Monday, April 14, 2014
Stranger in a Strange Land
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
All my life, I've been called a Madrasi. This is false, funny, and ironic. For those that live north of the Vindhyas in India, all four of the southern states connote a ubiquitous "Madras", or in other words the land where people speak Madrasi (otherwise knows as four distinct languages Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil). But Madras, or to call it by its current, official, and always locally more kosher name Chennai, was never home to me. I visited Madras, and I lived in Bombay. Madras was heat, provinciality, incoherence, and conservatism. For the longest time, it occupied the second position on a list of cities that I vowed to never inhabit. Number One is still held by New Delhi, and I hope it doesn't indulge in similarly stymieing my life plans. Hush I tell myself, lest the Gods have sharp ears. Evidence indicates otherwise, but you never know.
Madras, I am told by the many books I peruse in the hopes of gaining intellectual familiarity, is where modern India began. This old colonial outpost that had the likes of Robert Clive, Elihu Yale, and Arthur Wellesley pass through dates back to the 1640 settlement of Madraspatnam. For those seeking a primer, I highly recommend Bishwanath Ghosh's Tamarind City and of course, S.Muthiah's Madras Discovered.
Seeking this selfsame city of sepia fame, I wander off one bright Madras morning, dragging a friend and relucatant early riser to Fort St. George, one of the arteries of the colonial enterprise. Disembarking from the train at Beach station sharp at seven am, bright and caffeinated, we walk past a still sleeping old town through NSC Bose Road, and the various Chetty streets, named after differently famed members of the Chettiar community. Each street differentiates itself by the goods it sells; electrical appliances in one, upholstery in the other, plumbing equipment in yet another.
The art-deco buildings are magnificent, and often magnificently ratty. The politics of heritage preservation are apparently a nationwide phenomenon. I receive atmospheric consolation from this history that seems like so many other histories of so many other old towns. I do what any self-respecting debutante to urban studies might do, take many pictures. Fort St.George, the Armenian church with many buried Armenians and nary a community, Armenian Street, abandoned pushcarts, modernist architecture, all fodder for my newly obsessive need to know this city.
I am reminded pleasantly as I walk of one of the most endearing characteristics of Madras as of Bombay or for that matter, any port town. They are Weberian traders' towns. Collectively they provide for and generously allow my favorite flâneur-ism: window-shopping. Nothing gives me more pleasure than walking leisurely through Pondy Bazaar, Mylapore, or George Town taking in the sensorama afforded by the agglomeration of millions and mountains of goods, not services. The materiality of the economy is most manifest in these tiny streets. Never mind Subodh Gupta, kitsch, and modern art; Madras and George Town curate for the everyday eye, and its munificence and I walk hand in hand.
The city is an infinitely accessible animal, I make the mistake of triumphantly concluding. I tell myself that at the least, these terms of history, colonialisms, trade, tradesmen, and shop facades are slightly more familiar than alien scripts on alien signboards populated by celebrities; celebrities who are in equal measure film stars and politicians.
Many conversations I have with friends from Madras are peppered in equal measure by MGR, Jayalalitha, Kamal Haasan and/ or Rajinikanth.When I show neither interest nor fascination, I am relegated to oblivion and/ or subjected to derision. I know not names, histories, or controversies. Large parts of the city are therefore inaccessible to me. The question of radical difference always obstructs knowledge. The radical difference that is stardom and adulation has been closed off to me by a non-Madrasi childhood and media world. I huff and puff, but remain othered. And so I continue to make peace with my strangeness. I sometimes misidentify T.Rajendar as Vijaykanth, at other times the other way around. The horror, the horror.
One evening, I leave home and walk. I am accosted by Aravanis, striking looking transsexual women, who demand money that I do not give. The one with the fieriest eyes stands her ground and stares defiant. We play "Who blinks first?" I sidle away. I espy mannequins in saris with the pleats tightly in place over cold flesh, columns and columns of boxes made of aluminium foil, stacked on the sunmica and oil stained counters of a roadside hotel, cane boxes by the dozen, electronic stores full of employees with eyes glued to the television, a discrete corner of a rundown building announcing "The Immaculate Centre for English Education", and an escapee from Wonderland, a plastic rabbit with a wastepaper basket emerging from its distended stomach, looking out from the threshold of the Coronet hotel. Hotel Runs in my path inspires my once-a-day wan smile. I notice a shiny Waterworks store that reminds me of E.L.Doctorow's book about New York City in 1871. Nothing beyond the name evokes familiarity though; the store façade looks as neoliberally hopeful as Doctorow is cynical, as flush with the marvel of modernity as its eponymous book is sharply critical.
It is perhaps not incidental that I also profess new attachment to books about walking. Teju Cole's brilliant, meandering, and yet very difficult to read book (also in New York City) Open City, and Christoph Simon's Zbinden's Progress. Both books are in the first person, narrated by walking protagonists. Cole's hero walks and narrates the city. Simon's Zbinden talks about walking. I must confess that as much as I would mildly recommend both, I will also confess to a caveat. The romance of walking, to me, is much more embedded in writing about walking than in the act of walking. Or in other words, one of my primary reasons to go on a walk is to write about walking.I am nothing of not a biased reader of walk-books.
For those attracted to said romanticism, I would highly recommend W.G.Sebald's Rings of Saturn. A couple of years ago, in a very quiet cinema theatre in Madison, Wisconsin, I saw the film Patience (After Sebald) inspired by this book. The film builds its story around a walking tour of Suffolk in the English countryside along the very same routes that Sebald's protagonist takes. The movie was marginally haunting. But it took so much away from the inwardness of Sebald's walk. Suddenly the projection of his world was out there and it was not even close to as promising as its timbre in the author's voice. Instead of his living, breathing view of the countryside, the movie replaced it with a ghost walking through a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape.
Adam Phillips, attempting to explain Sebald's search for a meaningful home while walking through Suffolk, strikingly brings attention to the fact that only children have a home, not adults. The notion of home, that sealed, controlled, hermetic, safe environment that is sufficiently amenable to our will is a product of our childhood not adulthood. And hence, children must continue to have that home, while adults must continue walking to search for one. And I ask myself, uprooted and ambient, is this why I walk?
We live in times when points of view are being corralled into one camp, and one side. Danger abounds. Our histories are being compacted and our futures prepared. In such times of dense, thickening ignorance, I walk to remember difference. To see the city in all its manifestations, its variedly colored, aesthetically dissenting facades, and in its differential pasts and ongoing fighting presents imprinted all over its peeling faces.
I have an additional half-consolation. The disenchantments of modernity are for other parts of the world. I am firmly in the arms of God's own city. Religiosity is rampant, often of the Hindu persuasion. Sometimes, I go along with it. We bow and pray and anoint ourselves with ash and turmeric and vermillion. White, red, yellow all over, we remind ourselves of death, and life, and desire, and craving, and yearning, and sorrow, and calm, and cruelty, and doubt, and dread. Sometimes, we sound like Indian writing in English of the worst persuasion. The city's temples offer me no catharsis. There is merely the fact of distraction, also the fact of a different everyday life. But it is all rather nice, and also a reminder of the muscle memory of ritual. I bob up and down as if I have been doing it all my life (I had, for some of it at least). I have glimpses of a different self, and am reassured of the persistence of difference. Once in a rare while, I am given an inner window into a life of focused and determined hope and desire. It is interesting, in a good way. A friend of mine once lamented the loss of certain worlds the moment one becomes secular or God-denying. How one can no longer hear the language of the world sans cynicism or critique. It was not the loss of faith that bothered him, but the loss of a world. And for a few days a month, I inhabit that world, and am rather taken in by its completeness, much like I am taken in by the completeness of other worlds. Like family, and gated complexes, and offices, and colonies. But then, this is the problem with a world that promises to be complete. It isn't. And one has to leave.
Many theorists have claimed that the politics of certain spaces lie in their everydayness and their ability to defeat certain determined ways of knowing and knowledge. That in their very elusiveness, they stick it to institutional and hence rigid forms of being and knowing. In other words, the everyday world is full of subterfuge. This is an undeniably everyday world. You can touch, taste, feel, smoke, snort, and choke on it. If you plan it too much in advance, it will smother you in its elusiveness. And yet, one cannot get rid of the fear evoked by its un-knowability.
How does one perceive oneself in relation to one's environment, in this case, the city? A city that is a mentally specific entity, it is constructed through your forms of attention and inattention and as an object that affects and invades your psyche. The city makes you city-like. In Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel's seminal work from 1903, he speaks about this new phenomenon of modernity called the city as a deeply unsettling one.
Metropolitan life, indeed all of modern life, as many will testify is staged against the tedium of constant movement, routine life, and excessive stimuli. Some kind of weighted eight hundred pound gorilla. It is a contrary set of movements. On the one hand, one needs normalization. My bed, my toothbrush, my day, my night. And on the other, a burst of the extraordinary. It is a battle to feel, but not feel too much. A need to live in this familiar world, while rendering it both unnecessary and unfamiliar. A reason to be, and yet, a reason beyond self. A glance here, a song there, the notion that a predetermined destiny has made itself manifest. Lauren Berlant calls this a "situation", "a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amidst the usual activity of life." In Berlant's words, this is "a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, a sense of the emergence of something in the present that may become an event."
Flower stringers, boiling hot oil whirlers, tyre spinners, frame fixers, dice players, magazine readers, swift walkers, animal healers, many wanderers. The city is resplendent this evening. This evening, as I walk home on the footpath, bedraggled and work weary, from the opposite side there comes a three foot some inched little girl, bright green pinafore, red ribboned hair, resolutely planting one foot, then another in the middle of each ensuing cement square, so focused and so bright eyed. I pass her, then follow suit. Hopscotching home we go. Almost home.
Posted by Mathangi Krishnamurthy at 12:45 AM | Permalink