[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in VOICE, 16-31 October 2011]
Cities are strange creatures. They have lives of their own. The lives which we love to call ‘spirit’. Bombay (oh, how much I try to call it Mumbai and stop when it reminds me of that goon who loves to beat the poor cabbies from the north!) has one and so does Delhi. Take the names of two different cities, and the ensuing images, impressions and emotions are never the same. Read media stories and you would know that Delhi has its rustic, aggressive and all into your face pomp, Bombay is always on the move, a city that never sleeps whereas Bangalore chooses to live a laid-back life of the elderly.
The spirits of the cities have their own pastimes as well. They love to play strange games with those who inhabit them. They seduce the ones with filled pockets and shiny eyes; they caress the ones peeping inside the windows of brilliantly lit shops and scoff at the ones waiting for them back in the parking lot. The descend upon the ones meandering through the streets bathed in that bluish glow emanating out of all the neon-light hoardings and pounce upon the ones who have put up those signs in the first place. The cities, and their spirits, are apparently far more important than those who are erased from its imagery. These are the people who have been evicted from their small hamlets stuck in different corners of India to build these cities.
These ‘people in the parking lot’ have an image of the cities too. They have always had their own tales to tell, even if not many cared to record those gloomy, dark stories. Visit any part of the Indian countryside and you would know that Calcutta (Kolakata now) is not merely the name of a city. It is rather another word for the painful longings for those who disappeared in search of mere survival. Listen to the songs of women left behind in those villages and you would know that the trains are not merely a mode of transport; they are also the ‘other women’ separating them from their husbands, their children and their lives.
No one wanted this separation but the cities. They needed these people for constructing all the buildings they needed, for laying all the roads linking those buildings and for all other jobs that came in between. The only way the cities could have got these people was by snatching them from their distant villages. So they ensured that the villages had nothing to offer to the people. Right from the bare minimum necessities of life like food to small joys of life like entertainment, the cities stole everything from them. Social structure of the villages, with a feudal lording over the lives of the people, came handy for the cities. It provided the final push for the exodus. The people left in search of food, freedom, and future.
The villages, however, remained the same. Darkness descends upon these villages in much the same way it did before the exodus. It retains its original colour, the unidentifiable but easily marked colour of darkness. It is something close to black but is not beautiful, however much we want it to be.
The darkness is not the same in the cities. The hoardings, the street lights, and the shops all of them challenge the darkness. They get into action as soon as the sky turns orange in the evenings and start filling the streets (not the backyards though) with that ubiquitous colour. Blue is the colour of darkness in the cities of today.
This blue darkness then starts enveloping those who are not fortunate enough to be a permanent part of this brightly lit darkness. All the blinding lights of high masts fail to reach the underneath of the flyovers sheltering hundreds of thousands from those stretches of darkness in remote India. Their darkness does not change into that sensuous blue defining the lives of those they serve.
They are the refugees, the almost ‘illegal’ immigrants to their own city. They are the part of cities’ underbelly, a space of thriving businesses and profits even if it is unrecognized. There, definitely, are extreme risks as well, but then the clientele for the risks is different from that of the profits. The profits go the people with a right to passage to the spaces of the power while the risks are all a part of the fate of the poor.
They are not brash, rowdy or the new ‘horny’ (they do not keep honking even on empty roads) even if they live in Delhi. They definitely do not sleep but not out of their choice even if they live in Bombay. I am afraid that they cannot afford to live a leisurely life of the retirees Bangalore is known for is a fact that does not require even a mention.
Not that these people are unimportant or immaterial to the seductive cities they live in. Quite on the contrary, they are the people who run them. They make all the leisurely pursuits possible. They are the people who bring city’s children back from school, walk dogs, drive cars, buy the groceries and also deliver them, clean houses and who cook our foods. These are the people who stay up all night at the doors of our gated colonies so that we can sleep peacefully. In short, they are the people who are so integral and crucial to the very basic organization of our lives that we cannot imagine surviving even a single day of our lives without them.
They are also the ones who organize our happiness. They are the ones who are responsible for home-delivery of happiness as a popular advertisement slogan screams out of the screens of our LCDs. They are the ones who carry the ornamental lights on their heads during marriage processions and exist in that proverbial and prophetic state of darkness under the lamp. They are the people who build our homes once we are able to buy one. They are the ones who first inhabit those upcoming and incomplete structures of concrete till it is worth moving in, and are then thrown away unceremoniously even before the first truck from the thousands of movers and packers companies honk in front of these ‘houses’. Far more than all this, they are the people, as a recent news story pointed out, who form the bulk of the housekeeping staff even in five star hotels of our country. They are the ones who keep the Malls that are mauling their own life all glittery and shiny so that India can sustain its claims of a country on the rise.
They are yet not taken notice of. Their lives, like their work, do not get celebrated in the urban imageries. They remain nameless, faceless and nonexistent appendages to our lives not worth of finding a space of their own in the urban imagery.
I would not have minded the cities’ disregard for them as this is what the creatures born out of extraction of labour of others are known for. I have seen rich kids of the cities calling back home in disbelief when they first encounter the deep interiors of the mofussil India. I have seen that disbelief getting transformed into stupid exclamations like ‘Dad, this place is so far removed from reality’!
What bothers me is that sense of resignation writ large on the faces of these people, the real heroes and heroines. After all, the mofussil women did remember Calcutta even while hating it; they did nurse anger towards the train that would snatch their families away and the system that permitted it. Their songs announced loud and clear that they did never give up, they kept waiting for the eventual return of their loved ones. Their tales of sorrow ensured that the imageries of the times were not usurped by just one side, that even if quite feeble there was a resistance. The resistance, in turn, ensured that there were dreams and desires that there was hope.
The hope meant the dreams of a house of their own, a life of dignity and a future for their children, at least. The hope meant that irrepressible longing for the ‘return’ to their villages sans the miseries. They believed in the promises made to them. They believed that the political and administrative process would reclaim their villages from their near-perennial state of despair. They believed that one day their villages would be like those in the films, lush green fields connected by the city with a road as good as it can get. These hopes gave them the reasons to cling on, to fight and to stay put in the city. These hopes gave them the courage to sing their own songs.
They kept on visiting their villages year after year, staying back for months at a go and realized that nothing was changing. Everything was the same, the dilapidated huts, dry fields and devastated lives. Only thing that showed some signs of improvement was the life of the feudal, something not very pleasant for these hapless poor. They started losing their hopes, their dream to return.
The things were becoming absolutely clear. Far from letting them chase their dreams, the cities were not even ready to accept them and they were not left with any place to go back to. Their villages were dying with all the songs celebrating them. They stopped discussing the distress that was slowly engulfing their lives. All that betrayed their feelings was that fateful state of abandon written on their faces. Their silence was screaming that they were not left with much to look forward to.
These are the signs that the darkness they have dreamt to escape from has returned to them. It is descending upon their memories, their psyches and their lives like never before. That they are not only missing from the neon-light hoardings, from the bars, from the malls but from their own imagination too. This time there remains nothing but anger that is simmering within and is waiting to acquire forms. I am afraid that this anger would be of a decisive kind for getting exiled from material things is sad and painful, but getting erased from imagery is something no community can survive with.
Remember that when they were fighting with darkness last time, there were well-lit cities to offer them some hope. Now, they know that it was not their light. Worse enough, this darkness is a new darkness. It is blue, it is seductive.