A recurring image: I am on a platform at one of Mumbai’s several suburban train stations, looking for a bathroom. I am a young reporter, one who is out “in the field” for most of the day, six days a week. I am meant to cover the sessions courts, or the city’s public hospitals, and am constantly distressed at the lack of clean toilets.
I am middle-class, barely, and new to the city. I do not yet know that when you are desperate, you should just walk into any restaurant or fancy hotel to use the toilet. I don’t yet have the confidence. I am afraid of picking up diseases in the public hospitals. I have money and time enough only to eat and travel publicly, hurriedly, always on trains and buses that do not have toilets attached.
This afternoon, I am desperate and cannot wait to return to my office. I look for the nearest facility at the nearest station. Most of the women’s toilets are kept locked, lest the space be used for “undesirable” activities, by those who do not have the option of taking their undesirable selves to a hotel or a friend’s apartment, or even to a car. I am filled with anger but more persistent is my desperation. Finally, I find a loo that is unlocked. I decide to step in, and realise, a second too late, that what I have stepped into is a cesspool. A literal pool of human waste, inches deep.
I extricate my foot. I have no memory of how I cleaned my shoe, where I found water. All I remember is a blind rage. It consumed me to the exclusion of everything else. I must have cried; I used to cry at every flicker of fear, the slightest harshness of word, the smallest rejection. Grief, however, came blanketed in rage and on its heels came clarity: the city was meant for the wealthy.
No matter who said otherwise, it did not belong to “the people”. The city belonged to people who could sashay into fancy café’s and hotels, as if they owned the place, and those who actually did. It belonged to men more than it did to women, because men used the city’s open spaces as their fief and their urinal. It belonged to officials who decided whether or not bathrooms should be built, or locked, or opened at what hours.
Sometimes I feel as if all of us writers are frozen inside some such image: one metaphorical foot in an emotional, social and physical cesspool, and all we can do is try to write of it in order to extricate our souls.
It has been 20 years since I began writing professionally, 14 years since I decided to pursue “creative writing”, 12 years since I started attending literature festivals that were not funded mainly by public money. Over the last decade, I have gone from being terribly excited about the growth of literary prizes and festivals, and about being invited to participate instead of paying my own way to watch other writers, to wondering about what was actually unfolding in the Indian literary sphere.
The beating heart of literature is writers’ engagement with sadness and the conflicts of their time. Many of these conflicts are centred on wealth and access to natural resources: land, water, mineral, forest, stone, sand, clean air. Big money, often with the aid of big media, attempts to shape public opinion about who controls the world, who deserves what, how resources ought to be shared. In a similar vein, traditional hegemonies in India – patriarchy and the caste system – try to control the stories we tell about each other.
Why, then, do some of these powerful groups enable spaces where they can be challenged? Why do they invest in literature or theatre or film festivals where non-hegemonic views are invited? Writers are easy to take down, to put away or, at the very least, politely ignore. Why are we invited, given a platform and asked to comment on contentious issues?
Why do the rich and powerful pay for this to happen? Do they not know that they are sponsoring people who are critical of the very structures and processes that enable their own wealth and power? Why help artists, writers, filmmakers gain new audiences? Why give them prizes?
I have struggled with this question for a few years now: what do the wealthy hope to gain? At first, I thought this was because they wanted to acquire an air of magnanimity, as if to say, we’re open to ideas and, money aside, we’re actually quite alike – ordinary, thinking, debating citizens. Then, I thought, maybe they want to circumscribe conversations, so that a few people say a few things a few times in the year instead of those debates happening on the streets. Now, I have come around to thinking that perhaps it is an act of reluctant and cautious self-preservation.
Society needs its bitter messengers, its poets, soothsayers, historians. Truth and art keep us this side of human.
Art is a lifeboat, a raft we cobble together from scraps left on the shore after a shipwreck. We work with these materials – loss, hope, bewilderment, loneliness, caricature, dependence, vengeance, fleeting moments of joy, and terror. The rich and the powerful know that for any society to remain stable and sane, a little truth must survive. Destroy it, squeeze it too hard, and you get a society that is unable to breathe. Such a world turns on itself, starts to feed on itself.
Art may or may not survive without the support of sponsors, but a world without artists’ critique and intellectual conflicts has had its tongue cut out, its gut corroded. This lifeboat of art also serves as a web, a matrix of truth, beauty and consciousness. Pull down too many of its strands and the matrix collapses. You cannot have comfort and loyalty and pride in this world if you do not also have truth and justice and mobility across social and ideological barriers.
The rich and powerful must be aware that they do not sponsor mere differences of opinion. They sponsor the preservation of dialogue, of what we recognise as civilisation because, should this cease, what will remain?