WORK PLEASURE ART PLAY

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Here’s our featured guest post by Rosheena Zehra. You can find more of her work at her blog here

It’s a fine bright day and the classroom discussion is about being stuck in an empty bus with only the driver, the conductor and a seedy looking passenger. The participants of the conversation sit and laugh about the number of times they have been stranded in similar situations, the fear they felt and how they are glad it all ended in a way that has allowed them to sit and chat about it in a classroom today. It’s indeed funny how the possibility of rape is part of the normative order to the point that there is no choice but to include it in our lives, garbed in the form of humour. We live a reality where it’s an achievement to survive every day without the threat of physical and sexual violence. Good, you were not asking for it by dressing in a particular manner. Pat on the back. Good, you were not out after dark. Pat on the back one more time.

It is a strange world where the eyes of a seven year old rag-picker at the nearest Community Centre have a disturbingly ill-placed maturity staring back at you.  They tell me there is no hope left for the world, but sometimes I choose to believe otherwise.  It is sad to have children lose their innocence before their due time. When a friend tries to adopt an orphan child from the same community, one of the two contenders of the struggle is the possibility of education, a stable roof over their head and regular meals on a daily basis- a phenomenon previously unheard of. However, it loses to its far stronger adversary – the addiction of sniffing a specific item of stationery.  Soon the orphan slum-child refuses to eat with you, or take the clothes you give, or attend your lessons.  He already accepted his fate somewhere during the course of his eight year old existence, and now refuses to see any other reality beyond it. They tell me there is no hope left for the world.

A country where land mines are part of the daily reality of school children is yet another achievement. Ladakh- it’s a bitter realization that there exists a world where courting death on an everyday basis is a lived reality, where warning signs of land mines are just as normal and mundane as the nearest sign post around the corner.  Kindly stay close to the main road, to avoid being blown up into chunks smaller than your pinkie. Have a good day!

A little world of comforts- which in turn gives rise to more illusions prepared, garnished and served on the silver platter of neo-colonialism, patriarchy and First World privileges- is sufficient to make us feel good about ourselves, probably even indulge in a feeling of self-importance. However, beyond this world of palatable truths lurks a reality somewhere out on the streets -that place we have never been to, completely untouched by the naiveté of the existence we are often deluded into leading.

Reflections: On Character

‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a writer’

1. I’m trying to keep up but A is moving quickly. Already L had been shed from our company, lost somewhere in the bazaar behind us. It’s my turn I guess, but I’m not quite done. I catch up to him, walking briskly beside him while I try to assimilate the sentence that will get me what I want. I want two things, I want my goddamn story and I want my goddamn flip flops.

Which A is wearing. I’m wearing his- a somewhat expensive looking foreign thing all black leather and cushy and a bit too cushy for my feet. I’m not sure A is even aware I’m beside him until he speaks over his shoulder, all matter of fact-like without breaking pace, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’

Glancing at his feet, I weigh my options. It’s unlikely I’ll get both, and I’m not going to try his patience now- he’s on his way to the Holy Family clinic to see his girlfriend, she overdosed a couple of days ago and will probably raise hell if he doesn’t show up now that she’s okay. Damn. ‘Remember, I need to meet your nephew, the street racer? I want to do a story on him’

A is stumbling around the busy intersection, hanging on to the roofs of autorickshaws as he peers inside each looking for one without a passenger. If he gets hit by one, I’ll take what’s mine and he can have what’s his and that shall be the end of that. Fuck the story. But he probably won’t. Too many people know him here. Too many people fear him. The guy has clout- enough that his awkwardly bent frame shuffling furiously through the crowded market street with a head full of opiates demands no consternation, not a second look from anyone. They’ve seen the gold chains, they’ve seen the expensive watch. They know him as ‘seth’ here- boss. No, he’ll be fine. I’ll have to think of something else.

‘Meet with L and give me a call in the evening, you can meet my nephew then.’

I say nothing, and taking one last look at his feet, I turn around and head back. He’ll find an auto eventually and take it to the girlfriend. He kept referring to her as the girlfriend , the female.

When I’ll call him at around 8 that night, he’ll be with her, still obstinate and still high, and his voice still like jagged stone- just like I had left him, and I shall know that nothing that I had felt earlier had been an exaggeration or a play of memory. The fear, the danger had been real. I had spent the morning with the wolf, and I was not yet done. He still had my story. He still had my flip flops.

‘Who the fuck is going to read your magazine?’

2. It was about 10:30 in the morning, L had asked me to come in and meet A, whom he had introduced as a guy that was starting a rehab clinic. I had been interested in the process and had set up a meet with him at L’s place- a rundown hovel of a room in one of the side gullys of the main market without water or electricity and a filthy mattress for a bed surrounded by strange trash that I couldn’t guess the purpose of if I tried. L had showed me the place a few days ago- pointing at the door he’d said that A had donated it a year or so back, and he’d made do with a curtain for the last 22 odd years. L thinks very highly of A, he thinks of him as a brother. But then L thinks very highly of me, and thinks I have been sent by God, because we had ended up talking once in the back lot of a nearby church, a place he hadn’t been for 15 years. He took that as a sign, even though I’d really only asked him if he knew a quiet place we could sit and smoke. I had been interviewing him for a small story-he had seemed to be an interesting character. ‘I really like you,’ he had told me at our first meeting, ‘if you ever need any help… if you ever need someone killed…’ His eyes had trailed off and the quick, excited smile that played on his lips when he would have a generous thought faded, ‘Yeah, I’ve been looking for a job these days,’ he’d said, the creases on his face returning until his face was quite lost in the intersecting folds of skin that seemed to lay the geography of his difficult life. L is 60, looks 30, and is insane; but he’s a nice fellow. But I won’t get into the things he told me about himself, or even the things that I understood because this is not his story. This is mine.

It was bad politics to hang out with L- I’d been told (and he’d told me as much) that he’d been in jail a couple of times, most recently for slashing a man’s stomach with a thermocol cutter. L is kind of an interior designer. The bazaar is a close-knit community where word travels fast. But he’d seemed interesting and I figured it was worth the damage. When he started speaking of A, I thought I’d hit a new break, found a greater perspective to the story. And yeah, I guess I did.

Right on time, I found my way to L’s door; it was open and the curtain that was usually drawn in the doorframe was pulled backwards and swung over the door to let the breeze in. I found the two of them sitting cross legged on the mattress with L holding up a thin folded sheet of aluminum and running a wax match under a fat drop of brown sugar that A was chasing with a small chillum fashioned out of a playing card. So much for the rehab clinic, I thought as I took a seat beside them.

‘What do you do?’

‘I’m a writer’

I lit a cigarette as I watched them continue, absolutely unabated by my presence or that of the chai walla that brought me a cup of tea on L’s insistence, or the few that paused in the door and looked in or the many that did not. A asked if I was a teetotaler when I declined his offer to have L bring some whiskey for me. Before the shock wore off, A explained what a teetotaler was and I mutely agreed. A would demonstrate his literacy and acumen several times in the next three hours. He recommended the novel ‘Valley of Dolls’ and spoke at length of an old de Palma film I had not seen. As he dived into the heroin again, I asked him if he was aware of Killer Joe, attributing it incorrectly to de Palma. He was. Great movie.

He had a thick gold chain around his neck and a couple of bracelets, also gold, also heavy, on his right wrist. He wore a beautiful watch on his other wrist that he told me was worth a small fortune. Its pale metal gleamed dangerously in the hole of a room we were sitting in. I wondered what a man of his stature was doing in a place like that. He began to tell me of a film script he’d been approached to write but refused to because the money wasn’t enough. I said sometimes you’ve got to take what you get. He said he didn’t need it. Said I didn’t know who he was, at which point L introduced him. Yes, I would say he was a big shot gangster. But I would say that he was a big shot gangster. He was in construction now- screaming at people on the phone, promising to hang them from the roof of his office. I made note to myself- Never go to his office. His ringtone was the cry of gulls.

I looked him in the eye, the casual slits he was talking from shining eerily in the light of the single candle L had set up on a plastic bottle for some reason. The glint made him look powerful. I wondered what he could do for me. I asked him if he would write an article on the state of the drug trade, that he had been a part of back in the day, in the city today. He said he wanted to co-author a book with me about the rise of the drug trade in Bombay from the 1950’s until today- naming names, all that. I said that sounded dangerous. He said if I put his name on it, no one would come after me, no one would kill me. I said I wasn’t willing to bet my life on that. And I was too busy with my magazine.

‘How many people do you think would read your magazine?’

Yeah, I know. He said he knew a publisher in Dubai that would buy the manuscript guaranteed for a crore. It was a story that would sell, and I knew it. We’d split the money even. I said I wasn’t ready for such a big commitment, especially on such a dangerous subject.

‘How much are you going to sell your magazine for?’

Nothing. It’ll be free. There’ll be a page at the back with information on how to donate.

‘How much does a printing press cost?’

A lot.

‘I can put up that money for you’

Fuck you.

‘I’ll give… lend… you this book called Acropolis, by Julius Caesar. “You too Brutus!” Kya line hai!’

L pitched in, taking his turn on the foil with the heroin.

‘If-you-stick-by-this-man-he-will-help-you,’ he droned, his voice shaking tersely, strangely elongated from the smoke he was inhaling even as he spoke.

I am Faust, about to make a deal with the devil? No.

‘You’re not an optimist,’ I pointed out, coming back to the magazine.

In his voice like gravel he spoke with an intelligence that frightened, intrigued me, ‘I believe that black is black and white is white’

What I saw was a 50 year old man sitting in baggy boxer shorts and a pink shirt smoking cheap heroin with a junkie in a slummy room surrounded by trash. Yes, I’d be in his 2 million dollar flat (next to his other 2 million dollar flat) in an exclusive part of town the next day, hoping to meet his nephew, the real story, the feature story for my magazine. But he’d be wearing the same clothes. Actually so would I and it was only L who had seemed to have changed his shirt into a white t-shirt with a large black screw printed on it under the word ‘WANNA’ in bold. I’d also get my flip flops back, but just barely.

He pressed me on the book, said it would be my ticket. He was right, but I wasn’t interested. It was pissing him off that I wouldn’t see reason. I told him he was a businessman, I an artist, we have a fundamental difference in perspective. But then I wondered, why was I there? If I never wanted to meet the likes of him what kept me there on that damp, disgusting mattress? Did I need him? We exist in different worlds- he, of actions and consequences- routine and I, of chaos, medley, a very pleasant and very comfortable and very generous kind of madness, where I do nothing and prosper, where I commit grave action and mistakes to no consequence. I could not say to him, to his face and mine, ‘Who you are looking for to write this book is a man, not a boy.’ Too big too fast- the way things can work sometimes in this city, but I will not yield to just any tide.

He’d been on and off the phone with his girlfriend a few times. ‘Kaun hai abhi tumhare saath?’ He got up suddenly and made to leave, in a rush putting on my flip flops instead of his slippers, and was out before I realized he wasn’t coming back.

L and I raced after him, I needed my appointment and footwear and L, I don’t think L knew what he was doing at this point. As I caught up to A, I realized he looked dofferent. In the market, in the bright light of day, this dominating, serious man had been reduced to a worn out shell struggling through the crowd. In his boxers and pink shirt, he looked pathetic and weak- a hunched, beat figure squinting in the sun. Where was the ‘seth’ now? Where was the snake eyed man that had frightened me?

It wasn’t until I called him later that day, imagining the wistful serenity of his ringtone as the bell rang, and spoke to him that I was reminded of the gravity of my situation. It was real. It returned. Did A carry his strength in his voice?

Suddenly I was very weary, and wanted nothing more to do with L or A or his nephew. I wanted the moment to pass and leave no refrain. Nothing. I had to set the alarm for 8:30 when A had said he’d meet me at L’s, but I didn’t want to associate that hour with him. In the morning I was 4 hours late, but I don’t think he noticed.

And what about my magazine? The one no one will read and I’ll give out for free?

The one with news but not hard news. The one with writing but nothing that would put me in harm’s way.

Won’t I need a graphic designer?

I don’t know. I can hear him taunt me, and he’s right. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.

Hatred is an institution. We’re all playing catch up.

Hear – Advised on Urbanity

And here’s our first guest post- a poem by Alia Sinha, a student of Media and Culture at the TATA Institute of Social Sciences

Listen,
Before you spill your secrets to strangers
Or to me
This is the wrong time to be thus-
Wandering with swollen ankles and
Looking through curtained windows
For love.

Towers are crumbling into light splinters as
Helicopters crash in fields of wheat
While all along
Sorrow plays out in pink brassieres
Sold on the sides of streets

Here steel-shod golden eyed
Electric-lit
Monsters stand
Breathing mad music into sweet wine
Breathing sweet melodies into the night
They cannot roam with you
They can only grieve or charm.

Once
Dreamers owned these once-forests
Fire they cried. They were not wrong.
But so what?
Weep no more for the sensuous or the tender
Only remember
Once
They were strong.

Meanwhile torn-eared hyena be
With gilded fur and moony eyes
With delicate shoes
With throaty cries
Grin yellow toothed for cameras,
and acknowledge irony.

SIGHTS: MTV, LOWER PAREL; TAKING Part 1

“I say. You know this does utilize well” Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Acting on the information I know, I’m carrying a green Giordano blazer; It must be 35 degrees but not where I’m going; and headed to classy South Mumbai. I’m going to the Palladium, a gigantic mall where all the world class fancy tiling and foreign boutiques can’t seem to shake the evil stench of Neutrogena or mask the pallor of regurgitated creme fraiche – but I admit, the AC is top class and draws the potential from the city’s dress sense- Calvin Klein and Aldo, not exactly Versace but Tommy, and thankfully little in the way of Fab India. A foreign pianist plays elegantly on the Steinway parked next to the customer care counter. Brahms? Yes, yes, I think so… well, fuck knows.

Anyway I’m at the wrong place, the venue for MTV’s Youth Marketing Forum is next door, at an equally cushy ‘indie’ (in the way such things tend to be) furniture store, the Good Earth. I find the place- last stop in an enclave of exclusive decor stores and enter. Upstairs, against an arty little cafe filled with foreigners (good design, obedient art hanging against each table- very money), I find the door- it’s a large sized space with a stage set up against the wall, taking on the guise of a teenager’s bedroom with Bob Marley posters and stuff like that, and a huge LED wall playing an MTV graphic over and over. The cameras are just finishing setting up and there’s a crowd of some 200 people ambling in- I take a seat. Cyrus Brocha is mediating, assuaging the angst of those collected- no one seems to know what the thing is about. So we wait. The room is hot, the blazer is on my lap.

Aditya Swamy, MTV business head, comes on stage in an unimpressive, if shiny, gray suit jacket (that  is not quite Zegna and I wonder why, I’d be surprised if he can’t afford it) and begins to talk about some project they’ve been working on called ‘Curious Minds’.

“We’re in the business of young people,” he proclaims, and somehow the thought disturbs me- being the first hint of something I will figure out in the next few hours. The project turns out to be an international survey of some 11000 kids to gauge their priorities, desires, aspirations- information they used to hire experts for. I wonder at the change in tactics, but the graphics change and Swamy exits, leaving the stage for something I was not expecting.

So what they have come up with is Aryan Khanna, a 16 year old bastard child of consumption that seems to exist in a state of perpetual exhilaration. He has a little laptop with all his friends a on it and a compulsion to engage in spirited appreciation and sharing, centered suspiciously around electronic dance music defecated by MTV India’s most recent imports. As he air drums, guitars, etc to the music, sharing the passion of his consumption with his friends (all blown up on the LED wall for everyone to learn from) I realize I have walked in to something a little different from what I think it was supposed to be. Seated in the third row, I look at those ahead of me, on the reserved seats- Swamy, Brocha, other, nameless execs are studying the kid in engrossed detail. Suddenly I realize that MTV has no interest in catering to a market- it aims to create one– and this silent freak show of a human being that can’t enter a room without wearing Beats headphones and dribbling a basketball like it is so essential that every moment of his life, even the time it takes to cross over the room to his couch, is spent doing something, using something- is not only their imagination of what youth, all youth, look like, but also concept they’re trying their damndest to bring to actuality.

I think of S, and A, my friends that work here that invited me, is this the world like they see it? What are they building here?

A swarthy, glazed eyed European comes on and begins to drone about MTV having it’s “finger on the pulse” and begins to talk about youth. “Young people around the world are surprisingly similar,” he interprets from the statistics they’ve established from the survey. They’re “all travelling in the same direction.” The numbers are insane, perverse and the powerpoint slides conflict each other. They suggest a mechanical world that thrives in isolation, where consumption is achievement and social commitment and nuance boils down to “if you don’t share that funny thing, you’re out of it.” They’ve know, they’ve assessed the “market”.

Some guy comes on- it’s a politician, Shashi Tharoor. “India is owned by the young,” he says with a straight face, blown up incredibly on the large LED directly behind him. I wonder at the signs, the superimposition of Shashi Tharoor on Shashi Tharoor, what the hell does it mean? I’d be tired but this guy is electric and owns the room in 10 minutes with his irreverent banter with Cyrus and masterly command of memes. He has a voice like rough silk and is talking about the participation of youth in the election, saying exactly the right things- it’s easy to forget this guy was in the news recently- where the best case scenario, the one that the courts eventually believed, was that his wife had killed herself after learning of his infidelity and that’s all he had to do with it.

Inevitably, conversation turns to the Aam Aadmi Party, which he and Cyrus take turns bashing it until he turns and is serious, suggesting that while people may be sick of corruption, “there are no quick fixes, no easy solutions.” That’s what she said?

The interminable vision of a tyrant – a Czech guy comes on, he’s selling Tomorrowland some kind of EDM festival like a hundred others these motherfuckers seem to hold in Goa. Nothing new about this, nothing definitive- just one more. Taking in his short, stocky frame and the spotlights glinting off his white, shaven head, I think of the Portuguese, flooding the shores of our nation (if in khakis this time), wave after bloody wave of incursions that had cost us grievously then. He reads my mind, “We ARE coming” he says, describing his determination to win over the competition. No one contests, nobody cares. Yes, it’s finally sinking in- it’s all happened before and they’re back – this is the new Jalianwalla Bagh- Goa- a city we’ve set aside for them to see how far they can go. Describing Tomorrowland’s relationship with MTV, he slips, and he calls MTV a “big commercial monster” before he corrects himself, “of course I mean monster in a nice way.”

What I feel is dread. I realize I’m with the wolf in his den, where he thinks he’s among his own and speaks freely. I try not to blink when our eyes meet and say nothing. This will be over soon, I have only to sit still and make no sudden movements, and I shall pass unnoticed. All through the day I have been hearing the corporation talking, like from a huge machine head, delivering machine thoughts, perfectly rational in its mind, to an audience of mediums that will convey the message- and in the process, create the environment the message is to be delivered, and received in.

Collectively, we will await avatarati- our passage from this state of consciousness into the one they’re creating- a mass produced, perfectly referenced one that would be very viable indeed. They’d know. They took the goddamn survey, didn’t they?

In Living Memory, Ganpatpatil Nagar, Thoughts from a Nation in Flux, Peril

9 Jan – Ganpatpatil Nagar

A thin fire is the only light in the long alley, otherwise dark except for a narrow sliver of light shining out of the uneven skirting of Sangita’s rough, shapeless door- it cuts a strange beam across the kacchi gully in the light winter mist, resting, diffused, as a narrow strip of colour on the blue tin wall of the shack opposite to her’s. I put my equipment in her house and join the people at the fire. It is Irshad and Sangita and a few other residents from the same gully, number 7- we are in Ganpatpatil Nagar.

My breath fogs in the air; it wasn’t as cold at the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan in Azad Maidan where we’re coming from, some 40 kilometers south though we’re in the same city. The mist surprises me, but shouldn’t- we are, after all from a legal and technical point of view in the wilderness, and this slum that is home to over 20,000 people should not exist, a sentiment that shall, in large part, be brought to realization a few hours from now- courtesy of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the 14 bulldozers and the 2000 cops I hear they are sending. Medha Patkar is working on obtaining a stay order from the BMC, she’s meeting them at 11 AM. The demolition should start at around 9. It’s up to the people to hold them off for those two hours.

Sangita’s shack is large sheets of tin held together by rope and bamboo and it can barely hold the lot of us. It is I and Irshad plus those that already sleep here- Sangita, Seema, Sangita’s infant daughter and Ravi. Seema is to be married and sent off to Pune in a few days, I’d joke about it with her for months. I’m shivering in my leather jacket on a thin chatai next to Irshad, who seems impervious to the cold; when I wake up someone has put another sheet on me. It was Ravi, Sangita’s brother; I’d hear him say as much to someone in a month or so, recounting my ‘humanity’ and ‘sacrifice’ to those present. Never trust people that say good things about you, seldom do they mean well. It’s 6 AM, I assemble my gear and am ready to shoot in 30 seconds. Seema is amused, insists I have tea first; Irshad is out talking to some of the men- instructions. ‘But your homes are about to be destroyed,’ I think, confused. ‘Yeah, yeah, but you can’t get through the day on an empty stomach.’ Probably, I can, but I oblige. Soon Wakil Bhai will take the both of us to his shack, a more defined place that he runs a cement business out of, where he’s had breakfast prepared for us. Samosas.

Mere hours before the bulldozers arrive, I am being led on a tour of blocks and blocks of shacks and shops running across all the gullys (there are 14) that won’t be there come evening time. The official word from the BMC is that the slum has been built on designated mangrove area, protected under law from all encroachment- Ganpatpatil Nagar is something like a 2 kilometer stretch, some 1 kilometer in width, which lies between a major link road and a vanishing sprawl of mangroves where they’ve built a mall and other, municipality sanctioned ‘pakka’ structures that the BMC finds no problems with. The land value of Ganpatpatil Nagar would be in the billions by any estimation. They’ve drawn an imaginary line extending 30 feet inwards from the outer edge running through the whole slum. This will be the demolition zone. Within a month, that line would be extended until the road, and there would be no slum. At least that was the plan.

6 Feb – Ganpatpatil Nagar

Sangita steps through the door, automatically in the space of a few minutes, the attendance of a meeting begins to arrive. Or so I think. As usual, nobody is talking about anything, but I have determined a few things. A new door has been installed, Ravi probably did it, and a sofa moved into Sangita’s house. I fail to see the reason, whatever talk there is centered on the technical assemblage of the door. Later a carpenter will come along and put an estimate on fixing the three-seater at around 10,000 rupees. It’s the foam and the fabric you see, it’ll have to be replaced, and the woodwork attended to also.

The slum is being demolished again, a small portion around a week later. No one seems perturbed, but I am nowhere near the scene of proposed destruction. Sangita alone seems preoccupied, her daughter idling on her lap. Everyone else continues small talk. The girl is also silent, I don’t know her name but I photographed her a little over a week ago standing over the tarped up remains of her family shack in one of the gullys I’m not familiar with. She was smiling when I asked her. All of this is routine. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing unexpected.

A majority of the shacks that were destroyed have already been rebuilt, or are in the process of reconstruction depending on the financial situation of the owner. Yes, they are the owners- it takes 1.5 lakh rupees for the tin, bamboo and rigging on top of the price they’ve paid for the land. Reconstruction has not been possible where the BMC has dug deep trenches, levelling the land is expensive work and would fall on the individuals residing on those patches instead of the community, as it had done at the beginning, when the area had been marshes and the first squatters had moved in, tilling the earth, levelling it to a standard and building their shacks upon it- work that would’ve cost millions to any developer that would undertake it, which is why they didn’t, and their interest only wanders in now when a large part of making the land habitable has already been done.

A couple of women walk in, Sangita greets them and begins to talks shop. They seem to be volunteers of some kind from their community whatever that may be, but they don’t look it. No one looks anything. Seeing has nothing to do with believing. These women may or may not actually be talking to Sangita about a cooking job. I don’t know what anyone is really here for. The meeting, while thoroughly expected, has yet to materialize.

A baby sleeps on a chatai on the floor. Sangita’s 3 year old plays in front of a framed portrait of BR Ambedkar, the larger of two framed in the shack.

The girl’s name is Namrita. She’s calling numbers to attend the meeting, dialling from a list on a record book. Beside me, they talk about me. It’s good things so I don’t pay attention, all I’ve been doing for them so far is turning up, and they think me worthy for it. In a year, all that my work on them will produce is a handful of likes on Facebook.

The disgusting man is sitting next to me on the sofa. 10 days ago on Republic Day, when the police had sent spies that used their mobile phones to record the public talks the people here were having with Medha Patkar, one had been, for lack of a better word, captured, and held in Sangita’s shack while they figured out who he was- along with all my stuff and all my stuff on them in my dirty messenger bag under the television. The ‘disgusting man’ had been the only one to make the connection and had excused himself from the most crucial event in the history of the slum (when Medha Patkar shows up at your slum during a period of sustained demolitions, your slum is not going to be demolished anymore) and joined the lonely captive just to keep an eye on my equipment.

That day Patkar had called out to me, ‘Hey, Lucknowi! Take care of all that footage you’ve been shooting. It’s proof.’

‘Okay,’ but I didn’t believe it. Proof of what? I didn’t even understand half the things that I was recording. The who, that seemed to change every time I asked. The why, that would slip under my feet like treacherous ice when I’d try to put a finger on it. Every time I’d inch towards an understanding, the entire context would change. Like it had with Sital Mhatre.

Mhatre, a Congress corporator who had once risen to power having won the Ganpatpatil Nagar voting block, had shown up at Gully Number 1 on the day of the first demolition, spoken, and left before the bulldozers arrived. I had been inside, filming the organization of resistance (the same that would break in about 2 seconds once the laathi charge began), so I had not seen or heard her. I asked around, what had she said? There were two answers- she had protested the demolition of the slum, or, she had spoken to the police official in charge after a personal assessment of the situation and had given the go-ahead for the same.

A few days after that she went on hunger strike at the nearby police station. Many were angry that I had not gone there to document it (I couldn’t go because the same cops that had arrested me for shooting without a press pass were probably on the lookout for me for making asses of them by the way of dealing out just enough misinformation that each officer thought I had explicit permission from the other). I got a phone call, the voice on the other end was seething, ‘Don’t you know Sital Mhatre is starving for us, don’t you care? All you want to see is the demolition, nothing else interests you people.’ I told him to go fuck himself and hung up, but for all the confusion it caused not having attended the fast, I almost wish I had gone, whatever trouble may have awaited me. Ravi would say that yes, Mhatre did go on hunger strike, but she did it for the BMC to continue with the demolition, as pausing midway to confront a contest of legality would probably evolve into talks and compromise, and people like Mhatre, who stand to gain a lot from making arrangements for allotting the slum land for redevelopment would not be able to keep their secret promises to builders.

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By 8 PM, the meeting has largely collected- just under 40 people crammed into the little shack, with many watching from the door. Sangita, head of the anti-demolition resistance, and chief communicator with Patkar’s camp, lists her good action, which would otherwise not be known. An attendance call of those present begins, nearly everybody is present. Someone raises the point of transparency in the usage of their contributions. She explains how it works and calls for donations. Wakil Bhai is the first to lay down something like a thousand rupees. Our eyes meet as hers travel across the room, she instantly looks away, my money is no good here.

8 Feb – Ganpatpatil Nagar

Another demolition, this time targeting the ‘pakki’ shops lining the Link road, the only concrete structures in the slum, keeping ‘cover’, according to a few locals, for the rest of the ‘kacchi’ structures- all 4000 of them. Several of the shops remain, benefiting from the temporary effects of a stay order acquisitioned individually by each shop owner for periods extending from 6 months to 10 years.

Sangita is in attendance of a Mahila Committee meeting in not so nearby Chembur, I’m at her house with Ravi, Naseem, Seema, my crazy informant that calls me late at night with usually irrelevant information, and a strange woman, in front of whom I don’t know if I, privy to certain things that Sangita would rather keep secret for now, can openly ask questions around. I’ve never seen her before. Ravi is fixing Sangita’s kid’s bike. I have to ask these questions. 2 bulldozers flanked by a substantial police force worked 4 hours from 10 in the morning to clear 100 structures. It seems to be bureaucracy, rule frenzy, since the negotiations for ratification of the slum under the Nagar Palika rules have already begun. Once Ganpatpatil Nagar is officially declared a slum, its residents will be applicable for various schemes for protection and relocation by the government.  Naseem says Sital Mhatre sat on her ‘anshan’ to get rid of undocumented structures- I’m too tired to care. As I wait for Sangita, I’m filled in. Acting on information from ‘dalals’ (agents), bent cops collect up to 3000 rupees for every structure under reconstruction. Today, far from the bulldozers, some cops on foot personally destroyed a shack being rebuilt by owners who hadn’t paid them. I suppose they did it with their laathis.

Medha Patkar attends a public forum in Ganpatpatil Nagar

Medha Patkar attends a public forum in Ganpatpatil Nagar

The stay order obtained by Sangita, valid for the whole slum (excluding 30 feet from the road) for 6 months, which is the duration of all intended activism for GP, has not yet come into application. In fact I was not aware of its existence until just now- things move fast here, and for all the things people tell you, they tend to forget about the much larger ones. The order was brought in through Medha Patkar earlier this week. Today’s demolition seems to be a desire by the BMC to project a sense of officiality, jurisdiction and continuity with the ongoing demolition drive. It’s only political, but these people live here.

The lady in the corner turns out to be a woman here to get a divorce. This, her second husband, a drunk with a predilection towards pulling disappearance acts, beats her. Her first husband is dead. She is carrying a bag around with her clothes in it. Is she staying here, at Sangita’s? I’ll know if I see her again.

They wait till everyone has left, then shut the door, assigning someone at the door. Inner circle stuff, too many ‘dalals’ to sabotage information into misinformation before it can be used- Sangita produces a map printed on a large sheet like it’s the new testament- it’s an old map of the slum, clearly marking the ‘khadi’ (or slum) area at a sufficient distance from the designated mangroves to satisfy the Nagar Palika- the slum does not encroach upon the protected marshes- there is no legal justification for its demolition.

Late Feb – Ambeywadi

I’m walking with Irshad in Ambeywadi, Antop Hill, the slum he works out of. Where Ganpatpatil Nagar is dusty earthen gullys and tin shacks, Ambeywadi is concrete rooms and badly made, but ‘pakki’ roads. Some structures here are two, three floors high. They have electric poles wiring extending to every house and shop. Irshad tell me that one side of this street we’re walking on even has plumbing. Very suddenly it strikes me that this is what Ganpatpatil Nagar will look like in 5 years. And in 10 or 15, it probably won’t be much unlike Chembur where I live- quiet, open residential streets intertwined with crowded, narrow commercial gullys, dotted frequently with high rises and public spaces- parks, pools and little squares.

This is what I couldn’t grasp in Azad Maidan, three months ago. I could hear them complain about their problems, but I didn’t know what they were; I could hear them talk about the future, but I couldn’t imagine what it could be. This. At Azad Maidan, thronged by thousands eager for their place in the city, making awkward small talk with Anand Patwardhan was the only time I thought I was spending right, but hope is infectious, and if I have not caught theirs at least I know what it looks like.

March 2013 – Andheri, Ganpatpatil Nagar

Irshad is going to ask me, what changed your opinion of Sangita? I’ll tell him like that was where I drew the line, ‘I think she has ambitions in politics.’ When I had listened to her, it was a dark, pitch black cold night when we huddled around the fire the night before the Republic day flag hoist, when Medha Patkar would visit the slum for the first time. She spoke of the struggles her people had faced getting to this moment. I knew them, I had seen them, I knew what she was saying was right. When Patkar would come, everything would work out, it was the beginning of the end of a very long journey. ‘I’m not going to change,’ she said, referring to what she was wearing, something plain, worn- characteristic of her. The dancing light of the fire played shadows across her face, and I thought for a minute as she sat in silence that I could see the unyielding greatness that must have carried in her blood from ages past, when we fought and died for freedom and dignity, concepts we care little for having once achieved them. In the morning the door to her shack was shut. I wondered what was going on- she emerged later, wearing a beautiful white sari. ‘Something very small,’ a friend would remark when I related the incident bitterly, smoking imported tobacco in a cushy 7 Bungalow flat some days later, languishing after a stroll on nearby Versova beach. But I’d been betrayed.

10 Jan – Ganpatpatil Nagar

K,

You had asked me to detail a profound experience I’d had on my travels- I was unwilling to say it then, afraid that meaning would be lost in the semblance of words, and I’d deliver it wrong, or you’d take something from it that I didn’t receive, something that wasn’t mine to give. Or I would remember it wrong, and putting it down in words, the actual moment would be lost to me forever. I’ll tell you now though, I think I can.

Towards the evening, the police had largely left, as had the bulldozers that had razed about a fifth of Ganpatpatil Nagar, a slum near Dahisar and Borivali, home to some 20,000 people. I was moving freely now, unconstricted with having to remain out of sight from the cops who had arrested me earlier the same day only to see me return under false pretexts. That was their fault as the true pretext of my attendance they found did not work for them- I was, after all, pretending to be a purveyor of truth. Did just turning up make me one? Does writing about it all this time later, when it is difficult for me to imagine it being any help to anyone that could have required it then make me one now?

My face was dry, it seems; I had been running around from early morning, recording incoherent pleas of protest, outrage and indignation. People were dragging me around to show me how they were living. They knew they had it wrong. This was a revelation to me. They’ve come from somewhere places of their own and have their own dreams, their own perceptions of themselves, their function; lives they want. They showed me their people, their temples of worship. They were in jeopardy. The bulldozers were coming. This was a final recording, after it the subjects would cease to exist and the people would move, but no one knew where.

It is hard to feel kindly toward the better off of them, as you would envy the rich their comfort, the same existed of the security some of them had, and I could feel a twinge of it, when I’d come across someone who was under the shadow of no uncertainty whatsoever. As for the others, well as I walked amid the rubble of the remains of some 1400 shacks, I came across a boy in a school uniform and bag with a strange smile on his face- he was wandering on a small hill of tin sheets and broken, dangerous wood where his shack had been. Someone pointed at him and said, ‘Look at him, he got back from school hours ago, he doesn’t know where to put his bag.’

In gully no. 6, trying to get to no. 7 where my base was, where my leather jacket was (from the cold night before), I looked for a passage into the adjoining gully. A man stopped me, and asked he something, he must have asked me the news. I must have told him, I don’t remember, and I don’t remember why he stopped me. He was a magnificent fellow, ugly as a tree in a dirty loongi and an awful, torn vest. He was big and round, dark as ebony and had two copper plated teeth. His voice was like the voice of God.

He said I’d been working very hard. I must’ve been at it for 11 hours, so I took a moment to listen. He asked me to sit down and yelled at a child to bring out a chair for me from one of the shacks. A few other people just stood around, at a comfortable distance, perfectly still. The man repeated, aaj bahut mehnat ki hai. He had been watching me on my feet since morning, and he told me. Did he say, ‘Esne bahut kiya hai hamare liye’, or did someone else say that. I’ve heard it said a lot of me now, but it isn’t true, but I never correct it. I have done nothing, been around a lot, but achieved nothing. Nothing I saw was written, no picture I took was sent out anywhere, no video was uploaded online. I did nothing. I have done nothing now still. I might. I don’t know what to do. I waited for the milk, he gave me water first since I had asked for water when he offered me milk, thinking him a poor man to have him part with milk. I drank- I wasn’t tired, but I was dry. I must’ve been, I don’t remember. The man ran a dairy farm one gulley down, he told me. The people around us watched, said nothing. They were audience.

To continue the conversation, out of habit, I gestured east and responded to the acclamation of my efforts, ‘but what good did it do?’, and I let it be as though the words could make it that it could have, that I could have. My voice was breaking suddenly. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ He told the others gathered behind him that I had been at my work all day, and no one had offered me water to drink, or a meal. It wasn’t true, he didn’t know it (we had actually broken for a surreal mid-day meal during the demolition), but I said nothing. I was too hard at work holding back my emotions. It may be ridiculous but it’s true.

The boy (was it a boy?) brought out the milk in a steel glass. I nodded politely at the man, the heavy, ridiculous looking man- I thought I’d never see him again but I did. I was heavy from the painful, troubling day that was just beginning to end for me, the least of all my worries. The milk was warm. It was mild and rich and full, with living cream floating in thick strands through the length of the glass. It was the best milk I can remember having ever had.

Reflections: Witness, Memory

He stood behind us as N. tried to teach me roulette or whatever it was in the same way that he tried to teach me the bus routes or anything- mumbling endlessly to hear his own voice. I despised him completely, but maybe I didn’t know it then. He watched the screen as N. played, clearly, or not so clearly he was waiting for the low stakes unit to be free so he could use it. N. would walk away at times to see the television thing or something and I would slide in so the seat was saved for us. The man stood there for a very long time, 10 or 15 minutes right behind us without any inclination to communicate. It was interesting. Somehow he got to speaking, I forgot how. I think he made a recommendation to N. and they got to talking from there. He warned me against gambling, said he’d been at it for 12 years, or was it 14, and said it leads nowhere. I asked him why he did it, he said he came when he had nothing to do, and was there most nights. Well dressed Eastern European with a Muslim finish- Albanian, Bosnian, he must be, I thought. There was too much in London for me to wonder what he did, if I did I do not remember. I told him I had no interest in gambling, was only accompanying N. because it was 2, 3 maybe 4 am and what else was I supposed to do.

An oriental girl massaged some guy’s neck on the corner machine for a pound a minute. I was staring at the television where the roulette wheel was streaming live from the floor on the ground level. Or something, I don’t remember what I was watching but I was watching intently. Something hit the back of my head. What the fuck? I look around, there’s a pen on the ground beside me. The Albanian is waving a hand a couple of rows behind me- it was him. He had wanted to break my concentration he thought I was being drawn into the game. Or maybe he just couldn’t see the screen. I moved away.

Hours later, I am bored and I’ve just had a cigarette on the little balcony overlooking a minute portion of the bustling night. I’m looking to write, I think it’s a good time to. I find a sofa with a guy sleeping in one corner, I take the other side and settle down with my book and find my pen. The Albanian guy is coming up the stairs, he spots me and says hello. I’m ready for some conversation and I depend on people to sense that and I guess he does; he looks exhausted- an hour or so later he’ll ask me how old I think he is I am 3 years off but that’s his weariness I was accounting for. We talk, I don’t remember what, what I do comes up. I tell him I’m a photojournalist, I’ve been telling everyone that. He doesn’t discount it. He makes me an offer. He has a story he says, and he’ll tell it to me in full, God knows we have time, if I can tell where he’s from. Bosnia, I’m wrong. I know he’s not Albanian. He gives me 3 chances. Says he knows instantly where I’m from, I feel fucked and know if I don’t get it right I’m not getting what I guess I was brought here for. Serbia. It’s the same thing you know, he says, Bosnia, Serbia. Why, how do I think he’s from Bosnia? Semiotext(e)? Why? I just do, I’m usually never wrong, and never with South East Asians. I tell him I’m from the wrong part of the world to be able to tell him where he’s from. I wonder, today, months later, if he was going to tell me the story he told me had I not made it out. He gave me a clue, he was Muslim- Algeria, I said, he said yes, I said no and he showed me id. It said Algeria. I couldn’t believe it and couldn’t have guessed it. I was eager to hear the story- this is what he told me.

When he was 18 he faked some papers and joined the Algerian police against his father’s wishes, I think he said it paid well. This was the late 80’s. The Islamic party had been elected unexpectedly. The country was still reeling from the French, who had fucked them and slaughtered them and the people wanted to get as far away as possible now. A civil war kicked off and people were killing people again. His unit would dress up as Mujahideen and slaughter villagers and outskirts people to inspire hatred towards the Islamic party, it must have worked. He said it got real bad. ‘Brother killing brother’, made real how he said it. A country fighting to become what it wanted to.They found out and started killing police. All government workers- teachers, politicians, whatever. They started killing off his unit. Three attempts on his life, they tried to kill him but couldn’t somehow and he left. I don’t remember the details, did someone try once to slit his throat. I think someone shot that man. I don’t remember. I think it was a boy. Another attempt had two cars full of armed men raining bullets on his car.

I think he left his family behind. He never admitted to killing anyone himself, or being involved in the dressed up in disguise killings he was telling me about. He moved to London without a thing and he’s an accountant or something now. Won 60 grand at the casino once. Or was it 30? He said they start watching you if you go over 40, and then they want you to leave and they’ll kill you on your way home if you don’t. It’s a mafia business, he said. He told me his name. I’ve forgotten that too. I only met him once, and all the things he told me are lost to the world now, through me. But all that remains is sacred, because it happened. He said his friends who were there were having a meal and some French guy, 20, came in and everyone was wild and the French guy kept saying ‘but I had nothing to do with it’.

But that’s not the point. I faltered, and no irreparable harm was done, and no amount of Baba O’Riley can bring back the moment lost into nothingness, my careful signing hand, too busy to choose- I refused it then and it left. ‘No take it with you’. Last cigarette to remember it by, but it’s borrowed; the 24 hour pharmacy does not sell them downstairs, but they sell chocolate. All wrapped up like a shiny pretty thing, all dolls. But not that thing I like. And the fear I felt in the afternoon when I was thinking, that’s also gone, gone too and I’m safe here, for now because no one’s been asking me to leave. When I do leave I’ll have to leave without it, his story, so many stories because I’ve lost them- I was a witness and I’ve moved on. Now one lone mosquito stirs the air in this room and is my only concern. I don’t remember what happened in Algeria or how it affected me. I don’t remember the names of the people or the political parties and hardly recall anyone’s motivations and who got killed and who nearly got killed or how- though someone told me, I’ve forgotten. I keep these things as I keep air. I keep many things as I keep air, not the least of all many other people. What was his name? Come on Baba O’Riley, tell me his name too. I just don’t remember.

Sights: Kurla

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He told me what he wanted to tell me, how he had no one and things like that. I listened for a while and smiled a lot, not sure what he made of that. Dried blood on his hand, he said he carried a corpse to the hospital- works for the railway, 40 years. I think anyway, it was very hard to understand him. I touched his foot, it was awful and charred with dirt I don’t think will ever wash off him completely. Again, how long has this man got to live? I forgot his name too. Towards the end, it had gone sour, as he spoke agitated to me, accusatory and aggressive as I began to take his picture, I realized I was a hawk and he had just made me, there was absolutely nothing I could offer this man. Blood flew off his nose onto his pants, I had brushed a fly away from the horizontal gash on it but it had returned and I couldn’t care less. Who gives a fuck about him?

Case Study: Shaukat Sheikh, A Disappearance

11

 

I saw his son before I ever met him, Shaukat Sheikh, Irshad was making some phone calls in and NGO office and I saw the MISSING poster on the desk, held it out against him and took some photos. We were at Ambojwadi, embroiled in Ganpatpatil Nagar, far, far, far from other concerns.

The second time I ran into Shaukat, I was smoking a cigarette outside Irshad and Shafi Law’s office in Antop Hill, I don’t recall why I was there- it was becoming a bit tiresome when they’d call me all the way out for 5 minutes of information and I’d end up staying the entire day.

I recognized him immediately, even in the dark gulley. His tall, emaciated frame and that hawkish face; those alert, shining eyes. I’d photographed him at his home a few weeks ago in Golibar, Santacruz to cover the disappearance of his son in a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) fraud.

Shaukat was passed over for relocation when his area was allocated for redevelopment by a building agency, Shivalik Ventures, on the basis of an SRA criteria that allows free housing to slum-dwellers that have resided in their respective area since 1995. However, several others that did not meet the criteria were allocated housing, a fact Shaukat attributes to forgery and corruption, instigated not by the residents, but the promoters of Shivalik’s agenda in the slum.

Amid threats to life and family, he launched a series of RTIs (Right to Information query) into the builder’s practice, and it was revealed that the promoters had added fictitious names to the list of beneficiaries which forced a re-evaluation of the list by the Vigilance Committee of the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority.

On August 1, 2012, Mohammad Sajid, Shaukat Sheikh ’s oldest son disappeared on the way back from coaching classes. It was his fifteenth birthday.

It took 2 months for the police to recognize the case as a kidnapping, though fouler play is suspected still. I remember asking Shaukat if he thought the investigations of the police, the formation of a special investigation team on the order of the High Court, could possibly result in the return of his son. He told me at this point he’d rather just know what had happened to him.

A mysterious phone number showed up in three of Sajid’s school books. Sajid didn’t have a mobile phone. None of his friends had mobile numbers. Was this a relevant fact? The police refused to investigate the number, highly unusual given the context. Shaukat’s own digging revealed little.


There, in Antop Hill, he was visiting Shafi and Irshad to tell them of his court hearing the next day, where he expected the judge to put a deadline to the stagnant police investigation. He asked me if I could make it to the High Court the next day, I promised I would.

Shaukat is a simple person, who smiles kindly at jest. His lawyer, Wesley, a pro bono Human Rights guy, is joking with him, trying to work off his nerves before they enter the courtroom. He tells us all to turn our phones off; he asks me to button my collar, as it would be more formal. I oblige. He tells them not to speak, and let him handle it with the judge. I strike a conversation with his assistant, a dreamy eyed law school undergraduate. We’ll talk about noodle wrapped chicken at Mohammad Ali road. We enter.

This is a maritime courtroom, I just climbed onto a deck. Other than the light streaming in from the high windows on the upper level, the large room is lit simply by overhead lamps hanging from the clean, painted aluminum ceiling. Some cops stand around, they all wear shoes of the same ugly tan orange leather. There is the spirit of assembly, we’re all waiting for the judge to arrive; Shaukat is sitting a few spaces to my left on one of three benches on the dock, his wife to my side and Wesley, the lawyer, hovers behind him reviewing his notes.

The stacks of paper the court clerks handle on the long desk are voluminous. It appears to be pretend order, many steps to a dance of no tune. I’ve seen it in other government offices- stacks of damp, age old documents decaying in towers- they look like they haven’t been touched since being put there, and it’s difficult to imagine they would serve any purpose in the condition that they are. Metric tonnes of never digitized records that no one can handle now without tearing from cover to cover at the slightest touch. It’s all information they never knew how to process anyway- funny how they always want more.

The judge enters, preceded by a couple of bailiffs in cute red turbans, and court begins.

About half an hour into it, Shaukat turns to me and signals ‘2’. His case number is 8, there appear to be 2 left. Before I know it, it’s time.

I thought he’d lost his nerve in front of the judge, a sharp faced, fair skinned man with perfect English and an authoritative voice, but really he seems to be working himself into a respectful, subdued insistence that works really well on the judge. The main conflict here with the defendant is the reluctance to acknowledge the case as a kidnapping. The judge gives the police a week to conclude their investigation and orders immediate police protection for Shaukat and his remaining family- a 24 hour 2 man detail. Shaukat’s wife’s phone goes off. It’s a half minute of terrifying nonchalance until she realizes it’s her’s and rushes out of the room, ushered by annoyed but sympathetic court clerks and cops.

The judge is inquiring the cause of the delay in the results of the investigation, the state appointed defendant isn’t being convincing.

Does Shaukat understand what’s going on? Wesley is beaming.

It’s done, we exit the courtroom. In the busy hall, we clutch a corner against a bannister, one of the many that seem to be holding the place up and huddle around Wesley as he explains the verdict, telling Shaukat about the protection detail and the deadline. Shaukat asks if they’ve recognized the case as a kidnapping. They haven’t. Wesley explains that the court will await the police report. Shaukat, no one present, has any faith in the police.

What’s that look on Shaukat’s face? A crumbling look. Placcant. Complicated. I’ve seen it before, at school when a child would be told what they could not do, without hope or the possibility of reasoning or dialogue. A worthless affront by a system that doesn’t care; it surprises and frightens me to see that as it was for us as children, it will be for us as men, led unquestioningly by a useless cavalcade of better dressed, better educated fools.

Shaukat stood up against oppression and they took his son away. He turned to the system for help, the system that had betrayed him in the first place and it did nothing. Now, years later, it appears that the court will grant Shaukat recognition for his persistence. Acknowledgment of his loss? No, not yet. And no justice either, perhaps never that.

 

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Sights: Belfast, Amazing

Steel wall leading into Protestant side, shuts after dark, sometimes for good

Steel wall leading into Protestant side, shuts after dark, sometimes for good

I’m freezing on the ferry, all wrapped up like an eskimo; I won’t go inside. Ireland is coming, I’m dreaming.

I’m writing a story for a short film, it goes something like this, from a boy’s perspective- I flattered myself the bulge of a pack of Marlboros in my pocket. Tom’s mirror was quite expansive and presented an awkward view of his room from the wall. I wondered if my friend was influenced by this strange repetition and if it confused him as it often confused me, or perhaps he revelled in it. Was he very much in touch with who he was? Where would he hide to aspire? How can you lie in bed and dream when you can see yourself, your world and all of it at the flick of an eye? How, where, do you hide from yourself?
There’d been riots in Belfast and I’d caught the news a month ago and I wanted to see it before I left, it seemed the only interesting place in the UK, where people were still deciding things- what flag to wear, who to be. Every place else there I found dead, miserable in hopeless certainty- I blamed it on the architecture- so rigid and permanent, no one could imagine the place as anything other than it was, that it had been for many years. A fucking bore.

I thought I’d make a short film in Belfast- about a group of middle-class Catholic boys that go on a bicycle trip and get lost in a Protestant neighbourhood on the eve of a riot. So I go to Belfast, the fare is cheap and the passage beautiful.

John looks out at his city

John looks out at his city

(Belfast is brown in the rain) At the bus station, John, my host comes over to meet me. This guy has walked out of Hemingway and is exploding with drama and information. Just outside the station, he walks me through Bill Clinton’s arrival at the much bombed Europa Hotel and the signing of the peace treaty that put a relative end to the civil conflict that had raged in Northern Ireland for over thirty years. The way to his exquisitely decorated apartment is short but vivid with life and culture- culture like in this particular neighbourhood no one locks their front doors, because it’s all Catholic and extended family-like, and so no one has to fumble with keys in a fire-bombing.
John shows me a map of the city carved out as Catholic and Protestant camps- go there see that, be careful here, don’t go there. I take his advice the first few days. I see walls, walls like I haven’t dreamed of and here they are in a modern European city- 20 foot high with barbed wire to separate communities and prevent violence. Taxis from one side won’t go to the other. The bus routes are split between two companies, each representing one side. Smells like Beirut.
A SPAR cashier wishes me luck finding a job, I tell him I’m not looking for one.
Never been more aware of what, whose, area I’m in than I was in Belfast- you just had to look. The flags on the streetlights- Irish for Catholic, Union Jack for Protestant. You had to look at the graffiti on the walls, it was always there- I told John it was like in Life of Brian with the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean Popular People’s Front all horribly at war with each other- there were dozens of these groups, all different, all the same.

John walks me through the most fortified neighbourhood in the city, Short Strand- place looks like something from The Walking Dead- huge walls, barricades, CCTV- or, uhh, Finchley. I ask him why IRA dissidents (when the IRA got the boot in 1997 after the cease fire, it became the ‘Real IRA’ and the government became the new ‘IRA’ that now hunt the ‘dissidents’ from the ‘Real’ one) are tolerated in areas like this and he said because they have guns, and when things get bad, they bring them out and they’re needed.

Derry, or Londonderry- depends on who you ask

Derry, or Londonderry- depends on who you ask

The Protestants are insane. Some strangeness aside, I never felt afraid in the Catholic are as, but these Unionists are fucking loonies. They constantly hold parades, march up and down their neighbourhoods in military buff with drums and trumpets under their flag studded streets.
I tell John about my short film, he said it’s happened, didn’t turn out well. He leaves for Dublin, I watch Cabaret on his tiny television. It’s a great film and I love it- John had played me a song from it- Tomorrow Belongs to Me, about the rise of the Nazis, illustrating the Belfast situation. It’s apt. I want to go to Dublin.
I go to Derry. A barkeeper gives me a bunch of postcards with great photos of important people on them- Spanish anarchists, South American freedom fighters, a photograph of a wall of photos of Chilean poets. At the bar I also meet a miniature artist. That is, an artist who paints miniatures. Landscape? I ask. Portraits. Now I’m always interested in miniatures.
I go to Dublin. They stop the bus and take me to a police station because I don’t have the right VISA. I feign ignorance, they leave me at a bus station, deporting me, ‘Go back to Belfast’.

I go to Belfast, it’s amazing. John keeps the photocopy of my ‘denial of entry’ as a souvenir. He takes me to a bar. A guy is getting drunk with his friends. Then we are friends, his name is Stephen. Mo chara! They have this funny thing in informal social settings in Belfast, they only ask your first name, I suppose it keeps things simple. I’m talking to Stephen about the ‘Troubles’, he tells me his mother used to work at the Europa Hotel, it got blown up when she was in it, a British soldier was helping her out, he, Catholic, rushed, or his brother did, and took his mother from the soldier because he didn’t want anyone to see her being helped by a Brit. He’s drunk and asks the bouncer to tell me stories about the IRA, the bouncer looks like he would know, and politely avoids the subject. The night is good and the place is too, but this could have gone badly. I make a note- be careful who those you talk to talk to.

Stephen 'Higgies' after some 12 pints of Guinness, 4 shots of Vodka and a whiskey- what's this thing in my hands?

Stephen ‘Higgies’ after some 12 pints of Guinness, 4 shots of Vodka and a whiskey- what’s this thing in my hands?

Got an email from Stephen recently (well not that recently) – ‘I am only writing back to you now as I just recently got my arms blown off in an I.R.A style bombing, hope all is well with you.’ I was right, I as Indian do have a lot in common with the Irish. We were both under the yoke of the British. We starved.
Boondock Saints.
They found a bomb on Jamaica Street. I go out looking for St Anne’s Primary school, scene of vicious riots in very recent past. I find the sport bar John told me about (Don’t go there, he didn’t say, but something to that effect). Windows are bricked up because they used to toss grenades in. Very IRA pub. I start talking to some people. We go into the back where we can smoke. The stories. They tell me everything I know, I pretend to be a social worker. I pretended to be a social worker and got to talk to a local NGO at length about the rehabilitation of children through art, so they can learn to live together. I told them I was something something Indian riots work with children. I got tearful. It was honest tears, funnily. Still have the literature. Must be priceless here. Rotting in my suitcase.

At the bar they say, you don’t know what it’s like, you walk to the bus stop and get on the first bus. We’re worried about you, this is a terrible place to be curious. Someone offers me a job, I decline. Fool!

'Our revenge will be the laughter of our children' Bobby Sands, Irish freedom fighter

‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’ Bobby Sands, Irish freedom fighter

I leave. I walk towards the bus stop, it’s a terrible place to be curious. I turn around and walk deep into the troubled neighbourhood. Someone was watching me from a maroon van as I studied the wall art, IRA martyrs, some taxi driver who was shot for ferrying people around on a crucial day on a strike day. I walk walk walk. End up on Jamaica Street, where they’d found the bomb maybe 2 or 3 days ago. Quiet residential. Bikes in the yard, little children being loaded into cars. Strange place. Catholic.
I walk. Spitball. Little kids, ass! I congratulate him on his aim, suddenly they’re all over me, something like 10 year olds. They’re curious, I tell them I’m Indian. Are there tigers in India? Snakes. Yes. Yes. We walk, I ask them about their relationship with the people across the street, it’s an interesting location, just across the main drag begins a sprawling Protestant hood. They say they both mostly keep to themselves. But some kid crossed over and was beaten up recently. It’s wonderful, I’m getting what I want. We split, I cross the street into the Protestant side. It’s insane. I ask the kids there for directions, three younger ones, 2 older ones about 15 on bikes. The younger ones tell me, the older ones stare at me, a very strange expression, incredulity. How the fuck, they can’t imagine, did I just do that? Just crossed over from one side to the other like it was NOTHING!!! Blew their minds. Strange place.

I get on the bus, I feel sick. Too many flags, too many names, abbreviations. This is 2012.

I’m learning how to look. It’s incredible, difficult. John says read the last paragraph.

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