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Saturday, August 18, 2012

[Performative] public discourse


Ever since I got back from a Manthan lecture and discussion led by Arun Shourie I’ve been wondering about the nature of participation in such events: they are meant to make us think, open up lines of discussion and explore ideas in a way that they are laid bare, making visible the spaces and interconnections between them and the attitudes they lie/build upon. Mr Shourie, who, I must confess, was one of the heroes of my early journalistic dreams. His front pagers in the Indian Express of the immediate post-Emergency era fuelled my own ambitions and made me feel really proud to be part of a tribe that seemingly was out to catapult the country into a new era of honesty, transparency and fair and clean governance. I was much younger then and could be forgiven for my simple and uncomplicated faith in the power of the press.

Much water has passed under the many bridges that make up our fragile polity and I have revised my ideas somewhat, although I try to keep my ideals burnished and fresh.

But getting back to Mr Shourie and the discussion last night. As always, he was an entertaining speaker, peppering his acerbic comments with smart one-liners and punches aimed at the people we all love to hate (including quite a few that delightfully found their target in the image of Arnab Goswami). He trashed today’s media, hauled the politicians over hot coals, and told us what to do about it all. In “one word” (sic) he said, “you must read”. Go back to the original text, amass your own evidence from the hundreds of documents available in the public domain, and then make up your mind. That should be the stuff on which discourse is built. Not the inane panel discussions on prime time television (“switch it off,” he said) and not the repetitive headlines on our sold out newspapers. The smattering of journalists in the audience took heed, as was evident in some of the questions that emerged after he spoke.

At the end of it all, I realized, there wasn’t much that I had not heard from him in some other form in some other forum. But then, one has to recognize that being a public intellectual is hard work, and it is not always possible to say something new every time, or even to say it in new ways. To give Mr Shourie credit, he did follow his own advice to “be like a crocodile”--once you get something between your jaws, don’t let go. So repetition is good. It’s incumbent on those of us who want to bring about change to be persistent, and not flit from one cause to another like the mainstream media.

What got me thinking really was the Q & A after the talk. As in all such sessions, there were some “real” questions and some that seemed to be more about marking one’s presence in a public space and saying “listen, this is me, and I’m here, take note”. Which takes me to the point I wish to make. Agreed, whenever one communicates, there is an element of performance, of wanting to make one’s presence felt beyond just making a point or contributing to a conversation in some meaningful way. If we get too self conscious about it we end up retreating into total silence, and maybe missing the opportunity to direct discussion in ways it may not have moved. So participation is necessary. But what is (or should be) the nature and content of this participation? How do we decide whether what we have to say is of value in terms of information or perspective? How do we balance out the need to be seen and to be counted (much of the reason we actually do participate in such events) and the weight and value of what we have to say? Many of the questions/comments from the audience were in the nature of affirmations, a sort of “I’m with you, I hear you”. A few really did add a new dimension or raise a genuine doubt or concern that had not been voiced already. And some (more than a few) were more about self-affirmation than about discourse.

How then do we move beyond posturing and really engage in the content and direction of an issue so that it becomes a serious and dispassionate examination of its components? Can this really happen in a space where there is a stage and an audience and all the accouterments for a performance rather than a conversation? How do we remove the elements of staging and make such “events” true opportunities for even and open discussion?

Can meaningful discourse happen in public? How do we create public forums that are less theatrical and more participative?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Walking along the memory of a wall

It's one of those things that looms in your mind as you approach the city. If you've grown up reading Cold War spy novels it figures larger than life, mystery on either side and danger in the middle. You recall stories of people building tunnels and finding ways across No Man's Land hiding in improbable ways. And then you see the ghost of a wall on a bright summer day, nothing more than a double row of dark bricks that make a discontinuous line along the middle of a wide Linden-lined avenue.

Achala and I go hunting for Checkpoint Charlie, deciding to walk the 5 miles there instead of taking the faster-but-to-our-tourist-minds-more-complicated subway route. Despite faithfully following a map, we fail to make a couple of turns and end up a couple of miles off, and too tired to retrace our steps. We meet a couple who respond to our English with a Nordic smile and point to their watches to indicate it would take us an hour at least to get there. So we leave it for another day, and turn instead to find the comfort of a streetside cafe and nurse our fatigue with a Hugo.

Bernauer Strasse, the path of the wall

A memorial to families divided and reunited

Shadows of a memory?
Saturday morning, Prenzelauer Berg is getting ready for its weekly flea market in the park. What's significant about this park is that it runs along one of the most memorialised sections of the Wall, on Bernauer Street. "The Wall on Bernauer Street" is a museum along the west side of the street, using the sides of buildings and pieces of sidewalk in which are set the stories of people who lived in the apartment buildings that suddenly found themselves in a different country. One day the windows on their kitchens and bedrooms were boarded up and they could no longer look out on a world they knew.  Along this stretch of where the wall once stood, we walk while Felix cycles ahead of us, stopping at the storyboards, listening posts and wall-sized posters that tell the everyday stories of division. Of how, suddenly, a wall came up, almost overnight, and put families in two parts of an irreconciliable geography. Of how some of them tried to build tunnels underground and inched their way across the fifty feet of mined territory to find what they thought would be freedom. Of how a woman dived three stories down, out of her apartment on the East side, hoping to land safe on the other side. The Wall Museum also documents the larger story of the divided Germany and the Cold War politics that fueled the paranoia on either side.

The Wall itself is practically non-existent. In the days following the first opening up in November 1989, people from all over the world carried bricks away like pieces of history to their personal archives. Some bits have been preserved or reconstructed, and today, against the growing city, it seems nothing more than a poignant reminder of an idea that kept people apart and generated fear for three decades.

On a blue and green spring day history can seem like nothing.

We finally did make it to Checkpoint Charlie, and I got to pay a brief homage to my memory of Le Carre novels.