The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The modern and the pre-modern in one location

To leave Calcutta is to make a journey — as provisional as the one I made to arrive here not long ago. Some journeys seem easier than others; the one to Oxford’s Broad Street, for instance; while the one that would take me into Chittaranjan Avenue, toward the CIT Buildings in which my aunt lives, remains unmade. Then there are other departures, to Ashoknagar, Birati, or Subhasgram, which seem to me now more fantastic than my travels to Europe or America.

On the one hand is the Jessore Road, that winding alley that takes me to my cousins’ home in Ashoknagar. At the other end, one takes the stifled lane that improvises its unflagging route through the increasingly populous settlements of Jadavpur and Bagha Jatin. This is life — tottering, brimming — as I have known it, and will never know it. Nothing in my widest travels prepares me for the culture shock of Bengal. Those who don’t believe that pre-modernity and modernity can simply exist in an idyllicized space called “India” must find other means of describing their experience as they travel through these highways. The subaltern historians have turned to critiquing the European and “universal” language of modernity. Others have had recourse to science fiction.

By “science fiction” I don’t mean the narrative, or the features, of an imagined future; I mean the sort of narrative that confronts the dilemma of discovering the pre-modern and modern in one location. There’s a certain kind of “science fiction” sensibility — among whose most respectable expression is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — that separates these elements (the pre-modern and modern; the past, the present, the future) into a linearity, a teleology of progress. In Kubrick’s film, an ape in pre-history flings a bone into space, into, literally, “empty, homogeneous time”, and, in the blink of an eye, in a millennial split-second, it has become a 21st century spacecraft.

On the other hand, there is the sensibility of an Andrei Tarkovsky or an O.V. Vijayan, which radicalizes our faith in the human story of progress; for them, “science fiction” describes not so much a dystopia or utopia, as the world we already inhabit. As you travel out of Calcutta, you realize the Jessore Road is not a teleology. To take these highways, to go to Subhasgram, as I did last month — to attend our cook’s daughter’s wedding — is to be involved in, to borrow a science-fiction phrase from Ashis Nandy, “time-travel”. But the time on these roads is not vacuum-like, transparent, like Wells’s time, or Kubrick’s; it is resistant; it shatters into pieces when you push against it.

Aparna’s house was our first stop. Aparna (I’ve changed her name), who looks after our daughter. I’ve joked often, “We’re going to visit your house soon”; now she held me to that promise. “If you’re coming to Shibani’s daughter’s wedding, you must come to my house.” They — Aparna and Shibani — both live in Subhasgram. So we get off our cars at the railway crossing; a variety of the young — myself, my wife, Aparna — help the aged — my mother, my mother’s brother (my father says he needs no help) — across the railway tracks. A narrow, curving road brings us to the colony; a long line of bricks which serves as a path takes us past houses till we turn left towards her home.

She serves us tea and shingara; she’s served the same things to us before; but today we are her guests. This brings to the act of serving an overlapping of registers, the inuring familiarity of duty qualified by the quotation marks of housepride and independence. We can sympathize with her now, sitting on a bed, for the kitchen, a tiny space segregated only by two saris hanging before it. But it is hers. With one eye, she’s still minding our daughter, who, at five, is the only one who doesn’t understand the significance of being here.

The lights go off. “Don’t worry,” she says, “there’ll be a generator at the wedding.” Her looks, in a classically modern way, are redolent of the 20th century. She eloped with her husband, a professional typist, before taking her matriculation exams. But she is educated, and has more than a smattering of English. “We are poor, but we are proud,” was one of the first things she said solemnly to my mother; it was a statement made in English. Where exactly the pride lies isn’t always easy to discern, but I’ve never doubted her words. She’s one of the handful of extraordinary women I’ve known in my life; and, equally, like most human beings, like humanity itself, she is disappointing. When she used to help my daughter with the English alphabet, I used to wonder — does a part of her envy the child' Does she fear her imminent redundancy'

The lights hadn’t come back when it began to get dark. We’d have to move on now to the wedding. I held my mother’s hand in the bad light; guided her down the path of bricks embedded in the earth. Cones of mosquitoes formed and disintegrated above us. It would take us ten minutes to walk to the wedding — too long a way for my uncle, who has arthritis. So we got into our cars. The cars, like beasts, went circling round the paths of Subhasgram, their headlights illuminating an abandoned zamindari house, or falling upon a government building. We approached a wedding, but not the one we wanted; it felt like we’d never arrive. After thirty five minutes we did; but it had rained here, and the path of bricks, surrounded by water, wasn’t easy for the older members of our group to traverse. Finally, we were in the room with the bride, sitting on a bed in her red Benarasi. The groom hadn’t come yet; our arrival provided a substitute form of excitement. We noticed how much the bride resembled her mother.

As I write this, I face two temptations. One is to say to myself, to the government: “You haven’t done enough; you’ve done next to nothing.” The other is to be somehow true to the life, the contemporaneity, of Subhasgram; of the wedding; of Aparna’s house. How do I do this without aestheticizing my experience; without making my narrative entirely about myself' Perhaps I might resort to the idea of science fiction, of time-travel. I don’t mean, impossibly, that I’ve travelled from the present to the past, where things are less developed, but, inwardly, more whole. I mean an idea of the future, which is always disjunctive according to the standards of the present, but which is, in the end, our home; and, at the same time, a critique of the fictional notion that the future is waiting to happen — that, although we have left 1984 and 2001 behind on our calendars, they will still come. Having travelled between Subhasgram and Ballygunge, I think we already inhabit the future we’ve been waiting for.

Here, Tarkovsky’s science fiction is paradigmatic. For it’s not so much the future he shows us in films like Stalker, but a present made disjunctive and heterogeneous, a single site where tomorrow’s science and yesterday’s religion co-exist in a way to make the opposition between tomorrow and yesterday problematic; not the complete and self-sufficient past, present, and future of Hollywood movies. How do you explain this sensibility' It might have to do with the fact that Tarkovsky was Russian; and to be a Russian in the Soviet Union was to be not wholly Western. The playwright Heiner Muller, who chose to live in East Germany after the war, spoke, in an interview in 1988, of the “artificiality” of space, time, and freedom in the West: “The artificiality of this freedom is based on the fact that West Germany couldn’t function if … people from … poor countries didn’t do the dirty work or the service work. In our countries, in our bloc, we are on the contrary in some sort of osmosis with the Third World. Russia is just a very small part of the Soviet Union. Its population is minimal in relation to the Asian provinces… There is much more Third World inside the Soviet Union than in the United States.” With hindsight, this might seem ingenuous; but it is instructive and proper, I think, to situate Tarkovsky’s work not only in “high” European culture, but in the history of that osmosis.

We, too — I, and the reader of this column — live in what forms a small part of India, Bengal, Calcutta; we not only “live” in the Third World, but are involved, spiritually, in “some sort of osmosis” with it. Muller goes on to say: “The main function of alternative movements in the West is to establish in its midst islands of the Third World. West Berlin has become the third biggest Turkish city in the world… This is a very positive phenomenon.” And what can we say of this city' Might we call Subhasgram a “positive phenomenon”' And is Subhasgram the Third World settlement, or Ballygunge the encampment' Does Subhasgram live and grow in and inflect Calcutta, or is the opposite true' To have been there is to have my assumption of where I am turned inside out — not like an old sock, or an empty bag, but a body that can’t be contained in its skin.

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