Khaali Lamhe

As a 23 year old ‘stranger’ in a still modernizing metropolis, I found myself more often nowadays in the midst of awkward silences. Silences which I do not even have a deep urge to bridge but well society demands it and so I find myself trying continuously to fill them, in the process many times embarrassing myself. But that was not always the case.

Talkativeness defined me in a sense when I was a kid. Talkativeness of a nature not very pleasant to everyone.  I was a failure at deciphering unwritten rules of humour (I still am) and was also a bad learner of staple sentences suiting specific contexts. And yet I got away by virtue of having being born only few years ago. And so the silences were filled then but with verbal utterances not always suitable.

As I grew up, consciousness of the importance of standards of approval became more and more clear. What to say where and how and in what tone became a necessity. And yet, I find myself unable to adhere to the norms. I m also not creative enough to significantly alter the rules of conversation in the spaces I negotiate. My consciousness did not incorporate in itself words that may come in handy for me. I remain an unskilled respondent and correspondent.

However, what disturbs me today is that the  regretful silence, which was earlier restricted to interactions with strangers or insignificant companions or classmates, is now creeping in between me and my parents and my loved ones. It is not uncommon nowadays for me to hold the phone standing silently waiting for mother or father to engage me by uttering something that interests me. They too realise it. Hence, my conversations with family are growing shorter and shorter in everyday circumstances.

Hope its just a phase and it will pass. Wish I never grew.

Book Review – Veena Das’s Life and Words.

“The common objectivations of everyday life are maintained primarily by linguistic signification. Everyday life is, above all, life with and by means of the language I share with my fellowmen. An understanding of language is thus essential for any understanding of the reality of everyday life”.  – Berger and Luckmann

The everyday is that which we share with others and live it on an everyday basis. It is that which is ‘normal’, often taken for granted. Birds chirping, the subtle flow of water in the river, the stillness of the lake by the village, the little movements of the leaves on the trees, the regular movement of the windmill, the train that passes nearby blowing its horn at its scheduled time, the pigs feeding on the garbage dump at the corner of the street, the cow grazing and pooping in the park, monkeys stealing ice creams, cats scratching electric poles, the child going to the school, the husband going to office, the wife well not going anywhere, passengers sweating in a crowded bus on a hot day, old men criticising the system in a coffee house, all these and other kinds of happenings that are so everyday that we lose sense of the fact that they are everyday is exactly what constitutes the everyday. Because we are afterall ‘ordinary’ individuals living life without even knowing why we do so hence we need anthropologists to tell us that. Or rather I should say to tell themselves as to why we live life without knowing why we do so because the anthropologists never really care to speak to us (unless of course their intellectual urge compels them to descend into reality and interact with lesser mortals). They are pretty happy arguing and jargonising among themselves, for themselves, by themselves. They speak for us because we are of course dumb. It is their intellectual burden, the anthropologist’s self imposed burden. Whether we really care about being spoken about is not something they dwell upon. So yes, enough of ordinary layman type idiotic incompetent scepticism of academics. Lets come to the point.

To put it simply, the everyday remains the everyday until it steps into the extraordinary and the spectacular or the utterly horrible. The extraordinary is not something that drops from the sky as a sign of god’s wrath. It is something that emerges from the everyday and eventually gets absorbed into the everyday while in the process transforming the everyday in ways that themselves become part of the everyday. The everyday has aspects of violence inherent in it. But the step into the extraordinary brings with it violence of the kind unimaginable in the everyday. Now how one deals with it is the question. There are precisely two path for individuals to follow. Either its your ascent into transcendence or your descent into the everyday. To explain this I would like to take as examples two great individuals – Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi.

Disillusioned by the bourgeoisie violence prevalent in capitalist society in the form of exploitation and the hardships faced by the workers in their everyday life, Karl Marx decided to ascent into transcendence. While himself living in abject poverty in London, his daily routine consisted being in the library from 9 in the morning till it closed in the evening at 7pm. This was followed by long hours of work at night accompanied by ceaseless smoking. This reminded me of a famous song from the Dev Anand starrer Hum Dono – “Main Zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya, Har fikr ko dhuen mein udata chala gaya, Gham aur khushi mein fark na mehsoos ho jahan, Main dil ko us makaam pe laata chala gaya”. Detaching himself from petty considerations of everyday existence, Marx decided to ascend into his own world of abstract simplistic dichotomies and called for a world revolution that would destroy the very system that produced him. Following him, students and scholars even today are found criticising the innumerable bourgeoisie conspiracies being hatched in the everyday while themselves smoking weed in various leftist hubs.

Coming to Gandhi, his initial understanding of the violence of the everyday was similar to a monkey’s understanding of the taste of ginger. Travelling in a first class compartment in South Africa, this then transcendental imperialist required a good dose of racial humiliation and violence for his descent into the everyday. The descent from thereon continued. No other leader in the world perhaps embraced the everyday like Gandhi did. Towards the later end of his life he was to comment ‘For men like me, you have to measure them not by the rare moment s of greatness in their lives, but by the amount of dust they collect on their feet in the course of life ‘s journey.’ His was a self conscious negation of the extraordinary, a strategic descent into the everyday for the purpose of creatively transforming it.

Both Marx and Gandhi were firstly ‘great’ and secondly ‘men’. However, the book I intend to talk about deals with firstly ‘ordinary’ and secondly ‘women’. To put it simply, the book is interested in the everyday negotiation of the everyday by the ordinary woman and not any extraordinary men. But before dwelling on the main idea conveyed of the book, a word on language is necessary.

Berger and Luckmann state that “Language provides me with a ready-made possibility for the ongoing objectification of my unfolding experience. Put differently, language is pliantly expansive so as to allow me to objectify a great variety of experiences coming my way in the course of my life. Language also typifies experiences, allowing me to subsume them under broad categories in terms of which they have meaning not only to myself but also to my fellowmen. As it typifies, it also anonymizes experiences, for the typified experience can, in principle, be duplicated by anyone falling into the category in question”. Language provides us with symbols which make our feelings and experiences available to others. It helps us make sense of the reality around us and makes conversation possible. The use of language is a game where one is constantly conscious of what is appropriate to say and what is ethical. However, language also has its limits. Ludwig Wittgenstein explains this by distinguishing between natural and invented language games. A good example of an invented language game is found in chess playing. By virtue of a clear boundary, the possibilities in a chess game can be predicted and symbolised with words. Real everyday life does not have such rigid boundaries and the potential possibilities in it are infinite. Hence language forever remains insufficient in explaining everything under the sun. A good look at how every year new words are added in the oxford English dictionary is testimony of this fact. No language of the everyday is ever ‘complete’.

Important here is Wittgenstein’s idea of Sociality or forms of life. ‘Wittgenstein takes language as a mark of human sociality – Human forms of life are defined by the fact that they are forms created by and for those who are in possession of language’ (Das, Veena. 1998). To put it simply, language explains only those forms of life which are ‘human’. So when the details of the 16 December Delhi Gang Rape came out, several people simply described the act as savage and inhuman. It wasn’t something that a ‘human’ could do. There is no word in our everyday language which can accurately explain that kind of an act. Hence the tags like savage, inhuman etc. This is not to say that humans don’t do violence. They do. But there are certain aesthetics that they adhere to. Kill a man stylishly by a gun and you are human, rip out a pregnant woman’s foetus during riots and you become a savage. These aesthetics are very much symbols of civility.

Veena das in her book aims precisely to unearth experiences and memories which language cannot adequately explain. It may be by virtue of incompleteness of the language or by virtue of the inhumanness of the act. She takes two extraordinary and critical events as her vantage point – The Partition of India and the Sikh riots of 1984. Both were events which shape our present in often unclear ways. What the writer is interested in is how people pick up their lives and how the effects of the extraordinary events manifest themselves in the everyday life of the survivors. The whole book is nothing but an explanation of this phenomenon, of the descent into the everyday of women who lived through those extraordinary times and survived to tell their story.

Clearly a feminist at heart, Veena das explains how women who were abducted during partition and settled down peacefully were forced by the state to return. Women were robbed of all agency. The book is full of examples and instances of the kinds of violence incurred on women’s bodies and souls and how they negotiated their way through the mess. But what is common through all instances is the idea of descent into the everyday. The women dont become other worldly creatures or enlightened souls who set in the search of paramount truth. They embrace the everyday once again and live with their extraordinary experiences saved within them. Those experiences, now memories, are often recalled or are refreshed through current events that bring back memories of the past. So in the recent Muzaffarnagar riots, the jats while attacking the muslim localities shouted ‘Pakistan or Kabristan’. It did not surprise anyone when a muslim man confessed to the visiting Prime Minister after riots in Muzaffarnagar that ‘it feels like partition’.

Veena das however focuses on the experiences of Sikhs during partition and 1984. Why she does not talk about muslims or of experiences of partition in Bengal is something left unexplained. It maybe because the writer has a history of working with the community she claims to speak for here.

The books gives some interesting insights as how extraordinary events effect people’s lives on an everyday basis. Referring to Manto, she shows how the utterance of the word ‘khol do’ comes on to gain a totally different meaning for a girl who has been raped. It shakes and enlightens one in equal measure as to how ordinary everyday words come to gain special significance and meaning in the lives of victims by virtue of encompassing within them the horrors of the past. As her interest is mainly in experiences that language cannot explain, Veena das gives a lot of time in explaining how those experiences find expression in non verbal gestures and in acts like mourning. The descent into the everyday often entails a renewed conformism to the very structures that victimised the women. Considering the writer is a feminist, the structure for her is almost always patriarchy and the masculine state.

The idea of descent into the everyday and the quest to unearth that which language cannot expose is commendable. But there are certain problems with the text too. Veena das seems to take the idea of the everyday for granted. She fails to distinguish between the everyday that merely exists and the everyday that is actually experienced. What is experienced may be a very small segment of what actually exists. Even in extraordinary situations, the gap between what all happened and what was actually known and experienced always exists. True her talk about on rumours during these events tends to bridge this gap a bit, but it is a question that she has not really dealt with closely. Also the everyday that is actually experienced is not a universal thing common to all. Everyday experiences of individuals vary considerably even in the same situation and context. The single biggest determinant here is caste. Caste shapes everyday experiences like no other institution in Indian society. But Veena Das adopts a caste blind approach which, in my opinion, is a rather suicidal move for a researcher dealing with the everyday in India. We all know how dalit women are raped and paraded naked on streets regularly in India. So what may be extraordinary for a high caste women might actually be an everyday thing for a lower caste woman. Veena das fails to explicitly state for WHOM were those events extraordinary and WHOSE everyday is she analysing. She tends to simplify the diversity among Sikhs by taking the common minimum criteria of religion. There is definitely a caste hierarchy within the Sikhs and Veena das fails to showcase how everyday experiences vary with caste and how the reconstruction of the self was different for different women from different caste groups.

Veena das writes ‘about’ the everyday but not ‘for’ the everyday. The book itself lacks the everydayness. Considering the book is mainly aimed at academics, the writer tends to assume that all her readers must be no less than encyclopedics. She gives innumerable references to scholars and their concepts without fully elaborating on them. While reading the book one feels like Veena Das is posing some kind of implicit challenge to the reader to try knowing more than what she already does. So lets take up the challenge. When Mahatma Gandhi had commented that ‘what distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity for non violence’ he was aiming to redefine the idea of human sociality. While Wittgenstein only talks about sociality, Gandhi lives it and transforms it. But Veena Das does not talk about Gandhi despite the fact that he shaped the everyday experience of millions during the times preceding partition. She is more interested in scholars whose writings hardly anyone reads (Tagore and Manto are limited exceptions) and who have no influence whatsoever on the everyday. Also a look at Gandhi’s activities during communal riots would reveal how the descent into the everyday that she is so interested in is something that was achieved on a mass scale through the efforts of Gandhi during the riots itself. His visits to riot prone areas brought peace almost instantly. When Gandhi was assassinated, communal riots stopped almost instantly and people came out in mourning collectively. But Veena das fails to highlight all this. She fails to recognise how an extraordinary event like assassination serves as a tool for descent into the everyday in 1948 and a similar event in 1984 actually disrupts the everyday. Incidently both Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi assassinations happened in Delhi but produced such contrasting results. Why was it so? How do the victims of those extraordinary events relate to the assassinations? What memories do they have of the times immediately following the assassination and how their lives changed due to them? Veena Das has no answers. For a scholar so obsessed with the idea of everyday violence, ignoring thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi, especially when dealing with events like partition, speaks a lot about her feminist biases and obsession with pretentious western scholarship. Also while taking stories from Rabindranath Tagore she fails to highlight that his stories were based in Bengal where the experiences of women need not have been totally similar. She brings in the book aspects like kinship structure among Punjabis and how it effected everyday reconstruction of lives by women. In that light, Bengali kinship is different and using Tagore can be problematic. Also she fails to question Manto and Tagore on the ground that they both were men and how well they understood the experiences of women is something that cannot be taken for granted, which Veena Das surprisingly does.

In the end it seems to me, the only purpose of writing this book was to incorporate Wittgenstein within anthropology. Veena Das just wants to show the reader how Wittgensteinean approach can be practically implemented. As for its use, the book doesn’t really serve any purpose apart from raising Veena Das’ own stature in the hierarchy of academics. She has put in so many pretentions that it will really be a tough task for other academics to outdo her. Just like a game of language is played in everyday life by ordinary individuals, a game of pretentions is played in the academic field. Veena das clearly emerges out victorious with flying. Wittgenstein emerges as an intellectual Godfather for Veena Das here. She hardly problematises any of his concepts. As if Wittgenstein can just say no wrong. The book smells of orientalism in a lot of places. But nevertheless, the book does mark a departure in anthropological studies. So yes, our heartfelt congratulations to Veena Das, Wittgenstein and the great colonial discipline of Anthropology.

I am the Street

Ever since this creature named Man set foot on this earth, he has been creating nuisance. What an egoistic creature he is. Thinks himself to be superior to all others. Although I must say that claim is not without some merit. He could walk on two legs and had a small brain that dreamt big. However, not much is to be said about him in his early days. He roamed around like here and there trying to make sense of the world around him. Then one day, he discovered that thing called the wheel. Oh yes, the wheel. And the rest as they say is history.

I am the street. I am in a sense a creation of man. Of course there are those muddy and grassy lanes naturally formed in forests and plains through passage of water during rains or through animals following fixed paths or whatever. But I am not that. Those are for animals. I am damn superior, just like man. I am for the civilised. I am where man rides his animal drivel and now engine driven vehicles. And yes, I am a social construct. As human society evolved, so did I. Unlike those natural lanes in forests. I am a product of this thing called the science, which the mischievous mind of man developed to control nature. I have walked over the graves of thousands of trees cut down to accommodate me. Poor creatures, I sympathise with them. They were sacrificed for me by man. But hey I am after all the street. I am more important to him than those Oxygen giving static creatures. I am the one who facilitates movement. I am the one that ensures that the pizza reaches his doorstep. Oxygen is no match to me. I am the path man takes to reach his destination. At present he seems to be heading towards his own destruction. But anyway. Let’s begin from the beginning.

Unlike man, I had no means of writing my own history. History was written ‘on me’ rather than ‘by me’. Oh of course it was ‘written’ in study rooms and libraries but you know what I mean. From the history written by men, I hear that my ancestors were there in the Indus valley civilisation. Oh what a gala time they had. The drains were in place. The cleanliness of the WC toilets of the time had the potential to make the Indian Parliament look filthy. My ancestors were laid out in a manner that winds removed the dirt off them while they blew. Oh what a pleasure it would have been for them. Being cleaned by fast flowing chilly winds touching you at all the right places from all the right angles. Unlike us, who have to bare the wrath of scratchy brooms every morning. I hate these brooms. They hurt. The atmosphere nowadays is pregnant with praise for this man named Kejriwal who came to rewrite history ‘on me’ but chose that hateful broom as his symbol. And you know, he claims to make Indian Parliament as clean as the Harappan WC toilets. Hmm. I don’t know about the cool winds in Harappa, but I have been experiencing that hot anti congress wave which I had first encountered in the 70s. It makes me nostalgic.

Talking about Harappa, it suddenly disappeared! No one knows how. My ancestors were gone. And expectedly, I hardly have any resemblance with them. I am anything but planned. My cousins in Chandigarh and Lutyen’s Delhi are lucky. They were laid out by foreigners. But I wasn’t that lucky. I was laid out by Indians. I don’t know what has happened to them. They lost all sense of aesthetics and cleanliness somewhere in the post Harappan phase. They lay me down according to convenience and mix cheap materials which have caused to me several fractures. But I am not a cry baby. I would like to divert your attention to that man called the Shudra. Or is he the Ati Shudra? Whatever. His sorrows are greater than mine. He has been serving me since the last thousand years or so for some reason beyond my comprehension. Only he does it. He cleans me every morning and prevents the drains from overflowing on me. He lives on me, wears my stink and embraces my dirt. In chilly winters he shivers. In hot summers he sweats. I have seen him cry when his children die. I have seen his wife sulk after being raped. It happens quite regularly. Don’t know why but people don’t come out in protest when this happens. His shadow is said to be polluting. Probably because he cleans filth. But what about those who create that filth? I hate them. They are the most polluting I tell you. The shadow of the Shudra never pollutes me. The dirtiness of the others does. It’s a collective thing. All are polluting. Where did this ati shudra come from? He wasn’t there in the Indus Valley I am told. I think he was sent by god to compensate for the drop in standards of cleanliness of Indians. Boy what a hard worker he is. If only, I wish, he got rewards proportionate to the amount of work he does.

Talking of people coming out in protest, I still remember that man called Gandhi. Boy what a following he had. I m told when he walked, he shook up empires so huge that the sun never set in them. The enthusiasm he generated is compared by my Brazilian friends to the carnival in Rio. History is ripe with such instances of mass participation of men and I have been witness to all of them. I have seen Buddha, Kabir, Mira Bai and several other reformers go about their business of developing cults. I have heard the trumpets blow when Ashok returned from his victories. I have seen fakirs sing songs in the praise of god. I have seen Mosques getting shattered, I have seen the Taj Mahal getting built. I am there when man burns crackers in diwali. I am there when he plays with colour on holi. Everyone loves to give me a new meaning. I have been given the tag of a public space and been recognised as the site of play of urban blasé attitudes. I am laden with cues by those who construct me. Left to be deciphered by those who travel. The buildings on my side, which grow taller and taller day by day, constitute the private sphere. Man makes love there. I don’t know why, but he still chooses to fight outside, on my chest.

Before going, a word for the second sex. She was barred from entering the public space I offer. Don’t know why. Man is crazy I tell u. He ignored women when he wrote history. As if they didn’t matter. But I have seen it all. I have witnessed atrocities that fell on them when their men lost in battle. I have heard the cries of women beaten up in their homes. I have seen them burning as Sati and jumping in wells as jauhar. I even witnessed Nirbhaya lying on that street injured with her friend while men whizzed past in their vehicles as if they didn’t care. I have seen it all. But I have also seen women reclaiming the night and it gives me hope. I long for the female gaze. I am sick of being a male dominant space. I see queer groups marching in pride. I see liberation. I see change.

I am named after great men so as to serve as a reminder of their once upon a time existence. Or is it to honour those men? I don’t know. It’s rather an honour for me to have their names. So yes. I am the space where man chooses to express his anger. I am where he gets to learn the unwritten rules of social life. I am the one where he wanders in loneliness. I am the arena of artistic expression. I am the site of revolutions. I am home to those who don’t find acceptance in society. I am the stage where the societal drama plays out. I am the space of dramaturgy. I am the first eye witness of crimes. I am the silent spectator of change. I am the facilitator of societal flow and exchange. I am also the space where filmy heroes dance. I am where everyone loves to get their trumpet blown. I am the property of everyone and none. I am a symbol of civilisation. I am the street.