[Reader-list] Sarai Independent posting 6

Subhajit Chatterjee subhajitc at rediffmail.com
Thu Aug 14 16:20:12 IST 2003

. Sarai posting 6

I argue that space in so far as it comprises a part of everyday urban life is essentially contested and  that one should look beyond political or ideological biases that come to play a huge role in community or identity politics. Urban space is produces a symbolic anxiety in the middle class who are battling to settle down precisely because it lacks a social regimentation that is characteristic of towns or villages, I'm not claiming for any innocence or superiority of those spaces for they too are politicized in their own ways , I'm  rather pointing to the underlying dynamics in the psychic life of a historical community that is perhaps still attempting to come to terms with the city as a contested area. Here their toil in everyday official life to approximate the upwardly mobile and gain material and social legitimacy parallels their attempt to claim public spaces. In other words it's not only about certain empirical communities and their rights but rather about a symbolic requirement to coherence and identity that leads to persecute one or the other of minority as an obstacle to their enjoyment. Here I intentionally sound Lacanian or Zizekian  because I think identity politics and its discursive domain fails to catch the ideological problem at stake. To defend myself against  possible objections from progressive activists I must also say that this statement is not to criticize any such politics for all such movements have intense relevance of  urban history. But I would like to maintain that when such political discourses disguise themselves as theoretical explanations they might not always do justice to the more deeper problem. 
I shall conclude with a short journey into a film and a literary text from Bengal which serve to exemplify my point further. It has often been suggested in studies in Bengali Cinema that the city came forefront in a major way on the screen due to the Naxalite outbursts in late sixties and early seventies. There have been vivid discussions about a range of films which anticipates the urban violence in late 60's and attempts to deal with the social unrest that generally prevailed in Kolkata and beyond at that time. In fact that particular period in Indian film history is also significant due to the open contest between realism and other sorts of avant-garde  over articulating a film form that was more sensitive to the urban postcolonial sensibility. One can argue that the  city or urban space with it's innumerable concrete struggles became  a privileged domain over which the formal issues were played upon. One can take examples of Satyajit Ray's and Mrinal Sen's city films as two alternative political strategies of approaching the subject. There could be innumerable ways of describing their specific ways of representing the city along with the presumption that urban space has become entwined with danger, darkness and gloom due to concrete socio-historical conditions of unrest. If we then go on to make a structural divide between political realism in cinema and melodrama as condition that privileges the home, family, and internality as opposed to the external, public and political. 
Much has already been said about the political aspects of the melodramatic form and it is not my intention to to reargue the case. I would like to argue that the explosion of explicit and symbolic violence that is attributed to later films have a deeper history and can be traced back in films which do not ostensibly deal with such issues. 
	Tapan Sinha's Jatugriha (1964) is hardly a film that can be read as having any bearing upon city-cinema that came later. Still if one looks closely it is nothing but the most classical and sophisticated representation of the symbolic theme of the city. It can articulate the difference between an explicit politics of urban space and a deeper anxiety underlying all such specific manifestations that I was formulating in the earlier paragraph. The film is primarily the narrative of a broken family, a melodramatic narrative tracing the history of a marriage that has broken off. But seen in that senses the film however fails to  give us a convincing account of the breakup itself. Not only is the reason of infertility of the wife a seemingly problematic issue in the otherwise harmonic relationship between the modern couple. Moreover the narrative does not try to develop the history of their advancing excommunication with each other. On the other hand paralelly the film while underplaying the psychological aspect develops more symbolic ways of representing it's theme of settling down in the city. The fascinating opening sequence itself is telling because the parallelism between the architect and the junior clerk's point of view of the city establishes the broader theme of familiarization process with the cuty itself. A psychological reading of the film will presumably fail to account for such an elaborately obscure opening sequence when the focus is only Satadal's family history. 
In fact one can argue that it's not about psychological estrangement within a family but rather about more structural estrangement with the City itself. That is is precisely why the fim proliferates and reduplicates the theme of the couple and their different ways of attempting be in the city. It is about a certain painful history of  'becoming a citizen' and therfore obliquely hints at the issue of displacement, which haunts any such 'process of becoming'. There is a intermingling of 3 distinct units :  Satadal and Madhuri's seemingly polished, respectable domesticity which is withering away from inside, Nikhilesh's crude , quarrelsome domesticity  apparently on the verge of breakdown but tied more intimately by the  couple's perverse attachment to their mutual irritation with each other; and Supriyo's humble, sweet small domesticity; small house  in a small lane ( 'where cars cannot enter'),  that tries to be in tune with the process of upward mobility  What unites and separate the 3 couples are their common struggle to be together as legal and social unit. It is not an accident that the main protagonist is an architect here whose mind is systematically preoccupied with construction,, reconstruction  of buildings. What is lacking is a the construction of a proper historical narrative that can situate his identity as a citizen subject. There is a sarcastic interplay here between the terms 'bari banano'( building a house) and 'ghar bosano' (settling in a home). In Bengali the terms 'bari' and ghar (house and home) are often interchangeably used although the latter term is more loaded with symbolic meanings associated with the constitution of legitimate family as a social unit. 
	Satadal's  failure in setting up a home  is paralleled by his obsessive attempts to build and rebuild houses. In fact the finished dream home of the couple happen to be a trope in the film. The two terms are further linked in a flashback sequence where the wife exclaims " I never expected that I'll meet u one day , that we'll have a house in Kolkata." The amorous meeting is almost unconsciously related to the issue of  landed property and here there is a connotation of the concept of 'home' as well in the dialogue thereby revealing a telling desire of the middle class. It is clear enough that the wife and probably also the husband have been displaced from moffussil towns in Bengal but this displacement is intimately connected to a discourse of upward mobility and identity formation that is more complex than the old 'city/ village ' trope in feudal family melodrama. Here belonging to a city is a struggle to remain psychologically intact and hence brings forth the issue of identification and identify. These thematic problems are not only locatable at the level of  narrative content but also figure majorly in the formal, stylistic aspect as well. The lack of proper psychological coherence at the narrative level is compensated by the narratorial process through mis-en-scene.  The classical depiction is in the sequence where Satadal comes  to his empty house at the beginning and is engaged in deep thought in the darkness. What highlights his anxiety at a formal level is the heavy light and shadow play on his silhouette  which emanates from the outside lights. The whole atmosphere is permeated by the neon signs and groovy music from the nearby bars or restaurants presumably in Park Street , Kolkata's quintessentially urban centre. These signifiers of disruption are almost always visible in the sequences where the major oral exhanges take place between the couple. The city literally haunts their space; leading to a final collapse of their domesticity.  Hence the rather unexplainable ritual of opening and closing of windows that punctuates certain sequences also becomes more comprehensible whn read in this manner . In a certain way Jatugriha anticipates and thus locates the anxiety which historically manifests itself in particular movements and specific concerns. 
	Toget a more explicit and clear picture however Sunil Ganguly's short story 'Kokil  o Lorrywallah ( The Cuckoo and a Lorry Driver) is more helpful. It's a  sarcastic and absurd narrative of a protagonist who accidentally gets his shirt sleeve torn by a hook hanging from a lorry in Central Kolkata ,on his way to work. The narrative is wholly constituted of an interior monologue of the protagonist who while comprehending the contingency of his situation actually absorbs the the absurdity to the core of his being causing in performance of a radical act of  tearing off all symbolic identifications including clothes and lying naked in the midst of the busiest part of the city at Curzon Park. The narrative starts off with attempts to ascribe contingencies and thereby the drudgery of everyday urban life to various agencies. The lorry driver cuckoo who distracted his attention leading to the mishap being the first  couple of accused. : 
" Two minutes of standing holding Curzon Park's railing. There is a mild vapour of hurt feelings in my heart. But  offended  by whom? Lorry wallah? Who does not know me. Can there be any relation of offence with one whom I don't know and who does not know me?"  
Gradually as he accidentally and then intentionally starts tearing off bits and parts of his shirt the monologue lapses into a discourse on the city and his relationship to it. :
 " I have lots of work, I 'm supposed to go to a lot of places. That  person who, ten years ago , could  idly stand  by the railing of Curzon Park as along as he wished , is not me. He was with torn shirt, unsahven face , anywhere , anytime he wished. The world had changed him." 
Then he resorts to judge his social situation and the logic of his own functioning within the social machinary: 
 "I have lots of work, I 'm supposed to go to a lot of places. 
I have my own woman, I have friends and relatives. Specific space of  adda , a specific family in a specif house. Apart from this I have unbounded dissatisfaction. Lust."
later he continues : "
 first to the film company office , then to the newspaper house, then to attend the regular invitation at German Consulate. There is a rat race and I'm intricately involved in that." 
The invocations of the process of belonging and its history comes when he refers to his own logical status in historical terms :
 " Perhaps people without sleeved shirts are more happy/comfortable than people with formal, sleeved ones. My grandfather used to wear. There is no reason to doubt that he was more happy than my father was." 
What he's invoking are the very codes that constitutes 'settling down in an urban space as a citizen. In a while he exclaims to himself : 
" You cannot even tear your own shirt as you wish standing on a road. You cannot burn away all of a box of matchsticks one after the other just like that, standing on a road. You cannot stand alone and laugh to yourself. You can at the most kneel down to tie up your shoelace . These are rules of the road." 
He has now identified the cause that constitutes his irritation, the city itself with its various codes and claims that he does not identify with thoroughly.  The final performance is therefore directed at the city itself . It's not merely an action or performance but a sort of 'act' in a Lacanian sense , that which radically destabilizes our relation to the Symbolic Order. He attempts to do something almost impossible, to approximate that which excludes itself from the Order and thereby constitutes it. and renders it coherent. :
" Now it's my turn. In the middle of  this busiest area of this busy town one person has to necessarily lie down without any sort of worry. Otherwise there will be a grave problem. Suddenlly in with a monstrous sound everything could just explode." 
What is revealed is a history that lied dormant under many manifestations of unrest in urban life. " I will lie here. I am a seven lakh year old man, in this way I used to lie down in some field. Under trees and sky . Surrounding me has come up so many walls made of wood and bricks, so many tram l tracks, so many cars and trucks , hooks hanging  behind them. So many clothes to hide my lust and desire. I have become free and independent today." 
He has now become the primeval incomprehensible 'Thing' ,  for only in that guise could he have responded to the city as such. No wonder the protagonist has other means to describe the act other than calling it as akin to being psychotic : 
" To be more free and independent I opened my  belt , trousers , underwear and poked them away with my feet. If anyone sees me they'll think I'm some stray madman. No one comes near mad man. Seven lakh years ago we were after all mad."

 This is the moment when the subject abstains from specific struggles that characterize urban life to and speaks back to the city itself on contrary. To be in a dialogical with that which constitutes  your being and identity is of course a difficult task, only a pure act of Theory, or the final gesture of psychoanalysis can approximate it. The Lacanian reading of Freud's fundamental dictum " where id was , ego shall be". These are rare narrative moments when the narratorial agency attempts to confront the very problematic of the narratorial act itself instead of pondering over the proper form of narration. It is  with the same logic way that the problem of Urbanity has to be dealt with to understand the varieties of political manifestations that it produces. 


Kokil o Lorrywallah (Cuckoo and Lorry Driver)  by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Swati Gangopadhyay (ed.) Bachai  Golpo, Mandal Book House, Kolkata 2000.

Jatugrhiha  (Tapan Sinha,1964)

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