In conversation with Deepu in a small room, occupied by a bed and an old computer, that generously allowed for two more chairs for us to sit down, and me to spill my tea over.
Our conversation with Deepu began with the concept of Identity. He spoke about an identity (like ‘muslim’) not having universally shared values as a given. A bangalore muslim has no place to flee in the face of persecution. They have lived here and will have to continue living here. We create our own codes of conducts and values that define our belonging to a particular space at a particular time. The notions of solidarity and community then appear to be highly contextual and time bound. He spoke of even political leanings, ideational agreements forming identities- not wanting to associate with someone who is patriarchal, so your circle of friends only ends up having those who largely agree with you. He commented on the difference between shedding an identity- which is not possible to negating an identity-which one might continuously or periodically do anyway. The identity cannot really be shed because it has been internalised, open declarations against privilege doesn’t mean you aren’t privileged anymore. But there can be a conscious negation of the privilege you are receiving. In that sense he spoke of different identities forming and dissolving, either consciously or unconsciously. He mentioned the first time he gave a speech in Kannada on stage, he made references to how he was from the outside but is now working with them and they must see him as one of them.The act of silence or withdrawal, he thought was still a political act of identity- merely one of claiming a different identity. As a Malayali who moved to Bangalore and chose to make a living by making films and activism, he seems to have continuously felt the need to be accepted as part of the community here.There is a sense of having to negotiate one’s identity to make the other feel comfortable about differences.
We started off with the exodus question after giving him a brief idea of what the project, Unreserved, is. He spoke about how discriminatory practices over a period of time go unnoticed until a trigger incident bursts that bubble of unknowing and creates this sense of insecurity. It isn’t like no one from the north-east felt safe around muslims in Bangalore or all muslims wanted them out. One of the reasons there was a palpable tension between these two communities in particular is because there is a higher populace from the north-east in muslim dominated areas. It isn’t like Hindus are particularly welcoming of outsiders, in fact the areas they might be living in goes untouched because of the majority privilege and migrants tend to settle in smaller neighbourhoods. Food habits are as much an excuse for upper caste Hindus to not rent houses to people from North East as they are to avoid Muslims. This again goes back to identity and belonging being a continuous process of becoming rather than a fixed state of being.
At the time, Deepu was working with muslim networks, to use mosques as a safe space for those from the north-east who feel threatened. The issue was spoken about at prayer services to encourage muslims to create a more accepting atmosphere. There were articles in urdu newspapers which also called for active muslim participation in reassurance. At times of conflict, while there is a sense of brotherhood in protection and standing up even through violence, there is also the complementary idea of protecting the dignity or name of the community and to actively discourage violence. The need for the muslim community to provide this assurance came from their own insecurities. They were anxious that these isolated acts will again become an excuse to corner them. When the initial incident of violence/attack outside Central Mall happened, the first people to arrive at the spot were the local muslims of the neighbourhood. At every police station that Deepu visited during those times, he would find some ABVP and BJP guys present. Why would a Hindu nationalist identity be keen to associate with a community which is largely Christian?
Deepu spoke of his discomfort with political assertions made by certain organisations at the time, making declarations of conditions in Bangalore being unsafe for north-eastern migrants and stressing on intolerance. He believed that this exacerbated the situation and what was needed was reassurance of acceptance. This happened around Ramzan, so there were mosques that opened its doors to peoples from the north-east to partake in their celebrations. A strange form of identity assertion, difference and conflict.
The other point he raised was about how when a conflict of identity occurs, other identities get formed. Is there such a thing as a north-east community? The differences amongst them might be strong to the point that even during a time of conflict they are not necessarily united in opposition (e.g. Meities vs kukis). The majority in what is mainland India creates this vague ‘other’ -north-east community, developing countries, Global South, third tier, South Asia. He would be from India when he steps outside of India, but within India he’s from Kerala or he is a Malayali.
We then meandered into the idea of values forming identity and while he initially said he didn’t think how that could be possible, it came in again at a different entry point. The reason he said he didn’t think values could give collective identity is because he thought factors like religion,caste and class base their principles on a set of values. So it’s not really the values but the idea of common values under these tags of caste or class that really form communal identities. At a later juncture, when we were discussing the differences in forms of protest, the difference between dissent and protest- he happened to mention protests happening because of a collective formed through values. Solidarities with an issue or peoples that take place when someone external to the issue finds commonalities in value or ideology and becomes an ally. Within the protest space identities are constantly organised. You and I may go and support a group that is protesting. Macroscopically, we all agree to some values, but we are also different in a way that we are only supporting those who are fighting for their cause.
This also connected to the different tones of conversation that we could take while talking about identity. He didn’t seem to have a particular preference, or an argument for one over the other. He maintained that there will always be several ways to talk about the same thing. He remembered a sequence from a film called ‘Balkan Rhapsodies’ where friends are smoking cigarettes and sharing jokes as we see bomb blasts in the background.
by Samragni Dasgupta
A few months ago, I read Eating Women, Eating Lives on a flight to Bangalore. It was a strange kind of book with strange kind of stories about strange kind of people. A bunch of women were preparing and cooking food for a funeral in a kitchen. Each, someone's aunt and someone's mum and someone's aunt's friend, someone's sister's sister-in-law. They were thinking, dreaming and telling each other stories about the family, rumours and secrets and desires barely hidden.
I wonder what walls Anish was talking about when he asked Ponni about the kitchen and recipes. What walls was Ponni talking about? For years, I've been kept out of the kitchen. Ma doesn't like anyone around when she's cooking. But she always complains once done, " Girls are supposed to learn cooking at an early age. It's time both of you help me out in the kitchen. It'd be so nice to have dinner ready by the time I come home." Despite wanting to help her out, I'd stay out of the kitchen - because she doesn't let me in and because I refused to go in as a girl.
The walls of the kitchen was filled with delicious smells, but the air was also often heavy with bitterness and fumes.
I was ravenous in the flight, reading Eating Women. I knew I wouldn't actually like any of the recipes so beautifully described, but they made me hungry nevertheless. The strangeness of the stories is a strangeness that I find strangely appealing. It's there in very few books, at least very few books that I have read. These are also the only books that flow seamlessly into my writing, so much so that I may be accused of plagiarism. The writing I know by instinct is particularly female. Not feminine, no. Female. Syntax and semantics rebuilds in meaning to appeal to a very different sensibility in me.
We've spoken in passing about gender in our research for Unreserved. Staggered references in interviews as well. The performer-facilitators might appease the representational politics of gender. But I wonder where we see the politics of resistance lies when we speak of gender. Would it automatically design a journey that is female because of the women in it or would resistance mean something entirely different if this journey was written in a language of resistance? Because that might be a different language than what it is now.
Meanwhile, we might be looking for flavour in a bowl of Kellogg's.