Dear_,

The search for the veshakaran has been a strange endeavour. He appears as a mirage. I see him in the distance and he still slips away. Sometimes I think it’s because of the lack of form, he shape-shifts and I simply don’t recognise him the closer I get. Sometimes I think it’s because the form appears so overtly male, when it’s Poothana I’m searching for.

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.

 

What city is this?

walls

What is a city?

walls

Where are the people?

walls

Where is the green, the blue and the brown?

walls

What grows here?

walls

What plagues the people here?

walls

What walls are these?

walls

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.

protest diaries- 2

As Thoreau once said we must walk and walk again to make a deep physical path. My favourite books are the most tattered and torn, abused from overuse. My favourite films are those where I can parrot the lines from start to finish. People often ask me how I can read the same story again and watch the same scenes again, ‘Don’t you already know what happens?’

Well, i don’t believe a story can be simplistically defined as that which has a beginning,middle and the end. I like all the parts in between, a word which forces you to think of the before and those lines that let you imagine an after. A story is infinite. Even after reading a book a few hundred times, a well written book and seldom a good plot opens new doors of imagination to me.

When I write about my interactions and participations with maraa, I am often aware that I am not divorced from the people, the cause or the form and it often troubles me that I may not be writing ‘objectively’. That a clearer picture is that which is beheld from afar. But over time I have come to realise, that the fact that I am not divorced from the cause lends me better perspective. I am not reading the story for the beginning, middle and end, but looking at the writing of each sentence. That mysterious form that language takes when the most ordinary words can be arranged to construct a sentence that transforms the meanings of the words itself.

The second Olfactory walk did just this. It wasn’t even the same book though, a sit often happens a writer understands that with time  a better understanding could add more insight to a work that looked finished once. And we have a new edition. Maraa did just that ( I use maraa, instead of names of the people as the space tends to define the direction of the peoples who work there). The walk included some new elements and some the same in a new light. The general form of the walk remained the same, with no real performative elements this time, but a more quiet and somehow more conscientious reflections instead. The evening was dull and grey, a weather that demands you retreat into yourself and the cloudy skies have an opposite reaction on your mind which can think clearer. I realised this time around that I had grossly underestimated a momentous part of the walk. Often you only realise much later that you feel a certain way about something and when that realisation strikes you also realise that you have actually felt that way all along. The first conjecture in the walk which breaks a long quiet spell and the directed stroll becomes more intentional is at the Domlur skywalk. In the previous walk, I mentioned the storm of progress that they described as a description of a Klee painting. This time we read the description from chits of paper, each locked in bubbles of solitude staggered along the skywalk, the noise, the noise of this progress. I stared at the oncoming traffic again. This moment I realised, coupled with the description of the painting has an intensely disquieting effect. I remembered my own reflections of life in large rumbling trucks and big blue buses and I saw these ugly contortions again. Humanity had transformed itself into wonder boxes of their own creation and had sped far ahead in its evolution, that ape to man is now man to whirring engines. If that enormous truck had stopped midway, the whirring in the engine died out, the whole of humanity in its plastic-metal glory would all come to an abrupt halt. As I watched from above, it felt like just that single piece of domino would mean the end of humanity and we would stand above them all, with little chits of paper.

Religion is the golden ticket today, you hold the cross out in front of you, covering your chest, gripped tight in your palm and ward of the evil. We make a huge hullabaloo about impurities and dirt in Hindu religion, a menstruating woman is not allowed anywhere near those colourful idols and burning incense, the lower castes who clean our dirt is not allowed on holy grounds. With the prevalence of these antiquated rituals even today, I found it rather amusing when i saw it twisted around with idols placed where a garbage dump once was so no one would throw more garbage there. This is serious business. If the ash fell from the ends of a cigarette butt and the beholder (god forbid) happens to be a muslim boy or a lower caste hindu, there would be a raging riot overnight. God himself will not rise from the garbage dump to prevent it.

The light drizzle was now threatening to let all hell loose, but thankfully we made it to the warm smells of coffee and masala dosa, the welcoming shelter of a darshini by the time we got to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan finale. I have still not seen this advertisement of the powrakarmika in the invisibility robe. It was one thing to publicly shun them a generation ago, now we simply refuse to accept their existence. Now that, is progress in the Modi sarkar!

This time there was an elaborate discussion that followed. It could be the fact that there was more young blood this time around, that we took a recourse from the normal means of action of welfare association and the BBMP to a more individualistic perspective, the journey of the garbage bag and the workings of the city through waste production and disposal. Again of course the space created was not that of a problem-solution platform but the necessary occupation of the phenomena of waste itself in our minds; perhaps rewritten through a lens that strays away from a ‘Do not litter’ signboard.

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

Frida Kahlo
frida kahlo, without hope

She was young, very young. 10 maybe? A little older perhaps. She was dressed in pink and white. Her spotless white pants and her dark eyes as she stared out of the window seemed lost and out of place in that crowded train. I moved a little closer, and a little more till my toes felt her bare ankles. They felt cool in the sweltering humidity of the crowded train. I kept moving, inching closer to her. Stepping on toes and pushing the old man standing beside her. As my toes found her skin again, I saw in her face the first sign of disturbance,just the slightest; but she merely moved her feet and retreated unto herself. But I refused to let her go, as the jolt of the engine came to my rescue and my body pressed against hers momentarily. She sat up almost violently, her terrified eyes looked up at mine. She had felt me growing against her. Her mother had noticed her discomfort and offered to shift places. But she refused, she wouldn’t leave. She wanted to be right here, with me. Why does she keep moving away from me though? Can’t she see that her mother would bother us again? And she did,she kept offering to shift places! But I knew her, she wouldn’t leave me. She simply shook her head. Each time I pushed myself against her, her face would contort in pain. She’d look up at me, her eyes pleading. She looked so innocent, so vulnerable…but I couldn’t help it. The more she looked at me, the more I pushed myself against her. I couldn’t get my eyes off her, the bare hands right against me…And then it happened. A tunnel ahead; a few seconds of darkness. I gritted my teeth, the excitement building. She looked at me again, she had realized what was going to happen. The moment the darkness hit, I almost fell forward, my hands reaching out just as her hands reached up to cover her chest. The light was beginning to filter in as I moved back, a nail scraping against her neck. She was almost in tears. Would she cry? Would she finally say something? She looked up at me almost pleading and I stared back at her. The train screeched to a halt, but I couldn’t move. I didn’t even remember where I was heading anymore. My head was heavy and all I knew was that I needed to be there, to touch her, to keep looking into those fearful eyes. I refused to move as the crowd jostled, abused and pushed me to get out of the train. Even as I moved closer to her, almost towering over that body that seemed even smaller, I felt the first blow and I realized the man was yelling, asking me to stop what I was doing. He had been watching me he said, watching this private moment I shared with her. How dare he have intruded! Look at her, he was scaring her. I fought back,feigning innocence. I told everyone he was delusional and I was simply minding my own business. Her parents now knew what happened, but I knew her. She wouldn’t give me away. That was our moment and she wouldn’t let anyone else in. They made her sit elsewhere and she did. She didn’t look back at me, but I knew she would never forget me. Never forget we had looked into each other’s eyes. I would remember her pink shirt and spotless white pants and she would remember me and all of me against her body for the rest of her life.

The keys are struck,the cursor blinks
and as I wait for it to load,
I feel an emptiness that no void can fill.
The room is filled with air so cold that even the warmth outside is an illusion.

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Sunset

After five flights of stairs, she got to the terrace. The sunset was beautiful but before she could enjoy the view, she looked around to make sure she was alone. Then the tears came streaming down her face and she gave in. Five minutes later, she heard footsteps and put her mask back on. A small girl came running up with her mother running after her. ‘Stop running, you’ll fall!’, the mother yelled. She smiled at the kid and continued walking.

The mother smiled at her as she chased her daughter around; her daughter sure did keep her fit. ‘What’s your name?’, the mother asked. ‘I’m the girl in the black dress ‘, she said. ‘That’s a pretty mask you have on, I’d like you to see mine some day’, the mother said.