To live in a city is to constantly accept and fight the demons of solitude – solitude, which is present in the very design of the modern cosmopolis and its overpowering emotional landscape. The history of the cosmopolis shows that cities were imagined to be the power-houses of civilisations where one could shed, if not erase, the burdensome feudal and exploitative past(s). Cities were conceived as places that could provide anonymity and invisibility to our lives.
But with the cosmopolitan dream of living better lives, there came the cost of ‘solitude’, which wasn’t given enough thought. This is not to say that there is no solitude in the lives of rural inhabitants, but the magnitude of solitude in the lives of people in urban (especially because of how production and consumption is organised in the urban economy and the sheer nature of ‘transactional’ relationships over ‘communitarianism’), has a different and perhaps stronger affect.
A prime instance of this kind of lonesome, transactional experience can be felt while going through the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) underpass in Mumbai during its peak afternoon hours. It is flooded with people – people of all kinds – students, young professionals, businessmen, housewives, school-going children, daily wage workers – but none of them have a single second to spare. People are on the constant move from one place to other, and there is simply no time to stop, look around or slow down.
The fact that thousands of people are residing within almost the same shared proximities – and that they are walking through the same underpass, and yet, not spending a split second to acknowledge one another – tells more about the design of the urban space rather than about the people residing in it. Time, in that context, lies at the very heart of Mumbaikars, their routine lives and the micro-economies in which they operate. Perhaps, this is why sitting by or taking a walk alongside the seashore in the evening gives a sense of an ‘escape-out’ to many in Mumbai, whose lives are defined by the edge of the clock’s needle. The evening at the seashore is the only time when time itself can be kept at bay. But bitterly enough – only temporarily!
‘Work’ was central to all the aspects of the modern cosmopolis – be it the factory owners, army camps, construction sites or the state-run institutions like schools, universities, hospitals and prisons. (Note: I use the term ‘work’ instead of ‘labour’ because ‘labour’ is a particular, analytical Marxist category, and according to Marx’s ‘Labour theory of value’, it explains dialectic materialism and class relations. ‘Work’ is not ‘labour’ in that sense, because ‘work’ is an impersonal attribute, irrespective of class).
The Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions re-invented ‘time’ as a measure of efficiency that re-defined the processes of production and consumption. The process of production was not just restricted inside the factory buildings where owners aimed to increase workers’ efficiency to match the ‘machine standards’. Surprisingly (or not), the process in modern workspaces like call-centres, government offices, banks, corporate offices, brand showrooms, hotels and restaurants, etc. largely resembled that of a factory’s design in one aspect – the banal routine life. These economies can be of different kinds and there can be a different nature to this routine, but it is clear that there is a largely monotonous, dull and banal routine that grips the lives of people – people who have accepted that routine as a trade-off against the cosmopolitan dream.
The routine-ness soon starts gripping our lives to such an extent that we tend to normalise it. People don’t realise that the routine was meant to serve their needs, choices and priorities, but it almost starts working in an exactly opposite manner. People start getting comfortable with their routine to such a level that their ‘enterprising’ selves get completely shunned off. Everyday tasks performed as part of a routine look the same and feel the same, except for the minor details. It is the one exercise we need to constantly perform for our cosmopolitan dream to survive. But the question to be asked is if this routine life is the ‘trade-off’ against the cosmopolitan dream, or whether this is all there is to this cosmopolitan dream.
So, what does one do to ‘escape out’ from the clutches of time and the physical and mental exertion because of work (especially when one is not in Mumbai and the option of taking long walks across the beach till sunset is not available)? For me, the act of writing offers this escape. The act of writing, to me, is both a personal and a political act. Personal, because it offers a ‘blank canvas’ on which I can paint my imagination without any questions asked. Political, because I can feed my ideas and opinions into it, and yet, wish it to remain original and relevant without my shadow over it – just like the French philosopher and literary theorist Roland Barthes had famously proclaimed in one of his texts that ‘the author is dead’. The fact that the text can stand on its own, with or without the author’s bias, is a personal and political achievement.
However, the author has a certain relationship with the urban – whether or not this is manifested in their writing. It’s urban through the very sense of solitude it has to offer, and at a certain deeper level, I think everyone has an intricate personal bond with the space that is urban, and that for me is my understanding of ‘solitude’. It shapes our writing and the writing in turn gets entrenched within the ‘moments’ of the urban emotional landscape.
But beyond this philosophical purpose that writing serves for ‘escaping’ (from the solitude that the urban life has to offer through its messiness), writing is an everyday act – it comforts, puts us at ease against the monotony of that unavoidable monster we face 5-6 days a week – routine! It helps us sort out the messiness, puts things in perspective, helps us plan better for things ahead and keeps one going in the face of adversities. Although imperfect, writing, for me, is a reflection of life itself. It may not be a crystal- clear mirror reflecting the exact ‘self’, but it is that rusted steel glass jarred with dust and patches, but nonetheless reflecting the self and the surrounding.
And just like life itself, through practice, writing can be represented in shades rather than oneness. The form helps one to think and experiment such that the ideas take the shape of the written word. Even the unspoken feeds into the silences, sub-texts and absence of words.
To sum up, life in a metro is boring (and scary at times!) – it threatens our sanity. But, living in a metro also entails having the knowledge that its chaos is to be accepted. Writing, in that context, is a medium through which one can embrace the inherent disorder within the ecosystem of the urban emotional landscape.
The author is an independent researcher and India Urban Fellow with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.