Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.
Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.
Kolkata (Calcutta then) in the early 1970s was a city under siege. This was due to the radical movement that is remembered in relation to Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal that was the site of the 1967 peasant uprising supported by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Soon the uprising spread across the state with major participation by indigenous groups such as the Santhals and other scheduled castes.

Driven by Maoist ideological fervour and Charu Majumdar’s (1918-1972) writings, the revolutionary movement was joined by a number of urban intellectuals and became popular among students in elite Kolkata colleges. The CPI (M) itself split in 1969, forming the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) which followed a more radical and insurrectionary political line. The entire province of West Bengal was engulfed in a series of violent acts and the Indian state’s response was as brutal and immediate. In early 1970 Presidential rule was imposed on West Bengal to combat the internal threat of a communist uprising and subsequently through a militarised state action thousands of activists and innocents were tortured, incarcerated or killed in police encounters. Following Charu Majumdar’s arrest in 1972 and his death in custody soon after, the movement dissipated (to be resurrected later in various forms). By this time it had already lost its force due to state suppression and also because of internal divisions within the CPI (ML) leadership. This violent past continues to haunt the city as it lost some of its best and brightest to the cause of revolutionary violence (not to mention the hundreds of peasants and “tribals” who were killed in the countryside).

To date the deaths of these young are mourned and remembered in Kolkata. Contemporary Bengali literature and cinema itself has created avenues for rethinking and recalling the era. Foremost among them is Mrinal Sen’s by now classic film, Kolkata Ekhotor (Calcutta 71). Then there is the Hindi film, Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa (The Mother of 1084) based on a novel by the famous Bangla novelist, Mahasweta Devi. In 2009 another film on the period was released that detailed the student struggles and showed the devastating effects the violence had on individual lives and the larger society. Adapted from the novel Kaalbela (Inauspicious Times) by Samaresh Majumdar, the film (Calcutta My Love, in English) is directed by Goutam Ghosh and traces the life of a young man who leaves his middle-class rural home to come to the city where he gets involved in radical politics. Through the male protagonist Animesh, the film shows the various forms in which communist politics, with its multiple internal contradictions, radicalises the youth and forces them to shun bourgeois lives and head for the countryside to politicise the peasantry. Eventually internal differences, state infiltration of the movement and its severe suppression leads to the arrest (and killing) of thousands of cadres and supporters.

The film portrays how those arrested were tortured and kept in jail for years not as political detainees, but under various permutations of the criminal procedure code. The protagonist himself is captured in a shoot-out, tortured and loses the use of both his legs. He is left to rot in a bare cell with another student from the elite Presidency College; a torture victim who stares at a wall all day. This is the tragic aftermath, that is only rectified when a new Left Front government comes into power led by CPI(M) in 1977 and the protagonist is released from jail to be reunited with his lover/ partner and his, by then, school-going son.

The romantic partner, Madhabilata, comes from an upper middle-class family and is a college mate of Animesh. She becomes the most hopeful character in terms of social transformation. She is among the many women of her class background who, during the political activism of the early 1970s, left their sheltered lives and joined the struggle; at times in solidarity with the ideological position of the Party and at others, as did Madhabilata, in solidarity with those they loved. The ending shows her living in the urban fringes in a small shack, where she is raising her son and educating him. The de-classing of her existence comes at a social and economic price, but offers her other kinds of liberation, that of being an independent woman leading her life by her own choice and not surrendering to middle-class notions of gendered respectability and sexual norms.

The ending interestingly reminded me of Manto’s essay, ‘Afsana Nigar aur Jinsi Masail’ (The Story Writer and Sexual Matters), in which he gives an example of a young middle-class beautiful woman who runs away with a destitute good-for-nothing young man. Rather than moralise about her, Manto wonders about her unresolved future. He does not want her to “come to her senses” as a normative rendition of this story would demand. Rather, he shows how desire creates moments where different histories — the middle-class woman, the underclass man — brush against each other. This is surely a critique of the generalised ways in which moral endings are desired. In Kaalbela, the ending too is counterintuitive, the protagonist is maimed, his struggle is destroyed, the city has changed (he feels worthless), but the young beautiful upper-class woman still loves him (and believes in the sincerity of his actions) and is there for him and, contrary to Manto, in her own ordinary way has “come to her senses” and hence allows for a more egalitarian future where such differences of class and gendered hierarchy (man as provider) can be overcome.

The film represents one among many aftermaths of the “inauspicious times”. Another depiction is found in the award-winning Bangla novel, Herbert by Nabarun Bhattacharya which details the haunting of Kolkata by spirits. This tragicomic story has an eccentric and marginalised character, Herbert as its protagonist. Herbert is an orphan who grows up in a family home and is close to his cousin Binu, who like Animesh of Kaalbela also comes from a smaller town to Calcutta in the late 1960s only to be absorbed in Left politics (a trope of travel and transformation is common in these depictions). Binu is shot and arrested by the police during the early 1970s. Soon after he dies while being tied by chains to his hospital bed. Later in the novel, Herbert who has a short and successful career as a psychic who can call on spirits (the many that haunted the city), himself commits suicide. His body is taken to the public crematorium along with the mattress he slept on (one that was also used by Binu) and as the heat of the electric pyre reaches the mattress the entire crematorium is blown up by the dynamite that Binu and his friends had hidden in the mattress years ago. This incident in the book occurs in the early 1990s, but shows how the city keeps on experiencing various kinds of metaphorical, symbolic and real explosions related to the underlying structural causes of violence of the earlier era. The ghosts of the past (Binu), the marginalised, the poor, the traumatised and the tortured (like Animesh from Kaalbela) continue to co-exist and seek their space in this city, Kolkata.

Although the city is now “calmer” in many ways, the reverberations of earlier times continue. In recent years Kolkata has tried to shake off its past by creating new forms of desires and labour regimes to sell itself to the new dreams of accumulation and consumption. In a recent PhD dissertation from UT, Austin, Laboring to Create Magic: The New Worker in the Emerging Retail Industries of Kolkata, Saikat Maitra focuses on the rapidly proliferating spaces of consumption like shopping malls, upscale cafes and gated communities in Kolkata.

The underclass bodies that labour in the service sector embody certain codes of cosmopolitanism to bring success at their work (to attract the upper-class consumers with spoken English, modern comportment and care of self), yet this process does not necessarily allow the workers themselves the “good life” they aspire to or see around them. They may work in the dreamworlds of luxurious commodities and branded lifestyles, yet the reality of de-industrialisation linked to low wages, worsening job securities or lack of state protection makes for a precarious living. These inherent contradictions in their lives, Maitra shows, create affects of boredom, rage, and exhaustion among the workers. Perhaps a different response from the history of the violent capital-labour antagonisms and radical socialist politics of the city’s past. However, the recalcitrant workers’ bodily capacities remain an ever-present hindrance to value extraction and efficient productivity and marks for Maitra the contested nature of contemporary capitalism in the present Indian urban context.

Reading and viewing material on Kolkata’s violent urban past and “dreamlike” present made me think of Karachi where, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, almost 3,200 people have been victims of ethnic, sectarian, religious, criminal, political and state-sponsored violence in 2013 alone, making it one of the worst years of such deaths in the city’s history. The sadness and the sense of loss that permeates families and communities after this violence, creates a trauma that affects all who inhabit the city. These yearly mounting numbers of deaths also sustain a feeling of fear that pervades everyday life. Of course this fear has multiple registers; there is the simultaneous fear of poverty, the fear of unemployment, the fear of workspace abuse, the fear of random eruption of ethnic and sectarian conflict that may engulf livelihoods and loved ones and, specifically for women, the continuous fear of domestic and sexual violence and bodily harm that shapes their daily lives. These experiences need to be also understood within the context of the vocabulary of fear (and the related category of risk) as they occur within an atmosphere of increased sense of social vulnerability about the present and the future.

Clearly the reasons for violence in Karachi have a very different history to that of Kolkata of the early 1970s. Although Karachi did witness the suppression of labour movements in the seventies by a popularly elected government but since then the city’s politics has been less about class-based horizontal solidarities than about vertical linkages based on ethnic and religious group affiliations. The analogy I draw here is what effect does violence have on the city and how does one heal and recuperate after long periods of violence. Further, the processes that Maitra’s dissertation highlights on the proliferation of malls, elite cafes and gated communities where the underclass labours without being able to achieve the “good life” is clearly recognisable in Karachi. Hence, if we consider structural violence that shapes lives in cities like Kolkata and Karachi we see, in addition to the violent deaths, the form in which contemporary capitalism manifests itself in contradictory forces of hope and despair, constitutionalism (democracy) and deregulation, controlled markets and speculative exuberance, anti-modern nostalgia and progressive narratives — all very much part of contemporary Karachi — it is no wonder that risk, uncertainty and fear are becoming constitutive cultural, affective and emotional responses to these processes.

There is a continued sense of foreboding present in the population of the city, a sense of anxiety that leads to an urban economy of surveillance and security. To the real and/or imagined violence that people periodically inflict on each other in Karachi or in any other major city, the state invariably seeks to react under “popular pressure” by increased surveillance and its own violence (the police and paramilitary actions that have periodically continued since the 1990s). A vicious cycle is created where the state responds to the demand for security with increased repression of civic life (189 people were killed in 2013 in police encounters or by torture while in custody.) Roadblocks, searches, unauthorised arrests and general harassment by the law enforcement agencies of particularly the urban poor (but the populace in general) — processes not unknown in poorer neighbourhoods of Karachi — create other kinds of anxieties. Hence, along with the violence perpetuated by various religious and political groups (not to mention criminal gangs), state violence in a different register aids in creating fear among a population that is compelled to exist within the double binds of uncertainty of employment and the terror of unexplained violence.

The question for all of us to ponder is how to imagine a social, economic, and cultural healing process for this fractious city. There are of course multiple ways to respond to this query. However, following the cultural geographer, Nigel Thrift, I would maintain that cities like Karachi do bounce back from periodic crises and the mundane and the everyday life of people, although transformed by the events, continues in meaningful and creative ways (as depicted in the life of Madhabilata). Thrift argues, albeit in his case for Western cities, that despite the vulnerability of cities to epidemics, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and violent conflict, they are always modulated by processes of repair and maintenance. He suggests that by focusing on the everyday practices of the people themselves a different register of understanding of cities and their future politics may emerge. A politics that is not always dependent on an analysis of conflict and friction, rather it is a politics that is often concerned with living with disagreements as much as it is about creating consensus (Again, think of the kind of life Animesh and Madhabilata would live from where the film ends).

I find this formulation theoretically productive to understand the mechanisms through which people, despite the presence of endemic personal, social and political violence in Karachi’s working-class neighbourhoods, do continue to co-exist, share resources and work together. Perhaps one way to follow this argument is to focus on the everyday experiences of working-class men and women who leave their homes to perform various kinds of labour in Karachi (domestic, service sector, industrial). This could enable us to explore the contours and possibilities of a future politics for cities like Karachi; a city that is always on the verge of violent eruption. The possibility may be of crucial importance for contemporary Karachi where a religiously and economically diverse, multilingual, and ethnic population considers the challenges, pitfalls and compromises of co-existence. This does not mean that all problems are solved or there is blind optimism — a more detailed understanding of working-class districts of Karachi may still nudge us toward imagining a different political space, away from the corridors of formal power, where in a spirit of co-living, disagreements can be lived with in a general gesture of kindness and tacit agreements with others about how to get by (Thrift, 2005).

To be concrete, in urban poor neighbourhoods of Karachi there are distinct possibilities of people, for example, falling in love with the “wrong” ethnicity or having a heritage, due to previous inter-marriage, which is more similar than is acknowledged. The idea is not to undermine the reality of social conflict and ethnic violence in these neighbourhoods or in the larger city, but women and men in the communities they live in continue to recombine contingent relationships, between bodies, spaces, signs, infrastructures to connect with varied ways of life and different social actors (similar to the way Animesh and Madhabilata came together).

Further, influenced by the urban researcher, AbdouMaliq Simone’s (2004) studies of low-income communities in Africa, I would argue that people who live in these Karachi neighbourhoods, irrespective of the multiple sources of political and social frictions, seek ways of reuniting tense relationships; finding avenues to live with disagreements. Simone shows how for African cities there is at times a critical engagement with more modernist understandings of political mobilisation that demands democratic rights and economic resources from the state. Yet he suggests a rethinking of these categories by putting forward the concept of emergency democracy, which encapsulates and entangles the dual meaning of emergence and emergency. It helps him to show how in African cities that he studies (large or mid-size) people collaborate, without sometimes knowing about it, through a wide range of affiliations that may be kin-based, local, trans-local, gendered, religious or secular; processes that may be happening everyday in Karachi as well.

Hence, in the case of Karachi, in addition to the above discussion on fear, violence and ethnic conflict what may still need analytical rigour and empirical insight is to imagine a potential space — a possibility of sorts — of cooperation and mutual support for people from different genders, ethnic backgrounds, religious faiths and sectarian affiliations who may seek to share common destinies (class solidarity?). In the final analysis, rather than call for another state-sponsored “militarised” action, a more sustainable option may be to focus on people’s everyday lives, which surprisingly may show that in the multi-ethnic and potentially violent poor neighbourhoods of Karachi due to the intimacy of living in similar structural and social circumstances there may be spaces of civic agreements, shared rules and reciprocal obligations that hint at a politics of co-existence with difference. Understanding these processes and building on them may be the first steps toward a more permanent repair that could allow for a more enduring peace. Otherwise there is also the risk of exploding mattresses left around by ghosts of the past.