The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- On daydreaming, idling and loitering in the city

IV. Downtown

When I first met Kolatkar in 2000, Bombay had already become Mumbai, and the Hindu chauvinist parties, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, were at their most active and aggressive in the city — perhaps in prescient nervousness at an election defeat later that year. Bombay was trying to rebuild its old cosmopolitanism and sense of personal and physical freedom, its delight in the wayward and the aleatory, after more than a decade of religious and economic divisiveness, and from having become the commercial capital of a globalized India. My trip coincided with Valentine’s Day, and it re-emphasized the different, exacerbated, poles of ‘Mumbai’. On the one hand, the Valentine’s Day industry had reached a new zenith, and well-to-do teenagers were wandering about in an ingenuous swoon of love; on the other, Shiv Sena cadres were vandalizing shops selling the day’s paraphernalia, and, in a ritual meant to attract the media, burning Valentine’s Day cards. The distance between this moral policing and the xenophobia that animated Shiv Sena slogans like “Mumbai for Mumbaikars”, where ‘Mumbaikar’ really meant Maharashtrian Hindus, was frighteningly small.

The Shiv Sena, which started as a Marathi chauvinist organization under the leadership of Bal Thackeray, a cartoonist and admirer of Hitler, reinvented itself as a Hindu chauvinist one and came to power in Maharashtra in1995 in an alliance with the BJP, and soon changed the name of its capital city to Mumbai. Both parties had taken advantage of a moral vacuum in secular politics at the time, as well as a new state of polarization that had been building up between Hindus and Muslims. This polarization was confirmed with the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by BJP extremists in December 1992. Bombay bore the imprint of these events; in the riots and violence in early 1993, and then the series of explosions in March that year. It also bore the most visible imprint anywhere in India of the economic ‘liberalisation’ that took place in 1991; the troubled city was booming, and growing beyond recognition. What was once outskirt or hinterland was now integrated into the city’s teeming, self-generating expansion.

When I reread Jejuri now I realize how important the modern metropolis — the city as it was before globalization — with its secret openings and avenues, its pockets of daydreaming, idling and loitering, its loucheness, is fundamental to Kolatkar as a way of seeing, as a means of renovating experience. For no other Indian poet in English, and for few other writers, is Walter Benjamin’s flâneur an analogue for receptivity and creativity as he is for Kolatkar, in a way, and in contexts and situations, that perhaps Benjamin wouldn’t have been able to imagine. What the German writer (whom Kolatkar wouldn’t have read) discovered in Paris, and imagined his flâneur came upon in the 19th-century Parisian boulevards and arcades, Kolatkar did in Kala Ghoda — not only a range of details and particulars, but a restructuring of the way we experience them. Hannah Arendt, in her revealing commentary on Benjamin, notes how the line that divides interior from exterior, domestic from public space, even the ‘natural’ from the urban and manufactured, is dimmed and blurred constantly for the flâneur; he loiters about on the street, inspecting its everyday marvels (or what to him is marvellous), as if it were an extension of his drawing room. Even the sky in Paris, says Arendt, took on, for the flâneur, the artificial appearance of a great ceiling.

When I think of Kolatkar by his window in the Wayside Inn, looking out, for decades, on families of pavement-dwellers and itinerant workers bathing themselves, eating and raising their children before the Jehangir Art Gallery, I’m reminded of that indeterminate space, where the street turns into an interior, and which complicates the urban boundary separating room from pavement that’s so crucial to the flâneur’s experience of reality. For Kolatkar, in his personal life, what was dwelling and what place of transit was at times almost interchangeable. During some of his most successful years, Kolatkar and his wife were ‘paying guests’ — that is, lodgers — in one of Bombay’s most expensive areas; they then moved to a single-room, book-lined apartment in Prabhadevi, a fairly middle-class location that’s not anywhere near the centre of the city. Notwithstanding a very happy domestic life, and the fact that he wrote productively in his tiny flat, he did spend a great deal of time, sometimes breakfast onward, at the Inn, at the confluence of public and street life and private reverie.

I am reminded of these things as I reread Jejuri; that, although it’s about a journey to a remote (for many) pilgrimage town in Maharashtra, it’s less about the transformations of the journey than about a man who never left the city, or downtown, or a cosmopolitan, modernist idea of the metropolis; that his journey, and his sense of travelling and of wonder, brought him back to where he was — and where he was is metropolitan, shabby, and dislocating. And so, in the third poem itself, the four-line “The Doorstep”, the newcomer to the pilgrimage town speaks in the voice of the flâneur, for whom the line dividing public from private space is never final; the title names an object, a threshold, while the first two lines retract that meaning: “That’s no doorstep./ That’s a pillar on its side.” The flâneur stops, starts, pauses again, ponders, constantly struck by the unremarkable object that the city’s passers-by don’t notice. Things, thresholds, buildings that have either fallen out of use or look like they have, that disturb and ironicize the logic and flow of capital (and, in independent India, Bombay has been as much the centre of expanding capitalism as Paris was in France in the 19th century) — this is what he’s besotted with. So, in Jejuri, part network of shrines, part downtown, he’s transfixed by the journey of a “conduit pipe” around a wall; with a broken door that’s leaning against an “old doorway to sober up/ like the local drunk”; with the invitation to what seems to be “another temple” — “The door was open” – but turns out to be “just a cowshed”.

Benjamin discovered, on his first visit to Paris in 1913, that the houses that formed the Parisian boulevards “do not seem to be made to be lived in, but are like stone sets for people to walk between”; in other words, architecture and buildings — the locations of life and livelihood — become a sort of theatre, but a theatre that’s only available to the loiterer. Similarly, the temple that becomes a cowshed; the slightly off-kilter construction and vision of the concluding lines of “Heart of Ruin”, “No more a place of worship this place/ is nothing less than the house of god”; the theatrical gap between assertion and reality that was enacted in “The Doorstep” and recurs in “A Low Temple”: “Who was that, you ask./ The eight-arm goddess, the priest replies./…But she has eighteen, you protest.” This is the moment of theatre that neither the pilgrim at the holy shrine nor the ordinary city-dweller can see. Both invest their surroundings with certain unalterable meanings; and it’s these unalterable meanings that make the flâneur’s drama and his irony, as well as his odd sense of wonder, possible. The difference between the pilgrim — or, for that matter, the office-goer — and the flâneur is the latter’s passionate disengagement; he doesn’t rush toward a site hallowed by authority or tradition, he gravitates towards, hovers, steps back, idles, stands outside, dawdles. So, in “A Low Temple”, after his experience with the “eight-arm goddess”, the narrator “come[s] out into the sun and light[s] a charminar”: the “charminar” being a cheap filterless cigarette once popular with the artistic fraternity. In another poem, “Makarand”, the narrator, invited to offer prayers inside a temple, replies, “No thanks.” He has both a flâneur’s democratic generosity and his curious at-homeness in thresholds and spaces that have no clear function, rather than in interiors that have designated uses: “you go right ahead/ if that’s what you want to do,” he reassures his companion, while confessing, “I will be out in the courtyard/ where no one will mind/ if I smoke.”

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