26 June 2013

the tombs of forgotten kings

    Privacy and affection, separately or together, never come cheap in the crowded city. Public displays of affection are not necessarily encouraged in Delhi, and only the well-to-do can afford the luxury of seclusion in love. Rooftop apartments with independent entrances in family-owned town houses, love nests in hotels, the back seats of capacious SUVs, weekend getaways in hill stations and guest-houses, or keys to the flats of pliant friends are conveniences that few can access. And those who can also go to clubs, bars, and parties where public displays of affection do not lead to instant assault. The public that displays its affections to its own charmed circle finds ways to do so behind high walls, high cover charges and high gates with vigilant watchmen in attendance.
   This public does not carve love letters on the tombs of forgotten kings. They do not tarry at the milk booth to catch someone's eye, or make small talk across rooftops in a squatter settlement while hanging out clothes to dry. They do not take long rides on the afternoon bus that takes them nowhere close to where they live, work, or study, where the space of the bus ride is also the only time in which to have a conversation, uninterrupted, veiled by an invisible film of brace indifference that guards against the mocking stares of co-passengers.
   The abandoned cenotaph, the river-front walkway, the downtown underpass, the ruined urban fortress, the crowded or empty bus, the broken-down playground, the shade of a generous tree, the derelict back street of a commercial complex, the corner seat in the cinema that only shows B movies, the street corner snack stall, the park bench, the dank corridors of public toilets, and the steps of a public library. These spaces, rife with presence, riddles with curious gazes, and awash with the traffic of millions of human beings, become theatres of urban intimacy for millions of people in cities like Delhi. Here, public and private life become contagious, contiguous, continuous facets of the same messy reality. Public architecture and the accidents of urban planning yield themselves to the steadfast pressure of private life.

   People fall in love, have sex, are born, defecate, cook, eat, sleep, work, play, read, sing, dance, pray, curse, quarrel, fight, riot, go mad, get possessed, enter trance states, cry, laugh, fall sick, get drunk, get arrested, get shot, get run over, and die on the street. The street is heaven and hell, factory and prison, morgue and nursery, market and office, boutique and salon, club and bar, library and university, high court and parliament, shrine and brothel, school and playground. The street is the city, the world, the bed you take your lover to. The street is the epic that people narrate their life into. The street is cruel and generous and indifferent and curious and concerned and hostile. The street is the hyphen that conjoins every public stance to every private longing. The street redeems every privation, hears every prayer, and kicks every dream into the gutter. It should come as no surprise then that often the most intensely emotional, even melodramatic moments in Hindi cinema are precisely those that get to be staged on the street. Here, in full public view, the most intense desires, the most painful humiliations, the darkest anger, the greatest joy, the strongest love, and the most profound loneliness find their fullest expression. The street is where the public act and the private motive get to know each other.
   A phone tap of a conversation on a crowded Delhi street between a Kashmiri lecturer in Arabic at Delhi University and his stepbrother in Kashmir about why his wife is not going back to her maternal home for a few days becomes evidence in a terrorism show-trial and the cornerstone of proof of a so-called conspiracy to attack the Indian parliament that prompts the largest military mobilization since the second world war. Its words, which point to banal domestic issues, are twisted and mistranslated to mean justifications of a terrorist attack. A very private conversation gets construed, retrospectively, as a very public statement.
   A call centre worker in India, when catering to North American customers, is often expected to take on a different "private identity." Sunita becomes Susan, her places of work and residence glide over time zones. The weather report on her computer tells her of the climate in another part of the world, which she makes her own as she slips into a different accent to deal with her client. In the course of her conversation, she invokes her client's credit history, purchase decisions, and other private information.
   The shift between one private identity and another and negotiating the contours of an "other's" (the client's) private life is the ground on which her public persona as a worker in the service sector of the global new economy is constructed.

Raqs Media Collective, Public Privations (found in Public 39: 2009)