October 01, 2020
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In Search Of Lost Time

Metropolitan modernity is on a self-destructive overdrive. And the only way to prevent it from hurtling down the path of death is to liberate its repressed unconscious -- the small town.

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In Search Of Lost Time
Photographs: AP
In Search Of Lost Time

Baudelaire called Paris a whore. But this whore--with her murky underbelly and seamy backalleys--was a woman the poet was madly in love with. He celebrated her squalor and stench, setting sail on a voyage of verse that made him dig into language to extract that quintessential experience in which commonplace urban decadence is transformed into sublime poetics of concrete, steel and black smoke-spewing chimneys.

Baudelaire was an insane butterfly, hovering over flowers of evil, desperate for a sip of their bitter nectar. For him, modernity was an ongoing dialogue between the banal and the profound. And this profundity lay beyond the boundaries of good and evil.

More than a century has gone by after Baudelaire's last sigh, but his unfinished quest for all that our modern and virtuous metropolitan soul continually represses is crying out to be begun afresh. And our times--steeped in the sin of the neon-lit global supermarket and haunted by spectres of authoritarian pogroms--await their redemption in the poet's 130-year-old philosophy of evil.

The self-righteous grimace with which history has fixed us--its godforsaken fellow-travellers--is the seed from which sprouts the herb of uneasy cynicism, manifest in the affected laughter of the homogeneous metropolis with its global soul. That, then, is what fascism is today. No more thumping of jackboots, the noise of menacing laughter of the metropolis--concealed in platitudes emanating from the Hindutva- free-market alliance--rises above the diffident whispers of variegated provinciality, rendering them inaudible.

The only resistance, in such circumstances, can begin by resurrecting Baudelaire's undead vision of evil and dredging out the tabooed province, the anathematised small town, from the silent crypts of evil where they lie as captives--policed by the cherubs and seraphims of metropolis's angelic hierarchy.

But where is this small town with its rejuvenating vigour? Is it one of the many small north Indian  kasbas with their huge, shady trees? Or is it the green countryside-like setting of Calcutta suburbs? Is it the Kerala backwaters by any chance? Surprisingly, it's none of these, though it could be constructed by borrowing a few elements from all. This small town, in fact, is not a geographical entity at all. It is, to begin with, a new politics. It's the impulse of resistance against the unstoppable, rolling Juggernaut of metropolitan uniformity. It's also a new poetics that subverts and opens up the closed universe of metropolitan discourse and pits the irrational joy of flux, chance and festival against the 'rational' and oppressive ordering of the big city.

This Bacchanalia, in other words, is what small-town politics is all about. It dissolves individual egos, not into a totalitarian superego known as the metropolis, but into a sea of collective experience and thus releases humanity, in an almost orgasmic ecstasy, from the fascist grip of self-contained monologues, sanitised expressions and constructed desires. Henry Miller wrote in Sexus: "We must die as egos and be born again in the swarm, not separate and self-hypnotized, but individual and related." The recovery of the small town then is also about putting an end to such sad deaths and pathetic births.

The revolutionary power of the small town, therefore, lies in tearing asunder the well-crafted, monotheistic ideology of the metropolis with the global free market as its only god and the World Wide Web its only guarantor of collective experience.

But how does this quest begin--the quest for the exile's lost home? For, this lost home is nowhere and everywhere. Undoubtedly, it's an exile's mission. And don't we all suffer this banishment, carrying it like a cross? It's an exile in time and even the 80-year-old granddad, who hasn't budged an inch from his home ever in his life, is its victim.

The exploration of the small town is, thus, a Proustian endeavour in that it is a search for lost time. For, small towns, thanks to the concerted bulldozing carried out by the spin doctors of our modern-day knowledge societies, have ceased to be physical spaces. A provincial town like Allahabad, for instance, has sacrificed its greenery, its broad streets and its collective quietude to the razzmatazz of hoardings, fast food restaurants and 100cc Japanese motorbikes, where the only celebration is that of the fragmented individual. A being alienated from the collectivities (addas  to be precise) nurtured in parks and coffee houses and the odd roadside restaurant.

A beginning can be made by reclaiming moments that slipped through our fingers as we inhaled the opiating smoke of free market. These are moments we hid in the dark recesses of our bodies and consciousness as we, inebriated by the ideology of globalism, sought and pursued the homogeneous and rational metropolis--held out before us like a paradise.

The small town, therefore, is above all else a dynamic, a motion, an urban becoming as opposed to the defined and fixed being called the metropolis. And by virtue of being a ceaseless movement the small town is a democratising impulse. Like the discursive and leisurely tale of a kothok or  kissa-goi which constantly militates against the rational language of the fast-paced, racy and linear narrative of television images.

These small-town moments are, however, at present layers buried under other preponderant layers which constitute the palimpsest called the human body. The small town is actually the invisible body. Each one of us carries this invisible and untamed body with us. To search for these collective, almost genetic, experiences inscribed in our bodies, and also concealed by them, is the beginning of the new politics and poetics we have been talking about.

This poetics is crucial. For, only this can open the political domain where the suspended dialogue between the provincial and the metropolitan can once again resume. Sans this dialectic, the metropolis will remain an expression of one-dimensional modernity--where our vision, palate, hearing and touch are not just sites of the fascist danse-macabre but also willing agencies of this self-destructive tango. Only when this new political domain is opened up, in the way we eat, live, love and sleep, would we have begun rescuing the small town from the bottomless vortex of history.

But this rescue mission is to be mounted with great circumspection. One wrong step and it's easily confused with nostalgia. The recovery of the small town is no romantic sojourn into the past. Neither is it about obtaining to a pristine state of noble-savagery. Nostalgia, in fact, is inimical to the politics of small town. It is a confounding smokescreen created by the metropolis.To be precise, it's metropolitan modernity's neurosis.

Nostalgia is what drives the Hindutva brigade's project of reviving the Ram Rajya. Its politics is premised on the idea of vertical mobility so integral to notions of metropolitan modernity.

In the metropolis' scheme of things all other conceptions of mobility, in space as well as in time--horizontal, cyclical or no mobility at all--are primitive myths. Only vertical mobility-- progress, evolution etc--is 'rational' and 'scientific'. In this kind of motion one has to constantly outgrow (read reject) one's past to keep moving into the future. This precluding of all other notions of mobility as also the idea of rejection (or is it repression?) inherent in the 'rational' conception of progress makes it a closed and negative experience.

Closing the world, however, doesn't eliminate the other experiences and yearnings. The forced, almost repressive, rupture of the cultural self brought about by the metropolitan imagining of the modern, of course under the tutelage of the free market, gives rise to the politics characteristic of the RSS. So, the only way the fragmented and alienated megalopolis can bridge this cultural breach with its Other (actually a part of its own self) is by creating agencies like the BJP and the Sangh which delve deep into the past to recover the Ram Rajya by demolishing mosques and killing minorities (their supposed Other).

It's not without reason that the entire Babri Masjid movement, including L.K. Advani's rath yatra, became a television spectacle and the leaders of the movement stars who towered heads and shoulders above the 'hoi-polloi'.

The star principle, as philosopher Theodor Adorno has rightly observed, is totalitarian. Therefore, in an age when TV is the principal delivery vehicle, disseminating the ideological glue that will stick diverse experiences and cultures together into a homogeneous collage called modernity, individual charisma is hot property and becomes the dominant mode of conducting and understanding politics.

The dialogic and heterogeneous mode is pushed aside into the dank side-alleys of disfavour. The politician-star, the charisma-exuding demagogue hitting out at the Other, become the torchbearers of metropolitan politics.

Our politics of small-town, on the other hand, is a positive and inclusivist enterprise. Our small town is not a long-lost historical impulse alien to our experience which we need conquer. It's actually a mish-mash of experiences carried in our bodies which the global metropolis has forced them to forget. It's a collective and an almost biological search, unlike the politics of nostalgia which gropes around for lost homes in the alien and abstract wastes of history and the Other.

But what exactly is this collectivity of experience? This politics of the small town which is waiting to be rediscovered? First and foremost, it's the fantastic and leisurely yarns of daastan and kissas with the hearth at its centre. Lazy afternoon knitting and sewing of mothers and aunts surrounded by a gaggle of children listening with rapt attention to tales that never end and go on from one to the other. It's also about the experience of listening to similar stories flowing out of the radio at dinner-time in collective silence. Or the polyphony and chaotic flow of words inside coffee houses.

These discourses, because of their discursive character, could never be doomed to closure and were thus always open, ongoing and poetic. They had the potential of transforming the empirical and the quotidian into experiences which made the 'rational' discourse only one of the many ways in which life could be interpreted and spoken about. All that has been forgotten in the purposive and sensible chatter of the metropolis.

Very much like the flaneur. The individual who would melt into the crowd and amble or slowly cycle down streets and lanes, through markets and bazaars, and perceive everything in that state of leisurely motion. There was no yearning for immediate positive knowledge that our metropolis, floating on an ocean of information, pretends to provide. In the by-lanes of its supposedly anonymous Internet.

Recovering the small town, therefore, would mean ending the reign of the metropolis peopled by individuals. It would imply a new connectivity. Not the connectivity exemplified by the individual and his fragmented gaze captured by the image of the television star. But the connectivity of listening to stories and also telling them at the same time. The point essentially is to persuade the purposive, rational and closed metropolis to enter into a dialogue with the discursive, 'aimless' and always-open small town.

But it's not just the television. Long before the cable TV arrived and emptied leisure of all its collective potential, the headmaster with his cane always awaited the dreamy and unruly flaneur. His mission: to discipline the idle day-dreamer into (some)body with a reasonable purpose in life.

The metropolis is only the absolute perfection that this disciplining has achieved. Today, discipline is no longer the cane looming large outside leisure, it has wormed its way into the very heart of play and enjoyment.

Instead of picnics, in one of the innumerable wildernesses or gardens which dot north Indian cities, recreation and holidaying today is about resorts where everything is planned and pre-determined with no room for collective improvisation and chance. And this mathematical precision of metropolitan leisure can often assume disturbing proportions. Seats in the PVR cinema halls have grooves which can fit in cola glasses and popcorn packets available only within the auditorium complex.

So play and leisure, the last flanks of small town's resistance against the homogeneous and homogenising metropolis, have, it seems, also been outflanked and made to cede ground.

The small town has become a metaphor for subalternness. It's a sign that has been repressed by the metropolitan discourse and the only proof of its existence today is in its absence. Recovery of the small town, therefore, means making this hidden and muted metaphor visible and heard, so that it impacts the given totalitarian order of the metropolis with full subversive force.

Only then, surprisingly enough, will modernity and its metropolis survive. Civilisation, one believes, is suffering from karoshi--a disease among Japanese workaholics overworking themselves to death. The provincial impulse has to be liberated if modernity--as the bearer of the post-Enlightenment tradition--is to really live.

To do so now is to lie still and try and feel the twitching of those sinews which have the irrepressible flaneur, the truant-playing schoolboy, the irreverent and rebellious college student, and the reluctant office-goer written all over them. But even that will not be enough. One will also have to look for ways by which one can plug one's ears to the metropolitan siren-songs of productiveness and 'rationality' in order to begin a dialogue with thousands of stragglers who lie without a care in the world, on patches of green which surround the hundreds of forgotten and decrepit monuments in our cities.

A short poem by Hiranand Sacchidanand Vatsayan Agayey reads:

jo pul banaayeNge,
itihaas meiN vo baNdar kahlaayeNge
senayeN ho jaayeNgi paar,
maare jaayeNge raavan, vijayii hoNge ram.
jo pul banaayeNge,
itihaas meiN vo baNdar kahalaayeNge

(History will always remember those who build bridges as monkeys. Even though armies cross over, Ravans are killed and Rams are victorious).

Modernity's history is fast approaching a dark abyss and these bridge-builders are its only hope. It should stop calling them monkeys and recognise them for what they are.

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