Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I haven’t ever read anything written on Herzog, so I guess what I’m writing about may well be a staple of Herzog criticism, but it struck me that during Fata Morgana the movement of the camera bears a peculiar relationship with the objects and relationships that it films. I couldn’t believe it at first while watching it, but never, in the course of the entire film, does the camera ever actually zoom in on the set. We begin with half-a-dozen or more shots of a plane landing in a field, a shifting landscape of water and desert and cloud, punctuated by aberrant images – a man walking across the sand, factories on the far horizon, the tops of huts and shacks like a Lego set sprawled childishly across the thorns and rocks and cacti of the desert. Through all of this, the camera never moves in on its prey; rather, it follows the landscapes in their motion as though it were a car driving along a path, the distances from it of objects that lie off the track of its road being a constant. After a while we are treated to some sharp cuts and jumps, some of which amplify their preceding images – a distant shot of a car followed by a closer angle of the same car, for instance – but all of this is accomplished without the camera ever actually moving in slowly, zooming in upon its images. It’s almost as though we’re watching a series of photographs passing before our eyes without interruption.

About midway through the movie, the camera does begin moving in, tentatively – upon a line of slaughtered animal carcasses juxtaposed with a sardonic take on Genesis, a narrator telling us how heaven decreed that its creations should find protectors and caregivers to nurture them; upon the shapes of tin sheds and houses; upon images of children and beggars; upon a naturalist demonstrating the peculiarities of a monitor lizard he’s holding; upon stones and rock formations; upon sand dunes that metamorphose into waves on water and clouds in the skies with apparently smooth continuity. At moments like this, however, the camera refrains from zooming right in, mercilessly, but instead darts in and out again, in tentative flickering motions, tenderly and surreptitiously. It rests on a place, moves closer softly and quickly, and lingers for a moment or two, slides down the length of the set, before sliding back again. In a sense, the camera is making love to its subjects.

The camera, then, follows a line that is disjointed and discontinuous from the landscape it reveals. Indeed, we’re treated to something more akin to a revelation than an exploration, the voice of the narrators telling a story seemingly running parallel to the actual visual narrative, only touching it at points, to withdraw again. The music follows a similar trajectory – intimations of violence and pain and injustice on the screen immediately followed by soaring melodies, a hymn, an operatic tenor, a rousing blues, successive compositions by Leonard Cohen, as the landscape tears off at a run, past wire meshes and military camps and trucks and crashed planes and far-off hills. (But this landscape rushes past us, we never pass through it.) The relationship of the camera to its objects establishes, then, the form for the relationship forged between the principal narrative elements that keep the film moving.

But the juxtaposition of narrative, visual imagery and music in apparently parallel streams does not result in chaos and the breaking of all perspective, for it reveals deeper preoccupations. A wonderfully reconstructed Biblical creation myth – God transposed to a mythic, probably Central American, creator and creatress, the making of the world through the labours of Genesis – is countered by images of wilful destruction, of death and disease and poverty and misery. An ironical reading of Paradise is counterposed to interwoven images of serenity, serendipity, and violence and desolation. There is a particularly beautiful sequence, where ‘Suzanne’ is played across a barren desert landscape, and the image, in the central stanza of the song, of Jesus as a man dying for a beautiful cause, but bearing a promise of healing that never quite dies out (an image quite at odds with the avaricious greed, bloodlust and powerlust that characterizes so much of the history of practised Christianity), acquires an intense power and poignancy. A politics emerges from the film, an ironical affirmation of Utopia in the face of the banal, the absurd, and the wasted. The camera, which gives all of this light, shape and form – itself a principle of creation and revelation – rivets us to all of this, but also keeps us at bay, reminds us of our status as onlookers by refusing the cinematic depth that zooming close-in shots and slow zoom-outs would have created. We are denied a point of identification with the people and objects on screen, reminded on their awareness of their presence on camera, their unavoidable theatricality. The camera in Fata Morgana is the alienation effect in action.

Workers’ Recreation: Phoenix Mills And The World We Have Gained

(In Bombay last month, I found myself, one evening, unaccountably sitting on the balcony of Phoenix Mills for hour after hour, feeling angry and desperate and perversely fascinated. I sat there for four hours, looking, not doing anything else. That is where this came from.)

1. Freeze this segment of the city at any moment in time, and you encounter a very particular Bombay, a Bombay mythologized many times over, but also a real Bombay. Social distances are crossed with apparent ease here. Blue collar and white collar bump collars on crowded streets; tea and paan shops, tiny cheap restaurants and permit rooms jostle with large shopping centres and expensive eateries; working-class neighbourhoods weave through the shadows of looming residential skyscrapers and towering office blocks; narrow alleys stuffed with pedestrian life seep into broad boulevards stuffed with slow-moving car traffic; flyovers where cars whiz by overlook messy junction points of humming, throbbing pedestrian roads. The sound of drilled metal and hammered concrete, the wet slap of cement and tarmac, fugue into the chatter of families shopping for the week or the day, the honk of impatient taxis and Contessas, the music blaring from bars. The smells of stale piss and the smells of brewed Barista coffee hover together in the air. The neighbourhoods thrum with the friction of crossing social worlds, visible to one another and part of one another. This is not Delhi, with its zoned off territories, its industrial units banished to the city’s edges, its gated communities and malls designed exclusively for the super-rich. Lower Parel is a messy junction of interchanges, an exhibition of classes, communities and histories passing each other on the street, unsmilingly but also, on the whole, unthreateningly.

2. But having frozen space in time, allow time to begin moving again in this space. And now these crossing worlds, these corruptions and porosities of social distance, seem less plastic than they appeared at first, and more tragic. This used to be part of Girangaon: working-class Bombay, textile mills belching smoke from their tall chimneys, factory sirens screaming at lunch hour and the end of shifts. Spinners and weavers and doffers and reelers and moneylenders and rentiers and khanavals fabricated, through their intimate exchanges and conflicts, a distinct world. Shahirs recited their poetry, lavnis and tamashas entertained working-class families and communities, religious occasions and festivals created, alternately, flashpoints of unity and discord, powerful unions organized workers into militant political activity. This was a locality, like others in Girangaon, created and sustained by the mills and the labour market that swelled around them, fuelled by the relationships, rivalries, lives and deaths of labourers. This place belonged to them.

3. The mills died. The strike of 1982 ended in unqualified defeat. Productive technology shifted from mills to powerlooms. The market shifted from cotton to polyester and other synthetic fibres. For several years the mill lands lay vacant and unused; the communities built around them began to float apart. Meanwhile, the city continued to grow. It grew richer but also poorer. It grew more congested. Slums occupied more and more space; commercially available land, on the other hand, became more and more profitable. Bombay became one of the prime real estate destinations of the world. Real estate, as was inevitable, turned its eye upon the mill lands. This happened at a time of an acute housing shortage in the city. Environmental activists argued, with reason on their side, that the lands left vacant by the mills provided a wonderful opportunity for the city to breathe again: the unused acres could be converted into parks and green public spaces. NGOs campaigning for workers’ rights argued, again with reason on their side, that the land that had belonged to workers should be developed for their use, their sustenance. In a time when slums dotted the landscapes of the labouring and ex-labouring poor, the vacant lands offered an ideal space for the construction of low-cost housing. Real estate agents and builders, with the state and money on their side, argued that this was the chance the city had, finally, to become ‘world-class’, to become Shanghai, to become Manhattan. Cleansed, purified, beautified. It was a long battle, dragged through the media, the deliberations of contending cliques of policymakers, experts and advisers, and the courts. But eventually the side with the guns and the money won: acres and acres of mill land were turned over, largely illegally, to builders and investors for ‘new development’. Lower Parel, and areas like it, came to acquire the landscape they inhabit now: a schizophrenic juxtaposition of supremely rich corporate offices leaning into the sky, surreal skylines punctuated by the grit and dirt of plebeian neighbourhoods, caked with dust and bursting sewers and crowded bastis and chawls. The process of corporate gentrification continues. The working and unemployed poor, in a city of vast and visible economic disparities, are being squeezed into tiny corners of land that had historically been theirs. ‘New development’ in Bombay distributes entitlements and opportunities in a manner that, even by the standards of contemporary global capitalism, is blindly avaricious and unjust. It identifies stakeholders on the basis of profitability, plunges real estate investment and speculation into the city as though the poor didn’t exist.

4. In this apparent criss-crossing of classes and spaces, a significantly new form of social distance is actually being produced: the inexorable work of capital upon plebeian livelihoods and localities, plebeian communities that structured these streets and alleys, and consequently the creation of a new patriciate, ennobled by access to the benefits of real estate investment and speculation. And Phoenix Mills, where I am sitting as I write this, stands at the centre of this new strategy of urban creation, a grotesque and fascinating monument to the torn and entangled histories of Bombay, a testament to the fantasies on whose purse-strings the engines of growth now run.

5. Phoenix Mills is a scam: the land the mill stood on was leased on condition that it be used for ‘workers’ recreation’. This obscene deployment of a worker-friendly clause in urban development law for the purposes of actually disinheriting what remained of the working class testifies to the transformation of the law itself, a transformation with deep historical roots fructifying fully at this moment in time. At one point, over a hundred years ago, the law that governed the space of factories was a weak but real instrument for the protection of workers, now it became an instrument for their disenfranchisement, their erasure from the spaces they had built and sustained, the spaces they had spun and woven into their masters’ profits. The millworkers of Bombay, and the complex local economy framed around their activities, had no space in the new, world-class city that was being imagined. They were an unnecessary impediment. They were, quite simply, superfluous.

6. I’m sitting on the steps of Level 1, High Street Phoenix. Behind me is a white room with large windows – the Bowling Company. A Sports Bar belonging to the same company. A seafood restaurant named Gopaljee. Below and behind me, there are outlets of Copper Chimney, McDonald’s, Bombay Blue, Noodle Bar, Spaghetti Kitchen, Gelato Italiano, Kareem’s, Domino’s. On my far right, Big Bazaar: socialism for the rich, or at any rate for the economically empowered. Below and beside that, several open-air food stalls. Below me and facing me, a large brick-tiled courtyard, where shopping families, children, groups of young people, and couples, wander and talk. Directly below me is a tiny patch of enclosed green, and a couple of large potted plants, behind which are groups of people sitting on marbled benches with small attached water fountains. They face Barista, Quorum, Planet M, and The Dollar Store. These are mostly built within structures inherited from the old factory: this room might have been the carding room, cotton may have been reeled in its neighbouring compound, and spun into yarn in the big oddly shaped structure behind that. No matter – it’s all gone now, and our focus is on the new and the living, not the dead. Still, the intersection of dead and living is eerie in Phoenix Mills. The building that now houses Spaghetti Kitchen and McDonald’s would once have housed mill engines: it is attached to a large stone chimney, rather tastefully decorated in white, with the words ‘HIGH STREET PHOENIX’ emblazoned across its body. It is an arresting and spectral sight, a perpetual, though unwitting, reminder of the lives and deaths that passed through these factory walls once.

7. Life is happening all around. People are shopping in Big Bazaar and Pantaloons, darting in and out of the enormous building named High Street Phoenix, eating and drinking in the restaurants and bars, simply wandering around. And I am struck by the fact that despite the obscenity and injustice involved in producing this space, it remains a pleasant space to be in. This is a week-day, and so it is relatively relaxed, free of the weekend rush. It’s buzzing but not noisy. It is a middle-class space with its own generosity, embracing the gamut of occupations and experiences that constitutes the Indian middle class, not just –as in Delhi malls – the sickening conspicuous consumption of the nouveau riche. The crowd is not entirely devoid of plebeian faces: careworn office faces, careworn working mothers’ faces, housewives’ faces that have finally been granted some relaxation, the faces of young men with shiny belts and slicked back hair and nowhere to go, the faces of the children of the respectable lower middle class, the faces of women who feel secure here and wander about freely, on their own or with their friends and families and lovers. A walk along a courtyard licking an ice cream, a hungrily munched chicken roll here, a long involved conversation there, the clasped hands of a couple deep into each other across the courtyard. The meanness and generosity of Bombay, as ever, can never quite cancel one another out. It is a public space.

8. It is a public space, but the public has its limits. The public experience it offers is contained, it is privatized within boundaries of class that are porous at their outer edges, but nonetheless there. I see this on Friday nights and weekends, when the mall becomes a zoo: a desperate mass of working middle-class people, a crocodile queue jostling to enter the mall. It is a desperate crush of people, many of whom, worn out after a week’s work, have this chance in this space and no other to do their shopping for the following week. The streets outside are the same as they ever were: local groceries, tobacconists, engineering and car repairing workshops, fruit and vegetable sellers, assorted mechanical blue-collar skills, surrounding this weirdly unsure, wavering, swaying circus of the local patriciate and gentry, small and large, modest and rich. This circus is contained within the space of the mall: step outside and you enter an utterly different world. The surrounding streets still belong, temporarily, to the proletarians and plebeians. But they in turn are surrounded. The corporate patriciate and white-collar gentry inhabit the oases of calm, the high-rise buildings, that survey this landscape and the rest of the city. Their meeting point is here, in Phoenix Mills, where they stock up for the week, and demonstrate the essential unity of the community they belong to, separated from them, the others, the mass of people who spit on the roads, the dirty faces of children who stare hungrily into shopfront windows from the outside, the men and women living around the mall who have no idea how long their occupancy of these roads and alleys will last, how long before they are cleansed, and we have, finally, our Shanghai or our Manhattan. This is the slow, contested, but inexorable dynamic of segregation in the city.

9. Below me, the courtyard is humming with all the delicate variations of human relationships and interchanges. But beyond this, interchanges of a different kind are at work. Beyond a fence of aluminium plastered with billboards – Pantaloons, HSBC, Samsung, HT – the landscape shifts dramatically and surreally. A giant car park is being erected. Gangs of men, small figures with hard hats, stand on a half-built roof that is also a work-floor, yelling and grunting as they haul up a half-finished door, borne on the shoulders of a man climbing a rickety scaffolding. A gigantic crane looms over their bodies, swinging this way and that. Workers move around, fix walls, stop, look around, smoke, and return to work, on the seven floors of the car park that is being built, with speed and efficiency and sweat and, in all probability, terrible pay with no benefits. Stacks of bamboo line the back of a man moving, very slowly, between the towering skeleton of the car park and the work-floor where it is being assembled. Tall rods rise from the surface, providing the weight and balance for makeshift pillars that will later be finessed into the foundations of the different storeys. Loud hammering. Drilling. Four men picking an unsteady path across a walkway precariously balanced on a grid of wooden rods, cobbled into a platform to hold the weight of working men and their materials. On the sixth floor, a man very near the edge, crawling along the walkway inspecting his work. He’d better not have vertigo. Men balancing on one another, shouting loud instructions, hauling concrete and wood and metal, cleaning surfaces, hammering in loose bolts. Construction is factory work, but with a difference: here the workers are building the factory even as they work in it. Workers’ recreation.

10. The compound that surveys this back-breaking labour, the compound where I am sitting, is not, plainly enough, built for workers’ recreation. But in another sense, it clearly is built for that very purpose. Recreation in the literal sense of the word: to re-create, to create afresh. A new economy and new forms of work. This may be a space of consumption, but it remains a factory nonetheless. Tangible goods and intangible services are produced each moment. Men and women smile plastic smiles at you from behind food counters as they wrap your sandwiches and rolls. McDonald’s gives you the assembly line in miniaturized and perfect form: the young workers who hand you burgers and fries never stop for a moment, never sit, their hands and bodies move in pre-synchronized manner. Ford and Taylor are recreated in the juxtapositions and rhythms of their work. Security guards, many of whom may have worked in the old mill, or others around it, move around sleeplessly, watching you for signs of transgression, stifling yawns but unable to hide the tiredness in their eyes, behind their dull blue suits. Waiters and shop assistants scurry to your service, always ready to be of use, fortunate if you speak to them with courtesy. A complex, dynamic economy of labour persists within the walls of the old factory. An economy with new codes, new and intimate hierarchies, but an economy of labour nonetheless. All this happens in the shadow of the old mill chimney, and if you listen very hard you can hear ghosts clanking their chains, marching in through the gates when the whistle blows, marching out again when the day’s over, and you can hear, in your mind, the hissing steam of the engines in the mill, and smell the smoke as it billows blackly out of the now cleansed, white chimney. Dead and living labour mingle. History is lived. All that was solid has melted into air, but air has crystallized as real estate, has taken shape, again, in this new economy of exchanges, services, and construction.

11. I look across this bustling, chaotic jostling of economies again, and the landscape I’m part of produces itself, with a new clarity, before my eyes. Here, Phoenix Mills, with its complex interpenetrations of work, investment, and consumption. Before me, the looming husk of a car park, the scaffolding that supports it, and the men who slowly conjure it into shape and form. Across the road, the sounds and smells of car mechanics’ workshops, cheap eateries, and small groceries that constitutes Gandhi Nagar Road, the chawls and bastis that sit in the middle of the new Shanghai that is taking shape before our eyes. A short way in the distance, three giant tower blocks, heralding the future of lower Parel. The future of new Bombay.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's difficult to know how to start writing again. The world's been full in the last few months. The head and heart have been heavy. And I just haven't felt like writing, but now I do. There's a clutch of memories and impressions and preoccupations that just keeps growing.

Here's the most vivid of recent memories.

A village in Singur, West Bengal, not far from Calcutta. New Year's Eve. An old woman, one of the leaders of the local resistance against the land grab by the West Bengal government on behalf of the Tatas, sitting in the courtyard of her small house, telling us of a night of terror. 25 September last year, when a group of villagers demonstrated outside the Block Development Office in Singur, into the small hours of the morning. The crowd thinning out. At one at night, upon a signal from the office, the electricity is cut off. A group of masked men emerge. They are, in different accounts, local cadres of the CPM, policemen, and trainee policemen from the training school in Barrackpore. Whoever they are, they run armed amok among the demonstrators, beat them senseless. (As the old woman told us of that night, a young man standing there, one of the victims of the attack who had to be hospitalized for several days, nodded and added details.) She told us how she escaped, but how the roads were too dangerous, how she spent all night in a ditch, waiting for the masked men to go.

These masked men, and more like them, with or without masks, in the months that have followed, are acting on the orders or with the tacit approval of a professedly left-wing government. This is a government that publicly dismisses the deep-rooted grass-roots political backlash from peasants, once its loyal constituency, as the machinations and conjurations of its political enemies. But it is not that, except at a very superficial level. And we are constantly fed a pervasive myth: that the two issues at hand here, the 'large' question of West Bengal's future strategies for development, and the mode in which these are put into being, can be separated from one another. That the state violence in Singur and the virtual civil war in Nandigram are regrettable and unnecessary complications, avoidable hitches, on the path to economic progress. This is a lie. For the villagers who were beaten up on 25 September, for Tapasi Malik who was brutally murdered in Gopalnagar (local villagers are certain that the CPM boss there, Debu Malik, bears at least part of the responsibility for this), for the family who were peppered with rubber bullets and lathis in Khaser Bheri, these two processes are not separable.For them, this industrial policy means sticks on the back, teargas, bombs hurled into villages, a constant reign of state terror. This strategy of development and this policy of repression are mutually necessary.

This is nothing new in India, and those of us who ever believed that the presence of a Left Front government would halt or soften the brutality of these processes were naive, or lived in more hopeful times, when the words 'Left Front' meant something quite different, something much more genuine, than it does in Bengal today. Among people who live and work in the Narmada Valley, among the slum-dwellers of Delhi, among the people of Kalinganagar in Orissa, where there has been resistance to another Tata project, a bauxite plant, and where state reprisal has involved the planting of anti-personnel landmines, the effects of neo-liberalism have been felt repeatedly and violently. Governments and companies have liked to believe that the victims of their policies will be too weak or too cowed down to respond. In Delhi, this has largely been true. In the Narmada and in Orissa, it hasn't. And it certainly hasn't in Nandigram, and the signs are that in Haripur, where the West Bengal government has recently tried to survey land for the construction of a nuclear power plant, resistance has already begun crystallizing.

It's too early to either celebrate or mourn the outcomes of these localized acts of resistance. Their future still hangs in the balance, though the forces arrayed against them are immensely powerful. The present retreat of the SEZ policy, and the noises made by the Centre and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya about 'adequate compensation packages' (who will measure their adequacy?), cannot last for very long. The pressures of India's economic agenda, and the direction of the world, will not be easy to fight back, or, even more seriously, provide counter-models of sustainable and just development to.

But resistance there will be, and there is no way in which the efforts by states and governments to contain and blunt this resistance can avoid drilling a deep hole into what remains of democratic norm and practice. The logic is crystal clear. Land will be acquired. It will not be acquired consensually, since consent is unreliable, uncertain and at best slow, and the driving imperative of the current economic agenda is merciless, irreversible speed. Peasants, landless labourers, and sharecroppers, their mutual tensions and antagonisms notwithstanding, will collectively organize resistance. And this resistance can be heady, but also brutal, in response to the far larger brutality of the state. The razing of a CPM leader's house and the lynching of a policeman in Nandigram demonstrate what the consequences of this violent showdown can be, even for the probable victors. Whatever feeble social contract binds the allegiance of the disempowered and subaltern to the state they are supposedly citizens of is in severe danger of cracking, and cracking fast. Buddhadeb may declaim 'amader 235, oder 30' from the rooftops till the next elections come around, but the government he runs stands to lose in the not-so-long-run, for all its failures and forgotten promises, but perhaps most of all from what is happening now.

'Our lives, but not our land.' Much has been written about this slogan. An editorial page essay in the HT, by Indrajit Hazra, recently expressed incomprehension of this, in the light of the grotty, squalid and deprived existences apparently eked out in Nandigram. It doesn't matter, however, whether he perceives the texture of the villagers' lives correctly or wrongly. The point is that people in village after village have raised this cry, and meant it. Their lives, but not their land. The analysts and observers who hold that industrial development in India cannot possibly happen without the conversion of agricultural land, too, may be either wrong or right. If they are right, the ball is still in their court, because what Nandigram and Singur have shown us is the unqualified failure of the state and of development planners to formulate a strategy to accomplish this democratically. There exists no blueprint, and no precedent in India, for land acquisition that can move through all the accepted democratic channels, conceive of and offer genuine rehabilitation, and secure any measure of broad legitimacy among affected people. The consequences of this, beamed live from Nandigram, are on the daily news.

Singur, at any rate, seems lost. The Tatas have dug themselves in securely there, the land allotted to them has been fenced off, and there is draconian police security in place, periodically bolstered by the RAF. Early on in the long battle of Singur, the government posted 25,000 policemen around the villages, in a population of roughly 25, 000. One policeman per citizen, give or take a few. This will not end happily for the villagers of Singur, whether or not further blood is spilled. It is tempting to say that the battle will be fought in other places, that the centre of the struggle will shift elsewhere, and that these new confrontations may yet be won. That somehow this will restore the historical balance, and that while the resistance in Singur may just become a historical memory, it may be redeemed elsewhere.

It is tempting, but not possible. The woman who spent the night of the 25th in a ditch, hiding from the armed men in masks, declared that she would feed us in style when 'we have driven the Tatas out'. Whether bravado or genuine hope, that meal doesn't seem very likely now. For her, there will be no absolution in a struggle accomplishing success elsewhere. Whatever the eventual outcome of this long confrontation on so many fronts, whatever the resolution or lack of it, there will be something to mourn.