His final days proved to us what misuse of language and misinterpretation of language can do. One of his comment was misinterpreted and misquoted first following which language was misused to run hate campaigns and to sending hate mails, letters and sms in order to humiliate him.
His words being misinterpreted was also an attempt in erasing the multiplicity of meanings and diversity of ideas and opinions. Singularity of meaning locks language. He knew the dangers of it. He knew the dangers of uniformity too. His attempts, all through his life, were to open them and make space for plurality and diversity.
But slowly like the title of one of his books, it became a ‘maatu sota bhaarata‘ where language started losing its imagination. As a man of words who believed in language who believed in dialogue and believed in multiplicity of meanings and interpretations that language can evoke, what would he do in a nation which had lost language, imagination and a room for dialogue leave alone a space for dissent?
He took leave.
Neruda in one of his poems wrote, “True life is without silence/ Only death remains dumb,” and he who believed in words and had a word with the world always finally has taken shelter in silence. His silence is not an indicator of his death alone but also an indicator the decay of an atmosphere where language can breathe, where dialogue and dissent can come to life. In this decay which is strangling words to death and language to death a writer felt chocked, felt suffocated and he disappeared into silence.
But his brilliance is that he turned this act of moving into silence also a speech, an utterance. His final word with the world and to the world was through death. He who believed in Gandhi went ahead of Gandhi in a way and made not just his life his message but also his death a message, a warning about the decay. That reflects not just the times in which we live and he died but also the responsibility of a writer, teacher, a public intellectual: to be the conscience keeper, even in death, through death.
We couldn’t save him. But now we have to save that which he believed the most in: words, language and dialogue.
That is all we can strive to save now. And in that spirit he will remain with us, in spirit.
[an edited version of the note written on Facebook on 23 Aug 2014]
When the trailer of Vishal Bharadwaj’s new film, Haider was released, there were several friends on Facebook who shared it with the most famous quote from Hamlet, “To Be or Not To Be.” After having watched the trailer and being thrilled, a memory of something I had seen almost ten years ago, surfaced in my mind. It was in the gent’s washroom of a college that I had seen, the graffiti reading, “To Pee or Not To Pee,” which had amused me the way Haider’s trailer did. The memory of “To Pee or Not To Pee,” flushed out “To Be or Not To Be,” for a while and I got thinking of Latrinalia.
Latrinalia or restroom graffiti interests me, like it interests most of us. The most interesting thing for me about Latrinalia, other than the content, is that I have never seen any graffiti being written in the washroom. When I asked some friends if they had seen anyone writing graffiti, all the answers were negative. Latrinalia, to that extent, has some folk-ish elements. Though, none of us have seen anyone attempt it, we have all met innumerable Rakesh, Mukhesh, Dinesh in the various public latrines that we have visited. One, I can recollect is, “Rakesh was here.” It is like marking the territory. If dogs mark their territory by urinating, we mark our territory in the space where we urinate by writing our names. Just like dogs overwrite with urine, we overwrite with words like, “So was Rahul,” or even better, try to puncture the first territory marker with the question, “Did you do something, which others didn’t?”
Writing one’s own name is less in comparison to writing the names of others, especially the loved one or the one who cheated or the one who could not be won. Gent’s loo will have plenty of, “Seema is a slut” or “I love Geeta,” plastered over the walls.
Love and lust find various kinds of expression and these expressions are different in small towns and cities, in the government office loo, and the loo in the educational institutes. Innocent expressions of love like “143” (which stands for I love you) and heart with an arrow,can be seen in only some toilets and lines like, “Your beauty deserves the standing ovation of my dick,”can be seen in others. These graffitis also reveal the kind of people using the loo.
Drawing female private parts is a common sight. Some places, also turn the sketches into biology classes by drawing an arrow and naming the parts. Some get more ‘creative’ and mark arrows to write, “entry” and “exit,” while some specify the size as “36 24 36.” But, interestingly, never have I seen sketches claiming to be that of some film star. It is always some Tina, Meena, Rita or Neeta who is the fancy of restroom graffiti.
Apart from such crass expressions, there are also witty and funny graffitis, which one can find. Straight and forward statements like, “The future of the nation is in your hands,” to instructions like, “Shake well after use,” and “Handle with care,” to re-contextualizing famous songs like, “Nanhe munhe bachche teri mutti mein kya hai?” and advertisements that are hilarious, “Hair fall? Use Vasmol!”
Then, there are motivating graffiti saying, “Aim well,” only to be corrected by somebody else as, “Aim high.” It’s an interesting phenomenon to observe conversations in restroom graffiti where one anonymous man tries to outsmart another. It need not negate the earlier one. It can carry it forward and yet, outsmart the earlier one like, “Don’t test the strength of the wall,” will be outsmarted with, “Else you will receive what you give.”
Such outsmarting can also be an attempt to trying to be profound. In one of the loo, I had seen the ‘profound’ line, “Unshed tears become piss,” trying to outsmart all other “call xxxxxxxx for great sex,” carved on the wall. But, restroom graffiti is not a place for such public-toilet intellectualism. All such attempts will be outmaneuvered and punctured. So it is but natural that under, “Unshed tears become piss,” was the line, “nikaltey hai aansoo rastaa badal badal ke,” (tears change their course and find a way out from different exit doors.)
There are also guys challenging, “Can you draw a straight line with your piss?” trying to be the smartest by posing a challenge. This outsmarting, negating of others and challenging, all speak of the masculine need to be powerful. It is also expressed with small arrows drown in vertical lines, instructing, “Look up” after every arrow, only to end with the line, “Look down. You might have peed on your shoes.”
When I thought of writing this piece to document some of the graffiti that I had witnessed and remembered, I thought of asking my female friends if there was any graffiti in the ladies toilet too, a question I had not asked any of my female friends before. Most of them answered, “Yes” but hesitated to speak of the kinds of graffiti that were found saying, “I can’t remember.” Though, a couple of them mentioned about the sketches they had seen of male genitals with sperm shooting and dripping and one mentioned of the board ‘Mahilaayein’ with the ‘ma’ struck off to make it ‘hilaayein,’(shake) they agreed that most of the graffiti in the ladies’ restroom were more romantic and less sexual. As I was wondering if it is a sign of the internalized polite ‘feminine’ behaviour, a friend mentioned about one graffiti which read, “Mary conceived without sinning and I want to sin without conceiving,” which kind of challenged my doubt.
In all these years, I have not come across graffiti on homosexuality, BDSM, incest or group sex. Probably, it is just a matter of chance that I haven’t come across them or probably, they are simply less in number. One more area that I have not seen any of is- politics. The only one I saw which had to do something with politics, was extremely disgusting. It was in the library of a medical college. The graffiti was this: A horizontal line was drawn and next to it was written, “If you can pee above this you can join the fire brigade.” Some two centimeters below that was another horizontal line and next to it was written, “These are for SC-STs.” When I mentioned it to my friend studying there, he laughed and his laughter was an indicator of his approval. That got me thinking because what remains on the toilet walls, is something that has approval and general agreement.
Probably, a public toilet is a place where people relieve themselves in more than one way. May be it’s a place which brings out the worst in you in the best way and also the worst way. The famous dialogue from Sholay, “Issmein action hai drama hai tragedy hai,” speaks for Latrinalia too. Also, Latrinalia speaks something about our society and us, which we itch to talk about but do not generally speak about in public. So, maybe, public toilets, which are public and private at the same time, become the perfect space for it all.
[Article originally written for Helpost]
Background: To commemorate the birth Anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in Udupi it was decided by the Dali Sangarsha Samiti and Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike, jointly, to hold, on 14th of April, a city-wide Jai Bheem Rally. A beautiful book – Jaati Himseya Reeti: Ambedkar Anubhavagalu was translated and edited by Phaniraj Sir to be distributed to the people while taking the rally. Pamphlets were printed, flags and head-bands stitched, songs practiced. Enthusiasm was at its peak as the day arrived.
The day: All of us gathered at the Clock Tower in Udupi. A bus and two mini-buses were arranged for the rally and a few two wheelers and few cars. The two mini buses had huge flexes of Dr. Ambedkar on top of it. When all the vehicles arrived they were decorated with the flags in red and blue. The official flag of the Dali Sangharsha Samiti also fluttered. Some of us wore the head band. Songs in praise of Dr. Ambedkar and speaking about the cause of Dalits took wings from the speakers. Everything was set.
Writer activist Athrady Amruta Shetty released the book and the rally was flagged off by Nagar Sabha President Yuvaraj Puttur.
With the slogan ‘Jai Bheem’ we started marching. After marching some distance we got on to the bus and started moving to the Dalit colonies in and around Udupi.
With the live commentary by senior Dalit activist Jayan Malpe which was paused by recorded songs the rally went to the Dalit colonies in Kannarpaadi, Kappettu, Moodbettu, Malpe, Tottam, Kadike, Gujjarbettu, Padakudru. Nejar, Kalyanpur-Santekatte, Subrahmanya Nagar and Puttur.
In all these colonies the Jai Bheem Rally was welcomed by the Dalits with all their heart. They offered flowers to the photo of Dr. Ambedkar, lit lamps before the photo and also distributed sweets. In some colonies crackers were burst. In each colony book and the pamphlets were distributed. Speeches were made in every colony by different speakers. Songs were sung in some colonies. Songs were accompanied by dance.
It was celebration and pure celebration.
Travelling through all the Dalit colonies Jai Bheem Rally, as planned, returned to the Clock Tower, in the evening, for the concluding programme of the day.
The valedictory programme began with the song ‘dalitaNNa oh dalitaNNa’ and ‘yaarige yenilla, oh aNNa namgyaake neerilla’. The Chief Guest of the evening writer-activist Du. Saraswati spoke and then spoke K.L. Ashok the state president of Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike.
The moment: While K.L. Ashok was delivering his speech from the south direction a procession marching towards the Clock Tower Circle could be heard. The beat of drums was first heard. The theatrics of walking on the stick made its appearance. Slowly the sound of the drum beat got louder and louder. The procession came nearer and nearer. All the saffron flags were becoming visible slowly.
It was a procession carrying contributions in kind by people and organizations to the annual festival of a temple near-by. Such processions are usually made a spectacle. This one was no exception.
As K.L. Ashok completed his speech the procession had come close, quite close. The drum beats, by nearly fifty drums beaters at the same time, got so loud that our speakers couldn’t overpower it.
We stood there waiting for the procession to pass-by.
Someone among us thought of playing the recorded songs we had. Some of us started to dance thinking we will keep our show on through our dance till the procession passes.
But the procession halted for a while instead of marching ahead.
Next to our event the procession stopped and kept beating drums like a challenge posed to Jai Bheem Rally. Conch was blown by several people at regular intervals. Vedic chantings were chanted continuously by the priestly class.Theatrics accompanying the procession performed their theatrics. Men wearing those huge masks danced as the masks’ perpetual smile looked at us as if laughing at us.
The procession would march ten steps and halt again. The long procession looked never ending. Even if they had just walked, without stopping, the procession would take around fifteen-twenty minutes to pass-by completely. That long a procession it was. But they wouldn’t just proceed. They would halt after every ten steps, with its theatrics, drummers, dancers and the innumerable vehicles carrying the contributions- food grains, vegetables etc.
We who had decided to dance till the end were tired. The entire day’s rally had not left much energy in us. We stopped our dance as sweat dripped from our bodies.
But the drums never stopped. The theatrics never stopped. Those masks never stopped smiling. Those saffron flags kept fluttering.
We stood. We stood silently. We stood silently for the procession to pass. We stood to complete our programme for which we had sweated and toiled. We stood to complete our programme which stood on our conviction and commitment to certain values certain belief system.
We stood for more than half an hour, silently, waiting for the procession to pass and for us to continue with our programme.
One of the vehicles that was a part of the procession carried the banner saying it was carrying the contribution made by a particular police station in near Udupi.
Personal note: Standing and waiting there I felt like being bullied by a show of power. I felt helpless and defeated for the procession with its drums, theatrics, flags everything had overpowered the celebration of the man who fought for an egalitarian society. I felt insulted. I felt ashamed.
But waiting there taught me something. Something important: Resistance and revolution is also about holding on when the counter forces are bulldozing you. The hegemonic group will have the capital and the cultural capital to bully and make a spectacle of its power. To change that spectacle and thus the aesthetics of our space and our living, we might have to wait and as we wait we need to keep the show going.
The procession finally did pass. We got back to the mics. Speeches were made. Slogans were raised. Songs were sung. The drum beats had disappeared somewhere. The last thing the Clock Towere Circle heard that evening was not the drum beats nor the vedic chantings but the slogan JAI BHEEM.