো বেশি বেশি প্রকাশ পেয়েছে। প্রকাশ করেছে নার্ভাস গাজী ইলিয়াস।যেখানে যে কথা বললে খাপে খাপ হয়, সেটা না করে বা করতে না জেনে। আমরা গাজী ইলিয়াসকে চিনি।  আমাদের অনেকের মধ্যে সে বাস করে।  আমরা তাকে চেপে রাখি, আমি নিজেদের ভেতরের গাজী ইলিয়াসকে ঘেন্না করি। আমাদের মনের মধ্যে গাজী ইলিয়াস  আছে  বলে আমরা লজ্জা পাই। আমরা নিজেদের ভেতরের গাজী ইলিয়াসকে হত্যা করতে চাই।  আমরা রাস্তার গাজী ইলিয়াসকে নিয়ে নাক সিঁটকোতে চাই , তাকে দুয়ো  দিতে চাই। আমরা আমাদের বাপ-মায়েদের-আত্মীয়-স্বজন-পারা-প্রতিবেশীদের নিচু নজরে দেখি কারণ তাদের অনেকের মধ্যে গাজী ইলিয়াসের সুস্পষ্ট ছাপ।  হয়ত  তারাও নিজেদের অপছন্দ করতে শিখে গেছে। কোথা থেকে আসে এই ছিছিকার, এই নিজেকে লজ্জা করা? আমরা চাই, তারাও চায়, যে তাদের সন্তান যেন দুধে-ভাতে থাকে আর তাদের মধ্যে যেন এক ফোঁটা গাজী ইলিয়াস না থাকে।  তারা যেন স্মার্ট হয়, তারা যেন স্টেজে তুললে পটাপট খাপেখাপ জবাব দিতে পারে।  তাদের দেখে যেন শাহরুখের মাথা একটুও গরম না হয়, একটুও যেন রাগ না চাপতে হয়। যেন শুধুই থাকে ‘সভ্য ব্যাকরণ’ সম্মত হাসি আর আনন্দ। এভাবেই রস গড়াতে থাকে। গড়াতেই  থাকে।
স্থান-কাল-পাত্র বোঝার, তার ব্যাকরণ বোঝার একটা রাজনীতি আছে।  এই রাজনীতির প্রকাশ আচরণে – স্থান-কাল- আচরণে। কিন্তু সে আর নতুন কি? নতুন হলো এই আচরণকে সারাক্ষণ অভ্যাস করে যাওয়া।  এই আচরণকে, এই ভানকে সত্য ও সুন্দর মনে করা। কোন কোন আচরণ? আমি গোদা ভাবে বলতে হলে আমি বলব আমাদের মত কালো মানুষের কল্পনায় শ্বেতাঙ্গ মানুষ যেমন আচরণ করে , তেমন আচরণ। এই আচরণ যে সাফল্যের চাবিকাঠি তা আর কেউ না জানুক,স্পোকেন-ইংলিস সম্রাট সাইফুর স্যার প্রচন্ড ভালো জানেন। এই উপমহাদেশে অন্যের হীনমন্যতা ভাঙ্গিয়ে ব্যবসা করার ঐতিহ্য বেশ পুরাতন। আমরা চাই আমাদের যেন ‘পাতে দেওয়া যায়’। এই পাত কিন্তু কলাপাতা বা শালপাতার না, এমনকি ভূমিজ এলিটের কাঁসার থালা ও না। একেবারে ম্যালামাইন। তাই দরকার পরে চামচ ঠিক করে ধরতে শেখার, আওয়াজ না করে স্যুপ খাওয়ার, এবং আরো হাজারো ‘সভ্য’ ঢং।
ঢং শিক্ষার দুনিয়ায়ে যে অশিক্ষিত, তাকে দেখলেই বোঝা যাবে যে এখুন কোথায় কখন কি করা উচিতের যে বিশ্বজনীন ‘স্বাভাবিক’ সহজপাঠ, তার শিক্ষাগুলি সত্যই শেষ প্রান্ত অবধি পৌঁছয়নি। তাই হঠাত করে আলোকিত করে দেয় অকপট গাজী ইলিয়াস। তাই রক্ষে। আর সে যদি ছুপা রুস্তম কপট হয়?  আমি তাহলে  বলব, সাবাস ইলিয়াস । কত লোকে ক্লিষ্ট ইংরেজি লিখে ভুঁরু ফুটিয়ে সাবভার্সন মারালো, তুমি করে দেখালে।
অথচ কোথায় কেমন করে কি কতক্ষণ করা উচিত – অপিসে, ক্যাফেতে , শ্বেতাঙ্গ পন্ডিতের সামনে, ইংরেজি-কপচানো আমাদের দেশেরই হাপ-পন্ডিতের সামনে, সিনেমা হলে, জলে, স্থলে, অন্তঃরিক্ষে, যারা তার পাঠ বিলোয়ে ‘আধুনিক’ স্বকীয়তার মোড়কে এবং ইলিয়াস্দের প্রবল দুয়ো দেয় ‘অন্কাল্চারড’ হিসেবে – তারাই আবার পরিবার, পারিবারিক আচারআচরণ, বয়স্জ্যেষ্ঠেকে সম্মান, পারিবারিক চেতনা, কোথায় কার সাথে কেমন ভাবে কি আচরণ করতে হয়, বা করতে হয় না,তাকে পদে পদে প্রশ্নবিদ্ধ করে। ঐযে বিশ্বজনীন ‘স্বাভাবিক’ আচরণের সহজপাঠ, তার প্রথম পাঠ হলো – নিজের সবকিছুকে প্রশ্ন করো, কিন্তু প্রশ্নের উছিলায় তুমি নিজে যে অন্যতর বিশ্বকল্পের দাস হয়ে যাচ্ছো, সে প্রক্রিয়া কে প্রশ্ন করো না। একবার কাছি কেটে দিলেই সহজপাঠের কাজ শেষ, তারপর মানুষ জলে না দবার জন্যই অন্য ডাঙ্গার সন্ধানে জোরে দাঁড় চালাবে, পৌছক আর না পৌছক। এই প্রক্রিয়াটাই খাপে-খাপ। যে ডাঙ্গা থেকে কাছি কেটে আসা হয়েছে, সেখানে ফেরা যাবে না।  সেখানে ইলিয়াস্দের বাস।  ফিরলে সে যদি হাসে? ইলিয়াস্দের উপর হাসা যেতে পারে, কিন্তু ইলিয়াস্দের হাসির পত্র হওয়াটা ঘোর অপমানের। আসলে আমরা আমাদের ক্ষমতাই বুঝি না।  অধিকাংশ ইলিয়াসের মেরুদন্ড আমরা ভেঙ্গে দিয়েছি কবেই। ওই হাড়ের গুঁড়া দিয়েই আমাদের কালো ত্বক সাদা করার পাউডার যোগান হয়। সাদা পাউডার মেখে নিজ সমাজের নরম মাটিতে আমরা নৃসংশ ভাবে আঁচড়ে  দেখাই স্বকীয়তা,  মুক্তিকামিতা, স্বাধীনতা, স্পষ্টবাদিতা , আর কত কি। আসলে যে অন্যকে ‘আন্কাল্চার্ড’ বলে,সে যে ভীষণভাবে সংস্কৃতিক ভাবে নিরক্ষর হতে পারে। বিশেষত দেশ-দশ-সমাজ যদি দায়িত্বজ্ঞানহীন ব্যক্তিস্বাধীনতার অন্তরায় হয়, তখন কাছি কাটাই হয় নবধর্ম। আর ভূমিজ ধর্ম ছেড়ে নবধর্ম ধরলে প্রথম প্রথম যা ঘটার তাই ঘটে – চূড়ান্ত আত্মবিশ্বাসী, চূড়ান্ত পূর্ব-আত্মবিস্মৃতি এবং আত্মসমালোচনার নিদারুণ অভাব। যা কিনা চলতি ক্ষমতার সংস্কৃতি,  হাজার রকম বড় বড় ইংরেজি শব্দ দিয়ে ‘ক্রিটিসিজম’ হবে, মোটা বই হবে।হারেমের স্বেছাবাশিনিরা এবং দ্বাররক্ষীরা কেমনে -বলবে  রাজা তোর  কাপড় কোথায়? রসভঙ্গ করতে লাগবে মানুষ। সে কাজটি করবে অন্য মানুষ। সহজ কিন্তু সরল নয় , এমন মানুষ। এবার ফিরি কলকাতার পথে।
আমি যাচ্ছি বরানগর থেকে হাওড়া স্টেশন, দিল্লীগামী রাজধানী এক্সপ্রেস ধরতে।  আমি ট্যাক্সি করে যাচ্ছি। সাধারনতঃ আমি ট্যাক্সিচালকের নাম, ধাম জিজ্ঞেস করি, কিন্তু সেদিন নানা ব্যাপারে একটু চিন্তার মধ্যে ছিলাম।  তার-ই মধ্যে তারস্বরে চালু হলো এফ এম রেডিও, ট্যাক্সির মধ্যেই লাগানো। এক নারী উপস্থাপিকা সুন্দর গলা করে বললেন, শীত তো এসে পড়ল।  আপনার শীতে কি কি ভালো লাগে? এক ব্যাক্তি উত্তর দিতে শুরু করলো – আওয়াজের ধরণে বুঝলাম ইটা লাইভ টেলিফোন কলের মাধ্যমে কোন শ্রোতা বলছেন।  একজন পুরুষ। সে জানায় যে শীতকাল মানেই বিয়ে ও নানা সামাজিক অনুষ্ঠানের মরশুম। এত অবধি ঠিক-ই ছিল।এত অবধি রাজার, বা ঢপের চলতি বিনোদনের কোন লজ্জাহানি হয়নি। এরপর জল গড়ায় অন্য দিকে।  সে বলে যে শীতকালে তাই মেয়েদের অসুবিধে আর ছেলেদের একটু সুবিধে। অনুষ্ঠানে মেয়েরা সেজেগুজে যায় – শাল জড়ালেও সুন্দর পোশাক আশাক সাজগোজ করতে হয়। কিন্তু ছেলেদের একটা জ্যাকেট বা ফুল হাতা সোয়েটার পরলেই হয়ে যায়ে , নিচে কি পরা, তা ইস্ত্রী করা না কুচ্কোনো, কেমন দেখতে, কিছু এসে যায় না।  পুরনো হলেও এসে যায় না। সুন্দর জামা, সুন্দর দোকান, সুন্দর ক্রেতা ,বিকিকিনি কেন্দ্রিক জীবনকল্পনা, ভালো থাকা কাকে বলে, তার জনসমক্ষে প্রকাশের যে ‘আধুনিক, সুশীল,পাতে দেওয়ার মতো’ ব্যাকরণ, তা টেলিফোন-কারী শ্রোতা লঙ্ঘন করতে শুরু করে।  আমি তখন স্ট্র্যান্ড রোড-এ। বিরল এক মুহূর্ত। উপস্থাপিকা একটু বিষয় বদলাতে চেষ্টা করে কিন্তুপ্রাণবন্ত সচল ডাকসু-তে শুধু সুন্দর গলা দিয়ে অচল করা শক্ত। শ্রোতা থামে না, সে বলে যায়  অবলীলায়, ‘প্লাস ২-৩ দিন কাপড় না  কাচ্লেও শীতকালে গন্ধ কম হয়।  ধরেন চান টান হয়নি তখুন  ভালো করে সেন্ট টেন্ট মেরে জ্যাকেট দিয়েও বিয়েবাড়ি  যাওয়া যায়।  কেউ বুঝতে পারবে না।’ ‘স্টাইলিশ’ ফরফর ইংরেজি-বাংলা মিলমিশ  উপস্থাপিকার গলায় অপ্রস্তুত বেকুব হাসি শুনতে পাই। এর পর বিজ্ঞাপন বিরতি। আর আমার ট্যাক্সি পৌছে গেছে হাওড়া স্টেশন, হাতে কিছুটা সময় নিয়েই। এই ভাবেই, আজকের  সময়ে, কলকাতার পথে যেতে যেতে শুনলাম, যেন আরেক গাজী ইলিয়াসের গলা – ‘রাজা, তোর কাপড় কোথায়?’ কোন এক অজানা কারণে আমার মনে পড়ে  যায় ছাত্রজীবনের স্লোগান ‘তাই তো বলি কমরেড, গড়ে তোল ব্যারিকেড’। ঠাকুর সব দেখছেন, কিন্তু কি ভাবছেন?

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Filed under বাংলা, Bahishkrit Samaj, Bengal, Culture, Elite, Kolkata, The perfumed ones, Urbanity

Quitting Modi’s India / Fleeing from Narendra Modi and other urban liberal maladies

[ Daily News & Analysis, 12 May 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 15 May 2014]

Soon after May 16th, the nature of the Union government due to be formed at New Delhi should be clear. While a coalition of parties led by Narendrabhai Modi is the most talked about scenario, the possibility of a non-Gandhi, non-saffron helmswoman buoyed up by political forces outside the Delhi establishment cannot be ruled out. Some well-heeled liberal types, half-jokingly (you never know), have declared a desire to leave the country, if Modi eventually happens, while looks increasingly likely. U.R.Ananthamurthy and Kamaal Khan are the most famous among this species.

This joking about fleeing a place whose emerging reality you do not like is another clichéd Anglo-American import. This unoriginal venting style was copied from those who disliked the George W. Bush regime in USA. Many of them wanted to move to Canada if Bush won again (he did). Other Bush-haters jokingly wanted the Eastern and Western coasts of USA (where Bush had less support) to secede. The ‘liberated’ brown person’s international imagination has predictable import locations. Beyond the joke, the difference is that most residents of the subcontinent do not have the means to move anywhere. The emigration ‘joke’ only highlights the disconnect of this class from the masses.

The problem is that the Modi-hate of urbane left-liberal types does not stop at Narendrabhai. Their hate list is long and includes hundreds of millions who didn’t vote for the BJP. These objects of urban liberal disgust includes those who are most comfortable in dhoti, lungi or saree, women wearing sindoor, namaji Muslims, ritual fasting Hindus, people who scratch themselves publicly, people who have not heard of white thinkers of the last two centuries and don’t need their ‘eyes opened’ by intellectual mumbo-jumbo, people who think family and community are important, people who can clearly reply to the question ‘where are you from, which community do you belong to’, people who create and recreate culture rather than using fancy technology to ‘document’ it, people with faith in gods, goddesses and other divine beings, people who are able to express their innermost feelings with ease without book-learned western conceptual crutches, people whose self-identity would not be in peril if white colonizers never appeared in the subcontinent, young people who don’t say ‘ohmygod’ in sitcom accents, people who love and dream in their mother-tongue and who sing their children generationally handed-down lullabies. And so on. Ashis Nandy has taught us to take people’s categories seriously. That talisman also helps distinguish between people and their parasites.

Thus those who don’t attend any political rallies (too many people, too much sweat), do not know the name of their local councilor, anglicized ‘aspirational’ migrants who do not care to change their domicile when they move to another city (and neither visit their parental home to vote), those who love to paint most brown people as dehati and ‘uneducated’, and hence unfit for the kind of decision-making that electoral politics requires – these are the people who capture inordinate public discourse space due to their privileges. In their view, the ‘uneducated’ cannot see through propaganda and can be instigated easily. These parasites, after reading tome after tome, will tell you that they get it – how power works and the sort and if others got it too, it would all be so nice. If they could, they would elect the people themselves, replacing the rural and ‘uneducated’, with their own English-big word correctly reared kind. They do not care about data, but they are masters at abstractions- fitting the world into their warped book-derived worldview. They hate the masses, wish the masses were not as they are and spend lifetimes trying to shut the masses out of their lives. When such people capture positions from where they can infect others, like academia and media, social justice is at stake. Long well-fed by the dole that the Indira Congressite governments at the centre reserved for the professor/activist nomenklatura and other managers of such Delhi-based government-subsidized ‘liberal’ fortresses, there is a feeling that the party might end. The emigration ‘joke’ is a part of that anxiety.

The advantage of ‘book-read’ ideologies is that they offer excellent excuses for holding both wine glasses and radical positions. Those with a penchant for theorizing the world before they can jump in do that by constantly cleaning their local socio-political infections in their private homes with imported soaps. Nothing is more sacred than pure ideology. Their engagement with the people – zero. Thankfully, that’s what most people think of them as – zero. Common people’s lives are at the cross-roads of caste-class-language-religion flows. To them ‘fascism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ are not smart words to be said at the right time but things with real-life consequences. To the non-religious, post-casteist, cosmopolitan left-liberal urbanite, these are ‘concepts’ which coexist perfectly well with their sixth pay commission salaries and ‘refined’ sensibilities.

Some of them even fancy themselves as the cutting edge of the fight against Modi, fascism and all that. As my friend Uday Chandra succinctly puts it, ‘the electoral fight against Modi and his politics begins and ends in the regions and localities where the likes of Mayawati, Laloo, and Mamata emerge from. Upon their unpretentious and all-too-mortal shoulders the hopes of millions of Indians rest. Don’t let your academic or activist friends or nandu-sabka-bandhus tell you otherwise. If things were left to the urban and the urbane, we’d be fed to the wolves long ago’.

There is much to be concerned about a strong, stable government that defends extra-judicial killings of young women, is unapologetic about large-scale killings under its watch, pimps out natural resources to those who help light up the government’s ‘vibrant’ mask and shares the Delhi-Mumbai Indian vision of the urbane. The fight against such powers and such governments will continue to come from the rooted, with family values and communitarian ethos. The rustic and the fantastic, not urban liberal smart talkers have always carried on the real struggles for a just world.

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কলকাতার কাশ্মীর

[ Doinik Arthokotha (Dhaka), Nov 2014]

কয়েকদিন আগে দিল্লীর একটি মেগাজিনে একটা লেখা দেখলাম। শিরোনাম ‘কলকাতা আফটার ক্যালক্যাটা’। নামটি বেশ ব্যঞ্জনাময়।  এই লেখা তাদের জন্য, যাদের জন্য ক্যালক্যাটা ছিল সুন্দর, তার পরে তা যখন কলকাতায়ে পরিণত হলো,  তখন শহরের জাত গেল, সম্মান গেল, সেই ‘চার্ম’-টা আর রইলো না। এ শহরের একটা বড় অংশ কিন্তু কখুনই কলকাতা থেকে ক্যালকাটায়ে সে অর্থে প্রবেশ করেনি ফেরিওয়ালা বা ভৃত্য হিসেবে ছাড়া।  তাদের জন্য কোনো ‘কলকাতা আফটার ক্যালক্যাটা’ নেই।  রয়েছে কলকাতার নিরবিছিন্নতা। ক্যালক্যাটা পরিযায়ী পাখিদের শহর।  তারা অনেকে আজ উড়ে গেছে ব্যাঙ্গালোর, বোম্বেতে । যদিও সেখানেও বেঙ্গালুরু বা মুম্বই-এর সাথে তাদের যোগ ক্ষীণ।  ঠিক যেমন কলকাতায়ে অবস্থান-কালীন সময়ে এই ক্যালক্যাটা কোনো ক্রমে কলকাতা-কে বাঁচিয়ে চলত। কলকাতার পরিসর থেকে ক্যালক্যাটার স্বেচ্ছা-নির্বাসনে কলকাতার খুব তফাৎ হয়নি।  কলকাতা নিজের  মধ্যে যাযা ধারণ করে, তা ক্যালক্যাটার ধারণার অতীত। এমনকি এক কলকাতা হলো কলকাতার কাশ্মীর।

বলাই বাহুল্য এই কাশ্মীরের সাথে ভারতীয় জাতীয়তাবাদীদের ‘কাশ্মীর থেকে কন্যাকুমারী’ হুঙ্কারের কাশ্মীরের মিল নেই।  প্রায় সকল কাশ্মীর-ই আমাদের মনে মনে বানিয়ে নেওয়া। প্রায় সকল বললাম কারণ কাশ্মীরিদের-ও একটা কাশ্মীর আছে , যেটা এই নানা কাশ্মীরের মাঝে হারিয়ে যায়। ‘টেকনাফ থেকে তেঁতুলিয়া’র হুঙ্কারে , স্লোগানে বাস্তবের টেকনাফ বা তেঁতুলিয়া বড় প্রান্তিক।  উচ্চ্চারিত অক্ষরের মিল ঘটিয়ে স্লোগান বলশালী ও ছন্দময় হয়, কিন্তু টেকনাফ ও তেঁতুলিয়ার সাথে ঢাকার দূরত্ব একই থেকে যায়। প্রসঙ্গত, পশ্চিম বাংলাতেও একাধিক তেঁতুলিয়া নামধারী জায়গা আছে। তবে এখুন সেটা থাক।ফিরি কাশ্মীরে , কলকাতার কাশ্মীরে।

আমার কর্মস্থল আমার ঘর থেকে বেশ খানিকটা দূরে।  আমি থাকি কলকাতা শহরের দক্ষিণ দিকে, চেতলা অঞ্চলে।  এলাকাটি শহর কলকাতার থেকে পুরনো – তখন নাম ছিল জেলেপাড়া। এখুনো এই জেলেপাড়া নাম ও পরিচয় সম্পূর্ণ বিলুপ্ত হয়নি। জেলেপাড়া থেকে আজকের চেতলায়ে  এলাকার  বিবর্তন-ও এক অসামান্য গল্প, যা আরেকদিন বলব । তো রোজ-ই চেতলা থেকে আমি যাই বরানগর। এটি কলকাতা ছাড়িয়ে উত্তরে একটি ছোট শহর। আমি কলকাতার ভূগর্ভস্থ মেট্রো-রেলে চড়ে পৌছই শ্যামবাজার – একটি  বিশাল, বর্ণময়, জনবহুল, সদাব্যস্ত বাজার এলাকা – তাঁতের শাড়ি থেকে ভাং-এর মিষ্টি, সবই পাওয়া যায়। এখানেই ৫টি রাস্তা এসে মিশেছে – তাই নাম ৫ মাথার মোড়। কেন্দ্রস্থলে রয়েছে সুভাষ চন্দ্র বসুর মূর্তি, ঘোড়ায় চড়া, সমর-সজ্জায়। ঘোড়ার উন্নত ল্যাজ যে দিকে নির্দেশ করে, সেদিক ধরে আমি এগিয়ে একদিন পৌছলাম এক তেলে ভাজার  দোকানে। সবই সুলভ মূল্যের – একটু বেশীই সুলভ যা কিনা আমার মতো সবর্ণ ভদ্রলোক স্বচ্ছল মানুষের মনে খাবারের গুণমান সম্পর্কে সন্দেহ জাগায়। সঙ্গের ছবিতে দিলাম মূল্য তালিকা। জিনিসগুলি প্রায় সবই বেশ চেনা – আলুর চপ, বেগুনী, কচুরী, সিঙ্গাড়া, ধোকা ইত্যাদি। চোখ আটকালো কাশ্মিরী চপ-এ গিয়ে।  এ আবার কি জিনিস? জিজ্ঞেস করলাম দোকানিকে।  ততক্ষণে আমার হাতে কাগজের ঠোঙায় ইতিমধ্যেই একটা ভাজা ধোকা রয়েছে। দোকানি বলল, খেয়ে দেখতে পারেন একটা।  আমি নেবার আগে জিজ্ঞেস করলাম কেমন খেতে? দোকানি  বলল খেয়েই দেখুন না – মাত্র ৩টে টাকাই তো দাম। তারপর বলল, একটু টক-ঝাল-মিষ্টি। ৩
টাকার কাশ্মীরি চপ কেনার আগে অজানা স্বাদ নিয়ে ঠকে যাবার ব্যাপারে সজাগ এই ক্রেতা (অর্থাৎ আমি) যে কতবার দামি খাবারের হোটেলে গিয়ে নাম না জানা ভিনদেশী খাবার নিয়ে ‘এক্সপেরিমেন্ট’ করেছে। স্থান, কাল, পত্র দেখে আমার পরীক্ষা কমে, নিরীক্ষা বাড়ে। স্বচ্ছল মানুষের ব্যক্তিগত দুনম্বরীর নানা অব্যক্ত বিভঙ্গ আছে, এটি তার একটি। আজ তার-ই মধ্যে একটা বাজারে প্রকাশ করে দিলাম। সে যাই হোক, নিলাম একটা কাশ্মীরি চপ।  বাইরে থেকে দেখতে ভেজিটেবিল চপের থেকে আলাদা নয়, ভেতরেও বিশেষ তফাৎ নেই।  তফাৎ-টা স্বাদে। সত্যই টক-মিষ্টি, ঝাল প্রায় নেই। উদরস্থ করলাম দ্রুত। ভাই, এটাকে কাশ্মীরি চপ কেন বলা হয় ? সে বলল, কাশ্মীরে খায়টায় বোধহয়, ঠিক জানিনা। তবে অনেকদিনের আইটেম। আমারও এই ‘কাশ্মীরে খায়টায়’ ব্যাপারটি ঠিক বিশ্বাস হলো না।  তাতে কি। নিখিল বাংলাদেশে, কলকাতায়, ঢাকায়, টেকনাফ থেকে হাসিমারা, দীঘা থেকে বিয়ানীবাজার ফুটবলকে কেন্দ্র করে যে ব্রেজিল-আর্জেন্টিনা মত্ততা, তা একান্তই আমাদের, ব্রেজিল-আর্জেন্টিনা তার খবর জানে না, রাখেও না।  তাতে আমাদের ভারী বয়েই যায়। আমি নিশ্চিত আরো এমন ছোট দোকানে ‘কাশ্মীর’ বেঁচে আছে।  কলকাতার এই কাশ্মীরি ঐতিহ্য একান্তই তার নিজের। এবং খাঁটি। এর ভাষা ও ভাষ্য, পোড়া নিকৃষ্ট তেল, বদহজম, ঘাম, টক-ঝাল-মিষ্টি আমাদের। এই কাশ্মীরের তারিফ করতে গেলে শ্বেতাঙ্গ পন্ডিতের মতামত ধার করতে হয় না, যেমন করতে হয় শ্বেতাঙ্গ মানসিকতার কালা আদমির ইংরেজি রচনার ক্ষেত্রে। সায়েব পিঠ চাপড়ে সাবাস না বললে কালা আদমির ইংরেজি রচনা থেকে যায় অক্ষম। কলকাতার এই কাশ্মীর চর্চার জন্য শারীরিক বা মানসিক শ্বেতাঙ্গের দ্বারা পিঠ চাপড়ানোর দরকার পড়ে না। শ্বেতাঙ্গ দৃষ্টির শ্বেতাঙ্গ মননের সীমাবদ্ধতা বিশাল। সে জানেই না আমাদের পিঠ কোথায় আর পেট কোথায়। তাই অনেক মরেও বাংলা বেঁচে গেছে। ঠাকুর মঙ্গলময়।

এই শহর কলকাতায় আমি আরো কাশ্মীর দেখেছি। যখন আমি কলেজ স্ট্রিটস্থ মেডিকেল কলেজে ডাক্তারি পড়তাম, তখন মাঝে সাঝেই যেতাম কলুটোলা স্ট্রিট ধরে চিত্তরঞ্জন এভিনিউর ওপারে, মৌলানা সৌকত আলী স্ট্রিটে। সেখান থেকে বেরিয়েছে এক অবিস্মরণীয় ছোট গলি – নাম ফিয়ার্স লেন। ফিয়ার্স লেন-এর নানা মহিমা নয় আরেকদিন বলব, আজ আসি এখানকার সুতা কাবাবের দোকানের সামনে। এখানকার অসম্ভব স্বস্বাদু শাল-পাতায় পরিবেশিত কাবাব আমি খেয়েছি অনেকবার।  একদিন দেখি উল্টোদিকে বসেছেন আরেকজন – সাদা জামা-কাপড়, টুপি-দাঁড়ি, সামনে একটা ডেকচি, আর পাশে লেখা ‘কাশ্মীরি কাবাব’। গিয়ে খেলাম।   যা পেলাম, তা হলো দুপিস ছোট বান-রুটির মধ্যে হলুদ রঙের থকথকে মশলাদার কাই-তে মাংসের কিমা।  অর্থাৎ এই সে অর্থে ‘কাবাব’ নয়। জিজ্ঞেস করলাম, উনি কে, কবে থেকে বসছেন ( আমি তো প্রায়-ই যেতাম ওখানে, আগে দেখিনি), কাশ্মীরি ব্যাপারটা কি, ইত্যাদি। জানলাম ওরা ৩ পুরুষ কলকাতায়, এরা হিন্দুস্থানী – সেখান থেকেই এখানে আসা কিন্তু কাশ্মীর থেকে কিনা বলতে পারেন না, জানবাজারে একটা ঘড়ি সারাই-এর দোকান ছিল বা আছে কিন্তু তা ভালো চলছে না, নতুন ব্যবসা শুরু করে আয়ের চেষ্টা করছেন। আর কাশ্মীর ? ওটা এমনিই লিখেছেন।  কদিন বাদে ওনাকে আর দেখিনি – হয়ত কাশ্মীরি কাবাব ব্যবসা চলেনি, হয়ত ঘড়ি সারাই-তে ফের একটা চেষ্টা করছেন, হয়ত অন্য কোথাও কাশ্মীরি কাবাব বেচছেন, যেখানে উল্টোদিকেই এমন সফল কাবাব দোকান নেই। যদি কাশ্মীরি কাবাব ব্যবসা সফল হত, এর ৩-৪ পুরুষ পরে এক খাঁটি ‘কাশ্মীরি’
আইটেমটিকে , পরিবারটির আদি কাশ্মীরি বংশপরম্পরা ও আরো নানা প্রবাদ তৈরী হত। সেটা হয়নি।  গড়ার সাথে সাথেই ভেঙ্গে গেছে হয়তো। কিন্তু যেগুলি ভাঙ্গেনি, এমনই অনেক খাঁটি ‘কাশ্মীর’ , এমনই অনেক খাঁটি ‘বঙ্গীয়’ ব্যাপার-স্যাপার লুকিয়ে আছে আমাদের মাঝে, আমাদের অস্থিমজ্জায় , আমাদের আত্মপরিচয়ে, বাঙ্গালিত্বে।

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Filed under বাংলা, Bengal, Kolkata, Urbanity

Lit fests and not so well-lit fests / Not so organic fests

[ Down to Earth, 15-28 Feb 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 5 Apr 2014 ]

My home in Kolkata happens to be very near Kalighat. This is one of the holy Shaktipeeths (centres of divine power) that are spread across the subcontinent where different body parts of Lord Shib’s wife Mother Sati fell. For Bengali Shaktos, the Shaktipeeths, especially those in Bengal and Assam are of immense divine importance. At Kalighat, the reigning goddess is Mother Kali. In my life, I can rarely remember an auspicious occasion where a trip to Mother Kali of Kalighat was not undertaken. Kali, the dark mother holds immense sway over her mortal children.

As I grew up, I have often roamed about in the by-lanes around the temple. The temple lies on the bank of the Adi Ganga, at one time the principal flow channel of the Ganga and now a near-dead, rotting creek. This area with river-bank, shops, inhabitants, ganja-sellers and smaller temples has pulled me towards it time and again. Some of the smaller temples right on the river-bank belonged to goddesses whose names I did not know. In the pantheon of caste-Hindu Bengalis like me, there was an assumed mainstream where Mother Kali and Mother Durga had very important places. It was only by chance that I went to Kalighat once on a weekday afternoon on a chance school holiday due to rains. I was quite taken aback by the huge crowd, a few thousands strong, that had gathered around the temple. But to my astonishment, they were not there for the main temple of Mother Kali but for a very small temple of Mother Bogola. The people had a very intricate set of offerings that looked quite different from what I was used to seeing. And everyone there knew this occasion and at that moment, I was the fool in town, with my pantheon suddenly seeming irrelevant. Due to my very limited immersion in what we call in Bengali as gono-samaj (mass society can be a poor translation of the concept), a divine set had been built in my head that had entirely bypassed what was so near and what was always there. The blindness and illiteracy due to my social locus and ideologies that come with it was very badly exposed. Social alienation creates culturally illiterate beings.

Thankfully, the festivals of Southern West Bengal (where my home is broadly located) gave me many opportunities of unlearning and literacy. And they are not too hard to come by unless one is of the kind whose worlds are not defined by the physical-ecological-social reality they live in but the fantasy worlds they can afford to inhabit. I started attending the mela of Dharma Thakur, whose few sacred sites spread over the two Bengals, and have a distinct character in the kind of rice product that is offered (called hurrum) among other things. There is the 500-year old fish-fair held near the akhara of the seer Raghunath Das Goswami at Debanandapur in my ancestral district of Hooghly. The many Charaker melas that I have been too have been so enriching in its cultural produce that one wishes to be a sponge. The Gajaner mela in Tarakeswar, again in Hooghly district, goes on for 5 days and the cultural action is frenzied. The number of ‘parallel sessions’ (if one were to call the things going on there) is probably more than a thousand and there are no websites to print out the schedule. And that does not matter. The Ganga Sagar Mela is different every time. This mela, the second-largest in the Indian Union, is literally and allegorically an immersion experience. The experience is different in different times of the day, on different days of the mela and in different years. The festival around Salui Puja (worshipping the Sal tree) in Medinipur has tremendous footfall. Further west, in the adibashi areas, I once attended the Chhata Parab on Bhadra Sankranti day. In Malda, the week-long Ramkeli festival is a cultural cauldron that overflows during the summer month of Jaistha. The 2 big Ms associated with this fair is music of the Gaur-Vaishnavite tradition and mangoes that are harvested around this time. While stalls selling wares are an integral part of these festivals, each festival is different in its different parts and substantially different from each other. It is sad that I have to underline this point but I say this remembering my one-time know-all attitude towards these festivals before I had even attended them. What culture can a bunch of brown people produce left to their own devices? To know that, one has to have some humility in admitting cultural illiteracy and suspend ideas of supposed superiority of textual literacy, White man knowledge systems and the artifacts they produce. This unlearning can be harsh, especially when whole self-identities are built around wallowing on these artifacts. But there are too many brown people making too many things for too many centuries to take imported ideas of superiority seriously. One can live without being exposed to this reality and that wont cause any peril. The urbanites of the subcontinent have created a wondrous system by which they can eat rice but not know the rice-type or the growing area, get a house built but not know where the masons live. But of course they know where Indian wines are grown and the life-events of authors they have read, and other details of the lives of sundry characters of their fantasy world. The mindscape of the ‘enlightened’ can be more enlightening to the rest of us than they would want to it be.

The point of mentioning these festivals is not to create a mini catalogue but mention certain characteristics. Most of these festivals have a deep connection with the local ecology – cultural and natural. These are not American Burning Man type of fossil-fuel powered ‘creative’ fantasies (I have always failed to understand what is ‘creative’ about pursuits that require high fossil fuel burning or require pollution intensive factory made accessories). They don’t say ‘free entry’; that I mention that at all is absurd in their context. They don’t ‘say’ anything at all. They happen. They are organic, as opposed to the ‘festivals’ that are primarily thronged by the ‘fashionable’, the ‘articulate’, the ‘backpacker’, the ‘explorer’ and other curious species of the top 5% earning class of the subcontinent. Most of these festivals don’t have the kind of portable artifact quality that is so popular with the rootless, possibly best exemplified both by the Great India Mall and its location (the ‘Sector’ ‘city’ called NOIDA created by destroying many villages like Chhajarsi and Hazipur, now known by more fashionable and presentable names like Sector 63 and Sector 104). Most of them are not part of the ‘Incredible India!’ imagination and hence are largely devoid of white and brown people with cameras. Such a shabby state of affairs, however, has not prevented some of these festivals to go on for centuries, without sponsorship from ill-gotten-big-money supporters.

It was sometime in high school that I started noticing newspaper headlines such as ‘Kolkata’s young heads to the clubs’ (clubs being dancing places with rhythmic music). Many more young people regularly headed (and still do) to the East Bengal club or Mohan Bagan club grounds for football matches. But this was a different club. The idea was to create a fantasy and a false sense of feeling left out, of being in a minority, on not being ‘in’. For the already socially alienated, this pull can be magnetic – particularly because these come without pre-conditions of prior social immersion. If at all, certain kinds of fantasies and ‘enlightenments’ celebrate delinking from one’s immediate social milieu and replacing that with fantasy milieus, typically with White people’s hobbies. If the products of such indoctrination happen to arrive at the Muri Mela of Bankura (a festival where hundreds of varieties of ‘muri’ or puffed rice is produced, exhibited and sold), all they might see is more of the same. However, they do aspire to tell the difference between different red wines. Anything that requires being socially embedded in a largely non-textual cultural milieu (hence Wikipedia doesn’t come in handy), they are like fish out of water, gasping for the cultural familiarity of over-priced chain coffee stores.

It is the season of a new type of festival. Like an epidemic, big-money ‘lit’ fests have spread all over the subcontinent. The sudden-ness of the epidemic reminds me of the time when suddenly, year after year, brown women started winning ‘international’ beauty pageants. That ’arrival’ was meant to signify that browns are beautiful. The present trend probably is meant to convey that now there are enough number of moneyed browns spread all over who can nod knowingly hearing English. ‘Half of Jaipur is here at Google Mughal Tent’ – read a tweet from one of the fests. This tone sounded familiar to that time when I read that youth of my city headed to the clubs, but saw that no one around me did. May be I just belonged to an odd social sector, or may be they never counted me. But I am quite privileged otherwise. I never ever saw a headline saying youth of India head to Ganga Sagar mela on Makar Sankranti. At any rate, it is a greater statistical truth than saying youth of such and such city head to such and such ‘lit’ fest. This non-counting of many and over-counting of some is a predictable and sinister game that is played by the urbanbubbleophiles over and over again till it actually starts sounding true. The believers in such a worldview fear real numbers – the ‘odd’, the stubborn, the smelly. They would much rather ‘weigh’ according to their ‘subjectivities’. The sizeable ‘hip’ throngs within their tents are never ‘masses’; they are assemblages of aficionados. They have individual minds. They can think. They are human. The rest are better kept out until some floor mopping is required.

When real estate dacoits, construction mafias and mining goondas come together for a ‘cause’, one can well imagine the effect. The well lit fests provides a good opportunity for branding and white-washing crimes. Taking prizes from greasy hands, some authors are only too happy to oblige in that project. There they are, on the newspaper –smiling. They write ‘sensitively’, argue ‘provocatively’, and entertain ‘charmingly’. Ill-gotten prize money from the infrastructure mafia can supply powerful batteries for their headlights as they reach into the dark inner recesses of the human condition through their words. All this boils down to a few days of litting, ‘Think’ing, festing and other things that may get you in jail when done to people who have dignity and the courage to speak up.

The need to distinguish oneself from others can be rather acute in certain sectors of the subcontinental bubble urbania. What distinguishes one from the others whose ‘purposeful’ lives are peppered by sampling cultures whose social roots they are alienated from, long drives, coffee-chain hangouts, mall meetups, multiplex evenings and money-powered ‘rebelliousness’. To see oneself purely as a consumer – a seeker of market defined and mass-produced hatke (alternative for the discerning new Indian) ‘experiences’ and ‘thrills’, can be bit of a self turn-off for the brand and ego conscious yuppie. In a society where they want to define taste, no quarters should be given to others to make them appear as vacuous and crude. Hence, there is the search for ‘meaningfulness’ beyond the necessary evil of quotidian parasitism. This is best accomplished while practicing parasitism with a thin veneer of ‘meaningfulness’. Practising White people’s hobbies and engagements, with a bit of Indian elephant motif thrown in, fits the bill perfectly, at home and in the head. The well Lit fests of the rich with the ‘famous’ for the aspirational and the arrived accomplishes multiple functions at the same time. It is apparently ‘meaningful’ to be an onlooker at ill-gotten money sponsored talk-shows with only a few rows of seated brown sahibs and mems separating the top 5% income audience from the gods discussing the intricacies of brown and paler experiences. This ‘refinement’ is so much more substantive than double-refined mustard oil. And then there is the extra benefit of the Question and Answer – that which gives a feeling of participation and contribution, even accomplishment and ‘production’. That should give enough warmth, inject enough meaning and experiential richness to last through a cosmopolitan, urban winter after the show is over. And if any heat was lacking, such festivals and the spotlight it brings on the ‘winners’ and other such losers gives them an opportunity to impress those who hold such characters in awe and worship them. This gives these heroes a perfect pretext and opportunity to sample some fresh, young, fan ‘meat’. Some famous winning authors frequenting these spaces are equally famous for drug binges, for serial hunting of fans half their age, with some of these hapless young ones dying early deaths. Such ‘launches’ bring together publisher and author, writer and fan and above all, potential bedfellows. When infrastructure sleaze hosts ‘intellectual’ posturing, the sleaze-fest is complete. And of course it has to be winter. That is the time when brown and white migratory birds from White lands come down to brown land. They are in much demand – hopping from one gawk-fest to another. They dare not hold it in summer, like the Ramkeli festival. Their armpits might just start smelling like those of the ones outside the gates.

The well lit festivals have as much connection to ground realities as the owners of the palaces have with the local population. The court-like atmosphere, graced by tropic-charred whites turned native and tropic-born natives itching to be white, creates much gaiety and banter. Typically and predictably, the pre-eminent language of these well lit courts is something that most localites would not identify with. That goes for most of the books and the preferred language of the authors. Collectively it represents their fantasy world, as they claim to represent much. It is not as if the writers thronging these places are most sold or most read. The English-speaking spokesperson who has captive white and coconut (brown outside, white inside) ears becomes the chosen voice. He is the authentic insider and quite often a chronicler of the urban ennui and excitement of the parasites. The subcontinent has many authors who have sold more and been read more than all brown Englishwallahs taken together, but no infrastructure mafia wants to honour them by prizes. The loot of people’s money from the Commonwealth games by a famous prize giving company is better utilized elsewhere. Why is it that the Chennai or Kolkata book fair, with more attendance of authors and readers than a desert jamboree can ever manage, will never be covered by corporate media with the same degree of detail, as an event of similar importance. One has to ask, what are these choices meant to convey, why now, for what, for whom, against whom. The benign smile of prize acceptance of some of these first-boys and the fellowship of enthusiastic clappers need to be seen for what they are and what they represent. Why this project of pumping air into the English cat so that it looks like a tiger, to assist it to punch above its weight? Who does it want to scare into submission? Who does it want to provide confidence? Cultures, especially those that come associated with upward mobility, hubris and power, seek to displace others. As Hartosh Singh Bal puts it, ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy.’ The soft hearts of sensitive beneficiaries of cultural-economic hierarchies are too sensitive to probe their complicity in this project. Elsewhere, as Akshay Pathak has shown, the way some well ‘lit’ fests have tried to replicate their foreign idiom of ‘storytelling’ through festivals in less ‘lit’ places like Dantewada shows another aspect of the dark underbelly of the ‘articulate’ beast. Such beasts hunt in packs, as shown by their excellent ‘teamwork’.

This odd idea of non-local ‘exploratory’ tourism cum weekend-thrill is a symptom of a deeper disease. This disease adds layer after layer between the earth and the birds who float atop that earth, with the organizers making sure that the undomesticated and the unrefined stench of the earth does not make its way in to this stratospheric paradise. Such ‘cosmopolitan’ inhabitants who belong nowhere produce nothing. Of course they know about the Sati ‘tradition’ and shur their book and minds with that. These are those who see no intrinsic value in any tradition but partake in its goodies, document it, sample it, sell it to visiting firangs, package it as if they were wares on sale but contribute very little to the richness of the human condition, on a long term basis. If this worldview and lifestyle becomes the dominant one, I shudder to think what kind of a cultural desert the flittering non-traditionalists will produce with their contempt of tradition and rootedness. Given their clout and power, that urban-industrial dream of an atomized society might become true, till every grain looks the same. Individual grains of sand around Jaipur have more heterogeneity and character than this.

Would the dominant idiom and language of these well lit fests survive if Whites paid reparations for colonialism and slavery? Will any of these well lit fests survive even for a year if the world magically becomes becomes crime-free? Something that owes its very survival to dirty money and claims to be a festival of ‘mind-opening’ needs to be exposed. This is true for many other creative pursuits of these times and these classes- they don’t exist without the backing of money, cannot be produced by the poor (hence most human beings) and, if the world could be flattened so that everyone was at mean income, none of these creativities would even exist. These are pursuits for which inequity is a necessary pre-condition. But there is art beyond that, in persisting oral traditions, lores, gods, non-‘cosmopolitan’ ways of everyday creativity and knowledge and earth inspired insurgents like Namdeo Dhasal and Gaddar but that is beyond the well lit faces and enlightened minds of the perfumed ones. It must be painful for the ‘enlightened’ ones to imagine that the world can actually go on without their collective knowledge being at the centre of it. But it does. It always has. And whether you like it or not, and whether you matter or not, it always will.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bahishkrit Samaj, Class, Colony, Culture, Delhi Durbar, Elite, Faith, Knowledge, Sahib, Sex, The perfumed ones, Urbanity

A khidki into our minds / Khidki opens a window

[ Fountain Ink, April 2014 ]

Thanks to the mid-night anti ‘drug’ and ‘prostitution’ activism by the erstwhile Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti, the Khidki Village in Delhi had suddenly shot into prominence in the subcontinent and beyond. Many from New Delhi and elsewhere, who had barely heard of this place, descended upon the area in the aftermath of the ‘racist vigilantism’, to see the ‘backward’ brown creatures that inhabit that area. They wanted to see the village that lives up to its ’village-ness’, tucked in one of the armpits of the ‘cosmopolitan’ NCR metropolis. The Khidki village is older than all the malls and multiplexes of the NCR, older than all the universities of ‘New Delhi’, older than the nation’s bequeathed capital ‘New Delhi’, older than the nation, older than the idea of the ‘national’ and for that matter older than the ‘idea of India’. For all its antiquity, yuppies who claim to have a thing for brown heritage would much rather live in some sector of Gurgaon or Noida. Who wants to live in ‘Khidki village’? You know how that sounds, especially the derogation with which names like Khidki village are taken.

Outsiders (the non-village kind) from New Delhi refer to it as an ‘urban village’ (the inhabitants simply call it their village). There is a certain hip-ness that comes with the ‘urban village’ tag as it prepares the ground for using the area as a creative arts canvas by hip folks whose dads wont allow their own ‘authorised’ neighbourhoods for similar ‘creative’ projects. Khidki village and its extension have yet not earned the ‘hip and cool’ tag associated with another similar largely ‘unauthorised’ village agglomerate in Delhi called Shahpur Jat. This one has excelled as a haunt of White foreigners and brown yuppies with disposable cash. ‘Creativity’, ‘experimentation’, ‘urban village’ – brochures are full of these terms, marking out a niche as a social calendar hotspots. The elite’s ‘art’ studios feeding on low rents and insecurity of ‘unauthorised colonies’ bloom here. The inequality helps stretch the urban canvas – creative ‘arts’ indeed.

But I digress. The residents – they live there. They call it home. They have been calling it home much before six other villages were destroyed to make way for what is the New Delhi of the Union of India. Some people have roots, live in communities and do ‘come into their own’ with the fashionable beam of ‘urban anomy’.

The Khidki extension episode about Aam Aadmi Party minister Somnath Bharti’s nocturnal activism over ‘drugs’ and ‘prostitution’ has made monsters-at-large out of the minister and the complaining people of Khidki village. In circles whose voice comes most alive in European jargon, this has been called the cheap politics of ‘othering’. Worse displays of animus against African people have happened through cases of outright violence and at least one instance of vilification by a Goa minister. ‘Liberal India’ has typically swung into damage control mode. This damage control has included round after round of sanctimonious condemnation of racism against African black people. Television media knows its constituency of self-congratulation well and has followed it up with various talk shows themed around various versions of the question ‘Are we racists?’ and has invariably concluded that some bad apples are. And have added ‘I love you’ notes to Nigerians, at the end of such shows. Such shows also discuss the racism faced by desis abroad. The racism that uppity NRI desis show in their promised land and many desis show in the subcontinent can only be matched by the alarm that raised when some relatively elite brown gets paid back in the same coin in some white land.

With upward mobility for a section of the metropolis janata and the Indian Union taking a ‘greater role’ at the world stage, more of these people have white friends and acquaintances than ever before. Just when elite desis and their known whites seemed to have reached non-racist nirvana – imagining themselves as part of some universal brotherhood of idea, commerce, commodity and romance exchange, the prejudiced desi hordes are letting this emancipated side down. This is the source of embarrassment. Not themselves, but those who share their skin colour and give the whole team a bad name. During the British Raj, this embarrassed class of browns was quite well known and did well for themselves by distinguishing themselves from the ‘uncivilised’ loathsome browns. The overall rising tide of anti-colonial sentiment made such embarrassment less fashionable for sometime. Post 1990s, the sharp rise in the petulance/anger of brown consumer elites with racism they face abroad is matched by their condemnation of racism at home. This is one real contribution of GDP growth and ‘international“10 ization’ of commodity markets. With India rising and shining alongside the white world, in malls and tourist destinations, commercial and academic engagements, and anti-colonialism being passé, the time is ripe for more public display of embarrassment. The audience for this is the white World and self-image the desi liberal has created for oneself and almost believes in. They would hate to be confused with other browns.

But then, talk is cheap. The backward browns have shown their true colour through explicit racism that makes liberal, our homegrown ‘world citizens’ shudder. But what about things that are implicit in patterns of behaviour? Those are harder to track down but when done, do say a whole lot about the people practicing it. Their own displaying prejudice explicitly can be called out for it and asked to change, or at least reassess, their positions. But what about those whose public lives are epitomes of ‘ultra-liberal’ posturing peppered with condemnation of the ‘backward’ while implicit in their behaviour are exactly the for which they publicly bad-mouth the ‘backward’ every day? When you have such a class lecturing the prejudiced at every opportunity, the result is a farce of a poor quality. The farce needs to be exposed for what it is – too many people enjoy excellent views from the moral high ground that they occupy undeservedly. Too many are condemning the ‘backward’ by standing on self-constructed pedestals.When we are all naked, and the ‘liberal’ gives up the pretension of wearing ‘ultra-fine’ clothes, we can start talking truth. We can have a dialogue. We can be embarrassed or not, for what we are – irrespective of whether white people are watching.

What constitutes the ‘world’ of the ‘world citizen’– the world is mentally, if not physically located in a temperate zone OECD white-Caucasian country, given that not much of the world fits that description, the extent of the mental world of the world citizen is not so big after all. It is hard to map out the mental world but some things can give us certain clues.

The ‘free choice’ that these brown ‘world-citizens’ in matters of marriage, romance and sex can be revealing. With increasing number of non-browns coming to the subcontinent and a correspondingly increasing number of browns going to ‘foreign’ countries, there are some foreign-brown marriages that happen. That’s all good. Now close your eyes and picture such a couple. There are many such ‘cute couples’ now. Note the colour of the ‘foreigner’ in the frame. Most likely, it is not someone African or Afro-American. The ‘cute’ or the ‘angelic’, sadly is from the same races whose mental worlds have shaped the world-view of the brown liberal – typically French of Anglo.

One in eight Americans are black. More than one in six are non-Whites (including Latinos, not including other browns). Now think of some people you may know or you may have heard of, who have married Americans. Normal human interaction without any colour prejudice or special colour affinity would have resulted in one in six such marriages being with non-Whites. Is that the case? Hell no. Is that the case even among those who would declare that in their post-racist world, love runs blind? Hell no. If you ask them individually, they would have said that their own White choice is ‘incidental’. It could have been someone black. Just that it hardly ever is. Their non-prejudiced ‘choice’ is so predictable, that it takes away all suspense. Many such individual choices hide behind the mask of politically correct speech. This closely parallels the marriage choices of the ‘I don’t believe in caste’ types. Individually, they would burn the sacred-thread (if a male) and/or denounce the ‘caste system’. Just that their life choices speak louder than their speeches and posturing. The cosmopolitan Savarna liberal usually leads a schizophrenic existence.

Let us come back to the subcontinent. Darker Africans have been coming to many parts of the subcontinent in recent years. A large number of them are students. ICCR has offered 900 specialised scholarships for students from African countries. There are more than 10,000 African students in the subcontinent and the largest chunk is in the institutions of NCR. Incidentally, African students consider Kochi, a city without the intellectual pretensions of New Delhi, very safe. There are thousands of Nigerians in the NCR. As for the students, we are talking of very meritorious ones, many of them studying in significant numbers in the NCR’s most premier institutions. But when it comes to campus-coupling of browns with foreigners (especially in vogue among liberal circles of elite institutions), whites rule the roost. The students from Africa may study advanced biology, Kathak dance, journalism, architecture, literature, history, sociology, urban planning, gender studies and many other things, but they are no match. I stress the liberal and elite bit, as these are the spaces from where the shrillest chants against racism typically come, along with pronouncements that they stand above differences of race, caste, colour and such things. For the ‘radical’ and ‘liberated’, neither the African nor the East Asian students do not forms a part of their desirable cohort, for purposes of campus romance or intimacy. Those from Manipur or Nagaland are also similarly excluded, always spoken on behalf of, by the predictable crowds. But when it comes to ‘desirability’ and ‘companionship’ as equals, other aliens matter. Whites win hands on. The white on campus will have an inordinately long line of droolers. Desirability is as much about how one’s views oneself as it is about the desirable one out there.

What is the source of such desire and skewed choices? Doesn’t it have something to do with fantasies tied with the awe that power evokes in certain minds? More often than not, it comes from a weak bond with one’s living environment, developing into a hatred of things associated with one’s own community. This journey away from the self is couched in the celebratory notion of ‘liberation’ – a journey involving progress towards a universal human ‘love-in’. That suits white Caucasians on campus very well, to find suddenly themselves in the enviable position of being able to punch way above their weight. It does not matter who approaches ‘first’ but the white in skin is acutely aware of his/her ‘market value’ in postcolonial lands, especially among the tribe of those with brown bodies with culturally illiterate, trying-hard-to-be-white minds. This state of thing makes it relatively easy for the gora who only has to show a little interest in things native and might even learn a native phrase or two. Before they can show that off, the coconut native is already trying to impress by showing off his/her acquaintance with all things white – their culture (pop and sophisticated), their stories, their sitcoms, their epistemologies, their myths, their histories, their nuances with some half-baked critique thrown in so as to avoid appearing too eager. Gone are the ‘politically correct’ measures of mutual compatibility based on mutual respect – otherwise the East Asian and black African students would not be so undesirable in romance and intimacy compared to Whites, even among the ‘thinking’ and ‘elite’ academic spaces, even among the ‘liberated’ and the ‘radical’? For these coconuts, of course the next best thing after a white body with a white mind is another fellow brown body with a white-mind. Certain kinds of urban agglomerations offer excellent refuges for browns to explore their mutually shared whiteness. They are also the elite – fatafat English, chain-café hangout types, even with browns of the same mother tongue.

The ex-colony is indeed an unfortunate thing. There is always a lingering infection at the head, because the vernacular non-elites could never quite take over and are on a retreat. Transfer of power happened so that the production of brown bodies with white minds could go on with locally produced grease. Not quite Macaulay. Way sophisticated. Way sordid. At least Macaulay’s children looked like buffoons to the rest of the browns and they themselves had few illusions of reciprocal equality with the whites. Now, the illusion of reciprocal equality with whites is strong. Alienated from their own communities, they need to maintain self-respect by these means. Due to their ubiquity in media and academia, they have an inordinate influence over the aspirational dreams of the masses. The new buffoons have indeed turned the joke on the people. It must be supreme irony that some of these ‘liberated’ browns will go on to lecture us other browns on agency, structures of power, media representation, feminism, politics of culture, indigeneity, even equality.

This holding of whites in high esteem is not peculiar to certain browns. Data from millions of users of the popular US dating website OKCupid suggests exactly the same (http://qz.com/149342/the-uncomfortable-racial-preferences-revealed-by-online-dating/). Disproportionately high (as in higher than what population percentages would suggest) desirability of whites as partners cuts across most non-white races, except African-Americans. The funny bit is that the data also reveals that this special desirability is not reciprocated by whites to any non-white group. One non-white person probably gets tantalizingly close to the origins of disproportionate desire by a description. The person talks about having grown up filled primarily with white narratives and depictions of white people and felt as if she was ‘in a movie’ when she was romancing a white. From the lists of ‘hottest actors’ to ‘sexiest actresses’, from fiction to philosophy, they cast a very deep shadow on the person’s mind that felt during intimate moments with the white partner that one was living a long-pregnant fantasy, as if it was a movie. The African-Americans, having to live with the reality of whiteness, as opposed to the nurtured fantasy about whiteness, have no illusions. They are confident enough to have a spine to hold them up straight without white crutches.

The ‘conservative’ in brown-land at least makes his/her mindset clear. They probably neither like the white nor the black. However, for the ‘liberal’, among the itinerant foreigners who come for study and pleasure, it is mostly the white that gets intimate attention, with others largely avoided. The ‘liberated’ typically talks his/her way out by jargonised hypocritical bluster. In fact, the observable action of black-avoidance being same, this bit dishonesty makes them a notch worse than the conservatives – and there is the rub. For the ‘enlightened’ and the ‘liberated’ are loathe to admit that they too are products of the ‘dominant’ worldview of white-worship. That in practice boils down to racial preference and that does not sound nice. The ‘liberated’ believes that dominant world-views only affect the ‘mindless’ hoi polloi. Facts show that they are not outside but inside the circle of dominance. Such stark demonstrations can be heart wrenching. Liberation warriors become quivering and petulant balls of self-defence, alarmed at the tug at the ground beneath their feet, the ground they had fashioned into a pedestal to preach others from. All kinds of desperate and verbose ego defences come up, aided by jargonized bluster.

Those who are busy condemning and vilifying the people of Khidki extension en masse stress that some of the residents who had gathered had even uttered the ‘N-word’. It was. The ‘N-word’ was also used to build brown-black solidarity against racism and anti-communist witch-hunt in the United States of America. One does not expect the yuppie anti-racists to have heard about the song ‘Negro bhai amar, Paul Robeson’ that Kamal Sarkar composed based on Najim Hikmet’s verses, a most popular song that the legendary folk-singer Hemango Biswas extensively sang. For that matter, the N-word vigilantes probably have not heard of Paul Robeson. For them, history started with 1991. One might add that the song inspired more people in the subcontinent to develop serious anti-racist views as well as a critique of the American state that newly-learned knee-jerk political correctness about ‘N-word’ and other White speech-forms can ever evoke. The particular charge that comes with the ‘N-word’ has a certain context. Ashis Nandy has repeatedly taught us one thing – to take people’s categories seriously. Grounded social and cultural literacy is not to be expected from those who think that only white people’s categories are the ones with meaning. A peculiar kind of browns whose cosmopolitanism almost always translates into a greater understanding of nuances and contexts of things from white lands than things back ‘home’ (the flittering class actually doesn’t like to be ‘tied down’ to the concept of ‘home’) possibly doesn’t realise the ridiculousness of charging the people of Khidki extension of using the ‘N-word’. Having gained adulthood by being consumers of Anglo-American public discourse and pop trivia, they often forget that their books, TV shows, webpages and magazines are part of their bubble-existence. To think that the bubble is the world may be fine for life and times in the bubble-urbania. The problem happens when they venture out into the real world and use their bubble-derived notions and categories to judge that. While being exquisitely literate about the ‘N-word’s horrendousness, they would not be able to name even 10 derogatory words used to refer to dalits in the subcontinent. This is no sign of enlightened purity or post-casteism or castelessness but the stench of super privilege by which everyday categories and realities have been shut out of their lives. Forever coddled, forever urban, forever ‘non-casteist’, forever offended by the N-word, neither can they name 10 dalit sub-groups (not that those who can pass the ‘name test’ are virtuous, but they are at least in touch with the structure they benefit from and have no illusions of innocence). Some of the disproportionate beneficiaries of a system can afford to not know the details of the victims. What is offensive is that these are kinds who are stomping all over the Khidki residents, with a righteous indignation. The browns are an unfortunate people. Those divorced from reality are the narrative-peddlers and the chroniclers of social tension and cultural flux of the browns. Sleek presentation in elite language and idiom, coupled with political correctness has helped many of the chroniclers go places.

The reality is, hundreds of African students stayed in the Khidki area. The same cannot be said of most ‘respectable’ yuppie locations of New Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon. Not every locality allows a ‘ghetto’ to develop. The curious bit is that areas without African ‘ghettos’ are typically places where the Khidki-haters like to live in. Whites get treated differently. May be they would have been treated differently at Khidki too. But wouldn’t those who criticize the Khidki residents while regularly lounging at ‘artistic’ cafes and other upscale hangout-with-whites-like-whites locales also treat them differently? The ‘backward’ Khidki-wallas do not hide their feelings. Khidki residents have not (yet) learned the language and style of appearing to be non-racist. The ‘backward’ often responds with equal alienation to black and white. Others who hide their selective alienation, having learned the language of not letting feelings and subjectivities publicly known, uses the ill-gotten pedestal to preach against racism.

The Khidki incident has given rise to many paeans to the ‘diversity’ of New Delhi and how the ‘othering’ of the black-Africans is a blot on its ‘cosmopolitan’ image. This ‘othering’ bit, a category dutifully imported from ‘Continental’ discourse, is a non-issue here. The problem is segregation. That is a broader issue than Africans. It is also about who is typically rounded up by the police when a car-lifting happens, or who is issued an ID card or is asked to register at the local police station because one happens to work as a domestic help in a upscale area. Just because these browns do not have an explicit skin-marker, does not make the treatment meted out them any different. However, all that is normal, even as youths from these posh homes have also added their voice against Khidki. It is not a simple blind spot. What are the predictable triggers of righteous indignation? Why does it typically parallel what would trigger indignation in a supposedly post-racist Euro-American society? Why are our daily segregations, born in the belly of our society, not similarly spectacular and newsworthy? The yardsticks of whose social realities have we borrowed to assess our own? What makes us chose among the segregations? What is the rank-order in our heads? From where did we import this hierarchy? By choosing to privilege one kind of segregation over another, which audience are we signaling to? Are all these audiences domestic? What does this tacitly self-congratulatory ‘anti-racism’ vis-à-vis the silence over daily seggregations tell us about our selves?

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Filed under Acedemia, Community, Culture, Elite, Eros, Gender, Non-barbarians, Our underbellies, Sahib, The perfumed ones, Under the skin, Urbanity

The urban myth of the ‘simple villager’ / The convenient fiction of the ‘simple villager’ / Urban legend of the simple villager

[ Daily News and Analysis, 11 Nov 2013 ; Millenium Post, 9 Nov 2013 ; Echo of India, 12 Nov 2013 ; New Age (Dhaka), 12 Nov 2013 ]

Our family hails from Patuligram near Jirat, in the Hooghly district of Bengal. We have been there for at least four centuries and our clan has deep ties with the place. This ensured that I accompanied my parents to our ancestral village home once or twice a year. By no stretch of imagination can I claim myself to be a village boy but it was not an altogether alien thing to me. It was not ‘exotic’ or many other things apparently villages in the subcontinent are. That there are as many types of villages as there are villages is something I learned slowly, but that is another matter.

In my childhood years in urban Bengal, ‘Boshe Ako’ (Sit and Draw) painting competitions were a rage among the pre-teens. Anecdotes gathered from others make me think that this was prevalent in many areas of the subcontinent. Today, the definition of ‘coolness’ does not include such things, especially among the more Anglo-Americanized segments of society, but that was then and there. A ‘village scene’ figured among the most popular themes that one would draw.

A typical ‘village scene’ would include a focal hut and sometimes a few huts in the distance, a river, a few coconut trees, a lot of empty paper to signify open land, sometimes a few human figures to denote villagers, and most curiously, a few sharp triangles in the background that might have signified hills with peaks, with the sun peeking out from behind, much like the electoral symbol of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Most villages of the subcontinent do not look like this. This was an idea of the village generated in city-spaces populated with the scions of a generation that could not completely deny their erstwhile origin from villages but were mostly clueless about what it might look like. The tiny producers of these kitsch villages have grown up and gone on to form that generation that wears rootlessness as a badge of honour.

That urban kid of yesteryears was expressing a very distilled form of an ideology. The same kid would draw many more articles in a city scene, make it a much more ‘active’ site of human activity. The village was of one type – undifferentiated. Simple. So were the villagers. Of simple mind. The lack of a human connection with the village (as opposed to the ‘exploration’ tourism type of thing that some urbanites now do) enabled the construction of a certain idea of a village and the villager. Now that rural lands are the primary targets for the unsustainable and parasitic urban expansion, this idea comes most handy. Especially in a development discourse, the simple villager idea helps getting consent and support from crucial urban sectors for land grabbing and urbanization.

The creamier part of this sector is shameless enough to partake in ‘traditional cuisine’ in an ‘authentic’ village setting, set up false ‘village-like’ props during their marriage ceremonies, de-stress at ‘traditional’ spas (the notorious ‘Vedic Village’ is one such) and seek a pollution-free ‘green’ life ‘away from the city’ – one’s private concrete ‘ashiyana’ in a manicured make-believe ‘village’ setting. The obscenity of it all is probably beyond these urban denizens but is not lost on the evicted villagers who often hover around their erstwhile homes and lands as menial help. It is my suspicion that they hover around the Rajarhats and Greater Noidas of the subcontinent even after death.

But the villagers were not so ‘simple’ even in the recent past. Though literary representations are a poor approximation of life itself, for what they are worth, the villagers in the works of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Munshi Premchad or Rabindranath Thakur are far from simple. The ‘simple’ villager fiction would not have sold amongst folks whose fathers and grandfathers were from the village and were not quite simple. Manmohan Singh grew up in a village during his ‘impressionable’ years before adulthood. Whatever be his virtues, ‘simplicity’ is not one of them.

The ‘simple’ villager is a useful product of propaganda, which dictates that villagers need to be protected against their own ‘simplicity’. The ‘simple’ villager is most commonly invoked when an obstinate and rooted one does not give up one’s land. His ‘simplicity’ makes him impressionable. He can be easily excited to protest against the state by manipulative ‘outsiders’. He, thus, has no agency. His opposition is false. His protest is false. His simplicity is true. Under these false ideas, we find the ideology of power at work, that always saves people from their own ideas. The simple village was born in a complex metropole without an umbilical cord but a voracious appetite. The objective of this infantilizing of the village is not nurture but infanticide. The paintings of our urban childhood were not that simple after all.

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Filed under Bengal, Displacement, Elite, Identity, Jal Jangal Zameen, Sahib, Urbanity

The many avatars of Asaram Bapu / The Asarams around us

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 Oct 2013 ]

The way the likes of Asaram Bapu and other ‘godmen’ have allegedly taken sexual advantage of the iniquitous power dynamic they had with their ‘disciples’ makes any consent in their acts questionable. Especially in the case of Asaram Bapu, the image of this man with ‘fans’ and disciples half his age or even less has evoked widespread revulsion from disciples and non-disciples alike. What Asaram preaches cannot be separated from what Asaram does. Can we extend these criteria to others? Which other people get away by taking advantage of iniquitous power dynamics?

There is something called ‘artistic license’, a concept often used to create a smoke-screen of exception around activities otherwise abhorrent. Some things are apparently okay if an iniquitous power situation is perpetrated by an artist, writer, poet, musician, visual artists, film-types – some ‘creative’ person. Not everyone is like this but you know the type we are talking about. In this ‘creative’ crowd, one often discovers characteristics that Asaram would recognize. A famous Bengali poet-novelist was known for his ‘intellectual’ communion with fans, typically half his age. Another equally famous and now-deceased writer of romance from Bangladesh married his daughter’s friend who was into films. Typically, they marry or propose to people half their age. The need for ‘fresh meat’ is a sick mentality that they can couch well by their word-wizardry and their ‘artistic’ bent. Some who marry early (like the deceased poet-novelist) put their spouses through a life of shame and indignity. Those who were just too cool for marriage before their 40s make it up by marrying people half their age. Are god-men the only schemers while these are on experimental ‘journeys’? Do these writers write why they mostly like them young – or will that literary ‘exploration’ destroy the ‘opportunity’ at hand one might be nourishing? Will abstract painters paint and film-types make ‘experimental’ films on the nitty-gritties of their inner schemes? That we don’t call out what’s going on here should cause serious self-reflection in those of us who condemn the Asarams. This blind-spot is especially troubling due to the deep sexism embedded of these circles. In such inequities, the less rich, famous and younger is mostly a female.

How do these wreckers of families and individuals, get such a long leash? Just because they are rich celebrities who can charm young ones in whirlwind summer romances of ‘special attention’ when people of their own age cohort have moved on? The combination of age, power/fame and economic difference is characteristic of a predator. Sadly, the victim’s false sense of agency is characteristic of the ‘liberated’ circles. Just like god-men, predators also often have a fully liberated person in every town, you know, just in case on has to drop in for some relief and ‘catching up’. Some victims are lured into thinking that they too are part of the predator’s dreamy, ‘interesting’, ‘care-free’, ‘experiential’ and ‘experimental world. This charade of agency is important for the ‘liberated’, for from that flows a sense of consent. Tragically, the predators know this too well and use to the hilt to their advantage.

Some victims return to society to cut losses. It hurts the pride of the ‘conscious’ and ‘liberated’ victim to admit that. Society holds the bag to collect the wreckage; due to ties it considers sacred – family values, matrimony and other markers of ‘backwardness’. If only these backward types could mix in the right circles, read the correct books and be ‘articulate’, snort the right stuff in right company, then they would understand such ‘creative’, ‘consensual’ projects. But alas.

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Filed under Culture, Elite, Eros, Gender, Our underbellies, Sahib, Scars, Sex, The perfumed ones, Under the skin, Urbanity

Of Sati, Snake-bites and ‘blind’ superstitions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2013 ]

Recently I was exposed to an interesting concept called Godwin’s law. Godwin’s law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ This means, the longer an online discussion gets, it becomes more and more likely that someone would bring in some comparison with Hitler or the Nazis. Those who inhabit the fractious world of online discussions (and I sometimes do) would be able to appreciate whether Mike Godwin has a point or not. The more general point of Godwin’s ‘law’ is that certain words, concepts and themes (like ‘Hitler’, ‘Nazi’) have such a wide currency (at least among a majority of Westerners and a minority of browns) as powerful symbols that they have been used in almost any context, to counter anything, to badmouth anyone. Of course that reflects poorly on the user of these terms. If every debate with me involves me throwing the same debate-stopping expletive at the other person, I have just put my intolerance on display. And if one cannot counter someone else’s point of view except by throwing back words that are mostly used as exaggerations out of context, then we have someone who is also petulant and insecure.

Be that as it may, this Godwin’s ‘law’ reminded me of certain similar things that I have often faced in discussion with some modern brown people (a.k.a. ‘enlightened Indians’ who have a particular distaste for those who use hair-oil). When one discusses any element that might faintly sound as a defence of things whose ethno-cultural roots are to be found among brown-people, certain alarm-bells and defences go up among the hair-oil haters. And by chance if something relatively indigenous is counterposed to something imported from a White domain, all hell breaks lose. Specifically two hells – Sati and snakebite. In that predictable and unimaginative barrage, any talk of being comfortable in one’s inherited brown mode of life in defiance of the newest imported flavor of the week makes one a supporter of wife-burning. And of course, the same person would be confronted with the ‘gotcha’ question – so what would you do in case of a snakebite?  Such is the potency of these two symbols of brown viciousness and backwardness respectively that even partner-assaulting modern males and patient-gouging medical practitioners liberally use these without an iota of shame and self-reflection. It is the ‘ideology’ that matters, stupid.

This same class of moderns typically exhibits a near-complete lack of understanding of the fall and the rise of Sati, its caste specificity, especially in the context of the subcontinent’s colonial encounter. Any engagement with modern Sati is apologia; any nuance is ‘obscurantism’. Again, when they go after ‘witch-doctors’ and faith healers with the certitude of a neo-convert, they hardly want to understand the reasons behind the continued presence of these institutions in society, against the tremendous odds of denigrating propaganda. This lofty non-engagement reminds me of those savarnas who ‘do not believe in caste’, ‘hate casteism’, have savarnas over-represented among their friend circles and cannot name even 10 shudra caste surnames.

The struggle against the practice of Sati were led by fighters with a social connect, and could not have been decisive without people’s consent. This was true then, this is true now. It is in this context that the Maharashtra ordinance against ‘black magic’ has to be seen. The anti-superstition bill criminalizes displays of miracles, doing ‘black magic’ to search for missing things, saying that a divine spirit has possessed oneself and various other things. Far from being criminal, many of these things are deemed to be within the domain of real happening by a significant number of people in whose name the ordinance has been promulgated. Paying homage to the respected rationalist Narendra Dabholkar is something, passing laws as a knee-jerk reaction that criminalizes activities which enjoy wide social acceptance is quite another. Yes, there are organized vested interests in some of these activities. But to think that whole people are being manipulated and that they need to be saved by know-it-all people is not only demeaning to the personhood of the believers, but also demeaning to the concept of unfettered universal adult franchise. It infantilizes the people, opening the gates of paternalistic legislation. And that, my friends, is not good for democratic functioning.

Beyond fundamental rights of individuals like right to life and right to consent to bodily intervention, whether a practice in society is harmful or not is not something that only ‘experts’ can decide. Social practices are multi-dimensional and can have more consent and agency built into them that have ‘uses’ beyond the immediate ‘efficacy’ of ‘black-magic’. One also has to understand how and why a witch doctor whose interventions could not save a life is looked upon as a bigger criminal than a MBBS doctor whose negligence causes the death of a patient. The social alienation of those who look upon the people as backward and superstitious might do well to ask themselves – why is it more likely that they have heard of Richard Dawkins, the fiery rationalist from England, but may not have a clue who frail, brown Aroj Ali Matubbor was? The problem is that metro-bred and metro-based alienated life-forms have infected the decision making and power centres of the nation-state – the government, the ‘NGO’s, the universities and the like. The socially alienated cannot expect people’s support and no wonder people’s support eludes them – if anything, they live in fear of their alienation and contempt being exposed in front of the people on whose name they so often speak and act. Narendra Dabholkar knew that and had been wise to avoid that posturing. I hope those who are mourning this selfless man’s death also keep that in mind.

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Filed under A million Gods, Class, Education, Elite, Faith, History, Knowledge, Power, Religion, Science, Urbanity

The rise and rise of portable religion

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Jul 2013 ]

I remember a time, not so long ago, when my very Bengali brahmin family would travel outside Bengal. The visits would include religious places. Their attitude towards these places was clear – these were divine all right, but it was clearly understood within the family that these places were not ‘ours’. Sometimes such places invoked awe due to size, sometimes due to the volume of the crowds.

‘Our’ gods lay elsewhere. Among the creepers and water-bodies of a small village in the Hooghly district of Bengal, a particular mother goddess was omnipresent in the vocabulary of our family. They were in the form of a snake goddess who sat in a precarious perch near our Kolkata home, in a makeshift ‘temple’ between a bridge and a river. There was the lump-shaped Dharma Thakur, again of our village, who has had steadfastly refused brahminic mediation to this day. My family has come to live intimately with their moods and powers, their vehemence and their limits. They are ‘our’ gods.

In the last couple of decades, certain sentences have been thrown at me multiple times – scenarios I would not have expected earlier. The foremost among these is one spoken with some incredulity and an equal measure of haughtiness – ‘ Hindi nahi aata?’. A new nation-state is evolving; a new consensus is being beaten out of the badlands of the subcontinent. Gods are not unaffected in this scheme of things.

It started innocuously for such things have always happened. Young people moving away from their hometowns to other cities. Unprecedented levels of rural devastation and concomitant ‘urbanization’ for those beyond the pale of growth figures. But there has been a briskness in this process, a fast disemboweling, that cannot go unnoticed. The gods watched their devotees thinning away, overgrown groves lost witnesses to their sacredness. The story is clearly more complex than this but we do have at hand now, a generation or two, who have grown up without a conception of faith and religion that only an intimate ecology of a non-atomized society can provide. What we have in its place are unprecedented levels of scripture-literacy, a forced forgetting of the naked sacred, and shame about the practices of one’s grandmother. In this new religious worldview, older ‘superstitions’ are avoided and even condemned, with a mishmash of scriptures and lifestyle demands of modern urban society forming the bedrock of ‘eternal values’. These stances have wide currency among the rootless urbanfolk who may be religious or irreligious, but are Siamese twins when it comes to being self-servingly contemptuous of the rustic and the fantastic. The shaman of these times, Ashis Nandy provided a new language against these types when he wrote – ‘ There are superstitions, and there are superstitions about superstitions.’

So we have the rise and rise of portable religion. This is religion in its new avatar where a Quddus Sheikh from Murshidabad can go to some ‘bhavya’ mosque in Aligarh and see it as his own. This is the religion where certain gods have stolen a march on many other gods, creating a poor and sad ‘national’ pantheon of sorts – dreams of a ‘unified Hinduism’ finally bearing some fruit. From Boston to Bombay, through idioms created and perpetuated by mass media, a community is being created whose religious pantheon is dictated by that pathetic yearning for uniformity that only a nation-state can display. This is where portable religion and ‘Hindi nahi aata?’ come together as symptoms of the same disease. Sixty-six years after partition, this disease is hoping that its man from Gujarat would come to lead the nation-state.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bengal, Caste, Community, Displacement, Identity, Jal Jangal Zameen, Plural pasts, Religion, Urbanity

Cities that are easy on the eye / Swanky dreams and apartheid by other means

[ Daily News and Analysis, 30 Apr 2013 ]

Flights connecting the gulf-countries with Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Cochin and other cities form a large portion of the international air-traffic between them. I have been in these flights a few times. Many of the travelers are labourers coming back to their families for a vacation after being away for months, sometimes years. Because they form a large part of the air-traffic, they also provide a large part of the airport revenue. Very few of the labourers I have interacted with can read English fluently, if at all . That most if not all of the airport, its nook and crannies, only make complete sense only to an English literate person, makes one wonder which ‘public’ did the planners have in mind when designing this public utility space. The unwashed masses and their squat latrines have no place here. The architectural language of these places conform to a ‘global’ idiom, however alien that may be to most desis. Airports and sites such as these are so-called ‘gateways’ of a place that would ideally exude an up-market, ‘international’ look – never mind that non-English literates form a significant part of the market. Such places are the product of a certain imagination – that conceive places like air-ports not only as places where people catch air-planes but also where a certain kind of people should ideally be able to enter. It is also symptomatic of nationalist anxieties – of being ‘up to standard’ to the west, so that the occasional gora who steps in should not feel confused in the least. Some of us browns know English anyways and empathize deeply with that discomfort. For the rest of the brown, frankly, who cares? They walk about hesitantly in the mirror chamber of its alien interiors. There is an invisible wall and often thinly veiled disgust in the face of coconut (brown outside, white inside) desis. This invisible wall has an invisible sign hanging on it which says ‘Unwelcome’ or ‘Unfit to be the kind of Indian that South Bombay is proud of’. What am I talking about is not about airports, signage or English – the disease is deeper and more serious.

There is something deeply troubling about the nature of our imagination of the city, including the idea of urban citizenship, who is included in that imagination, who is not, who is the city for. And how ”we’ appear to the West captures an inordinately large part of those concerns. City elites are obsessed in proving that they are tropic-burnt brothers of goras – and they wish that the tropic-burnt others, whose land and labour pay for such obsessions, ideally should vanish. Given that this is not an ideal world, splendid use has been made of their control over the bureaucracy and policy circles, to make others vanish, if not from the city, but at least out of sight. It is a hard task to make a city of their wish – a city easy on their eyes – but they do try.

During the commonwealth games, that ill-fated coming-of-age ritual of a diseased and demented nation-state with ‘super-power’ fantasies, its capital city was ‘beautified’. Among other things, it involved ‘garib hatao’. Thus the urban poor were kicked out and judicial officers moved around in police vans to sentence beggars. The normally slow judiciary knows where its priorities lie. If that were not enough, large sheets have been put up in many areas of Delhi, especially near bridges, to block out ‘unsightly’ (read poor people’s) areas so that the upwardly mobile residents and visitors can enjoy a virtual-reality show on its roads. The soul of this wall is made out of the same material that the invisible wall of the airport is made up of. The T3 airport terminal does not allow legally licensed auto-rickshaws to come near it lest phoren visitors have a ‘good impression’. In Kolkata, bicycles have been banned from plying in most of its main streets. Hand-pulled rickshaws are being pushed out.They say it is ‘inhuman’ and heart-wrenching, as if loss of employment is heart-warming.  Beyond the Indian Union, residents of Baridhara, one of the elite areas of Dhaka, have banned cycle-rikshaw-wallas who were the lungi. Shame about one’s people and feeling alienated from one’s broader environ is a nasty disease that afflicts whole of the subcontinent.

The dream of being counted as a part of the global cosmopolitan class has led to the blatant exclusion of people from public spaces who do not ‘fit the bill’. This forcible homogeneity of being ‘cool’ and ‘international’ finds its twin in the Hindi-ization of various subcontinental identities – in the name of being ‘traditional’ and ‘swadeshi’. Thus emerges the new desi – Bollywood loving, English speaking, having wholesome family fun eating McAloo Tikki. In many ways, the gated community, that pinnacle of contemporary desi urban aspirations, is a concrete form of this dystopic vision. It is safe inside, we are surrounded by people like us, we talk in English and Hindi and cheer for European football leagues There is a word that sums of all this that may sound quite bitter and might hurt those with ‘liberal’ and ‘inclusive’ sensibilities. It is called apartheid.

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Filed under Class, Elite, India, Kolkata, Language, Our underbellies, The perfumed ones, Under the skin, Urbanity

The Chautala that lives in me / Meanwhile across the border / Newer headlines, newer issues

[ Kashmir Times, Nov 2012 ; Millenium Post, 21 Nov 2012 ; Echo of India, 27 Nov 2012 ; Frontier (web), 21 Dec 2012 ; INSAF Bulletin 163, August 2013  ]

If you thought that ‘ghairat’ and ‘karo-kari’ are linked together only in Pakistan, you are mistaken. The zone of ‘shame’ stretches far into the other side of the border. It has been more than a month since the serial rapes in the Indian state of Haryana shot to the headlines. Now that our eyeballs have moved to newer headlines of the year in this holy land, and the urban liberal condemnation brigade has moved on to newer issues, let me spoil the momentum and bring back the issue. Is it surprising that Haryana, the state that has a sex ratio of 877 (females per 1000 men in population) is also the place where the most elaborate public charade of protecting the honour of women takes place? Is it surprising that the same state also has had more than 20 reported rapes in the last couple of months? What does one expect the administration to do when this happens? Apprehend the perpetrators? What can the ‘hapless’ policemen do when the alleged men are  ‘absconding’? It is in this backdrop that Haryana’s principal opposition leader, junior ‘Tau’ Om Prakash Chautala’s recent prescription of rape prevention, of marrying off girls early, has to be read. That prescription has twin benefits – sexual needs of men will be satisfied within the approved confines of the family and the women will also benefit from an early protective (and sexual) cover so that they do not turn errant due to ‘modern’ influences.

The ‘boys will be boys’ idea is not new. Burgeoned by ideas of  ‘manliness’ other such self-serving hocus-pocus that clouds the very real human tragedy in Haryana. The complementary idea of ‘boys will be boys’ is of the woman as a receptacle of male needs, which otherwise can go unbridled and result in rapes. In these times, ‘science’ has come to the rescue. Khap panchayats are unelected councils of village eminents, predominantly from the landed-class and almost always male. Haryanad and western UP are where Khaps continue to be relevant in the daily lives of many people. A soul-less set of male elders of a certain Khap has stated that nowadays women menstruate earlier, hinting that they are ‘ready’ earlier. Information that is soul-less and tradition couched in self-interest can become very easy bedfellows.  Indeed they are ‘ready’; ever ready really, in a judicial framework that does not recognize marital rape. The idea of special ‘vitality’ of men has a long past and extensive currency. After Anton Van Leeuwenhoek discovered the spermatozoon, it was widely thought that a fully formed little ‘man’ (a homunculus) is present inside each sperm cell. In short, the man produces the ‘human’ using the woman as a receptacle. This was called the ‘homunculus’ theory of preformation. This idea is not explicitly taught any longer – something we call ‘scientific progress’.

As I sat thinking about Om Prakash Chautala’s formula for achieving the twin objectives of reining in passions and keeping women safe, I did feel that I was more sensitive, if not superior, than him. A woman friend of mine was with me. Later I showed her what I thought was a funny image on Facebook. It was titled “ The earliest known picture of Michael Phelps”. Michael Phelps is a multi-world-record holding swimmer. The picture showed nine sperms – one of them much ahead of the other eight. The suggestion was that the sperm that was swimming much faster, far ahead of other sperms, just like Michael Phelps went on to fuse with the ovum, thus producing Michael Phelps. I thought that was pretty funny. My friend did not seem amused. She asked ‘Does it occur to you that this picture actually says that Michael Phelp’s speed, his speed in swimming, his vitality – all comes from his father?’ I realized that while I cognitively knew that the homunculus theory was bogus, the assumptions implicit in my ideology of the world had the theory written all over it. While I could posture publicly as much as I could, it is this deep ideology that matters.

Calling a whole people ‘backward’, ‘feudal’, ‘medieval’ – condemnations such as those have a certain currency in the cities. Such righteous posturing can co-exist seamlessly with living in apartments built by women labourers to whom minimum wage was not paid. Talk is cheap. The harder task of engaging with grass-roots forces that live socially embedded in the community requires a kind of political organizing that has long become passé. This is because bottom-up politics itself is in a state of crisis. Those who are engaged in struggles against patriarchy but are socially embedded and hence live with the consequences of their resistances often have opinions and solutions that are quite different from those which are bandied about liberally from ‘liberal’ bastions. Patriarchy is a grassroots force. The struggle against it cannot afford to be anything else. Patriarchy is also in my home, in my head. The struggle against it cannot solely by lodged incessantly against ‘other’ people.

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Filed under Gender, Hindustan, Scars, Under the skin, Urbanity

Why all roads should avoid leading to Delhi

[ Daily News and Analysis, 22 Oct 2012 ]

A Congress-man for much of his life, the President of the provisional government of Free India (Ārzī Hukūmat-e-Āzād Hind) Subhash Chandra Bose’s legendary call ‘Delhi Chalo’ for the Azad Hind Fauj became a legend before such calls became clichés. It was not to direct it towards the urban agglomeration of Delhi (New by then) per se, but as a call to storm the seat of the British colonial administration in the subcontinent. That was to be expected for the British regime of Delhi while bleeding the Subcontinent white also wanted to slip into the shoes of the long line of erstwhile dictatorial rulers from Delhi. The colonial extraction machine needed to be supremely centralized – that is one of the tell-tale hallmarks of an undemocratic set-up. To try to dislodge George VI, Rex Imperator, is something – but now that the browns have taken over for some sixty odd years now, should we continue to view Delhi as the venue to lodge the ultimate protest or to the venue to celebrate the ultimate triumph, as the case may be. This questions needs serious introspection – especially because the Indian state governs a massive number of people, nearly one sixth of humanity, who have many different stories to tell.

Lets take the recent Anna Hazare dharnas. This activist and his band of anti-corruption activists sat on a dharna and hunger strike this summer. The place of choice for the public display of protest was Jantar Mantar- the sanitized ‘democracy footpath’ in New Delhi. This ‘free for all’ stretch of democratic expression under the watchful eyes of the police and plain-clothes intelligence is akin to the sham ‘happy farms’ of USSR minus one important element – none but extreme nitwits were fooled by Moscow. If the anti-corruption protests by Hazare and company is compared to a spectator sport (and I do not want to demean the earnestness of the protestors or suggest that they are anything less than well-meaning), it seems like Delhi is the stadium where it is worth playing, its inhabitants are the people in front of whom it is worth playing. It is possibly tactically smart too – the headquarters of major ‘national media’ (whatever that is) are here, the lush Lutyens bungalows of the men ( and few women) against whom their ire is directed are here. The problem with that is that the media yardstick of success and failure of movements and protests played out in this mode is disproportionately influenced by the daily mood of an urban area that is unrepresentative of the subcontinent at so many levels. For starters, it lacks a robust culture of street-democracy that is so characteristic of many other places. It is also a cosmetic town, with much of its underclass in the erstwhile-slums shoved out of it and chucked trans-Yamuna. The smoothness of that operation and how similar operations are not that easy in Mumbai or Kolkata are important pointers to the political culture and awareness of the cities, and if I may add, the human quality of the cities. That the words ‘Turkoman gate’*1 may mean nothing to today’s Delhi-ites tells us something. It is indeed a ‘New’ Delhi.  If Delhi were a human being, it would be a grotesque caricature – an extremely well-fed fat man, without armpits, buttocks, thighs, skin folds and hair tufts, but reeking with the smell of presume that can be smelled from a mile off.  A state-subsidized veneer of opulence by design affects the self-perception of the populace of significant portions of the city, especially the post-1991 aspirational segment, that includes the elite and uppity, migratory, rootless class. The artificial tweak of the demography of New Delhi by forcible slum ‘clearing’ also affects how issues of poverty and justice come to be viewed in the public square of the city.  It is no surprise that a Delhi-based middle-class turn-out at the Anna Hazare events made it a ‘success’ by Delhi standards. That acute dependence on so economically and geographically unrepresentative a set is a bottle-neck for any party or movement that seriously aspires to speak for more people. This dependence on the Delhi theatre has another disadvantage. Protests and initiatives are forced to play by a set of restrictive rules of the game – a game that the specific ecology of Delhi has helped the powerful hone to perfection for decades now. Malcolm X’s critical words about the August 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom ( and for  rights of African-Americans) come to mind – ‘They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out town by sundown.’

Worse things have happened in Delhi. Malcolm X was talking about manipulation but criminal apathy is quite another thing.  In March 2006, a large group of survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster marched on foot from Bhopal to Delhi. This was years before the court verdict on the Bhopal case made shedding crocodile’s tears on camera by national parties fashionable and politically encashable for what its worth. The 2006 Bhopal protest sans young yuppies and cameras resulted in police beating up the protestors, including the inspiring female gas-survivor Ashraf, a senior citizen. 35 children under 12, most of who had walked from Bhopal to Delhi, were taken into police custody. There was a similar dharna this year too – you may have missed it between the toothpaste ad and the show about India’s latest ‘idol’. More likely, it was never ‘on’. Innumerable others have marched to Delhi on other occasions over the years. Most of them, with robust and popular support in the areas they come from, came to a city whose idiom they did not get and the city which in return could care even less. This loss of dignity of some of the most powerful and compassionate actors of grassroots democratic practice just because they are forced to perform in an alien and hostile terrain makes each of us that much more complicit in their blank, dust-lashed look at the end of their Delhi day. And this will happen again. And again. And again.

In early October, the Gandhian local-governance oriented alliance of many grassroots groups called the Ekta Parishad marched from Gwalior to go to Delhi. 48000 adibashis constituted a major part of this march for legal rights over their ancestral lands. This is not the first time the Ekta Parishad organized a march. Because this mass of non-perfumed humanity managed to grab 15 seconds ‘between the breaks’ and could potentially cause some traffic disruption, a minister showed up to cut is short at Agra. In return, they got homilies that may be mistaken for heart-felt solidarity. Tens of thousands of hungry and landless, have marched before and will march again, only to be looked at with derision and suspicion, or most tragically, avoided by using alternative traffic routes. At a deeper level, this is not a Delhi-specific problem – it is Delhi where it is at its worst. The problem lies with the idea of a power centre – any centre.

When Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist-activist was temporarily disappeared from Beijing by the Chinese authorities, the spotlight turned not to Beijing but Hong Kong, an area with a relatively better contemporary culture and tradition of public expression and protest. One suspects, even the famed Chinese capital was watching the protests in Hong Kong about events that were happening in the capital. An imaginative use of the ‘home-turf’ can project democratic aspirations to others, without entering the city of snake and ladders.

Multiple centres that have a spectacular living culture of other kinds of political awareness and practice exist beyond Delhi – Koodankulam comes to mind.  In a nation-state like the Indian Union, the Delhi idiom limits the hues of democratic practice. Multiple centres that have a living culture of other kinds of political awareness and practice exist beyond Delhi. Might India have something to learn from China? Why not  ‘Chalo Bhopal’ or ‘Chalo Lavasa’*2 or ‘Chalo Niyamgiri’*3 for that matter? Durjodhon’s thigh *4 might be right where you are standing at this moment.

Explanatory notes:

*1  Turkoman gate – Refers to the massive eviction of the poor, primarily Muslims, from this area of Delhi in the 1970s.

*2  LavasaA hill-city made from scratch in Maharashtra, famous for flouting environmental norms with impunity.

 *3  Niyamgiri – The hilly spiritual and physical home of the Dongkria Kondh tribe in Orissa, now under threat as the holy mountain contains something that non-tribals consider holier, bauxite.

 *4  Durjodhon’s thigh –  As mentioned in the Indic epic Mahabharat,Durjodhon was the eldest son of a Kandahari princess (Gandhari) married to the mythical blind king of Hastinapur in the Upper Gangetic plain. His mother Gandhari manages to make him invincible using her powers, except his inner thighs – something that is taken advantage of in an ensuing mace-fight. The term is somewhat analogous to the Greek Achille’s heel.

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Dilli dur ast / Delhi and the rest of us – a gangrenous old saga

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), April 27-May 03, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No.11; United Kashmir Journal(web); Frontier(web); Globeistan(web)]

 

Contrary to the claims of the Indian National Congress (INC), the 1946 Indian election results showed that though the INC was by far the largest force in the British governed territories in the Indian subcontinent, there were other players with considerable mass support, including the All India Muslim League, Communist Party of India, Scheduled Caste Federation and others, who altogether won nearly 40% of the seats. The false dominance of the Indian National Congress in the Madras province was largely due to the election boycott by the Dravidar Kazhagam, in part a continuation of the Justice Party current.  Indeed in some British constituted ‘provinces’, the Indian National Congress was a minority force. This was largely true for the 1937 elections, where the results were similar – a Congressite dominance in most provinces, but its marginality in populous provinces like Punjab and Bengal. The All Indian Muslim League (AIML) in the 1937 election had received a serious drubbing, virtually everywhere it contested. Though compromised by the factor that all these elections, 1937 or 1946 were far from representative in the absence of universal adult franchise (a point that is often forgotten in discussions around the events of 1946-47), one thing is clear – significant sections of the population were not with the INC, for whatever reason. A considerable section of the INC’s leadership always harboured ‘strong-centre’ ideas, though their inspirations were varied. It ranged from the necessity of a strong policy-driving centre congruent with ideas of command economy in vogue, the need of a tutelary centre that would provide the right lessons of modern citizenship so that a ‘sack of potatoes’ become ‘Frenchmen’ to the outright fantastic one that wanted a strong centre that would make sons of Bharatmata out of the wayward multitude that practiced ‘non-classical’ and plural Indic religions.

Given the INC’s serious marginality in more than one province at that point, the future of an Indian Federation was envisaged as a liberal union of provinces, where the Union government would only administer a few things and the provinces (or states) would be having pre-eminence in most matters.

The centralizing hawks of the INC were kept in check, for the time being, by the political realities and power equations. It is in this backdrop the Cabinet Mission plan, the blueprint of a future self-governing Indian Union was proposed.  Not going into the validity and judgment of making communal provincial groupings envisaged in the plan of May 16th, one does see the other aspect of the plan. The ‘centre’ would be in charge of defence, communications and foreign affairs – everything else would be within the ambit of provincial rights. Indeed, the centre would be the meeting ground of the provinces, not the imperial powerhouse from where the provinces would be governed. The latter was the British model of colonial domination – and such systems do facilitate smooth extraction of resources from far-flung areas but they are hardly the model of welfare where democratic aspirations of the people for self-governance has the priority.

In the political class, there was a general sense of resignation ( not necessarily agreement) to the basic thrust of the cabinet mission plan as a way to contain the diverse aspirations that India constituted and also politically expressed. It is this thrust or rather the destruction thereof that has grown to be a serious issue which goes largely undebated in post-partition Union of India.

In 1946, when the Cabinet Mission plan was proposed, the India that was conceived in it had provinces with powers that would put today’s Kashmir’s moth-eaten ‘special status’ to shame. Senior Congressites like Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabh-bhai Patel and numerous other mandarins of the party publicly and privately were more than prepared to give this dispensation a shot. The problematic idea of a sectarian grouping notwithstanding, the plan was overtaken by a breakdown of agreements between the INC and the AIML. The intense ground-level hostility in ‘mixed’ provinces in 1946 no doubt seriously undercut the chances of a grand federal Indian union, in the immediate context of prevailing circumstances. Whether the AIML’s motive on a sectarian grouping of people was holy or cynical, anti-people or liberating, is a question I will not visit here. But what is true is that the exit of the AIML due to the partition of India in 1947 suddenly changed the entire scenario. Till then, the field was a contested one. Now, one opposing side had left. Virtually unchallenged in the legislature, the Congress centralizers started scoring goals after goals in the unguarded field. These goals for the Indian centre turned out to be disastrous same-side goals as far as a democratic federal union of India was concerned.

Post-partition India was hardly any less heterogeneous and the principle of provincial autonomy with federal non-imperious centre still made democratic sense. But in that field without serious political opposition, the centralizing proponents of the INC had smelled blood, taking the idea of a strong-centre to the extreme. The lists that divide power between the union centre and the states in India are a stark testimony to this process by which states were reduced to dignified municipal corporations. They would thereafter be found forever standing with begging bowls, making depositions and cases in fronts of central government bureaucrats and ministers. Among the elite’s of that generation, the strong centre idea had appeal – it provided an excuse and an opportunity, of ‘shaping the masses’ into what was the elite’s definition of an ‘Indian’, a presentable citizen of a new nation-state.

The erosion of provincial rights in the post-partition Indian Union has seen a concomitant development of a veritable army of carrion-feeders who have mastered the process of carrying the spoils from the length and breadth of the land to pad their Delhi nests. These are the new ‘Indians’. In some way they are no different from Hindustan’s emperors and their hanger-ons who would deck up the capital by squeezing the country. What is different is that the earlier forms of ferocious extraction, of explicit carriage of loot to Delhi is now replaced by the fine art of legislative injustice. The process has been honed to near perfection over the decades, now designed and lubricated to work smoothly without making a sound. Delhi and its surrounds are showered with money that Delhi does not produce. It is peppered with infrastructure that India’s provinces had toiled hard to pay for. It is lavished with highly funded universities, art and cultural centres, museums that are designed to sap talent from India’s provinces and handicap the development of autonomous trajectories of excellence beyond Delhi. Over the decades, numerous white elephants have been reared, maintained and fed in Delhi – none of them paid for by those of live in Delhi. Of late, there is the perverse politics of infrastructure development. Who could oppose a cow as holy as infrastructure? In essence what infrastructure development in Delhi has become is the following – a method by which revenues extracted from India’s provinces are lavished in and around Delhi by making good roads, snazzy flyovers, water supply infrastructure, urban beautification projects, new institutes and universities, big budget rapid transport systems like the metro and numerous other things that India’s impoverished wastelands as well as other towns and cities can only dream of. This is perfectly in line with the new ‘expansion’ of Delhi in which Delhi’s political class has major stakes. Essentially this is cash transfer of a very sophisticated kind. Delhi’s richer classes acquire nearly uninhabited land or rural farmland. The ‘centre’ chips in by ensuring the areas get ‘developed’ from scratch. This ensures that these areas become quickly habitable or investable by Delhi’s perfumed classes, thus pushing up real estate prices, making the rich of Delhi richer. This is backed up by real infrastructure that is backed up by real cold, cash from India’s central government. The only thing unreal here is the process of pauperization of India’s provinces, of the great cities of Chennai, Kolkata and Bhopal, which have been systematically decimated by this distributive injustice. The other pauperization that has happened is more insidious, though equally corrosive. I am talking of the process of internal brain drain. Delhi’s bevy of highly funded institutions, lavish research funds, impeccable infrastructure, creation of a semblance of high culture by governmental khairati, has made Delhi the centre of aspiration for the brightest in India’s provinces. Delhi poaches on the intellectual capital of Kolkata and Chennai by the way it knows best, the baniya method.

The largesse that Delhi gets flows over to various other sectors. The large concentration of central government jobs in and around Delhi ensures that those who live there or are from those areas are more likely to end with those jobs, especially the jobs in the lower rung. This artificial support to a certain geographical area with ties to the national capital goes against all principles of natural justice, let alone those of a federal union based of equality. The Delhi-based political class uses various events and excuses of ‘national pride’ like the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games to bestow Delhi’s residents and in effect themselves and their families, better infrastructure, inflated asset values, a better life, so to say – underwritten, as always, by India’s parochial and provincial masses. The provinces, West Bengal, (East) Punjab continue to pay for partition, by paying for Delhi.

Even the media is a part of this process. A summary look at newspapers in Kolkata and Delhi will show that Delhi-based newspapers have page after page of central government advertisements – while the population of the two cities are not too different. The media is an integral part of that Delhi-based illuminati, also consisting of policy wonks, security apparatchiks, immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, bureaucrats, professors, defence folks, hanger-ons, civil society wallahs, suppliers, contractors, importers, lobbyists and all the stench that connects them. This cancerous network of self-servers are curiously termed simply ‘Indians’ – largely devoid of the visceral rootedness that this large land provides to its billion. Their regional identity is hidden shamefully, displayed diplomatically, cashed in cynically and forgotten immediately. This is a window to the mind of the deep state at Delhi. This deep state – eating away at our plural fabric, creaming at the thought of the Delhi-Mumbai urban corridor, holds a disproportionate sway over the billion who are not simply Indian. This unacknowledged billion comes with its proud identity and sense of autonomy. Its diversity is still a robust one, not a browbeaten domesticated version fit for India International Centre consumption.

The preference for things Delhi-based or things ‘Indian’ and not ‘provincial’ has resulted not only in cash transfer of epic proportions, but has surreptitiously help develop the ideology that the roots of success in India go through Delhi, by denying one’s own rooted identities, clinging onto some rung of a ladder to Delhi, moving away from one’s origins. In short, this distributive injustice serves to disincentivize aspirations that don’t hold ‘Indianism’ as the ideology, Delhi as the location.

In the era of long indoctrination, Delhi has been built up as an imperial zoo, where all we provincial rustics have to come to gawk, to be awed, and expunge ourselves of our ‘parochial-ness’ to become ‘Indians’, hailing a very specific kind of motherland. But we are people who happen to have our own mothers, those on whose lap we slept, those whose milk we drank, that whose smell we recognize. She is beautiful in a sari. She does need ornaments of gold to make her beautiful. But there sits a woman, decked up with precious jewels, none earned by herself, but brought as tributes by servile ones who want to be seen in a photograph with her, the queen. That queen is called Delhi.  And she is the reigning goddess, gathering devotees by throwing money – devotees who are working feverishly to move closer and closer into the charmed circle, into Delhi’s gilded embrace.  For all her glitz based on loot, the queen attracts awe and fear, not love and respect, from peoples who have mothers less shiny.

Some final thoughts on India’s provinces. States, provinces, nations – none are designed to contain the aspirational trajectories of the plural multitudes in the Indian Union. Democracy is a deity that has seen a lot of empty, cynical and faithless obeisance be made in her front. Increasing democratization, transfer of the locus of power away from the centre, is a way of deepening democracy. There have been very few attempts to do this. The Sarkaria Commission of 1983 was a positive step in this direction with clear recommendations of making a more inclusive, federal and democratic union of India by transferring certain rights from the central list to the state list. Predictably, the commission’s report is in suspended animation. For all that we know, it might have died already. The Indian state may not admit it. All too cynically, the centre has often tried to bypass the provinces by speaking over the heads the state governments through its army of central bureaucrats and law enforcers posted as imperial minders in every district. This friction between the different levels – between the local bodies and the state governments, assures the centre’s stability. It has also tried to project an ultimately false sense of autonomous empowerment at the local level by the Panchayati Raj institutions by not giving the local bodies any power to veto decisions and proposals that affect their own futures. The blatant disregard of these institutions when ‘higher authorities’ push a project through in the face of massive opposition to loss of livelihood, destruction of homestead and displacement shows what lofty catch-words peddled by the higher level of administration like ‘local empowerment’ or ‘deepening democratic institutions’ really mean, when push comes to shove.

Some ‘states’ in India vaguely are entities that existed even before the modern idea of India was conceived and will probably outlive the idea too. Some of them would have been among the top 20 entities in the whole world in terms of population. They are repositories of plural cultures that the myopic Delhi-based circus called Dilli-haat cannot even fathom, much less domesticate, package and consume – with a bit of ‘central funding support’ thrown in for window dressing. The union of Indian exists, but it is and never was an inevitable union. To take that myth seriously, for that matter to take foundational myths of any nation-state seriously, is a dangerous error – realities are glossed over by textbook manufactured pride. The past of the constituents of the Indian Union were partially intertwined and largely not. To change this balance decisively, so that a Delhi-prescribed and Delhi-centric path to the future becomes a pan-Indian obsession is dangerous dream.  Whether the future of the Union of India will look  a joint family where the feared patriarch sets the rules for all or more like a split joint family living in proximity who are in good terms but cook separately, is a choice we need to make. The latter is much closer to our social reality anyway. Structures that limit aspirations and exile imaginations are fundamentally sociopathic. I am sure, Delhi wants to be loved. Like the plural pasts, to unlock the greatest potential, we need a plural future – an Indian union with thousands of sisterly centres. Delhi no doubt will be one of the sisters in that love-in. Distributive justice would be the glue holding together that future circle of sisterhood. I hope.

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Filed under Democracy, Elite, Foundational myths, Hindustan, History, Identity, India, Jal Jangal Zameen, Kolkata, Madraj, Nation, Open futures, Pakistan, Partition, Plural pasts, Polity, Power, Urbanity

A matter of roads – elite panaceas and encroached commons : Emerging urban dystopias in the Subcontinent / Hope in jaywalkers

[ Himal SouthAsian Jan 2011; The Daily Star (Dhaka) Dec 4 2010; The Daily Mirror ( Colombo) Jan 4 2011; Down to Earth, 15 Oct 2013]

“ I have been to Houston and other American cities. Europe too. Traffic is fast. People wait for the traffic signal to walk. They are so disciplined.There are few people walking anyways. When will Kolkata become like that? Possibly never. Not with people like this. Not with so many people.They are not fit for a modern city.”

There is a certain angst at play when some look at Western cities and then look at cities of the subcontinent like Kolkata or Dhaka, only to sigh deeply (I exclude ‘planned’ dystopias like New Delhi from this discussion as they represent the defanging of the people at a very different level. I write about cities where there is still hope and obstinacy). Slow traffic, roads  of inadequate width, people on the streets, non-observance of traffic rules are cited as major reasons. Add to that rickshaws and bicycles – and  Paris like traffic looks like a perfectly unattainable dream. At this point, the nature of the voiced solutions should be predictable – widening of roads in the city but not tearing down middle-class homes, getting people off the streets by tightening and enforcing traffic rules and possibly, keeping rickshaws and bicycles off the busier areas. If some are already mentally nodding in agreement by now, there is something deeply troubling about the nature of imagination of our city we have, including the idea of urban citizenship, who is included in that imagination, who is not, who is the city for.

Among the upwardly mobile in the cities of the Subcontinent as elsewhere in the Southern World, there is an evolving homogenizing vision of what the future of global urbanity should look like – who is included, who is not. This vision has been long in the making , expressed privately in frustration at drawing rooms – now this progressively exclusive vision has the confidence of being forthright about itself, under the garb of urban  development  in the new century.

As a counter-force to this restrictive idea of urban citizenship,  one might ask, who  does the city really belong to?  And whether one likes it, cringes at it, celebrates it or wants them gone – some facts are worth mentioning. At least 40% of the population megalopolises of India like Kolkata and at least 50% of Dhaka live in slums (bostee). Slums are not only the underbelly of a city, they are a living critique of the dominant socio-political order of the sun-lit city. Hence the question of roads and traffic and the typical set of wants and frustrations that the elites express about the city is really another extended stage where the contestation of the question of ownership of the city is acted out. In such a contest, there really is a more plural view of the city from one side as opposed to a restrictive view – no slum ever dares or imagines that it will gobble up the quarters of the perfumed. The city that the slum and the lower middle-class imagines necessarily includes those who want to see the slums gone from the city and the jaywalkers gone from the street. The dominant urban vision has no time or imagination for such plurality in vision. The city that the perfumed classes of the Subcontinent want almost never looks like the city they live in. Many are ashamed of it. I grew up and lived in Chetla – a locality in Kolkata that is not really throbbing , in short, not ‘posh’. Some of the unfortunate ‘posh’ people who lived there used to say they lived ‘near New Alipore’ – New Alipore being a ‘posh’ area where much fewer people wearing lungi and brushing their teeth in the morning on the street could be found.This has interesting implications about how adjusted one is to reality in its full import. I wonder what some of these maladjusted would have thought about their great-grand father from the village, garu (water carrying vessel)  in hand, crossing a meadow in the morning to defaecate in the field but that is another question.

Given this, in contemporary times, the thrusts towards “cleaning-up” the cities and its streets have something holy at its core – distributive injustice. The city’s commons belong to everyone and so do its streets. The streets being common property to be used for transport, it deems fit that the proportion of a metalled road to footpath or side-walk in a given street should be commensurate with the nature of use. The proportion of people using the footpath to the proportion of people on cars on the streets are a good indicator of how common transport-intended land is to be divided in general , with adjustment space for specific situations. But has anyone every heard of footpath widening as opposed to road-widening ? What is especially ironic is how the shrinking , unmaintained footpath has become lower priority in the urban development discourse – this development is really a staking out of territory for some, the nature of thrust showing who is in charge. Footpaths are fast becoming in the mind of the upwardly mobile what government hospitals have already become to them – places they do not go to and hence they do not care about. Given its restrictive view of the urban future, the group wants to mark out a city for its own, within the city.This progressive loss of free walking space and the sophisticated and exclusionary plans of “urban development” represents this thrust to mark out a city for people-like-them, with ‘cleaner’ habits, ‘orderly’ manners and ‘refined’ sensibilities. There is an barely implicit collective will, laced with power and interest, and when those things combine, there surely is a way. The arc of that way, bends sharply towards to the interests of the new mandarins of the city- in whose vision, an increasing proportion of the city dwellers are quasi-traspassers.

In a situation where much of the city is considered trespassers to be avoided and given the stupendous majority of the city being formed by such ‘quasi-trespassers’, one sees the perfumed classes conjuring up a feeling of being besieged and finding ‘order’ and ‘security’ in that spectacular physical expression of this maladjustment to the living ecology of a city – the gated communities. An entire generation is growing up with limited or no consciousness of the bostee, jhupri, khalpar and rail-line jhupris and udbastu ( refugee) colonies. This lack of consciousness is not because they do not exist in the city, but the elites have now managed to carve off a sterilized existence where much of the city dare not show itself. Gated communities are also gates in the mind. All this would not have mattered if these elites were not disproportionately influential in conceiving the future of the whole city and not only their gated communities. Although these people have their gated communities, to much gritting of  teeth, there are not many gated roads – at least, not yet.

By top-down orders, increasing number of streets in Kolkata have seen bicycles being banned from plying on certain streets and consequent harassment of the bicyclists. Something is to be said of this ‘sanitization’ of streets of non-motorized transport. Given that the perfumed ones inhabit the same earth ( if not the same world) as those who smell from armpits, the central question of a sustainable ecological future is not really irrelevant to the future of our cities. Cornel West says that justice is what love looks like in public. In the context of urban resource allocation, distributive justice has to come from love of the city and all its people. This includes the rights of the pedestrian, the thhelawala ( cart-plyer), the bicylist and also the motorized. In case of the motorized, the question of passenger density is conceivably at the heart of the ecological question. With criminalizing non-motor transport and encouraging the rapid expansion of low passenger density private four-wheeler transport – the policy-makers show which world they belong to. They sadly, still belong to the same earth as before.

This brings us to jay-walking.The men and women behind the wheels hate these people- uncouth, running across streets, everywhere. They just keep on coming, running, getting into buses and now, horrendously, into underground railways too. And so there are calls for tightening traffic rules with more punitive fines and calls for more vigilant and numerous traffic police.In the absence of gated streets, at least one can ensure a semblance of that by keeping “jaywalkers” out of the streets. These filthy impediments of the city are partly what go into making the idea of a ‘long-drive’ so inherently appealing for some of the scions of the elite.And of course they also love the greenery in Amazon rain-forests as shown in the National Geographic channel. Some of them have also worn wrist-bands to “Save the Tiger”.

The traffic police make half-hearted attempts to control jay-walking. They recruit from schools with poorer children who spend days volunteering at busy traffic intersections of the city. A gaudy T-shirt from the Traffic Department, a badge of false-self importance saying “Traffic volunteer”, some stale snacks in a packet to take home – we have all seen them. The “Save the Tiger”s have better things to do – studying harder for engineering entrance, now that more seats are ‘reserved’. But the effort is bound to fail – the the hapless homeguard doubling up as traffic police, the child in the gaudy T shirt, their fathers, mothers, uncles, brothers, sisters are right there, right then, somewhere, on some other intersection, jay-walking across the street, holding up progress of fast traffic and smooth urbanity, crossing on to the other side, living to fight another day. No wonder the volunteers and their minders do not push hard, beyond a point. There is the rub- it is not a question of who is jaywalking the streets. Rather it is a mixture of contending ideas of who the city belongs to, of predictable eyesores counter-posed with the want of Paris and Singapores in Kolkata and Dhaka – the stuff of fantasies of resident non-Indians, as Ashis Nandy might put it.

But the jay-walkers keep on walking.The urban-industrial vision of the elites is a totalizing one-it brooks no dissent. It is distinctly irked by every interstice that is unfilled – it deems that as a nuisance at best and a law and order problem at worst. In our cities of ever decreasing interstices, of all crevices having been accounted for by census and survey, watched ever sternly by law, every such act of daily risk-taking, in that act of brisk jay walking restores a measure of dignity to vaunted idea of the city’s commons. In this act, they are joined by ‘other Wests’, like those espoused by the Reclaim the Streets (RTS) collective’s non-violent direct action street reclaiming and those that inspire the massive motor-traffic jamming bicycle-rides of Critical Mass.

I have a feeling that it is in those jay-walkers and in their haphazard trajectories, in their at-times-hesitant-at-times-wanton disregard of the impatiently honking Hyundai Santro, in their collective stoppage of a small fleet of Boleros, Marutis and Indicas to cross the street just in time even though the state has given a green-light, lie the multiple trajectories to plural, open and just futures for our beloved cities.

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Filed under Change, Class, Democracy, Elite, Open futures, Our underbellies, Urbanity

More than ruins in an unfamiliar city – locating the Bengalee urban middle class psyche in change and persistence

( Himal SouthAsian, Jan 2008)

The milieu of the urban Bengalee middle class in Kolkata and mofussil towns is undergoing tremendous changes. There is an overt change in how urban settlement units look and what constitutes the neighbourhood. But there is an ongoing change within homes as well. This change inside encompasses both physical changes and changes in life practices. Such changes have an unequal distribution which means that certain practices, certain ways of living, being, arranging and utilizing the domiciliary space have proved to be more refractory to changes than others which have been given up with less persuasion or greater cajoling – persuaded from within and persuaded by changes around. To look into the differential pattern of refractivity to changes provides an interesting window to a question – what constitutes the signature of the Bengali urban middle class identity? Beyond quantitative economic indices of income and consumption, one can conceive of a space whereby a constellation of signature elements of urban domiciliary space layout and utilization, the urban Bengalee middle class can be satisfactorily mapped to.

Defining the middle class in pure economic terms, discounting the particular engagement of its psychological self with its milieu and aspects of this engagement that help define the middle-class stereotype, can be dangerously off limits. There is a greater danger of such definitions :changes in economic parameters, for the better, are considered to be surrogates of ex post-facto consent to changes in ways of living, consuming, engaging. Many of the drastic changes in the exterior urban landscape and associated changes to concepts of neighbourhoods and the sense of belonging therein, concepts of ecology and nature, concepts of inter-human relations within and beyond relations of consumption have been without consent. A specific type of a ever more consuming urban vision delegitimises such lack of consent. Being the products and perpetrators of the self-exorcism that regularly figures in the journey from the village to the city in the tropics, the urban middle class often finds itself in a peculiar double bind when forces of “progress” or “development” of the day start trumping the sense of perch, identity and imagined antiquity of urban middle class ways of life, especially when such forces drastically threaten to turn on its head this negotiated identity the middle class has come to know as a part and parcel of its way of living. In this assault, amidst changes within domiciliary urban spaces, what the urban middle class negotiates to hold on to give a peek into some of the innermost chambers of their selves. And a closer look at the past and present living spaces and practices of the Bengalee urban middle class might offer a few of the signatures of their “middle class-ness”.

To look at such urban domiciliary spaces of the Bengalee middle class with the above aim has to be done with caution. It is not about documenting how these spaces look today or they looked yesterday. It is about what aspects of yesterday remain today, in spite of greater spending capacity per family and the overarching logic of ‘saving time’. It is this gap between affordability and reality which is of interest – the specific patterns of “falling short” can be illuminating.

The middle class, dhoti-panjabi clad bhadralok or gentleman has appropriated a large part of the written history of colonial Bengal. This urban, middle class, liberally educated bhadralok had also become the cultural symbol of Calcutta, marginalizing other social or ethnic groups by the sheer normalising power of this image. In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic change in the rate at which things change, at least in the material realm around this urban populace. There has also been a perceptible, however feeble, tendency to find a historical comfort and maintain a continuity to its past which in some ways resists change, or at the least, tries to modulate its rate.

The privacy of the bedroom does not quite stand in as high regard to the middle class Bengali as it does to a westerner. After everyone has woken up in the morning, amongst the first order of business is to ‘sweep’ the bed clean, neatly arrange the pillows and the mosquito net in one corner of the bed and cover it with a bedcover, usually a heavier cloth than the bed-sheet. Tucked tightly around the mattress, the bedcover encapsulates and protects the privacy of the nights spent on it and prepares the bed as a place to sit for the close friends and visiting relatives. In contrast to the bedroom, the drawing room is meant to entertain formal guests who fall outside the large circumference of ‘like a family member’. The changing middle class has not ignored the demand for a clearer distinction between the drawing room and the bedroom, yet they have not given up the bedroom as a place for heartfelt conversations or plain simple adda. The bed, as a place to sit and talk has survived the changing lifestyles of the Bengalis and so has the thin hard-stick broom to ‘sweep’ the bed in the morning.

Large sections of the middle class Bengali have shifted to modular living in multi unit apartment buildings, transforming both the sociological and spatial boundaries of a para (neighbourhood) as well as redefining the individual space within a household. Examples of incongruous ways of living could be interpreted either as efforts to adapt to an unfamiliar yet sought after way of life, or a resistance to un-participatory change.

The bedrooms in the older houses almost necessarily came with taks – built in recessed shelves in the wall. A collection of Tagore’s songs and poems (Gitobitan and Sanchayita) on these shelves, held in public view, were a unifying factor for the middle class Bengali across the political spectrum. Other names that have a high probability of occupying the coveted spaces are Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Subhash Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda. A Materia Medica, the popular encyclopaedia of homeopathy, was not an uncommon find. The literary display on the shelves, as it were, was an intellectual companion of the middle class Bengali. The tendency to have a series of “Complete Works of…” was perhaps a wish for comprehensive erudition.

Some boundaries have been made porous while others rigid, and taaks have fallen victim to these changing permeability. Boundary walls enclosing gated communities have grown higher and thicker while the thickness of the walls of the buildings has been reduced to half, eliminating the possibility of built-in taaks. The ability to hum the tune of a Rabindrasangeet, recite a stanza from a poem to match a situation, quiz others about the author of a recited poem or invoke Marx on occasions, during serious opinionated discussions, have continued to be the mark of an erudite Bengali which is intrinsically tied to the intellectual companionship of the books. The evicted books have found room in stand alone wooden cases with sliding glass doors. It has remained an important companion of the family, finding a niche in the bedroom as a first preference failing which it has found itself relocated to the drawing room.

Eliminating the class insensitive mosquitoes has not been a priority of the rapid changes that have been sweeping across Bengal and the mosquito net remains the primary defence of the middle class Bengali. Methods of stringing up the nets, across various households, are as diverse as the stagnant water bodies, including the drains that are the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes. Sari paars (sari liner that prevents the edges from fraying), pyjama strings, jute or plastic strings and sometimes a combination of all kinds knotted at ends could be found hanging from door latches or hinges and from miniature hooks precariously embedded in the walls. The mosquito net is erected by adjusting the tension in the four, mostly unequal, strings that are tied to the pre-fabricated loops at the corners of the net itself.

The art of setting up the mosquito net before going to bed has remained largely untouched by the transitioning lifestyles of the middle class Bengali. When the lights are switched off and no one is watching, and there is a momentary let-up in the pressure to modularise, the self, finds comfort of familiarity under the sagging roof of an asymmetrically strung up mosquito net.

The bathroom of a Bengali urban middle class family is arguably the most unacknowledged part of the home. But there are markers which set it apart from the upper class homes.

The soap used for the body gets thinner and thinner by use till it becomes a thin flake or a small pebble. At this point, the soap is added to a pre-existing soap of a peculiar variety. This is formed solely of such earlier thin flakes and pebbles. The soap has a variegated appearance reflecting the brands that household has used. The use of this soap is solely to wash the unclean hand after defecation. It is a very specific type of a hand washing soap. The absence of a soap to solely wash hands is a feature. The issue of cleanliness creates its own signature where the presence of a bathing soap for exclusive hand washing use is generally as exception.

Several specificities come out of the issue of cleanliness and cleaning. The bathroom is nearly universally associated with stench of varying degrees. This phenomenon leads to a middle class person’s first observances about luxury hotel bathrooms or bathrooms of the upper classes – “The bathroom does not have a (bad) smell!” Comodes and pans which regularly have one of the following dysfunction – flush not working due to broken piston or chain has broken, leading to various ingenious ways of flushing – mostly by manually enabling the dysfunctional flush to work. The thickness of the air can partially be attributed to dysfunctional flushes , lack of air ventilation and the semi-permanent presence of a zone of slippery material called pechhol. The semi-permanence can be attributed to the presence of the jhnata, a type of short broomstick. This jhnata is different from the room sweeping jhnata whose cleaning units are more like soft sheafs than stuff sticks. What is typical of the jhnata is the unequal lengths of the dnatis (sticks). The jhnata has a long -shelf life and is mostly not used.Whether that is the cause of the pechhol not being cleaned or the presence of pechhol being the natural state of a bathroom making the jhnata a secondary accessory is an open question. The bathroom jhnata is generally used many times before they are discarded – the particularly tough sticks of the broom pack into themselves a lot of service. Interestingly, the idea of cleanliness originates from hygiene but microbial and germ theories of infection of European vintage don’t hold much currency in middle class consciousness and hence the jhnata does remain the mainstay of cleanliness, driving out macroscopic threats. The incursion of microorganism killers even in commode or latrine pan cleaning has been very slow in urban middle class Bengalee households. Robert Koch lives but the jhnata rocks. Like the jhnata, there is a certain lethargy to replace a broken mug in the bathroom. The commonest point of breakage is the handle. In fact, attempts at mending the mug along the fault lines are not uncommon.

Certain feature are evident in the fittings too – certain patterns which have been a part of life as it was practiced but stay on in changed circumstances. The presence of a tap, poised at nearly half-length of the shower is a fairly constant feature. But it is not a random length. Though now mostly used to fill up buckets and occasional foot cleaning, the length, either in emergency, ineptitude or plain familiarity serves as a surrogate for the shower – the “koltola” or tap station being recreated. The builders and architects have continued keeping this feature, may be even oblivious to the reason of its specific height, as it is unlikely to be mentioned in the texts and plans they studied at universities. The height allows someone to sit under it and bath – few people do it, except the force bathing of children (who can stand full height) under it by parents. This standard height has somewhat unwittingly lingered on in the perception of the designers of small flat units. Also, something that is retained is the storing of water in buckets even in modern residential units with non-stop water supply. This primordial storage even in the face of abundance – logical or not – needs an arrangement by which water is not wasted. Hence, often a thin cloth is tied at the mouth of the tap to make it a controlled focussed flow, into the bucket. The tap generally leaves its mark on the floor directly beneath, especially if its made of tiles with stone chips. It is more rocky than smooth and marks the place where the gushing tap has been hitting the floor for a few years. The hand shower also called the telephone shower is also kept largely unused – a late 80s addition to housing projects, its ornamental role is sometimes very obvious. The most obvious difference between strict upper classes and the middle classes in how they think the bathroom floor should be – the upper classes prefer it to be dry, all the time. The only time the middle class bathroom floor is dry is when they leave the home en masse for more than a couple of days.

If one moves from the health of the bathroom to the cleanliness of it users, a few other signatures become evident. The fogginess of the bathroom mirror calls into action sophisticated internal correction strategies so that a semblance of the real face and hair can be constructed from what is seen in the mirror. Gamchhas (thin red cotton cloths) or towels, whatever is used to dry the body after bath, are generally not allocated exclusively for each family member, but each randomly chooses to use whichever is dry or semi-dry. The presence of coconut oils is as characteristic as the general absence of washing machines because they purportedly they don’t “wash well”. This has another aspect. There is an hesitancy in the move to mechanisation for that is also gives a sense of loss of control (in a very different sense than the numerous “controls” in the washing machine display or buttons). During certain times of the month, there are toothpaste packs which are crumpled – crumpled from the end to the mouth to squeeze out that last brush full left in it.

Unlike the bedroom or the bathroom, and indeed, the practices and daily rituals associated with them, the contemporary urban middle-class kitchen has less in common with its preceding models. A lot of this has to do with the physical layout of the kitchen of urban living unit, notably flats. Compressed living spaces have necessitated smaller kitchens, which with the advent of interior planning have nonetheless become more efficient in the actual utility of allotted space, given that the space is small to start with. Also, kitchens in contemporary homes have only the identity of a functional space or unit, unlike a social space that it once used to be.

Not too far back, kitchens in their classifications and their appendages and accessories, were a cultural signifier of the female social narrative. Perhaps the one practice that, with sudden changes in urban lifestyles and therefore in socio-religious practices, has been completely erased from the discourse of cooking spaces is the dual existence of amish and niramish kitchens. ‘Amish’ being the Bengali word for cuisine that includes animal flesh and the vegetables used typically to season it (primarily, onions and garlic), and ‘niramish’ encapsulating that which the Bengali, traditionally scornful of vegetarian diets, would dismiss as cattle food. That the niramish kitchen was a necessity in even small houses is representative of the function and position of women in contemporary Bengali society. First was the unavoidable fact that the number of widows of considerable, and the firm adherence to a distant behavioural code for them put them into special prominence. The niramish kitchen was ‘their’ kitchen, these women who, with the death of their husbands, had lost the right to a high protein diet – which included certain pulses along with every form of animal flesh – because a high protein diet would encourage those physical impulses which as widows, they had lost socially-approved access to. But the “loss” of the separate kitchens have been negotiated as separated utensils and even separate stoves and most ingeniously, separate portions of the stovetop. The negotiations do point to impulses of cultural survival, in a milieu that throws up living conditions that do not really have the Bengali urban middle class cultural context in mind.

The urban kitchen achieved visibility when Calcutta first saw a noticeable upsurge of middle-class family settlements, as opposed to messes or hostels where men, young and old, would live in dormitories or rooms, drawing nourishment from either the establishment’s common kitchen or one of the many affordable eateries of questionable hygiene. Initially, the kitchens in the city were not much different from the kitchens in the suburbs or villages, one prominent difference being the source of water. For those areas that provided them, a kitchen would extend up to the koltola, which was a tap or a hand-pump just outside the kitchen. This was where the utensils were washed and often, where fish or the occasional meat was cleaned. Few kitchens had running water inside them. The so called ‘Indian’ convention of washing utensils under running water comes after the actual availability of said running water in newly installed kitchen taps and sinks.

What transformed the modern kitchen and made it nearly unrecognisable from its predecessors is the advent of gadgets, both as cooking aides and as preservative devices. Even the humble knife, indispensable in today’s kitchen, was unheard of at the turn of the last century, when bNotis were the sole device to cut, chop or dice. It is the refrigerator in particular that replaced the once-ubiquitous meatsafe (which, contrary to it’s name, was never used to keep uncooked meat) as well as the somewhat obscure concept of jolshora, which involved keeping food safe from insects by floating a bowl or dish of it in a larger flat bowl of water. Following convention, however, few Bengali homes install their refrigerator in their kitchen. Like the meatsafe, which usually held leftovers, sweets, butter tins kept in jolshoras and various snacks and savouries, the usurping refrigerator is usually situated a few feet away from the door of the kitchen, at one corner of what is usually the dining space. Bengali kitchens do not provide the scope for functional machinery to exist within it’s premises, unless it the exhaust fan, that successor of the tiny ventilators which dispelled the smells of cooking and the smoke more effectively. The walls behind the oven are proof to this – they are as greasy and dark with smoke and residue of fried oil today as they were a few decades back.

The more than lingering presence of the bNoti, even in the presence of fashionable vegetable cutters and graters begs more explanation than efficiency. The hamandista, which is a medium size mortar and pestle to grind dry spices and the sheel-nora, a flat version to make pastes out of non-dry spices as well as onion, garlic and the like, are in some ways, more real statements for cultural choices than sporting a Che-Guevara T shirt in a western metropolis. These devices exist in spite of top of the line mixer-grinder contraptions and in the hired labour that is employed to do this, the rational goes similar to what is given for not replacing the domestic helper for washing clothes by the washing machine.

Reasons for cultural choices may run deeper.” Many oppressed cultures, in trying to keep alive an alternative vision of a normal civilization and resisting some of the modern forms of man-made suffering, have sought to defy the modern concept of productive work and the totally instrumental concept of knowledge which goes with it.”1 While on the face of it, to look upon the Bengali middle class way of life of their imagined antiquity as an oppressed culture would be somewhat erroneous, but one could say, with some trepidation, that some elements which define the selfhood and identity of the class, do feel threatened and indeed oppressed – just that other parts of their selves may be complicit as cogs, wheels and even engines of this supposed oppression. Mixers-grinders and sheel-nora play out this internal dialectic tussle of sorts in living spaces – it is much more than a tussle between automation and authenticity, but crucially includes elements of those. By the sheer “irrationality” of the persistence sheel-nora, the domestic help who washes clothes, one gets a hint of its subversive underbelly.

The listing of these instances serves a purpose – the purpose with which we started from. These patterns, some or all of them, together at least partially help define the psychocosmology of the middle class. And to stick to them, in the face and in spite of alternatives thrown in from without, is in a large part an attempt to keep a sense of self-hood that comes with certain values and life practices. The element of dissent here is not to be missed for it is this urban middle class of Bengal which are considered the most vociferous cheerleaders for the patterns of change that are perturbing life practices and domiciliary spaces, especially in the last 15 years.

The Bengali urban middle class self exposes a particular tentativeness and apprehension of vulnerability if one looks at the pattern – the things that are retained. The middle classes are split between a hitch ride to a lifestyle that is swank and unknown and a lifestyle that has a certain comfort level due to familiarity as well as a sense of perch and imagined antiquity. So, when external non-consensual changes come in, there is a negotiation to preserve the existing identity of the self. There is another aspect too. The pattern also gives away another aspect. They are not fully convinced about the permanence and sustainability of this change brought about by new money and aspirations – hence these tries to keep a lifestyle less expensive. This zeroes in on one of the deepest middle class values – an economically low risk lifestyle where status quo has much more currency than a higher risk game of rising. This shunning of change for a rise comes with a dread of falling. One of the elements which go into rationalising this shunning comes out in middle class contempt of the rich and aN a priori assumption of dishonesty on the part of anyone who has made a considerable amount of money or has a flashy lifestyle. The disjoint between affordability and lifestyle of Bengali urban middle classes is extremely revealing. With increase in riches and getting confronted with lifestyles middle classes associate with luxury, the middle classes are faced with a nagging feeling about the value-neutrality of its own recent prosperity. They do want to see in its domiciliary space as less as possible, signs that mark a radical departure from their lifestyle that was honest in their own imagination. And this complicity and dissent exists at the same time. In between the two, the complicity has a non-consensual element to it too, arising out of what it thinks is absence of choices – the choice being not of choosing to be a MBA or an information technologist but the choice to chose how far down any road it wants to go. No one is obligated to make the journey. In the same vein, no one is obligated to complete the “full” journey either, having once embarked on it. It is the absence of choice to drop off the bandwagon that creates internal turmoil of the most extraordinary kind. When one cannot chose extents of complicity to non-consensual change all over, dissent works out in maintaining an illusion of no-change. Having little or no control over the external urban geography, the theatre of such dissent shifts to the indoor.

What we have just described might well apply to other South Asian middle classes but we studied only the Bengalee urban middle class. May be in some of these tenacious “typical” middle class behaviours, people externalise their lack of consent to aspects of change that have come to affect their urban spaces, especially after it became passé to be ashamed of being rich, at least in urban public discourses in Bengal. Who is to say?

1 Ashis Nandy , Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias : Essays in the politics of awareness, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.42

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Along Chitpur Road

(  Himal SouthAsian Mar 2008)

Sometimes historical facts tend to obscure current realities by transforming themselves into popular myths. The bangaliana of Calcutta is one such example – the city’s pervasive projected identity is defined by the lifestyle and cultural moorings of a specific class of the middle-class Bengali. Yet of course, in the manner of all economically strategic centres, Calcutta has never been exclusive to any one ethnicity or culture. But for several centuries since its supposed British founding in 1690 (a date that is now widely debated), Calcutta has certainly been a ‘Bengali’ city. Indeed, it is only during the latter part of the 20th century that minority communities in the city have ceased to be mere statistical figures and begun to assert themselves culturally. This transformation has become particularly noticeable on the city’s streets, in the faces of the daily labourers and street vendors who are largely from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and the Rajasthani accent that has secured a place for itself among the middle- and upper-middle-classes of the business community. The diversity of Calcutta, always present in reality but long absent from the vision and imagery the city invokes,within its constituents and beyond,  has undergone a transformation.

In the collective mind of the city, the parallel non-Bengali cultures always had a certain niche. But centres of parallel cultures that held cultural prominence during the time of the British Raj have slowly been moved to the fringe of popular consciousness in Calcutta. In this way, over the past few decades their impact on the city’s mainstream culture has been significantly diminished.however, this new consciousness seems to somehow have lost sight of the older centres of non-Bengali parallel cultures that held great prominence at the time of the Raj, such that the most prominent such centre, Chitpur Road, has become a fringe slice of exotica with very little influence on Calcutta’s cultural composition. Instead, the newly conjured multiculturalism is more of an extension of the projected idea of a modern, urban, pan-Indian ‘culture’. Fortunately, buried amidst this new gloss there remains a sublet tapestry in certain parts of Calcutta: its own organic fibre of a-modern multi-ethnicity – muted, non-jazzy, real.

What was named Lower Chitpur Road after the British birth or rebirth of Calcutta historically predates the city. It is a part of the old stretch between Kalighat and the capital of the Nawabs of Bengal, Murshidabad. In postcolonial Calcutta, its great thoroughfare status has been taken away by the newer, more spacious Central Avenue (which has, since the nineteen thirties, been officially called Chittaranjan Avenue, but the colonial name persists in public memory), and with the decline of the baiji or nautch-girl culture, Chitpur Road has also lost it’s place on city’s internal entertainment map. Nonetheless, Chitpur remains crowded throughout the day, mostly with trams, buses, cars and carts jostling for space, and with people who see it as a connector between more ‘modern’ sections of the city, but also with those who still define their lives around the aura of quaintness Chitpur Road has developed with evolving times — traders selling hookahs of silver, glass and jute, street-vendors advertising food that finds no mention in the city’s mainstream restaurants, and perfumes or attars that the average Calcuttan of any faith traditionally associates with Lucknow.

 

Lower Chitpur Road can be divided into two parts, the Muslim Bihari-Lakhnavi section and the Hindu Marwari-Bihari section. The confluence of these two is, perhaps aptly, at Mahatma Gandhi Road. The area, which has its inhabitants live by its amodern cultural specificities, in its trade, faith, food and perfume, would be a strange conundrum to the liberal modern-secular.

Especially so in Calcutta, which construes such concepts as “secular” and “communal harmony” as the primacy of a civil identity of the individual over a religious or ethnic one; indeed it is a matter of pride amongst certain sections of the city’s inhabitants that communal politics has found little place in it over the decades. Chitpur Road, however, stands in sharp contrast to this interpretation of secularism, portraying instead a system where purportedly incompatible religiocentric lifestyles occupy living spaces in close proximity to each other, and  manage, it would appear, rather better than planned attempts at cohabitation. Here, it actually is the living faiths in living spaces that constitute a force that allow for the ‘edges’ of purportedly dissimilar communities to live side by side. In the Calcutta riots of 1946, Chitpur Road was certainly the scene of some violent acts; but at the same time, it was also the theatre of a much greater number of instances of public resistance to troublemakers deemed as ‘outsiders’.


Living faiths in living spaces are the arena for action of long range forces in time, that make purported edges brush with each other and not bristle, without losing the edges.This could be due to the pragmatism of the trader and the common marginality of both of these communities (non-Bengali Hindu and Muslim) with regards to ‘Bengali’ Calcutta. But, the section of Mahatma Gandhi Road that runs through Lower Chitpur Road is as much a confluence of two cultures as a sharp visual divider between them. And thus the Marwari merchant of Sri Ganesh Stores, selling mattresses bearing motifs of the Kaa’ba becomes as unique to Chitpur Road as does the suburban daily-train-riding Hindu clients of the Ambari Tobacco and Hookah Shop (see pics). In their combined ambience, these individuals do not actively seek unity. The long-range forces that arise out of faith as practiced by the common masses, after all, are not cynical social-engineering projects. Instead, they are primarily methods of peaceful existence. These are not proactive interventions that seek unity, but rather mere interactions that arise almost invariably due to individuals who live side by side – this is what ensures the possibility of coexistence. Living faiths hold in its corpus and  in its praxis by little people an idea of non-modern tolerance, ensuring mutually non-annihilatory co-existences. And not based on urban industrial dystopias of assimilation by denial of cultural choices of the ‘Hum sab ek haain’ (We are all the same) kind, faith keeps it real.

 

Lower Chitpur Road thus presents a close encounter of another kind: the geography here breeds engagement, possibly not as neighbours but not as aliens either. Living faiths are the cement that minimises friction here – acknowledging the natural difference in the kind of faith, but through a tacit acknowledgement of what can be thought of as the ‘spread-out location of the divine’. From faith and engagement with the divine is able to grow an appreciation of someone else’s path to the divine, subsequently leading to a reverential non-engagement. This is in sharp contrast to the modern usage of religion by various types of politician: from the cynical instrumentation of faith by religio-nationalists to the hubris-laden denunciation of faith by progressives.

 

Refresh the memory


The advertisements on Chitpur — not the large billboards owned or rented by well known advertising agencies, but the hand-painted tin boards and shop sign-boards — are yet another reminder of it’s uniqueness. Billboards are written in English and Urdu, gradually changing to Hindi and sparingly, Bangla, as we moved from the visibly Muslim area to the Hindu one, obviously marking the demographic change along the way. Hand-painted bills advertise special prices on couriers small Uttar Pradesh towns as Faizabad and Moradabad – names that rarely, if ever, merit mention in the average Calcuttan’s travel itinerary. Signboards over street shops promise delicacies, the likes of which are rarely encountered in other Calcutta eateries, even in traditional Mughlai restaurants.

 

And, of course, there are the wares: chamors (made of the tail-hairs of chamri gai or yaks and used in Muslim, Hindu and Sikh religious ceremonies), attars, tobacco-cutters, every kind of Indian musical instrumnets, strange desserts. These are all relics of older, barely electrical days of a more antiquated style of living and of business; one of trading through the day before the nine-to-five schedule gained widespread popularity. To the Calcuttan inhabiting the space we shall broadly call the modern, mainstream life, these almost uniformly empty shops and genteel, indulgent shopkeepers might well be a live show in an anthropological museum.

 

In Chitpur’s Muslim section, there are references to a mythic Mughal connection. The Muslim lower-middle-class of this area, of course, never had much in common, even historically or culturally, with the great rulers of Hindustan and their ways of living and eating. But when a hole-in-the-hall eatery displays an advertisement board reading “Ahd-e-Mughaliya ka yaad taza kaarein” (Refresh the memory of Mughal times), the lingering appeal of claiming connection with what was arguably the greatest period of Muslim cultural richness is clear.

 

After crossing Mahatma Gandhi Road, the change of the outward character of shops from the Muslim section to the Hindu one is a drastic one, not only in shop names but in wares, too. Moradabadi stores give way to Bikaner Bhujiawalas. Suddenly there are no more lungi shops or itr khanas (perfumeries). Khaini sellers replace hookah shops. Street vendors selling paan, durba grass, mango leaf and other signifiers of Hindu rituals are suddenly conspicuous, as are swastikas as the omnipresent emblem of faith, whether of one kind or another. There is even a nuanced change in the character of street foods – vendors of dates, kulfis and sheek kebabs give way to phuchka and masala muri.

 

The bustling streets thin slightly during early evening prayers of the Muslims. Those that had just concluded their prayers go in groups into the Aminia, one of the oldest Muslim eateries in Calcutta. Others are hurrying from the Mahatma Gandhi end to the Lalbazaar end, using Chitpur merely as a conduit. Meanwhile, the cordial, smiling shopkeepers sit in their shops, and watch the city with an air of ambivalence. For our part, we too sit and watch this complex flow. In the smells of unidentifiable spices and roasting meat, in the fleeting reflections on the polished silvers and brasses of hookahs and massive pots and pans, we too catch a glimpse of life governed by a different ethos of trade – one in which interactions are personal, time is less of a commodity, and aspirations to change are not nearly so virulent.

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