Excerpted from “Refuge: A Work of Memory, Cities, and Loss.”
Rising tides of wealth tossed them around, these men and their families in the one or two-storied houses painted yellow, colony after colony, a small park every three blocks, a cluster of shops every five, the children studying at the dining tables till late into the nights. But the families managed to hold on to the worlds they had created within the old city, one more layer of life in its thousand-year history, entire neighborhoods of refugees with similar sounding names, or they reached outward into the wilderness to strike new roots once more, as Delhi proliferated into new colonies, gobbling up vast stretches of plains well past the Yamuna on the east and the airport on the west. In their adopted neighborhoods, they made the strange yield to familiarity over time through the act of limiting their lives to a narrow, well-defined set of routines, of realistic, modest ambitions and precise expectations, and through denying themselves, even when they had the opportunity, the luxury of leisure or vacations.
In and around these routines, followed with a fierce discipline, they added touches of an elsewhere. The chairpais converted small front yards into the traditional courtyards of bigger homes and past memory, a smattering of potted plants, a 40-watt bulb with anemic light left burning on through the night. Small dabs of bright or black paint on the sides or front of the houses to ward off the evil eye. Minor indulgences like a particular brand of shaving soap or winter socks manufactured in a city that now belonged to another country. These were purchased from shopkeepers in the old city who, in turn, obtained them through networks that did not recognize borders that to the collective memory of the city still seemed recent. In the kitchens, an egalitarianism of steel, ceramic, and plastic. Two shelves of books, the Bertrand Russells and Bernard Shaws from the Indian arms of international publishing conglomerates, others in Indian languages from local publishers bound by red or white thread and dislodged from their loud covers. The clothes washed with coarse industrial-strength soap billowing in monochromatic colors off clotheslines in balconies and backyards, plastic bottles of oil on windowsills in bedrooms, unnamed and identified by expertise alone. The habit of bringing home each day something from one of the city’s many streets dedicated to food. The men disgorged from buses and autorickshaws, briefcases in one hand, oil-stained paper bags of food delicately clutched in the other. These lightly rendered brushstrokes gave Delhi’s worlds of refugees depth beyond the brute achievement of survival. Not just in language and dress, in faith and tongue, but here, too, culture survived and grew, a compact between the old and new, the nostalgic and the pragmatic forming an alloy, distinct and unique to the neighborhoods away from the centers of official or elite cultural activity.
The narrowness of migrant life, its deliberate straitjacketing to render the unknowable into the manageable and to banish the unruly into exile beyond the boundaries of home was often described as a conservatism stemming from a cultural parochialism and pettiness of vision. In the theories that were spun about the refugee communities of Delhi, their ways of living were attributed to the machinations of a refugee mindset or the trauma that they were said to have gone through in the physical and emotional dislocations that had brought them to the city. Such explanations missed the fact that the seemingly impoverished patterns of immigrant life represented acts of creativity, attempts to wrestle away something of an undecipherable landscape in the hope of making it one’s own. The universe, as refugees understand well—-perhaps almost better than anyone else?—-cannot be easily made to bend to one’s will. But small bits of it can be chipped away at, in the manner of an animal gathering materials for a home without upsetting the delicate rhythms of the environment in which it forages. One can, eventually, make something of that accumulated substance; the final product may not always be a thing of beauty, but the act of making nonetheless remains meaningful.
The scholars and journalists who took the refugee families of Delhi as the subjects and objects of their reflections more often than not failed to note this crucial aspect of what they sought to study: the fundamentally aesthetic aspect of the state of being a refugee. Perhaps they were blinded by the kitsch that cluttered numerous refugee homes or else they mistook the spartan decor of other homes as the absence of aesthetic sensibility itself. The commonsense intellectual view held that exiled communities hid their historical trauma in either puritanical self-abnegation or through the empty satisfaction of compulsively acquired objects. This peculiar refugee orientation toward material objects was taken to symbolize the refugee relationship to the world at large. Unable to recognize a poetics of refugee space, in which the spartan and the conspicuous both had their place, the interpreters of refugee life sought to lay bare its soul by identifying its essential attributes, in the hope that underneath the anarchic, opaque currents that swept it along they might detect a more placid, authentic life striving to break through to the surface.
The inversion of the city reminds me of the lines of a song, one of the many tunes I grew up hearing on the radio and at home; a song, which, like any number of other songs from Indian films, I discovered I could play back in my head in its entirety. In the song things turn against their nature, heralding an endless uncertainty, a tumult without pause. In a series of questions, the singer paints the predicament of those to whom the world seems so as they flounder for the familiar. Autumn, the season in which embers dare not dream of smoldering, now stokes their flames; the boatman meant to steady the boat that lurches midstream seeks instead to capsize it; the drink meant to quench one’s thirst only sharpens it further. Who then, asks the singer, will kill this fire, save this boat, subdue this thirst?
This form of betrayal is more cruel than indifference. Things and places refuse one the comfort of their essential selves, turning into, or pretending to be, something utterly different. The experience of the withdrawal of the hospitality of certitude from the inanimate marks the point at which one consciously begins to seek refuge in a place, to rehabilitate not just oneself but these objects estranged from themselves. Refuge is an act that involves setting right both oneself and the world. This, then, is the gift and danger of refugees and migrants, and explains the anxiety they evoke in others. They remind one of the impermanence of things, of the possible state of being of transience that haunts the most rooted among us, of the desires of our exiled alter-egos to take our place.
Calcutta taught me about the ruins of cities that manage to be life-affirming, their invigorating melancholia, the ‘elastic consolation,’ in V. S. Naipaul’s beautiful phrase about Marcus Aurelius’ insight, of all things having to pass, the art of living what might be called oblique life. The compost of its troubled and ancient Indian modernity, growing into monstrous and beautiful patterns of life, both consoled and deceived. I sought the communion offered by its unnamed roads, invisible communities. I alone knew its industrial pasts, seeing them in the giant containers housing families that put their washing out to dry on abandoned railroad tracks; on the weighing scales at railway stations made by British firms long shuttered, the iron rust-free but blackened and smoothed by a million hands; and the massive cranes growing larger as the docks approached.
Wittgenstein describes the city of language as constituted by its old and new neighborhoods, some streets fallen into disrepair, some sparkling with use, others still coming into meaning, accumulating sense. The language of cities can be described in the same way. All across Calcutta, the language of old and new could often be found in the same space, a part of a building abandoned and locked up, a rotting air conditioner given over to roosting pigeons, another part of the same structure foyered with new, expensive marble, the back of a building scabbed with peeling paint towering over a piss-filled alley, its façade, facing a main road, restored in intricate, crested, glory. Within structures, the roles of spaces were traded, reversed, inverted. A grand hall within a mansion relegated to the status of a warehouse for holding old crumbling files, the balcony in the mansion now reinvented as a setting for musical and theatrical performances.
Recycled and mutating, these buildings formed a counterpoint to the sense of timelessness of the interiors of Calcutta’s residential homes. In dimly lit living rooms, on sofas covered with plastic and furniture covered with cloth, protected from light and air alike, the legacy of a nineteenth-century Bengali version of the Victorian parlor survived. In one of his novels, the writer Amit Chaudhuri speaks of the “abidingness of an English interior.” In the former colony where its empire began, that quintessential British abidingness, domesticated and vernacularized, seemed more resolute, promising to endure while elsewhere it appeared to survive only as nostalgia and irony. Writing of Picasso’s The Blue Room, T. J. Clark sees it as a statement by Picasso about the space of the nineteenth century world sacrificed to the onslaught of modernity, to the forces of the twentieth century. Space lost to time, but also a bulwark against it. “Space,” Clark says, is belonging…something possessable but also…something desired, vulnerable, patiently constructed, easily lost.” In Calcutta, one set of spaces reflected this truck with modernity, both corrosive and fertile, while another set of spaces held out infinitely against it. Each offered its pleasures and dangers, each offered refuge from the other.