WeaRIng SenSIble Shoes

What are you wearing? It doesn’t matter.

Where are you going then? It doesn’t matter.

But what you’re wearing would depend on where you’re going.

It doesn’t matter!

But how are you going?

I’m going to walk it.

Then shouldn’t you wear something appropriate?

It doesn’t matter.

Your shoes might matter.

It doesn’t matter.

You might trip.

It doesn’t matter.

What if you fall, face first?

shrugs

What if you fall on your butt and you have a patch of dirt on your behind the entire time?

Then I have a patch of dirt on my behind the whole time.

People will stare. People will laugh. What if a cute guy walks by?

Then we’ll laugh together.

You might fall.

It doesn’t matter. It’s not an obstacle race.

I walked down the road, earphones in ears, bag on back,shoes on feet. I fell. Dirt on butt. Cute guy walks past. No one laughed. Someone smirked. Everyone stared.

I changed into sensible shoes, I walked on the pavement, I turned the volume down for traffic on pavement. The first clump of men stood resolutely still. I walked toward them, hoping they’d move. They stood and watched me walk toward them. I got closer.  They kept looking. One look at my shoes. Others elsewhere on my person. I reached where they stood. They got a closer look. I stepped onto the pavement and navigated around them. They resumed chatting, stray eyes fixed on my back.

I took off the earphones and kept them in my bag as I crossed the road to avoid second clump of men. One man loitered around on this side of the road. I walked toward him. He walked a little closer and stood still. I kept walking. He stood and watched as if admiring the way my pants clung fittingly to my legs. He stood mesmerised as I walked closer. He stood in front of me and then stared after me, finding my eyes staring back. He stared unblinkingly as I walked past.

I lowered bag on back and continued walking. Shoes held on tight and firm. I got to my destination, did what I had to do and walked back home. Quick trip. Barely warranted a change of shoes. But they were on and they were pink along the sides. I walked back and got stuck behind a dusty group of men. I wondered what their original hair colour was, they all sported the dusty white of cement. One turned around, then the rest. They looked, sniggered and stopped. I tried navigating around them and they walked faster. This continued for a while, till I crossed the road again.

I walked faster, bag on back, bag in hand, dust in eyes. Man on bike slows down beside me, I walk faster, he rides faster. I slow down. He rides past me,head turned completely. I marvelled at his flexibility. I fall butt first. Man rides away. Cute guy walks past. Shoes get dirty, but stay on. I walk back and don’t see more or hear anything else.

 

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tHE MidNIGHt ParASites-protest diaries

Yes, I went for the walk again. No compulsion,I simply love how the same sights form new meanings in the cover of the dark…and sometimes in the abandon of the rosiness of the sun. I find the dark comforting when most people find it frightening and discomforting. But then again, while walking in a dimly lit street, I feel more exposed than when in the light. Darkness has a wonderful duality that should never find resolution. So, I went to ESI again, now leaving a setting sun behind. I cannot see the drains today, I can really only smell it. The odour already turns the blackness into the green murkiness and charcoal grey slime in my mind. We walk silently, a lot more quiet than usual, the night sometimes forces the quiet upon you, sometimes even forces the orange of the streetlight upon you. We walk in longer shadows with tiny torches. Again the monstrosity of progress, even more terrifying with its glaring lights in the dark. Again, the worker’s schedules. Again the children’s park, now more crowded with the old exercising on what masqueraded as bright yellow toy gymnasium. Again, Gandhi and Ambedkar. Again the vacant protest at Town Hall. The garbage dump cleansed by the idol and the pot plants for company, now looked bored and abandoned, maybe by virtue of occupying a dump the idol and become an outcaste? Did the gods have a caste system? The water in the plants had turned murky grey and had a Good Day wrapper in it. We ended with Swachh Bharat outside Gandhi Park this time around. Hey, this nation can never get more of this guy can it?

The post walk discussion was less than lively and the Srinidhi coffees did only so much to cough up some comments. It was however becoming more apparent that every group needed its information. Who are these powrakarmikas? Who pays them? What do they do? Where does the garbage end up? How much do they get paid? Can they be replaced by machines? What can we do about lost employment? What are other organisations doing? Wet waste/dry waste, what waste is okay waste? There were no real ‘what do we do’ questions here, but a more generic ‘are there things that can be done?’ Maraa offers an overarching explanation of intent while still disengaging from the conversation of intent. They do say they designed the walk around consumption instead of directly looking at waste disposal. I however thought, the walk was around the powrakarmika, the people soaked neck-deep in our waste. Consumption really never comes up except for the Klee painting description on the skywalk(which is probably why I think that is the most momentous part of the walk) and when they mention it during discussions. And then there’s the bit about not really intending to come up with solutions and leaving every walk at the ‘I don’t know’ phase. After the first walk, yes it disturbed me through the night, it occupied a space in my mind and did what they intended for it to do. It left me unsettled. After the second and third one however, somehow the ‘I don’t know’ or the not finding solutions but creating questions in my mind actually diluted the issue at hand. While the form had developed and I could now see what they meant by having walks as a creative practise, I felt like the issue had divorced itself for the lack of resolution or maybe a failure of consummation(solid ground for divorce anywhere).

Two resounding epiphanies during the walk. I usually find at most maria events, the same faces, the same clothes, the same rum and cokes, the same Marlboros, the same reading lists, the same eccentricities. Same is unfair, I’d replace that with similar. The walks however produced different ones each time, the first in particular I quite enjoyed with a healthy mix of the old and the young at the very least. The energy kept changing, making every walk different, which is why I could always experience a sense of novelty with each one. I felt like a different person myself during each walk. This then, is definitely a form they should not let go off. It doesn’t fit well with the already created niche of walks in the city, so it still has room for all kinds of meanings and faces to fit within its slowly evolving definition.

The second, I really need to probe more into because I absolutely love it. Someone during the discussion after the last walks said something incredibly insightful, “ I don’t want to be a part of the garbage truck.” Why do I find that amazing? While talking about consumption taking precedence over the generation of waste itself, it seems to me that for my presence to be felt as an active/contributing member of the economy, I cannot just buy the bar of chocolate, I must also throw away the wrapper. I don’t know if this makes sense. The garbage truck has proof of my existence, the clogged drains, the open sewers all had a part of me, all part of my creation. It occurred to me that my throwing away the wrapper was more important than my having bought the wrapper. This must sound altogether confusing, which is why I need to read more and spend more time on this. But being part of the garbage truck has now taken new meaning.

i SmeLL diSSenT- protest diaries

I find walking mostly functional. I have to get from point A to point B and there’s nothing else on my mind but reaching my destination as fast as I can. I walk fast. I wear sensible shoes, carry a large bottle of water and am not amused by sight or sound that could distract me when I am trying to reach my destination. I find it amusing then when people walk for recreation. I cannot even take a walk in a park and I simply abhor those guided tours that you take while sight-seeing(such an odd phrase). But walks are quite the trend today and I really do mean trend. Everyday for the past few weeks  I open the newspaper to see walks organised for different purposes. Heritage walks, cultural walks, fictional walks…where in this crowded city do these odd group of strangers meet to walk? When maraa, a media and arts collective in Bangalore that I work with on and off initially suggested a walk as a creative practice, I simply did not understand them. The first walk we took was an olfactory walk. An Olfactory Walk around garbage dumps and sewage lines and manholes for about a couple of hours, punctuated with some storytelling and informative bytes. The walk was as odd as it sounded and the first time around beside the all-pervasive odour that kept the small group of us company throughout the walk, i’d stick to unusual as the better adjective and informative if i were being technical. I still hadn’t wrapped my head around these walks with interruptions.

The second walk was last Sunday. The theme of the walk remained the same and our best guide was still odour. This time around both form and effect created a complete picture of how a guided walk can be creative, so I will spend time explaining it in entirety. The collective itself works to explore different issues within the city of Bangalore primarily and with that in mind, the theme of waste disposal, management and the worker was rooted in the practises of the city. The obsession with this issue began with a series of deaths ;of workers dying due to asphyxiation in manholes. Subsequently someone from the collective joined a protest that took place at Town Hall regarding the issue of the garbage workers in the city and found to her surprise and disappointment that the protest was little more than a handful of people with placards sitting in the blazing sun for a few hours to disperse just as hopelessly a while later. A lot of projects that Maraa takes up and makes their own, rise from similar dead spaces. The stillness in the air at protests in Bangalore and slogans that never seem to reach a crescendo before it falls, is one of this spaces they have tried shaking awake with music,theatre,storytelling and now walks.

A motley group gathered on a Sunday evening, reserved by most Bangaloreans for blissful nothings and filter coffee to voluntarily breathe in the putrid air of remains. We walked in pairs, along a long drain pipe, white hosues, a small open garbage dump,a children’s park, littered sidewalks, white houses, children playing on the road and more parks, white houses and trees that seemed to want to touch the grounds instead of towering above. We walked through quiet residential lanes and sparse traffic, past a bakery with glistening chocolate treats and past organic gift shops. We walked till the roads grew wider, the houses became retail stores and the monopoly of the bikes on quiet lanes gave way to an incoming storm of roaring,whirring,huffing and puffing vehicles. We went up to a skyway that I always thought the city had forgotten about and stared for a while at this storm. “The storm of progress,” they said in orchestrated harmony behind us. The creative was now seeping into what was simply a walk until that point. The performative element seemed like an initiation into something we had willingly entered a while ago but had just then become reality. I wondered what a bird must feel like watching the city from above. Did the bird find it odd that the creatures on two legs thought it was life that the whizzing vehicles and the bustling stores represented; colour was the colour of denims,the leather, the canvas, plumped lips and widened eyes. We stopped and watched what we called life, standing above it and looking down at it now in its form of metal,plastic,tar and concrete.

The walk continued. It felt like for once, the life was not outside of me. We were leaving the noise behind once more. I don’t remember where we stopped next and for what, but the pauses were more close together and the punctuations were more varied. We stopped at an open drain line beside another children’s park, as our guides for the day-odour and human- put up pieces of paper that overlooked the drain. We read about an old man, a drunk, his life neck-deep in the murk we flush down everyday. We read about a woman, she fed her family with hands that sorted through what we clamped tightly shut and covered in opaque black bags thrown out of sight every morning.

There’s a children’s story about elves that came at night to cobble shoes for a shoemaker. He never saw them, but the work would be done every morning. Patches of material turned into beautifully designed footwear. The smelly garbage dump or the overflow of a sewer line forces you to acknowledge it in all its ugliness, its presence activates all senses and pervades all thoughts. I wonder why a garbage dump cleared out, or the roads cleaned every morning or the black bag outside my gate that goes missing every morning doesn’t occupy any space in my mind then. The shoes were made, did it matter if it was magic or little elves that toiled all night long? And I am not talking about any kind of labour, it’s hours,days,years of ones life spent in toxic remains of creatures with an intellectual faculty. It should be inconceivable that human hands touch these remains, yet we seem to have designed and perpetuated a system where an entire community does nothing else by virtue of birth alone.

We stopped by another garbage dump near in a narrow lane that couldn’t make sense of a sudden group of people. We listened to a masterful ideology given license to by someone we still regard as the greatest Indian. “The Bhangi’s service is like that of our mothers, but we never

call them untouchables. Far from it, the mother is revered as a Goddess worth remembering during

our morning prayers. The Bhangi therefore is a true servant of society—with the only difference that he works for earning his bread, while the mother does it in a beneficent spirit. The mother serves the child with love and she gets love in return. But salary is the return the sweeper gets for his service. Just as we cannot live without mothers, so can we not live without sweepers.

Another bit of treasure from the Prime Minister and whose brain child the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is,

I do not believe that they (Valmiki’s) have been doing this job (cleaning) just to sustain their

livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after

gene-ration…. At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their

duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job

bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is

impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or

business”.

It is terrifying to know we still draw inspiration from a man dead and long gone and another who is to lead our country to a better and brighter future. In Stalin K’s documentary on manual scavengers he juxtaposes scenes of dry latrines in villages being cleaned up by Bhangis to officials claiming that the ban on manual scavenging has ensured that there are no more manual scavengers. The documentary film, Lesser Humans- an apt title, considering we have no records of humans still continuing this practise, so they must be lesser humans- along with several other films, reports and documents compiled by private organisations show extensive proof of this practise in existence, while there is still supposedly no governmental records of this. Who then are those men who died in manholes, who is that man you see lowering himself into one to unclog your faeces and excrements from last morning?

I found my mind running from mundane things like finding a rhythm to the sound my shoes made on gravel to the colour of my red nails against my skin to the brown of hot sweet tea swirling in a red cup. When I caught my mind running haywire, I wondered again if it was possible to keep the mind wandering when the walk should be keeping my mind on garbage and those green uniformed bodies that incidentally I still did not spot once during the walk. Perhaps they were to remain invisible. Punctuations then are those pauses that keep the words from becoming a ramble. We stopped and sat under a tree. We were told that it was the site of the main garbage dump of the city. A tourist guide often triumphantly proclaims the main attraction of a place, this large open garbage dump was the equivalent then.

Chimamanda Adichie says that when she’s writing fiction,she feels free. You are still bound to truth when you are writing telling a story, but you aren’t bound to facts. And the truth often becomes a telling tale when it captures the imagination. We couldn’t sit under a tree and not listen to a story. So we listened to one, and this for me was the most momentous part of the walk. There was an alarming quiet in the story that was unsettling in its telling, with imagery that compelled colours and shapes and in this case, odour, to take form in the mind. A story about a land that seemed so far far away and yet within the realms of this city, where a glass of water not contaminated or a breath of air that didn’t breathe in every toffee wrapper,banana peel,gnawed chicken bones,rotting vegetable,used syringes,diapers, sanitary napkins,used condoms from every household in this city, were heard to come by. There’s a quote by Zizek that maraa shared at some point of time that comes to mind, “In our most elementary experience, when we flush the toilet, excrements simply disappear out of our reality into another space, which we phenomenon logically perceive as a kind of a netherworld, another reality, a chaotic, primordial reality. And the ultimate horror, of course, is if the flush doesn’t work, if objects return, if remainders, excremental remainders, return from that dimension.”

This story then, was a horror story of a netherworld that wasn’t in this world or my lifetime, let alone this city;this then was a story of a ghost village with ghosts, not humans. A land where everything that dies and is discarded by the living world ends up. How could I comprehend it as real when my reality was an empty dustbin and water that filtered through layers of corporate sanctified safety? I didn’t leave that land for the rest of the walk. We probed further into ideology that had licensed human existence to an unredeemable fate. We laughed about the mammoth campaign that took birth on Gandhi Jayanti, the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan that had spent millions into promotional advertisement before Neetu Ambani found a broom of the right colour.

The sun had long set, an enforced silence had become more clouded with deep unsettlement. Someone asked what we were all thinking,”What are we to do about it?” Do we call the local Councillor, call both residents and the powrakarmikas, the contract workers and BBMP officials? A large assembly, a small localised one? Do we ask for more safety measures, gloves, boots? But they don’t want the material that slips off their hands and only makes their job more time consuming. Then what? Better wages? Can we start by reducing our consumption and being more conscious of our waste produce and then about disposal from the household itself?

The walk is a provocation, their memo said. As a practise, it had developed well with its performative bits, the silence, the ideological debates, the stories all weaved into the odour. They took an element from the issue they sought to tackle and imaginatively found a way to let it seep into our conscience even with thoughts of brown tea in red cups. Given a sense of both the issue and sensibility to the practise of walking itself. It had most certainly provoked questions, that didn’t reach resolutions but had burned a deeper sense of being in my mind atleast.

Could it have been the same if my mum had gone for the walk instead of me? What if  Lalana, the soft skills trainer, Partha a research student in law, Prerana a journalism student were replaced by my uncle,the Homeopath from Kerala, my maid Lakshmi who faces most of the burden of the amount we consume at home or even my dad, who for all his politics is still an old Nair who goes back to Kerala to all the kneeling and cowering by the lower caste helpers at home? What would the walk have provoked in them?

My stride changed as I walked back home after the walk, my pace was rhythmic and fast and I didn’t stop till I reached my destination. My walk was merely functional again. My mind however was still stuck in that netherworld where the bottle I now crushed would end up. I cannot believe any human system can exist and exist thus for centuries before me and possibly still for generations after me

Radical Ideas of idle rAmbliNgs

A long time ago, in a Psychology class I remember learning how a memory is created. I imagined it as squiggly lines forming ridges in my brain, some in bold lead, some a lighter grey. Every time I try recalling a memory, one would light up, the ridges glowing as each detail is recollected, the squiggly line becoming sharper and clearer. I wonder about those grey lines, those lines that keep fading away as other become bolder, cobwebbed into obscurity. After a while would it completely die out? Like a squiggly line on a heartbeat monitor that after a while finds an abrupt halt. Reading Jumpa Lahiri’s Lowland, I think about Naxalbari. It reminded me of a debate competition back in Pre-University when I had to make a case for the Naxal insurgencies. In a way that had triggered the beginnings of a romantic’s imaginations of a revolution. It coincided with my first trysts with Marx; the first conjuring of violent uprisings that would transform lives of peoples completely unconnected to me. I continued reading about the Red Corridor, I even remember that Outlook cover of Arundhati Roy’s interview with the insurgents. I read that long narrative like a thriller novel with more grit in reality than fiction had ever produced.

It took a while for those stories to become a bigger part of my newly politicised thoughts and ideas. In 2011/12 Manmohan Singh had declared the naxal situation the biggest internal security threat in India. For a few years, Naxal insurgency played as serious a role in seeping terror through the country as post 9/11 America. Random arrests and shootings took place on a routine basis; any sign of dissent or even slightly distasteful thinking about just about everything being quelled immediately citing Naxal affiliations. Every radical was a Naxalite, any Leftist thought was radical and any questioning of normalities was Leftist. Looking back now, just a a few years later I wonder what happened to this biggest security threat. You read lesser about the Red Corridor in newspapers, no more headlines about Naxal leaders caught splashed across the country as exemplary signs of security, in fact there are barely any reporters in high-intensity conflict areas like Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. Has there been some spontaneous retreat of Naxal insurgency groups? Whatever happened to overthrowing the Govt by 2050? I don’t know and I don’t know enough to hazard a guess. And that’s what I find frightening.

That memory trace that I thought was ingrained in bold lead was successfully smudged and coaxed into nonexistence. I’d forgotten about it or atlas hadn’t thought too much about the lack of information until now. If it disappears from newspapers,does it disappear from our collective consciousness? Does the lack of concentration on the situation make it less important by default? After 2012,rape and sexual violence became an obsessive topic. Sometimes it’s as relatively inane as garbage disposal and sometimes ludicrously political like the beef ban. In the past five years the focus of fear and threat has moved steadily right along the political number line, from Maoist insurgent groups to right wing Hindu fundamentalists and an intolerant government. I’d imagine that the in-between might serve as a negotiation space, but in this case we see both as being completely disjointed from one another. Is that true though?

Reading a book by Saskia Sassen on Brutality and Expulsions in the Global Economy. Sassen suggests that there is a sort of power nexus constructed globally to aid and abet the global finance market. She sees everything from those who lost their homes in the mortgage crisis in the US to forced migrations in Europe and the displacements in the Global South through mass land grabs as being part of the same agenda. A universal principled agenda to actively make invisible peoples around the world as they become irrelevant and redundant in the market. What doe that mean? It means that neither the Naxals or the people caught between security forces and the insurgent groups matter, because they don’t matter to the economy. The rapists don’t matter and the people they rape don’t matter. One gets sent to prison and become invisible anyway and the other is removed through societal norms and conditions. Of course the limited time rape received in the spotlight, tried undoing the second one making the woman free to provide cheap labour in a minor role. What I am trying to get at is the creation of a second class citizenry, a sort of reserve army of labour in Marx’s terms. Pushing people into the margins, in ghettoised refugee camps, in prisons, through a caste system and even through reinforcing gender norms: to remove these peoples from plain sight,out of economic equations and census,but still keeping them there through a veil of inconsistent dialogue so that at some point some might be of use to the market.

These are still vague thoughts, running parallel sometimes because of two books I am reading and running into each other and merging in my mind at others.I feel like I am talking about a conspiracy theory; this creation of a second class citizenry through different means all for a common end. Sassen would see it as a creation of systems,governments,international organisations,corporations and individuals all connecting the dots to form a picture of the predatory face of global finance: not a group of individuals sitting around a table deciding this should happen, but everyone talking about the same thing because of the creation of a common grammar. Now I see those memory traces in my brain all interconnected as well, one squiggly line joining with another to form a web of memories. Everything forced into inconsequence becoming consequential because of its link with another. To jog collective memory you need a trigger, one strong enough to make a collage of newspaper headlines that begin with A and end with Z.

FeelIng bROwn…heAvenly hOney/CaRAmeL

brown skin

For years in primary school, the ‘skin colour’ crayon bothered me endlessly.I have never made a drawing of myself. Or whenever I did, I never gave my skin any colour. I drew it in stark black outlines on a white piece of paper, large eyes coated with black eyelashes. My skin colour most certainly wasn’t that pink toned white of the ‘skin colour’ crayon, I could tensely finger the brown one, but I couldn’t openly acknowledge I had dark skin, because i knew my friends would only reiterate it. The dark skin on my hands that I constantly hid, sometimes turning my hand palm-up to reveal the lighter shade of skin. In a thriving market of Fair and Lovelys my skin colour was a constant bother as a child. I grew up and out of being bothered about my dark skin however, and I never could draw anyway, so out went the offensive packs of crayons. For years together I hadn’t felt the brown on my skin until it brushed against a sea of whites.

How do you feel the brown on your skin burning like it’s been caught aflame? You’ll see it in the blue eyes against white skin on a bus driver who will take a closer look at your bus pass, the lady at the supermarket who will look into your wallet as you fumble with foreign currency, the flight attendant who will look through you when you ask for help. Sometimes you don’t just feel the brown, but you feel your dark hair pressing into your scalp, you feel brown eyes struggling to lock into blue ones,you feel every dark shadow and pimple and freckle, even your clothes lugged across a continent forcing you to be aware of your difference. When was the last time I felt brown? I felt brown when a girl in college said I looked pretty, my immediate shrug of dismissal made her compassionately tell me that I shouldn’t feel ugly simply because I was dark. It was possible for me to look beautiful even with my skin colour. It was easy for me to dismiss the girl then, her pettiness was just that, petty and parochial, a girl from a small town who didn’t know any better. A few big words in free-flowing English was all I needed to satisfy my own petty vengefulness. But when you are conditioned into believing in the superiority of the White race(wait, White skin) you feel remarkably small when the brown burns into you. My comfortable upbringing, excessive lifestyle, and anything else that made me feel confident and secure back home didn’t matter to those blue eyes. To them, I was something out of the covers of a Nat Geo magazine, both pitied and feared and disliked for my brown skin and foreign features. I wasn’t how people looked like, I was how the poor people from war-torn countries, littered with beggars, famine and hunger, people who didn’t speak English and were grateful to be in their country of plenty looked like.

Did the lady at the supermarket make her kids finish the food on their plates that evening telling them how the brown girl at the store fumbled about with a small bag of groceries and a nearly empty wallet? Racism is prevalent in more than just violence and exclusion and a denial of rights and opportunities, it is in the ‘gaze’, the gaze that burns your skin colour into your flesh. It is in the pity, the benevolence and the innate suspiciousness of the ‘gaze.’

OF meetIng IndIans OUtSIDe OF IndIa

Consider being in your first week in University in an alien country, where everything is pale and cold, strange and new, would you run away or toward a trace of anything familiar?

Rice and dal feel like a treat,long conversations with your parents become the highlight of your day and you have nightmares where you frantically calculate currency conversions. Walking around the city with a Greek and Italian for a week, who ran to speak with anyone who looked like they might be from their home country, it was always amusing to see how I turned my head whenever I saw brown skin. It is pretty much the same routine i followed back home when I saw someone I knew on the street; I’d turn my head around, fall ten steps behind them or make a quick escape through the nearest exit. Here, making eye contact with any Indian meant potential conversation,exchange of numbers and being added to WhatsApp groups called ‘Thani naadan’ and ‘Desi dopeheads’. you make me feel this small

You’d think that missing all things Indian would make me want to be with fellow ‘desi dopeheads’, but what really happens is that it serves as depressing reminders of how painfully different one Indian is from another. Like my Greek friend, my face does not light up when someone speaks in my language, when I meet an Indian , I speak in english and not ‘Indian’, unless of course, I choose to speak in Hindi.

Let me give you an example of what speaking ‘Indian’ here, really sounds like. Over two smokes and 5 minutes of ‘where are you from’ and ‘what course are you doing’ the conversation effortlessly slides into ‘what is your surname’ and ‘what caste are you’. This is a relatively smooth transition,believe me. It goes from casually mentioning and mutually agreeing on our food woes and suggestively asking if you happen to eat meat. This unquestionably warrants some prodding into religion, which finally leads to where the talk really begins, the caste question. My open jawed amazement at her pointed question about my surname, didn’t get any better when I flatly refused to tell her what it is. This simply prompted her to ask me if I was a ‘baniya’ (she sort of looked hopeful), it’s okay, I could tell her if it was any worse. Now, in all my life I do not remember where 5 minutes into introducing myself to someone they asked me what my caste is or everyone in the group exchanged caste and religious identities before asking for each other’s names.

At a debate on the topic, ‘What nationalism really means and why it is important for India’, I remember a professor talking about feeling a sense of home when in a new country, you see underwear hanging on a clothesline in broad daylight and you know it’s an Indian. Well, when I left India’s fiercely growing nationalist spirit behind with a sense of relief, I think I might have carried a whiff of it on me, because it sure did stink when I spent 10 minutes speaking ‘Indian’ with fellow Indians here.

i DON’t Know WHAt thE NatiONAL AntheM MEans

How many  of you Indians out there know what the lyrics of the national anthem means?(yes, hurry and Google it!)I don’t understand a word of Bangla and yes, a long time ago I might have read the translation too but I don’t remember it at all. If someone said they didn’t know the national anthem, even a five year old kid, you’d gasp and the parents would keep that poor kid awake all night memorising the jumble of words that make no sense right? Okay so I know it and I can sing it, you can question my pronunciation, but it’s all there in essence. But I don’t understand it. Does that deserve a gasp too? Perhaps it would for people in monolingual countries. So we Indians are in an odd predicament indeed. A national anthem we stand up to and sing in perfect harmony even if it is in a Karan Johar movie, in a language most of us don’t understand, still feeling patriotic(whatever that emotion might be- is patriotism an emotion?). How is music connected to language then?k3g national anthemWe learn language through associations, words that tally with an image in my head. A for apple means I see a shiny red apple in my head and hence I process the intonations of the word ‘apple’ as a logical word. A logical word- you know, when you play scrabble and you just know when someone is making up a word? That kind of thing. Which is why when we learn a new language, we translate immediately in our heads to an already established image of the new word in our mind, hence making this new jumble of words logical too. Sa se seb= A for apple= shiny red apple.

But the curious case of the national anthem is a jumble of words that have become all too familiar which correlates to no logical imagery in my head, but still makes sense because of the associative emotion. So what is this connect between language and music? How does it become a coherent whole?

National anthems have an aural politics of their own. Other than the performative aspect of it, which brings into question the ritualised motions of standing up, placing a palm on your chest, singing along, is a national anthem a genre of music in itself? The rhythm,the melody and tempo specifically designed to produce an emotion?

The idea of a national anthem is to consolidate a sense of community and solidarity, some articulate goals and others even suggest boundaries and landscape(Vindhya,Himachala,Yamuna… or And like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots we crush). How about those that produce fractures in the sense of community and a reluctance to associate to a nationhood- consider Germany’s troubled concept of the anthem. There is certainly a mixed politics to the creation and continued association with a national anthem.