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    "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

  1. 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.

  2. 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 proceed 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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 get constellated 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 614).

    The City as Rune

  6. 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 observation made 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,, I am talking of space, of moments and discontinuities" (Selected II 612).

    Figure 1
    Figure 1: Waiting for a Train in Bombay
    Copyright © Mumbai Central.

  7. 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 names?" (73-74)

    Figure 2
    Figure 2:
    A Landmark, Once Known as "Flora Fountain," Now Called "Hutatma Chowk"

    Copyright © Mumbai Central.

  8. 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

  9. 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)

  10. 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 the genre of nineteenth-century detective fiction: "On this sofa the aunt cannot but 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)

  11. 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.[1] 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.

  12. 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.

    Figure 3
    Figure 3:
    Le Corbusier, Holding a Map of the Indian City of Chandigarh

    Copyright © Fondation Le Corbusier

  13. 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 packaging [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 repression of their cheek-by-jowl coexistence by up-market equivalents.

    The City as Kitsch

  14. 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)

    Figure 4
    Figure 4: Rajabhai Tower, Bombay
    Copyright © Mumbai Central.

  15. 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).

  16. 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
    Figure 5: Poster for Mani Rathnam's Bombay (1995)

    The City as Labyrinth

  17. 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 city in which it is nearly impossible either to stray or to get properly lost.

    Figure 6
    Figure 6: Grid Map of the city of Chandigarh
    Copyright © Chandigarh Administration
    Click for a larger image

  18. 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 crowds 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)

  19. Benjamin's temperament prefers a less hard-nosed attitude, more preoccupied with solitariness than abrasion. He regards the flâneur as someone "who goes botanizing on the asphalt" (Baudelaire 36).[2] The characterization is both attractive and fanciful. The flâneur becomes a dialectical image 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 metropolitan 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 "strangeness" 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. (Baudelaire 170)

  20. 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 notes that 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 173). This may well have been the antidote to Fascism's introduction of aesthetics into politics ("Work" 241). However, one might just as well call 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

  21. 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 émigrés, 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).

  22. 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 II 600)

    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)

  23. 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. (N 50)

  24. 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 value 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 itself.

    The bazaar is the last hangout of the flâneur. If in the beginning the street had become an intérieur for him, now this intérieur turned into a street, and he roamed through the labyrinth of merchandise as he had once roamed through the labyrinth of the city. (Baudelaire 54)

  25. 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 Landscape."

    I pick my way
    Step by ginger step between
    Muck, rags, dogs,
    Women bathing squealing
    Children in sewer water,
    Unexpected chickens,
    And miles of dusty yellow
    Gravel straight
    From the centre of some planet
    Sucked dry by the sun... (Patel and Thorner 143)

  26. 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

  27. 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)

  28. 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.... (Dangle 46)

    As for the dawn in Bombay, this is Nissim Ezekiel, in "A Morning Walk":

    Barbaric city slick with slums,
    Deprived of seasons, blessed with rains,
    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 poem "Hunger":

    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, but become 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.

  29. 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 that the 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).[3] 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
    Figure 7: Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)
    Source: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

  30. 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.[4] 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

  31. 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.[5]

    Figure 8
    Figure 8: Cartoon by Laxman
    (rpt. Padgaonkar 173)

  32. 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.

    Figure 9
    Figure 9: A Victim of the Bombay Riots, December 1992
    Copyright © Times Relief Fund

  33. 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.[6] 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
    Figure 10: Counting the Dead, Bombay (Worli), December 1992
    Copyright © Times Relief Fund

  34. 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 bureaucracy.

    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)

  35. 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 (Illuminations 241). 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.
  36. 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 Heynen 95-118.

    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, 227).

    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. (282-83)

    5 Cf. Padgaonkar 1 and passim.

    6 Cf. Chandavarkar 58.

    Works Cited

    Ambedkar, B.R. What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. Bombay: Thacker, 1945.

    Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Trans. Jonathan Mayne. New York: Phaidon, 1964.

    Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zohn. London and New York: Verso, 1973.

    ---. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968.

    ---."N [Re the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]." Trans. Leigh Hafrey and Richard Sieburth. Benjamin: Philosophy, History, Aesthetics. Ed. Gary Smith. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1983. pp?

    ---. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: Verso, 1977.

    ---. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, and Autobiographical Wntings. Ed. Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York & London: Harcourt, 1978.

    ---. Selected Writings. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. 2 vols. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1997-99.

    ---. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Benjamin, Illuminations 253-64.

    ---. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Benjamin, Illuminations 217-51.

    Brecht, Bertolt. Poems Part One 1913-1928. Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. London: Eyre Methuen, 1976.

    Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan. The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

    Dangle, Arjun, ed. Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Bombay: Orient Longman, 1992.

    Desai, Anita. Baumgartner's Bombay. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989.

    Dwivedi, Sharada, and Rahul Mehrotra. Bombay: The Cities Within. Bombay: India Book House, 1995.

    Foucault, Michel. "Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth." The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984. Trans. Robert Hurley et al. Ed. Paul Rabinov. Vol. 2. New York: New Press, 1997.

    Fox, Richard G. "Communalism and Modernity." Contesting the Nation: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India. Ed. David Ludden. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996. 235-49.

    Heynen, Hilde. Architecture and Modernity: A Critique. Cambridge, MA., and London: MIT P, 1999.

    Mistry, Rohinton. Such a Long Journey. Calcutta: Rupa, 1991.

    Naipaul, V.S. India: A Wounded Civilization. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

    Nandy, Ashis. "An Intelligent Critic's Guide to Indian Cinema." The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995. 196-236.

    Padgaonkar, Dileep, ed. When Bombay Burned. New Delhi: UBS Publishers' Distributors, 1993.

    Patel, Sujata, and Alice Thorner, eds. Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1995.

    Weber, Max. Selections in Translation. Ed. W.G. Runciman. Trans. Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.

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