Sunday, April 23, 2006

A dark, dry night in London last week. A friend and I were at Angel tube station, waiting for other friends to turn up so we could go to dinner. The street as crowded as ever, as pedestrians and buses and cars jostled for space and people poured out of the station with anxious, expectant or tired faces, their hunched shoulders signalling the end of another day, and the waiting for the comfort or dullness of home. J., my friend, was feeling cold, so she decided to stay inside the station. I felt dog-tired, it had been a long day, so I decided to go outside and sit on a bench. Sat down, looking at a starless sky and the facade of a big building in front of me, brown brick, full of offices and shops and hidden histories behind the facade.

A cough, deliberate and measured. A voice, saying something indistinct. I looked up at a man, asked him if he'd said something. 'I said, excuse me', he repeated with a touch of impatience, and sat down slowly and heavily beside me. A working man, I guessed, wearing an old coat, down on his luck but proud of his respectability. He stank of booze, but looked sober and mild. Glasses, squinting eyes, a frail body, not tall, not well. Pulled a notebook out of a pocket and a pencil out of another, gazed for a while at the building before us, and began to draw it, in wavering, unsteady strokes.

'Are you an artist?', I asked, for want of anything else to say. He looked at me for a while, and said, in slow, deliberate tones, 'I'm a carpenter.' Looked at me a little longer, as though to decide if I was mocking him. Satisfied that I wasn't, he began to speak.

'I draw for fun, you see. After work I come here, or go somewhere else, and take out this' - gestured to his notebook - 'and I draw.' He paused for a moment. 'I like drawing', he added, with great emphasis, as though to convince himself as well as me. 'I'm sure you do, and you're very good', I gabbled, but he wasn't listening.

'My girlfriend.' Pause. 'She threw me out of me house. My own house, you see? I got no money, and she - she threw me out. We had a fight. She threw me out. Her house, that'ud be ok. But my own flat. And she threw me out.' I murmured something indistinct and sympathetic. He carried on, looking at my face as he spoke.

'Now I'm waiting for a bus. I need 80p to get to my mum's house, that's all I need. I'll get it too. Don't you worry, I'll get it. And I got what's most important, mate - I got me beer. Most important thing.' Drew a can out of his inexhaustible pockets, opened it and winked at me. 'Just need 80p to get to me mum's place, too far t'walk from here, but I'll get there. I'll be fine, mate.' Looked at me again, too proud to ask for the money, and defiant.

I scrabbled around in my pockets, drew out a few coins. 'Here you go.' He took it at once. 'Thanks, mate. You're a gentleman.' Yes I am. A gentleman, that's why I'm handing you three copper coins when I could have given you enough for the tube and a dinner. A gentleman, that's why I'm washed out here after walking around central London doing nothing and you're here washed out after a day's hard labour, and a fight at home. And then he began, and even before he began I think I knew what the conversation would get around too.

'Women, son.' Deep sigh, an angry frown creasing his brow. 'You know can't tell them anything. Never', - he leaned towards me confidentially - 'never tell a woman things, you know, you learn that in this life. They can't take it. Some words - don't use them. They can't take it, they can't. And most of all' - his voice grew louder now - 'don't use the C-word. You know what I'm talking about, mate?' I did, but I didn't want to. 'The C-word, you see. C-U-N-T. Never call a woman that, even if she's one. They make your life hell.' He subsided, sank back in his seat. 'Threw me out of my flat, she did that, yes she did. But I'll be fine.' And what did you do to her? I wondered. What else did you call her, how often, how many times a day? What had she done, spoiled your dinner? Kept you waiting? Had a headache? What would you have done had she called you a sod? A fuckwit? A poof? I'm only asking, you see, I don't know, I don't know your life and I never will. Hers neither. But you think I can understand you because we both have pricks, don't you? What makes you think that? What if I get up and walk away right now? Thoughts tumbled around in my head like leaves in a storm. I'd have liked to have met her too, you know. Known what she made of being called the C-word. Known what you'd done to her, what she'd done to you, what the two of you've done to each other over the years, months, days, minutes. But I'll nod quietly at whatever you say, what can I do? Give you feminist training, when all you have is a beer and my charity in your pocket? And other thoughts too, pushing uneasily against these. I have more coins, you know. I can walk home from here, I can take the tube, I can take a bus, I'm about to go for a nice Thai dinner that you'll never be able to afford, and they'd throw you out of the restaurant even if you could. That's what I am, you know. And this is what you are - you should hate me, really. But you like me, don't you, because I'm giving you 80p? Or is it because I'm listening to you? Tell me, mate, when was the last time anyone listened to you? Tell me about me, tell me what I am, tell me what you make of me, I must be strange to you as you are to me. And those words again, now as though he's lashing himself with them. 'Can't call your woman a cunt, you can't. Remember that, mate. Lessons in life. Forget them and you're done for.' 'Your' woman?

The storm subsided. He muttered something again about looking out for yourself, and staying clear of women, and I kept a poker face, I didn't laugh, I didn't cry. And then he began sketching again, and the conversation turned into something totally different. He drew like a child, but a child who knows he can be good some day. A child who wishes, perhaps, that he had more time to draw, but they want him at work again today till late. Grateful that we'd moved to safer ground, I asked him if he had to draw much as a carpenter. A stupid question. You can research the history of labour, yes you can, but you know nothing, do you? And he knows you know nothing, and he's being patient with you. 'No, I draw 'coz I like it, you see. My job, they give you plans, you build to those plans. Don't draw for that, but for me.' But he likes me because I'm listening, I'm not running away. He doesn't know I'm mining him for experience, using him as to figure this city out, he doesn't and won't know I'm writing about him now.

He's on to eyes now. 'I like drawing eyes. Not been drawing long, but I draw eyes, I like them, I paint them too.' There are two ways of drawing eyes, he tells me, see right here - a few jabs with his pencil and he's magically created an eye where there was blank white paper, and see right here again - the pencil moves again, shading an oval outline now, and we have an eye again. The irises, the pupils, the retina - he knows them all, and so does his pencil. He draws clumsily and not well, but he's doing magic, he's making things happen on this patch of paper that no one owns or rules but himself. Those hands set to work all day for the imaginations and profits of other men find their own zone of power at this time of evening, when he sits before tube stations and draws what he sees, drunk but steady, a steady hand, a steady eye. He's doing magic and he's proud of it. And despite myself I'm drawn in, we're talking about his art, he hasn't been at it long. 'But I'm getting better. I like it, you see.'

We're more relaxed now, though we've barely been speaking five minutes. 'Been a carpenter long?' I ask, conversationally. 'Thirty-two years', he replies. Seeing my eyes widen, he adds, 'Since I was a child, y'see. Used to help me dad, he was a carpenter too. Been carpentering since I was a child. I'm forty-two now, working for thirty-two years.'

'I'm a good carpenter', he adds after a while. The pride's quiet, but evident. The craftsman who works all day but is not just an eight-hour slave but also an artist, the man who's proud of what he does and creates, at work and in the evenings on his drawing-pad as crowds jostle in the city before him. 'I'm good at my work.' I'm sure you are. Are you the only one who knows it? Is there anyone who bothers to tell you that, even if they do know? Does that make you lonely? And then the conversation changes again.

'Thirty two years, yes. And I was in jail too, in the middle.' So he was in jail. Doesn't shock me much, I tell myself. Give me a few more years in Blair's Britain, and who knows, I may be mistaken for a Muslim and be slung in jail myself. 'How long?', I ask him. 'Ten years.' And then I ask, 'why were you in jail?' It seems natural to the conversation, flowing as it is, there are no secrets he wants to hold from me any more.

'For murder.' Casually, without a change of tone. Looks at me, without curiosity. Did my face change? I tried to make sure it didn't. 'Murder', he repeats. 'I killed someone', he says, unnecessarily. There's a pause, I don't know what to say. The smell of the beer's suddenly very strong. I look in his eyes, they're still mild and his frame's still weak. 'He was a burglar', he says, and leans back, as though exhausted.

What could I do? Strangely enough, I wasn't afraid of him - he wouldn't hurt a fly, I could see, though he'd killed a man and heaven knows what he'd done to his girlfriend, but at the moment he wanted to talk and wanted me to listen. But now I couldn't just get up and walk away, not once he'd told me this, because at some level, who knows, he may have been expecting me to do just that. Are we playing a game? Are we playing who-blinks-first? I latch on to his last comment. 'He was a burglar?' 'Yes, he'd have killed me if I hadn't shot first.' I look shocked. 'But then it's manslaughter - they gave you ten years for that? For self-defence?' He's pleased, I'm speaking a language he likes. He's been a convict, for Christ's sake, who knows the law better than him? Explains, with genuine, disinterested intellectual clarity, the British legal system's distinctions between murder and manslaughter to me, how he'd been tried for murder and got away with manslaughter, but still got ten years. Looks at me again, for the first time with curiosity. 'You're an Indian, aren't you? You'll be knowing about the British legal system, then.' Outwardly, I grin at him, 'yes I am.' Inwardly: now how the fuck do you know that? Next you'll be saying you know I'm researching the history of law! He doesn't, thankfully. He's remembering his days in jail. 'Learnt a lot there, mate. I had some good times, I had some bad times.' He coughs, loudly. I venture a question. 'Was it hard getting to work after coming out of prison? Did they make it hard for you?' He smiles, pretty much for the first time. 'Oh, I got around them.' That look of pride again. And why not? How many of your friends are on the dole? You got around them, and good for you too. My congratulations. But inevitably, other thoughts. Was he really a burglar? Did you want to watch him die? Did he try to kill you too, or were you making that up? Was there anyone else you ever killed?

I look up, and my friends are walking towards me. They look at us curiously, and wait politely for the conversation to finish. I end it clumsily, though part of me wants to stay. ' friends are here. I have to go. Nice meeting you, er...' Fucking hell, I don't even know your name. But you don't care. He looks up and sees three women. His views on women suddenly flash through my panicking mind. But nothing. He smiles, a bit weirdly but not unpleasantly. A beery drawl, now. 'Hello, girls.' 'Hello', they reply, tentatively. I hold out my hand quickly, and wish him all the best. 'Thank you, mate, it was good talking to you', he says, shakes my hand, and then I'm gone, we're off the road towards dinner.

I looked back once, and he was still there as we headed round a corner, head sunk into his drawing pad, his pencil sketching out buildings and faces and eyes, for the moment quite happy in his world. A working man, a murderer, a weak and frail person on a bench near a station, doodling, 80p in his pocket, an ex-convict, a small-built and short-sighted man waiting for a bus to come along to take him to his mum.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

I've felt for a while that I should blog about the Jantar Mantar agitations in Delhi that came to a head recently, the Narmada agitation in particular. But it's difficult to, since issues that press upon your mind and heart so strongly are very difficult to write about. The guilt of distance and the immediacy of the issue combine in strange ways, and produce not only anger but a certain numbness, the numbness that accompanies the revelation of naked, unashamed injustice. Others have written about these issues, blogged about them too, with much greater competence than I could possibly do. But I'll try.
Two major movements for justice and survival, both of them desperate and nearing the end of their tether, converged on Jantar Mantar over the last month. Victims of the toxic gases released at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in December 1984, accompanied by large numbers of their supporters, carried out a month-long march to Delhi to protest against the state's refusal to offer them protection and compensation, in the form of a sustained factory clean-up, provisions of clean drinking water not contaminated by toxic waste, and action against the company responsible for the death of over 20,000 people, and the medical disasters that have hit thousands and thousands more. Their demands were not met, they were not met by the Prime Minister, and so, having marched 800 km to Delhi to make claims and demands of indisputable justice, they decided to go on a hunger strike. Alongside them were their neighbours in victimhood, from the same part of the country. These were victims of another disaster - people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, protesting against the decision to raise the height of the dam, yet again, without making provisions for the relief and rehabilitation of the oustees. Medha Patkar, the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the most important social movement in contemporary India, embarked, at the same time as the Bhopal protestors, on a fast unto death to pressurize the government towards action. Action, predictably, was taken in the form of police lathicharges, arrests of demonstrators and hunger strikers and sympathetic activists and students, the hysteric campaigns of both the Gujarat BJP and Congress, and the counter-protests of sections of the media bent on demonizing the NBA as a movement that was 'holding the government to ransom' with their demands. Evict several hundred thousand people from their homes, submerge their villages and forests, flush them out of their habitations like rats, refuse to offer them anything resembling humane compensation, and of course you're the ones being held to ransom when they let out a yap of protest. It is, after all, always the Great Indian Middle Class that suffers, everyone below them is merely battening on the state for undeserved privileges. Beggars, displaced people, slumdwellers, industrial casualties, the unemployed - spoilsports who refuse to play up to the still persistent hallucination of India Shining.
I know how hopelessly rhetorical that last sentence was. It's anger, anger and helplessness, that makes me write like this. At moments like this you realize that the government you enthusiastically helped vote into power differs from its fascist predecessors only on certain issues, that when it comes to 'development' the state essentially remains the State, untainted by anything remotely approaching compassion for the human casualties of its projects. And I voted for this government, and would do so again, because the alternative is too nightmarish to bear to live with.
Perhaps, though, I'm exaggerating the case. Because these two remarkable, admirable social movements didn't return to their bases without hope. They suffered through the fasting and protests, the police beat them and made them bleed, and Medha Patkar carried on her hunger strike almost to the point of death, for 19 days. But at the end of all of this, both movements gained something.
The Bhopal protestors have gone back happier than they have been in a long, long time. It is true that the victims will not see Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide punished. That will not happen. Big business in India will never pay for its acts of criminal negligence, not even if it produced the biggest industrial disaster in history. But the Bhopal marchers returned with promises that the contaminated water they and their children have grown up drinking will be cleaned up, that action will be taken to clean up the factory site, that steps will be taken to make sure that the mountain of corpses and half-corpses stops piling up.
Promises. Merely promises. And of course the Manmohan Singh government will not honour its pledges, of course the marchers will be back, in some form or another, to claim the justice that is theirs by right, and the survival that being human, and being alive, entitles them to. Don't keep murdering us. That, in essence, is the only real demand the Bhopal survivors have been making. The murder won't stop, despite the happiness they rightly feel at the government's recent concessions (please check out, and the marchers' blog on it). But at some level a victory was won - the government was shamed into token concessions, and the movement for the Bhopal victims will continue, and can draw some heart from this. Networks of support have sprung up, over the years, among activist organizations, NGOs, university groups of teachers and students, and the rare but crucial honest journalist. That does mean something - not victory by a long shot, but an advance of sorts. And what has been acknowledged, though mostly grudgingly and covertly, is the scale of the suffering that continues in areas affected by the poisonous gases from the factory, and reproduces itself, through deformities, disease and death, down generations. This recognition of suffering is symbolically of great consequence for a movement that has no weapons except arguments, facts and the capacity to invoke moral outrage.
With the NBA, matters are different. The hunger strike was not an ineffectual one, but matters remain incredibly grim. A ministerial team headed by Saifuddin Soz was dispatched to investigate the process of rehabilitation. Soz found, of course, that there is no such process except on paper, and was too honest to conceal that, as the Prime Minister undoubtedly wanted him to do. The matter was referred to the Supreme Court, and the statement it issued was equivocal. Dam construction was not stopped, but the legitimacy of the demand for proper rehabilitation was partially conceded. One would think there's a logical contradiction between these two decisions, given that each increase in the dam's height flushes out more and more people by the thousands, and given the current state of rehabilitation work in Madhya Pradesh. Still, given the Supreme Court's shameful history on the Narmada issue, it came as something of a relief that the judges were willing to concede that oustees had the right to live as human beings. I personally was surprised. Medha Patkar broke her fast, and the movement now waits, making use of a very short break from relentless pressure to draw breath, recoup, and re-strategize. The next SC hearing is on 1 May, I think. May Day: wouldn't that be a great occasion for the state to make another attempt to destroy a movement of the poor and dispossessed? Or perhaps not, perhaps things will be different. One lives in hope.
But this wasn't all. The government seems to have pretty much washed its hands of Soz's report, though it had commissioned it. Soz went beyond his brief, clearly, telling his masters more than they wanted to know. And the central government developed cold feet following a sustained, vicious campaign by politicians from Gujarat. The full fury of Gujarat politics has been unleashed upon the Narmada protestors, and there's no greater and more destructive fury in all of Indian politics, as the 2002 pogroms taught us. The Gujarat Congress and BJP joined hands in demonizing Medha Patkar and her peaceful army of protestors. The NBA's office in Vadodara was ransacked, not the first time this committedly non-violent movement (who, of course, are 'holding the nation to ransom') has been subjected to such intimidation. Modi declared he was going on a fast to counter Medha Patkar's propaganda, and would not give up till the government had issued a clear 'no' to the NBA. So as Narmada protestors sweltered in the heat of Jantar Mantar without food, Modi leaned back in an airconditioned cubicle and threatened not to eat. How much blood does this man want on his hands? The government, of course, began shitting in their pants, especially since the Gujarat Congress threw their weight behind the sanghis in their demand for the fulfilment of the world's most reviled hydro-electric project.
Aamir Khan, bless him, who expressed sympathy with the victims of the dam, has been subject to similar demonization. The baboons of the Congress and BJP who ransacked the NBA's office also burnt his posters and tried to ban his films. Once again, the same strategies. Single out prominent individuals who have been involved with or expressed concern for the victims of this holocaust. Isolate a few names - Medha Patkar, Aamir Khan (who did nothing more than visit the protestors and offer them some sympathy), and of course most of all Arundhati Roy, who has come to represent Mephistopheles in the imagination of the Indian middle-class Right. Insinuate, without a scrap of evidence, that these individuals are doing what they do, saying what they say, writing what they write, from interested motives, for profit or for brownie points. Suggest, thereby, that these manipulative, scheming crypto-Commie propagandists not only represent but are the movement, and it becomes easier to ignore the thousands of human beings, directly affected by the project, who are the real object of fear and hatred. Their collective weight becomes transformed, by a gigantic act of manipulated and deceptive representation, into a show-trial list of familiar and famous people, people who've worked ceaselessly and tirelessly for the movement, and in Medha Patkar's case are pivotal to it, but who in actuality are not the movement, for the movement involves masses of people. And this mass involvement is what has to be denied and made invisible, each time a mobilization happens.
This, however, is ultimately impossible. Which is why, once again, the Narmada movement has managed, against the odds, to win a temporary stalemate. 'Win' is a peculiar word to use, but in the case of this movement, at this stage of exhaustion and despair, not being terminated entirely is victory, of a kind, though a very grim kind. Both sets of battles - that concerning Bhopal and that concerning the Narmada - have followed a particular logic over the last month or so, and I think this logic is going to be repeated as the despair and urgency of movements for social justice in India intensifies. In both cases, a mobilization on an apocalyptic scale, declarations of 'victory or death', strategic launchpads for a sustained pressure campaign. On the side, frenetic lobbying, appeals, pleas to be heard, mobilizations of sympathizers across the country and especially in Delhi. A staking out of physical territory in the heart of India's capital, close to the centre of power. The strategic use of a fragile but enormous moral power, through invocations of traditions of non-violent protest and satyagraha, that despite the seeming unlikelihood of this manages to jostle the government from its committed unconcern just a little. The state responds through equivocation, scared by the scale of anger and bitterness, scared also by the monumental patience of these resistance movements that simply refuse to die away, but equally scared by - and ideologically on the same wavelength as - mobilizations on its right. A hard-line refusal to do anything bends into a nervous set of equivocations and self-contradictory statements, but never bends all the way towards an acknowledgement of the real suffering of either the Bhopal or Narmada victims. Both movements retreat, but strategically, on what appears to be at least partly their own terms. This could provide limited time and energy to recoup a little, and at least there are now formal, written commitments that can be used as evidence against the state when it dishonours its pledges again, as it's bound to do. It all sounds very paltry, but for the moment it'll have to do.
In the meantime, of course, there are children and adults still dying of toxic poisoning, there are tribals and villagers being forced off their lands as dam waters rise and drown centuries of human habitation, there are the corpses of people, homes and failed hopes that bob up and down on dam waters and float around in air contaminated by industrial waste, there are ghosts of factory workers and dispossessed men and women who've starved or drowned, and there are policemen who specialize in drawing the blood and breaking the bones of protestors from both movements. There are also the state governments of both Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, both of which are run by the BJP and the first of which is the most murderous in independent India's history. These aren't good times for people in these states to mobilize in campaigns that'll immediately be labelled as anti-national and unpatriotic, a labelling that'll be fully backed by rags like The Pioneer and, in most of its moods, the TOI.
But there's another side, and it's this: these mobilizations have gone on far too long, and have moved enough people and caused enough others to think, to simply vanish, whatever the overt and hidden forms of repression they're subjected to. And these causes, therefore, aren't entirely lost yet. Which, I suppose, is not to be forgotten easily.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Victory. The new French employment law that Villepin was trying to pass has been scrapped. They took on the French state, they took on the power of business, and they won. I still can't get my head around it. But this calls for celebration.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Are those patterns of sound actually in his head? Before they make their way down those nerves that stop at his fingers, are they in his head? The fingers - by what strange, studiously practised yet wild alchemy do they know each vibration, each note, each tone, each juxtaposition they tease out of the fretboard? The guitar itself is alive, throbbing and sparkling with colours and light. Garcia's on his guitar.

Garcia's on his guitar. The world's condensed into this river of sound that swirls around his instrument. The world flows from his guitar. This is worship. This is faith. I'm crazy.

And it's just air, Christ, just air, twisted and stretched and bent, air changed by magic into sound, air thick with smoke and marijuana and the sound of Garcia's audience clapping its hands, all air, but air bent on paths that are accidental, improvised, and invented.

Like every teenager who ever had a passionate affair with sixties rock and its offspring, I dreamed, several years back, of myself on a stage, bending air with a guitar, exploring the stratosphere with my fingers as they hopped across a fretboard. But, unusually, it wasn't Hendrix or Page or Clapton I imagined myself as, the guitar an extension of the body, following and shaping the body's rules and patterns. It was, instead, Garcia, his fingers imparting to his guitar a life and magic all its own, the musician almost audience to his own performance, his flight of creation. The pain compressed in that index finger that Garcia severed, one day, as he was chopping wood, mingled with the sweetness coming from that fusion of brain, fingers and strings. The beautiful, sweet, bearded face. It was always Garcia.

Garcia playing and singing 'I Shall Be Released'. And it kicks in, as it was bound to do sometime. The power and the genius of Dylan, behind Garcia as he transforms the song into something it had always and never been. It's only words. Released. Only a word, but a word with such resonance. History, desire and prophecy mingled in that word, in the voice that gives it resonance and depth. Words, but words from Dylan.

Garcia on guitar. Dylan reinventing song. The closest I'll ever come to religion.

And I was always too lazy - too afraid of being no good? - to ever learn the guitar.