"I searched around those ruins in vain and all I found was a face engraved on a
potsherd and a fragment of a frieze. That is what my poems will be in a thousand
years--shards, fragments, the detritus of a world buried for all eternity. What
remains of a city is the detached gaze with which a half-drunk poet looked at it."
-- Amin Maalouf, Samarkhand
The Profane Aura of the City
- This essay brings together two seemingly unrelated bodies of
writing: Walter Benjamin's work on the cities of European modernity, and
literary discourse emanating from the Indian metropolis of Bombay treated
as an instance of Asia's post-colonial induction into modernity. These
apparently unrelated discourses are brought together with three aims in
mind: first, to show the usefulness of Benjamin in recognizing
affinities between geographically diverse manifestations of metropolitan
experience; second, to suggest reasons why such affinities and
resemblances should be seen as other than random coincidence (in other
words, to show that they bespeak the divergent developments of identical
processes); and third, to identify some of the ways in which an interaction
between these two types of discourse invites a revaluation of both.
- Benjamin analyzed the effects of commodification on urban culture and
consciousness within the confines of a Europe that still retained its colonial
empires. In teasing out the relation between the materialism of culture and the
culture of materialism, his work continues to offer a suggestive critique of the
nexus between societal modernity and urbanism. Benjamin's interests may have been
confined to Europe, but the processes he studied became asymmetrically global,
especially after the "new" nations of Asia had made their urban centers the focus
for the belated pursuit of a modernity denied them by colonialism. This asymmetry
makes it possible to expand upon his work in Asian contexts shaped first by
European colonialism and then by local nationalisms inspired by the Enlightenment
rationality that accompanied colonialism. While Benjaminian lenses bring
aspects of metropolitan Asian cultures into focus, these cultures have
undergone belated metamorphoses from the colonial towards a kind of postmodern
modernity for which there are no adequate terms of reference in Benjamin. In that
sense, the European lenses he provides require an adjustment of focal length, and
an immersion of Benjaminian discourse in the writing from the vastly different
world of an Asian metropolis like Bombay provides a partial correction of his
inadvertant Eurocentrism. In the pursuit of its triple aim, this essay will
through a series of thematic elaborations in which successive aspects of
Benjamin's approach to the culture of cities will be refracted through literary
writing from and about Bombay.
The City as Palimpsest
- The first such constellation involves the metaphor of the city as text:
a text from and about Bombay, which I here juxtapose with Benjamin's own work on
cities as composite texts. In Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
invokes Bombay as an originary island transformed over three centuries, by the
marriage of imperialism and capitalism, into today's whirlpool of over twelve
million. Once it was a sleepy fishing-village, where people worshipped a local
deity called Mumba-bai; the Portuguese, who loved its harbour, named it Bom Bahia
(Dwivedi 8). The city is thus a layered site excavated in language
through the force of
collective memory. "Bombay" becomes one among many names for the movement of
peoples, commodities, exchanges, conflicts, aspirations, and values through time.
- Benjamin not only read cities as if they were texts, he also collected
texts as if they were cities he had visited--layered and seemingly random
accretions burdened with the possibility of their own erasure. His reading of
cities, like his citing of texts, is overshadowed by a presentiment of ruins. He
was born in Berlin but became infatuated with Paris, where he read Baudelaire,
translated Proust, welcomed the Surrealists from a distance, and concocted an
urban mythology out of walking the streets, alone among crowds. The excited
apprehension of his gaze consumed "the occult world of business and traders"
(Selected II 619) with a voluptuousness of intent that had to keep
reminding itself not to be melancholic that we live in a time indemnified for
humanity by a future married to technology. His travels east, however, only took
him as far as Moscow, where he spent two months in the winter of 1926-27. He
concluded that "a new optics is the most undoubted gain from a stay in Moscow"
(Selected II 22).
- For Benjamin, the city becomes a performative text whenever we
realize our experience of it in and as language: "language has
unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the
past, but rather a medium" (Selected II 576). The city
circumscribes a series of
fragmentary impressions that resist totalization, and are interpreted by
memory as collage, in which "He who has once begun to open the fan of
memory never comes to the end of its segments" (Selected II
597). Benjamin can
name them only through metaphor, as the veil, the corridor, the
passageway, the maze, and the labyrinth. Their cognitive function is
subsidized by the visual metaphor of the gaze. To the gaze, experience is
an exteriority whose meaning depends on whether objects return, or
"withstand," the gaze (Reflections 144). This peculiar idea
recurs throughout Benjamin's writings. In it, the gaze renders the city
purely in terms of space, in which the materiality of objects is always
experienced as an aspect of visual experience. The commodification of
objects also gets mediated in space. Even persons are liable to get
assimilated as objects in space. Sometimes they disappear altogether, as
when Benjamin cannot remember anything about the aunt who used to live
with his grandmother, but "a good deal about the room that she occupied in
her mother's apartment" (Selected II 621). Objects and persons
through their interactions within the magnetic field of space, which tells
us "what kind of regimen cities keep over the imagination, and why the
city ...indemnifies itself in memory, and why the veil it has covertly
woven out of our lives shows images of people less often than those of the
sites of our encounters with others or ourselves" (Selected II
The City as Rune
- The Asian city is a text that can be read in Benjaminian terms. It
presents an inscrutable aspect which resonates with Benjamin's treatment of urban
experience as rune or hieroglyph. As space, a city is emblematic; in time, it is
an allegory (Origins 176). One way of recognizing how the city
transmutes time into space is to consider the consequences of metropolitan
transport systems as they pull and drag traffic through the packed overground and
underground densities of civic space. Benjamin elaborates on an
by Georg Simmel, that the city creates a new kind of uneasiness because the
experience typical of public transport systems is that they split the visual field
from the auditory field. People are constantly placed "in a position of having to
look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one
another" (Baudelaire 38). In Bombay this experience is aggravated by
the city's elongated geography and the arterial role played by local trains that
ferry a workforce of several millions between home and the workplace every day.
Life becomes a piecing together, and what is pieced together by memory in such
situations are moments measured as space, because while "autobiography has to do
with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life,...here,
I am talking of space, of moments and discontinuities" (Selected II
- The Asian experience of the urban affirms a second Benjaminian recognition
of discontinuity regarding the names we attach to civic spaces. Political
exigencies bring about frequent changes of name that might leave a place
unchanged, but unsettle associations and dislocate memory. This is true of every
city, and never more true than of Bombay--now called Mumbai. Here are two members
of the city's Parsi minority--from Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long
Journey --reacting to a right-wing municipal administration intent on
erasing familiar street names because they trace the city's colonial past.
"Why change the names? Saala
sisterfuckers! Hutatma Chowk!" He spat out the words disgustedly. "What is
wrong with Flora Fountain?"
"Why worry about it? I say, if it keeps
the Marathas happy, give them a few roads to rename. Keep them occupied.
What's in a name?"
"No, Gustad." Dinshawji was very serious. "You
are wrong. Names are so important. I grew up on Lamington Road. But it
has disappeared, in its place is Dadasaheb Bhadkhamkar Marg. My school was
on Carnac Road. Now suddenly it's on Lokmanya Tilak Marg. I live at
Sleater Road. Soon that will also disappear. My whole life I have come to
work at Flora Fountain. And one fine day the name changes. So what happens
to the life I have lived? Was I living the wrong life, with all the wrong
names? Will I get a second chance to live it all again, with these new
|Figure 2: |
Landmark, Once Known as "Flora Fountain," Now Called "Hutatma Chowk"
Copyright © Mumbai Central.
- Mistry's novel renders an unsettling experience in the register
of comic indignation. Benjamin offers a very different perspective. His
early writings are rooted in the quasi-theological belief that "The
absolute relation of name to knowledge exists only in God" (Selected
I 71). If that notion is transposed to the civic travails
represented in the Mistry novel, the succession of namings in the
political history of a city like Bombay would have to be seen as a
sardonic procession of false Gods, leaving any idea of an absolute concord
between place and name an ever more opaque and hopeless mystery. The
alternative to the Benjaminian hope of a divine resolution is to abandon
the idea of any such conjunction of the secular and the prophetic, and to
accept the city as a figure for the historicity of the struggle over names
in a contestation for mere civic power, including the power over knowledge
as personal memory.
The City as Trace
- Dislocation implies the erasure of connections and relations. Benjamin
is useful in bringing out another aspect of metropolitan experience--the
estrangement of its urban bourgeoisie. Estrangement can be seen to cut both ways
in the modern city: one can have a home where one is not at home, and one can feel
at home where one has no home. One can also be turned out-of-doors by disgust at
the cozy fetishism of bourgeois interiors. In Benjamin's materialist terms, the
very idea of home is transfigured by the city into interiors where the owner
leaves traces that create habits out of habitats. In the Asian metropolis,
estrangement is intensified. It provides a series of startling variants to how
material traces can get deposited as signs of inhabitancy. In the Asian
metropolis, the Benjaminian notion of the trace is rendered into the grotesque.
From the fundamental deposit of feces (because the city lacks latrines), to the
forest of television antennae that festoons the meanest hutment colony (because
people must have entertainment), the city is proof of how the trace makes strange
(and estranging) habits out of habitats. Bombay confirms Benjamin's description
as apt. It also obliges one to reconsider what it means to have the disconcerting
interpenetration of habits and habitats separated by the most gaping differences.
Here--from Anita Desai's novel of that name--is poor Baumgartner in Bombay:
Even when he had parted these curtains, entered the house, mounted
the stairs, careful not to step on the beggars and lepers and
prostitutes who inhabited every landing, and at last achieved the
small cell that was his room, he had no sense of being walled away
from the outer world.... (Desai 175)
- The interiority of space always threatens to get turned inside out. If we
cannot wall ourselves in, we can yet mark a place as ours through the silt of our
deposits. Moving upmarket in "One-Way Street" (1928), Benjamin has nothing but
scorn for "the soulless luxury of the furnishings" captured accurately in
genre of nineteenth-century detective fiction: "On this sofa the aunt
be murdered" (Selected I 447)! "Erase the traces" was
Brecht's refrain precisely because
here, in the bourgeois room the opposite behavior has become an
ethos in the strictest sense--that is to say, a habit. Indeed, leaving traces is
not just a habit, but the primal phenomenon of all the habits that are involved
in inhabiting a place. (Selected II 472)
- The material cause that defines the modernity of urban inhabitancy is the
post-Bauhaus preference for glass and metal as the building materials of our era
(Selected II 473). Benjamin's stance is characteristically ambivalent
between welcoming them as mimetic images of the urban transparency of a classless
apocalypse, and regretting the loss of individualism entailed in this
metal-and-glass Utopia. One would have to add
cement and concrete to glass and metal to describe Bombay's architecture; the
ghastly dullness of this material lends its aura of drabness to whatever is
immured within its walls. It becomes the veritable substance from which modern
cities are made because of the ease with which it sinks into the souls of its
inhabitants. It also encourages the reproducibility of housing conditions on the
most massive scale of homogenizing anonymity, thus making the struggle for
individuation more tragic.
- What gets forgotten, or repressed, in the efficient deployment of such
materials is the recognition that "technology is the mastery of not nature but of
the relation between nature and man" (Selected I 487). If Bombay
represents a relatively unplanned variant of this development, we can glance
briefly at another Indian city, Chandigarh, for a more planned version of
homogenizing anonymity. When, shortly after gaining independence from British
rule, the Indian government invited Le Corbusier to devise an ideal city for the
new republic, the best he could come up with reduced the urban idea of Utopia to
the most boring trace of bourgeois idealism.
- Benjamin took a different tack. In a fragment from 1930-31, he asks
the critic to practice "deconstruction [Abmontieren]" with reference to
Adorno's "theory of shrinkage [Schrumpfung]," and his own "theory of
[Verpackung]," and "the theory of the ruins created by time" (Selected
II 415). Shrinkage and
packaging are metaphors whose application to urban housing is self-evident. The
application of "deconstruction" to housing can be said to have been
accomplished, in the specific case of the
city slums and hutment colonies
that mark Bombay, by the tragic-ironic relation they set up between their
own manifest existence as urban ruins on the slope of time and the
their cheek-by-jowl coexistence by up-market equivalents.
The City as Kitsch
- Another dimension in which Benjamin and Bombay can be made to offer
mutual illumination is in how they point up the role of kitsch in modern urban
experience. It is almost a surprise to recollect that Bombay is not entirely
constituted of slums and government housing. It is also the city of kitsch--for
instance, in the eclecticism of its architecture, and the energetic vulgarity of
its entertainment industry. V.S. Naipaul captures the public visage of the city
quite accurately for the 1970s:
The Indian-Victorian-Gothic city
with its inherited British public buildings and institutions--the Gymkhana
with its wide veranda and spacious cricket ground, the London-style
leather-chaired Ripon Club for elderly Parsi gentlemen...the city was not
built for the poor, the millions. But a glance at the city map shows that
there was a time when they were invited in. (59)
- In a gloss on Surrealism, Benjamin defined kitsch as "The side
which things turn toward the dream" (Selected II 3). In
Bombay, the dream is constituted by the ahistoricity of anachronism and
the randomness of miscellany. The public landmarks--e.g. the Victoria
Railway Terminus, the Rajabhai clock tower, the Gateway of India, the Haji
Ali Temple, Flora Fountain, etc.--can appear striking so long as one is
willing to ignore the clash in styles, and one takes each on its own
terms. When taken together, as the city forces one to do in its
synchronicity, they constitute a medley of accretions accidentally thrown
together in a form of tropical Surrealism, with a dream's capacity to
sustain vividness independent of a context of stylistic tradition that is
either indigenous or coherent. The mere fact that they happen to have been
piled up in a particular arrangement becomes the "logic" of their
occurrence in space and time. Benjamin described the Surrealist quest as
a search for "the totemic tree of objects within the thicket of primal
history" (Selected II 4). In Bombay, not only does the
surreal imagination come up against totemic objects within plural
histories, it also gets the opportunity to hunt for the tree of history
amidst a thicket of totemic objects. Of each such excrescence, one may
well echo his remark, "It is the last mask of the banal, the one with
which we adorn ourselves, in dream and conversation, so as to take in the
energies of an outlived world of things" (Selected II 4).
- The second form of kitsch unique to Bombay--its khichadi
(local word for a kind of dry porridge)--is the entertainment industry, which
gladly recognizes itself as India's Bollywood, its equivalent to the U.S. movie
industry in an age of rapidly globalizing markets and consumer interests. Its
grossness is as deep as its popularity is wide. Here, the capacity to reach a mass
audience is the perfect evocation of Benjamin's hope that mechanical
reproducibility would disseminate the auratic more widely. What Bombay shows is
that this dream can indeed be realized, but only as the most tasteless of
nightmares. The Bombay film industry combines fantasy and stereotypes with
cheerful cynicism into what it supplies to the masses as the auratic. In being
disseminated as a socially permitted drug and anodyne, the auratic is not diluted,
but contaminated. Anyone who has been even a little appalled or embarrassed by the
average Hindi movie will also have wondered at the economic sustenance that keeps
the industry churning out more films than Hollywood, while basing them, decade
after decade, on the same jaded formulas. Benjamin wanted the aura to lose its
elitism, and spread to the masses. But there was no reason to suppose that the
auratic would be made an historical exception to the law of consumption, which
dictates that the consumers get what they think they want, which is cliché,
not critique. The sociologist Ashis Nandy observes, "most Indian movie-goers
prefer even an unrealistic defence of the right values to a realistic refusal to
take notice of them" (223).
|Figure 5: Poster
for Mani Rathnam's Bombay (1995)
The City as Labyrinth
- If we return to Benjamin's cities at the level of the street, we enter
the labyrinth or maze (Selected II 614) as Ariadne (Selected
II 595, 598, 677). The personification enables the development of a
mythology surrounding the condition of being lost, fearful, or anxious
that a city
can induce even in those who may not be inept at finding their way, or themselves.
In Benjamin's case, he confesses that he had "a very poor sense of direction"
(Selected II 596). It is amusing to see how this
handicap--unpropitious and yet apt for someone who would one day fancy himself as
an Odysseus of cities--converts the banality of "Not to find one's way in a city"
into the art of knowing how "to lose oneself in a city," although it took him most
of a lifetime before he could claim that "Paris taught me this art of straying"
(Selected II 598), whereas in Berlin, "my legs had become entangled
in the ribbons of the streets" (Selected II 612). Benjamin would have
been appalled at Chandigarh--Le Corbusier's ambiguous gift to India, a
which it is nearly impossible either to stray or to get properly lost.
- Both maze and labyrinth suggest that knowledge is not to be
accessed directly in a city. The figure also implies that walking, rather
than a mechanical means of transport, is the pace at which to take in a
city. It requires no traversal to be complete. However, the metaphor also
implies that there might be a center to the labyrinth. Benjamin's practice
acts as dissuasion to any such notion. His idealization derives from
Baudelaire's Parisian flâneur, who is "A passionate lover of
and incognitos" (Baudelaire 5). There is an entire frame of
mind to which the urban jungle is not merely acceptable, but welcome.
Benjamin uses Baudelaire's reading of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man in
the Crowd" to identify the city dweller as "someone who does not feel
comfortable in his own company.... He refuses to be alone. He is the man
of the crowd" (Baudelaire 48). The choice converts the
defensive into the opportunistic, as in Bertolt Brecht's sardonic
presentation, "Of Poor B.B.":
In the asphalt city I'm at home. From the very start
Provided with every last sacrament:
With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy
To the end mistrustful, lazy and content.
I'm polite and friendly to people. I put on
A hard hat because that's what they do.
I say: they are animals with a quite peculiar smell.
And I say: does it matter? I am too. (107)
- Benjamin's temperament prefers a less hard-nosed attitude, more
preoccupied with solitariness than abrasion. He regards the
as someone "who goes botanizing on the asphalt" (Baudelaire
36). The characterization is both
attractive and fanciful. The flâneur becomes a dialectical
that evades resolution, though it provides amelioration (N
50). The tension between its panache and its defensiveness is balanced on
a cusp. Benjamin has to invoke Bergson, Freud, Proust, and Valéry to
interject the mémoire involontaire between the capacity of
experience to induce "a poetics of shock" and the psychological
mechanisms evolved for the purpose of dealing with it (Baudelaire
111-16). The flâneur becomes a figure for the
resistance offered to
what is found irresistible--the city as a medium for realizing the self. He
will eventually lose himself to it, so he makes a concession by appearing
to join the crowd, but only as a stroller, someone uniquely individual,
and therefore no part of its homogenizing impulse (cf. Baudelaire 170).
Benjamin wrote about Kafka, "Strangeness--his own strangeness--has gained
control over him" (Selected II 806). One has only to replace
with "estrangement" to give us a wider application for which Kafka,
Benjamin, and Baudelaire serve as emblems.
This poetry is no local folklore; the allegorist's gaze which falls upon
the city is rather the gaze of alienated man. It is the gaze of the
flâneur, whose way of living still bestowed a conciliatory
gleam over the growing destitution of men in the great city.
- What is the source of the conciliatory in the gleam bestowed by
the poet on the destitution of the city? Benjamin answers, "He is for art
what the dandy is for fashion" (Baudelaire 172). Likewise, he
Baron Haussmann's "urbanistic ideal was one of views in perspective down
long street-vistas." For Benjamin, this represents "the tendency to
ennoble technical exigencies with artistic aims" (Baudelaire
may well have been the antidote to Fascism's introduction of aesthetics
into politics ("Work" 241). However, one might just as
it autism dissembled as art. It does not cope with the dehumanization
produced by urbanization; it layers it over with the gleaming patina of
the aesthetic. This tendency--to retain objects vividly in memory while
completely losing sight of the human figures for whom they are supposed
to be the context--has an odd kind of counterpart in Benjamin's remark
that "Kafka's entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had
no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset"
(Selected II 801).
Benjamin becomes the locus for the problem encountered by the aesthetic
impulse to recuperate from the shock of the urban, also wanting to
ameliorate the impact of technological change on the quality of
individual experience while remaining profoundly unconvinced of the
equivalence between change and progress.
A Poetics of Shock
- Benjamin was never at home even in the Berlin of his birth,
where his mother used to take him for walks. Little Walter always kept
two steps behind her, appearing more näive than he felt he was, just as
later he was to appear more knowing than he felt himself to be, always
capable of getting lost, whether out of choice or necessity (Selected
II 596). In
his last years, in Paris, he acknowledged that the condition of aloneness
had to be accepted, since he would neither mix with the German
nor could he bring himself to join the Jewish exiles, nor did he hope to
find acceptance among the local French. His solitude was thus involuntary
and wretched. What is remarkable is that the desolating aspect of the
predicament almost became a method. He taught himself to prefer streets
to houses, suburbs to the city center, the amble of the stroller to the
diligence of the tourist, and "the architectonic function of wares"
(II 25) in markets to the interiors of museums or the exteriors of
architectural monuments. He even insisted that only the foreign eye saw
about a city what escaped native recognition (II 142, 262).
- His recollections of Berlin are particularly revealing about
the enabling as well as the disabling powers of the
flâneur as figuration.
Berlin had provided meager opportunities for "The child's first
excursion into the exotic world of abject poverty." (Selected
I never slept on the street in Berlin. I saw sunset and dawn, but between
the two I found myself a shelter. Only those for whom poverty or vice
turns the city into a landscape in which they stray from dark till
sunrise know it in a way denied to me. (Selected II 612)
- If we jump from Berlin to Bombay, no one who has walked the
pavements of Bombay would use the word "exotic" to refer to "abject
poverty." Well over half the twelve million inhabitants of Bombay meet
every sunset and dawn on the pavement, and not by choice. In Paris,
Benjamin could afford to poeticize bazaars and arcades:
I am pursuing the origin and construction of the Paris arcades from their
rise to their fall, and laying hold of their origin through economic
fact. These facts ... construed as causes ... allow the whole series of
the arcade's concrete historical forms to emerge, like a leaf unfolding
forth from itself the entire wealth of the empirical plant kingdom.
- The Crawford Market in Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long
Journey, however, is a bazaar seen from the other end of the telescope.
When economic facts are treated as effect instead of cause, they become a
slippery floor, "and smelly air abuzz with bold and bellicose flies" (21).
Benjamin's flâneur is not taken in by the commodification of
symbolized in the bazaar, though he consumes it avidly with his eyes. In
being the remote ancestor to today's addicted window-shopper, he remains a
disinterested student in the temple of consumerism. He resists the
commodity as fetish only by consuming it as an object of study. Goods need
not be bought for their availability to the gaze to become a good in
The bazaar is the last hangout of the flâneur. If in the
the street had become an intérieur for him, now this
into a street, and he roamed through the labyrinth of merchandise as he had once
roamed through the labyrinth of the city. (Baudelaire 54)
- Exact equivalents to such arcades and bazaars are easy to find in
the Fort area of Bombay. There, the poetry of the commodity and the
poetics of abject poverty jostle each other rudely. For the majority of
inhabitants--if a squatter can be said to inhabit what he infests--the
pavement is interiority pulled inside out with a literalness that places
Benjamin's figure in a harder, clearer light. The flanneries of Bombay
are as convoluted as those of any European city, but a stroll there is more
reliably fraught with unpleasant discovery, as in Gieve Patel's "City
I pick my way
Step by ginger step between
Muck, rags, dogs,
Women bathing squealing
Children in sewer water,
And miles of dusty yellow
From the centre of some planet
Sucked dry by the sun... (Patel and Thorner 143)
- The point need not be labored: cities like Bombay show the limits
beyond which the Baudelairean figure can stroll only with extreme
discomfort to the figuration. The limitation separates the Asian from the
European metropolis. Radical economic asymmetry, when combined with the
close contiguities in space that are enforced by a city, distort human
experience to a point where the imagination has to access the violence of
the surreal, as an energy from within, if it is to resist the violence from
without represented by the city.
The Surreal City
- The surreal is never far from the metropolitan. Benjamin saw
this as tonic, but Bombay provides an obverse experience of the
surreal as discomfiting. The migration of rural populations to the
metropolis is an aspect of societal modernity of which Bombay serves as
one gross index. The influx from the agrarian hinterland has been poorly
matched by land reclamation, which has only augmented the city's problems
and its politicians' pockets. In this context, the feature that
characterizes Bombay, the way scars disfigure a face, is its beggars. To
beg is to have shed self-respect as the least price paid to appease need
in the sharp form of hunger. But the Bombay variety of begging is
something else altogether: the number, the deformities, and the
persistence of its beggars add up to a surreal experience because all
their deprivations are part of a gruesome economic organization.
Benjamin, for the most part, internalizes the notion of poverty as a form
of inward lack. In Moscow, however, he notes, "Begging is not aggressive
as in southern climes, where the importunity of the ragamuffin still
betrays some remnants of vitality. Here it is a corporation of the dying"
(Selected II 27). Begging, he recognizes, is more effective
when it preys upon
"the bad social conscience" of the bourgeoisie (Selected II 28)
than when it
solicits pity. The same recognition animated Brecht's adaptation of John
Gay, and it should come as no surprise that when the Marathi author P.L.
Deshpande adapted the Three-Penny Opera to a musical satire featuring a
Bombay Beggars' Union (Teen Paishyacha Tamasha), the burlesque proved
even more savagely funny when transposed from eighteenth century London
via 1920s Germany to 1970s Bombay. Thus Benjamin's observation--"They have
developed begging to a high art, with a hundred schematisms and
variations" (Selected II 28)--applies equally well to any
city in which the
Surreal comes into play in collating penury and crime as a form of the
metropolitan macabre. The Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal remarks,
Who hadn't thought that fees could be claimed
for singing songs of hunger. (Dangle 42)
- In Benjamin, the figure of the beggar transposes into yet another
economic transposition--the ragpicker--who fascinates his epoch, creates a
cottage-industry out of destitution, and invites identification from the
littérateur, the conspirator, and the bohème
(Baudelaire 19-20). Thus we
can show that Benjamin was aware of the economic potential to the city's
exploitation of poverty, but for the private economy of those who meet
their sunsets on the pavement, he would have to turn to lines like these
from a Marathi poem by B. Rangarao:
... sleep quarrels with my eyes
then sits apart sulking in corners....
As for the dawn in Bombay, this is Nissim Ezekiel, in "A Morning
Barbaric city slick with slums,
Deprived of seasons, blessed with
Its hawkers, beggars, iron-lunged,
Processions led by frantic drums,
A million purgatorial lanes,
And child-like masses, many-tongued,
Whose wages are in words and crumbs.
(Patel and Thorner 129)
This ironic and repulsed voice is still that of the poet as
citizen who will walk home to his four walls. The Marathi poet Narayan
Surve speaks from a blind corner, from where
We know only two roads one which leads to the factory
And the other,
Which leads to the Crematorium. (Patel and Thorner 149)
The plight understood by Benjamin is dull and sordid. That evoked
by the Dalit has the edge of desperation, as in Namdeo Dhasal's Marathi
Hunger, if we cannot mate you
cannot impregnate you
our tribe will have to kill itself
Hunger we have all the aces
Why talk of the songs of the half-sexed jacks? (Dangle 44)
Bombay requires that the flâneur not walk the road,
the road, as in the urban ballad of the Gujarati poet Suresh Dalal:
I am a road
Neither sleeping nor awaking,
And a collapsed hand-cart
I am beer and whisky
And country liquor
I am, yet nobody:
I am an extinguished lantern.
Living in Bombay
I am a terribly tired person.
I am a newspaper and a phone
And a telex and a rumour
I am a radio, T.V., Airport
And a slum.... or I am an alternative.
I am an actor without a drama
And I am an impotent heir.
Living in Bombay
I am a terribly tired person. (Patel and Thorner 158)
In brief, the individual living in an age of metropolitan pressure
becomes the subject of a massive displacement.
- We now approach that aspect of metropolitan experience, as
refracted by an Asian metropolis, to which Benjamin may be said to be an
Horatio. Moving from the divisions enforced by economic lack to those
imposed by society, we note, in passing, that the class structure in
Moscow reminded Benjamin of the caste system in India: "Russia is today
not only a class but also a caste system" (Selected II 35). He
linked class to
caste because both bring "terrible social ostracism" to their victims.
Benjamin's analogy has a counterpart in Max Weber's equation, made in
1922, between the Jew and the Indian "untouchable" (184-85). Weber claimed
that ostracism built up caste solidarity. In this context, it is ironic
that Benjamin suffered the fate of a Jew though he did not think of
himself as defined by his Jewishness. There is an interesting
correspondence between the views of Benjamin and B.R. Ambedkar, the
principal theorist of the Dalit cause. Benjamin described the angel of
history as one who would make that which had been smashed whole, except
catastrophe called progress kept blowing it backwards into the future
("Theses" 257-58). Ambedkar hoped, at about the same
time, that the European angel of equality would heal an India split into
fragments by caste (170). In the
event, he found that the splinters of
self-division riddled the wound of history, and a catastrophe called
communalism kept blowing the nation backwards into the future.
|Figure 7: Paul Klee,
Angelus Novus (1920) |
Source: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
- Since stigma, like beauty, also resides in the
eye of the
beholder, Ambedkar asked for an education of the mind. He argued that to
educate the ostracized would not suffice until those who did the
ostracizing had been educated out of their prejudice. If the contemporary
Dalit writer from Bombay has cause for anger, it is because that dream of
Enlightenment gets ruined in the city of modernity. The Dalit acts as the
social conscience, which demands that the city as a modern polity deliver
its promise of freedom and equality.
His aim shares a common cause with the Marxist ideal of a proletariat
revolution, to which Benjamin lends some support. But the Dalit call for
justice is redemptive, whereas Benjamin's hope mixes the redemptive with
the utopian. The Dalit frustration with redemptive justice brings their
political struggle close to the despair of Benjamin's theological
preoccupations, in which history partakes of the decadence inherent to
material nature, where even criticism is only the "mortification of the
works" (Origin 182), and the aspiration to harmony and
closure is appropriate only in the new Jerusalem.
The City of Violence
- Benjamin's allegorical treatment of the materiality of
experience sharpens our sense of metropolitan experience as fragmented
and discontinuous. But he also retains a vision of the coherence that
ought to be gathered from its splinters. He does not know how this is to
be done. To him, it is an intimation that does not deliver the promised
disclosure. The lesson Bombay has to offer is that the one specific way
adopted in recent history of realizing the city and its citizens as a
totality has caused the vision of the city as a polity to suffer a brutal
denudation. In the Bombay riots of December 1992 and January 1993, more
than 700 people were killed by their fellow citizens, mostly by arson.
Millions of dollars' worth of property was destroyed. The economic
productivity of the city was brought to a standstill. More than 60% of
those killed were Muslims. They had either been victimized, or induced
into counter-violence, by a right-wing Hindu party known as the Shiv Sena
(Shivaji's--or, the Lord Shiva's--army).
The police remained passive. The central government did
not dare intervene.
|Figure 8: Cartoon by
(rpt. Padgaonkar 173)
- The city was appropriated on behalf of a narrow vision of
recovered wholeness by the militant essentialism of Bombay's Brown
Shirts. The party was founded in 1966 by a man called Bal Thackeray, who
had had a reasonably mediocre career until then as a cartoonist.
- Bombay as a city has always been ethnically diverse,
comprising, among the mercantile class, Gujaratis, Parsis, and Muslims,
whereas the economically less productive middle-class has always been
Marathi-speaking. It was the most industrialized city of India from as
far back as the middle of the nineteenth century. It had metamorphosed
from a textile-manufacturing center to a vastly diversified manufacturing
economy, in which the incentive of economic benefit had acted as a
disincentive for communal and religious friction. The Shiv Sena sought
to control the hybridized entrepreneurial behavior of the city under the
invocation of communalism. The 1960s had seen an influx from the southern
states. That gave the Shiv Sena its first agenda: recover Bombay for the
Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians. More recently, in the aftermath of
Hindu-Muslim riots in the north of India, the Shiv Sena turned its
attention towards the Muslims, who comprise about 15% of the city
population. Benjamin had wished for a recuperation that was centered on
the individual in a perspective that treated all experience, and
especially metropolitan experience, as postlapsarian. The ideal served a
function by showing a horizon beyond the limit of what is realizable in
time or space. The recent history of violence in Bombay shows what
happens when this dream of recuperation is dragged across that limit--it
is realized as xenophobic intolerance. In his "Critique of Violence"
(1920-21), Benjamin had said, "If justice is the criterion of ends, legality is
that of means" (Selected I 237).
|Figure 10: Counting the
Dead, Bombay (Worli), December 1992 |
Copyright © Times Relief Fund
- The Shiv Sena has shown how illegal means applied to unjust
ends can yet dissemble justification as justice by legitimizing force
through communal sanctions. Its policies represent a form of aggressive
retreat from the egalitarianism of opportunity practiced by capitalism,
of which an industrial city like Bombay has been the primary conduit for
the national economy. The logic of capitalist expansion had
de-territorialized the city; the Shiv Sena re-territorialized it on
sectarian principles, turning its back on the logic of industrial
capital. Richard G. Fox adapts a Frankfurt School thesis--that the idea of
progress has had a bittersweet history of disenchantment with
modernity--in order to develop a multiple analogy for communalism based on
the notion of "hyperenchantment," which bears the same relation to
modernity that hyperconsumption has to greed, and hypermanagement to
Communalism is the hyperenchantment of
religion, racism is the hyperenchantment of biology, sexism is the
hyperenchantment of gender, and ethnic prejudice is the hyperenchantment
of culture. Each of these builds new forms of identity, allegiance, and
loyalty that are formally inconsistent with modernity, but that are, in
fact, its own creations. Each of...them creates social boundaries based
on ascription rather than achievement, yet each of them sustains social
orders (the family, the community) and occurs in institutional settings
(the state, the workplace) ostensibly based on modernity. (239)
- Each of these generalizations has a double validity: for the
forces at work in a city like Bombay, and for the Europe that was to
disenchant Benjamin's treatment of it as a civil society. In his death he
acknowledged that he had written for a community that had failed to
materialize. In its place arose an ashen phoenix. The same is true of
Bombay. The city of India's belated modernity showed how it could readily
become the site of self-divisive violence. The political right
appropriated the city for an aestheticised politics
The correspondences between Fascism and Asian varieties of fundamentalism
are numerous, and all of them are ominous. If the conjunction between
Benjamin and Bombay has any validity, it is in the troubled ambivalence
with which each mediates this modernity. In each, the depredations and
the opportunities of modernity are delicately poised between despair and
hope, with nothing to alleviate the angel of history in its backward
trajectory--into the future called progress--except the vigilance of critique.
Department of English Language and Literature
National University of Singapore
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1. For a reading that sees Benjamin in an altogether more
sanguine spirit about Utopia and materials like glass and iron, see
2. "The crowd is his element,
as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his
profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect
flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense
joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow
of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away
from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home...." (Baudelaire 9).
3. Cf. Ambedkar's comments in
his speech at Mahad in 1938: "If European nations enjoy peace and
prosperity today, it is for one reason: the revolutionary French National
Assembly convened in 1789 set new principles for the organization of
society before the disorganized and decadent French nation of its time,
and the same principles have been accepted and followed by Europe.... The
road it marked out for the development of the French nation, the road
that all progressed nations have followed, ought to be the road adopted
for the development of Hindu society...." (qtd. in Dangle 225,
4. In an interview from 1984,
Foucault has an interesting comment on the failure of nationalisms to
deliver on the promise of modernity:
When a colonized people attempts to
liberate itself from its colonizers, this is indeed a practice of
liberation in the strict sense. But we know very well, and moreover in
this specific case, that this practice of liberation is not in itself
sufficient to define the practices of freedom that will still be needed if
this people, this society, and these individuals are to be able to define
admissible and acceptable forms of existence or political society.
5 Cf. Padgaonkar
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