Paintings by Ritika Sharma from the series Journey in Chaos.
‘Out of the way
It’s a busy day
I’ve got things on my mind’—Us and Them, Pink Floyd
A long serpentine queue at the metro security check. The baggage machine is ‘out of order’, a cardboard notice informs passengers. Bodies nudging, fidgeting, sighing, muttering. Impatience and patience mingling to create a strange unpredictable creature. Dee is passing time by counting the number of people in front of her… 2, 4, 6, 8, … 19. A woman interrupts her mental exercise and asks her if this is the queue to go in. ‘Ya,’ she replies irritably, she has to restart her counting. ‘Can I stand before you?’ the woman asks. ‘No, you have to join the queue at the end.’ ‘I need to get home, my little son is waiting alone.’ ‘No you can’t, I am also waiting for a long time. Everyone is.’ The woman keeps insisting, cajoling. Dee has had a bad day at work, has to go back to a home she doesn’t want to go back to, cook a dinner she doesn’t want to cook. But she can’t say this to the woman. Dee says, ‘Sorry, but you can ask someone else.’ The whining polite woman suddenly becomes someone else and curses her, ‘Your children will die…you will rot in hell,’ as she rushes forward, and in a split second convinces the person going into the security booth to let her go in, and disappears out of her sight…Dee is shaken by the curses. She starts making a mental list of grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner, her body keeping pace with the slow movement of the queue and maintaining the distance between her and the person before her.
This city is always hungry and dissatisfied—it spreads its tentacles to haul more areas and people into its fold, the willing and the unwilling. ‘Move,’ it orders them, ‘you can do it better, faster, smarter.’ And they move, getting around the city using this or that or a combination of means of transportation, and traversing and creating routes and routines, hierarchies of people and vehicles, encounters with traffic and strangers. This is their education for becoming expert city dwellers. The city doesn’t tell them they will never graduate. Some drop out, some drop dead, while the rest keep practising, pushing, shoving, racing, preparing for the next fight, laying claim to a step on the escalator, a window seat on the bus, a hand grip in the metro coach, a lane on the road, the gap between two passengers, a desirable parking spot away from the bird droppings, a stride on the footpath before someone else, anyone else. The morning public service message on radio peps the cityzens, ‘Peak hours in crowded buses or metros make for ideal conditions to hone your skills, but you must never slack. So what if there is only one commuter competing with you to enter the metro coach, practise your body techniques, push, run, grab that seat. The body forgets if you don’t practise. Always remember, practice makes perfect.’
The city rewards its people with more and more shiny, world-class, revolutionary, state-of-the-art and clean infrastructure to continuously upgrade their skills of movement. These infrastructures too have their own eccentric skills to boast of—expressways with a palate for rivers, homes and trees are developing the ability to eat up pollution, and low-floor buses with electronic doors that keep out the street and its undesirables have mastered the art of combusting when angry. The city has not yet devised any smart technology to filter the perverts out of public transport though. Nor does it intend to. It believes that women tend to get lazy and need to be kept on their toes and need to work harder at moving around. That they have been spoilt by reserved coaches and seats, free bus rides on Raksha Bandhan, helplines, panic buttons and what not—they should get a chance to practise those self-defense moves they should have learnt before deciding to be born.
This anthropologist is feeling dazed—she can’t seem to keep pace with the city’s movements. The presswalla’s shack where she would sometimes sit to share a smoke and conversation with her friend and the presswalla’s family that regaled her with stories of the colony’s making have disappeared. The entire pavement where it was situated has been converted into a vertical garden, which you can’t sit on. No one knows where the presswalla has been relocated. The most-expensive expressway has dislodged the community of idol makers. In place of the rows of bright kitschy murtis and the buzz of customers are bulldozers, gaping holes in buildings and mounds of rubble. She wonders, ‘How does one understand emptied out places, places one can’t have a relationship with, places swabbed clean of history, stories and lives, places that demand not to be used at all or used in particular ways?’ Expressways demand that you keep moving, stopovers are not allowed. You are allowed to speed, crash and break your skull, but you can’t stop to buy vegetables or plants, slow down to look at the gulls in the river, or drop off the mouse you’ve caught in your house. Her peers tell her she is being romantic and sentimental. But this is an existential dilemma for her—her work is to study how everyday lives continue through relationships of familiarity and attachment to places in the city and how different forms of sociality remake and enliven these places. How does one study a place that does not allow for relationships or sociality? And if she does, will she be an anthropologist or something else?
Badibee tells her ‘Arre, there are no pure forms of places and non-places, each aspires to become the other, never quite succeeding. Go read Marc Augé and do some fieldwork at Rajiv Chowk metro station to understand how people are subverting the official usage of the place by loitering, hanging out and making out.’ The anthropologist is reassured and excited, and she heads out the very next day for fieldwork. Every time she tries to stop someone to have a conversation, she is brusquely told off that they don’t have time, are in a hurry or are busy. She keeps at it, trying to explain her research question and that she just wants to have a chat, but is met with looks of horror or disgust. An elderly man kindly tells her that it is not safe to talk to strangers in places like metro stations. As she is wondering whether to persist or give up, she is escorted away by the metro security personnel to their detention centre.
The next day she reads in the newspaper, ‘Presently, every Metro commuter is allowed to stay inside the Metro premises for 170 minutes if he enters from one station and exits from another station irrespective of the distance travelled. Every month, more than a lakh commuters are penalized for overstaying in the system by exceeding this time limit. For example, in December last year, 1,08,513 passengers were booked for overstaying in the system.’ ‘So much for subversion, Badibee!’ she snorts.
Then she remembers the young artist who had been brought to the detention centre and with whom she had exchanged numbers. ‘Maybe she can teach me a few tricks,’ she wonders.
This young artist seeks the crowded places of public transport where the energies and tensions of thousands of everyday routines join up. She is a student and is eager to improve her skills at drawing, and what better subject than cityzens on move. She draws obsessively and turns in a hundred drawings every week. She spends hours travelling from home to college and back, entangled in the insecurities and anxieties of moving around the city, which she reimagines through her drawings while on the move. Sometimes she becomes a catalyst for flaring up frictions and tensions by the act of drawing. ‘Is that me you have drawn? But I don’t look like that…you’ve made me look ugly!’ an irate commuter screams at her. ‘My compositions are my representation of my observations and experiences of travelling in a chaotic environment in a public transport…they are an effort to understand the invisible thread or a hidden dialogue among strangers and often encounters the growing insensitivity and insecurity in our society,’ she tries to patiently explain to the fuming woman, who is threateningly looming over her. ‘You are engaging in an anti-social and insensitive activity…you can’t just draw people in whatever way you like…that too in a public place. This is the problem with today’s generation…they think they can get away with anything…’
She can’t get herself to stop drawing on the move but wants to avoid unpleasant encounters. She turns to the repertoire of techniques and tools available to commuters that allow them to build invisible walls around themselves, to avoid conversation, to look without appearing interested, to set the boundaries of non-sociality. She finds the perfect tool. She puts on her earphones while drawing. It miraculously keeps the fellow commuters and their forebodings at bay. They are unaware that she has no music on and is eavesdropping on them. Just as the two college students discussing the hot guy in their class are unaware that the woman next to them, engrossed in beating her own highest score in a mindless mobile game, is listening on. Just as the woman picking her nose on the sly thinks none of the commuters is noticing. Each believes that the solitary cages built with tools and techniques of their choice not only shield them but also make them invisible.
Emboldened by the earphones, the artist starts spending more and more time at metro platforms, frenzily drawing sarcastic commentaries on performing prohibited activities inside the metro premises in highly stylized ways. She believes she has invented her very own trick in the art of doing, created her own personal itinerary, subverting the rules that lay down how public spaces of transit should be used. She chuckles, as if she is sharing a private joke with de Certeau. She doesn’t know yet that rules and surveillance work because they let you believe you can get away. She is knocked out of her reverie by a loud male voice demanding, ‘What do you think you are doing?’ She looks up to see a bunch of metro security personnel looking suspiciously at her. ‘I am just drawing,’ she says. ‘Don’t you know this is not allowed in the metro premises?’ the person-in-authority barks. ‘But the rules don’t say that anywhere,’ she protests. Nothing irks a person-in-authority more than someone teaching him what the rules state or don’t state. She is taken and put away in detention along with a dozen pickpockets and a pesky anthropologist who had scared commuters at the station by trying to have a conversation with them about their subversive tactics. They let off the anthropologist first with the advice to go talk to baboons in Africa and not spoil metro decorum. After a couple of hours, they let off the artist explaining that the metro is for getting from here to elsewhere and a good cityzen commuter is one who does this the fastest. ‘If you want to draw, do it in your drawing room,’ says the person-in-authority, guffawing at his own joke.
She takes the metro and gets off at the next station. Finds a bench, puts on her earphones and starts drawing.
Dee has managed to find a comfortable standing position near the exit door of the metro. She is observing the familiar playing out of the ‘metro butt move’ on the seat facing her—butts claiming a spot or getting dislodged, inch by inch, second by second. The move for all its variations has only two forms. Just as the commuters sitting in a tightly packed row have grudgingly made peace with each other and have found their most comfortable positions, they are faced with what they dread most—the chaloo commuter who comes up and says ‘thoda adjust karo’ and will not take no for an answer. The seated commuters resentfully move and create a tiny gap. The chaloo commuter will shove her way in, one butt at a time, and make the neighbouring commuter’s butt jut out of the seat. If she is particularly skilled, she will eventually make her neighbouring commuter so uncomfortable that she would prefer to get up and stand. The second form of this movement involves the budhoo commuter who adjusts and makes peace with the tiny gap made available by the sitting passengers. She precariously balances herself, putting to practice the techniques mastered over the years by balancing mid-air in public toilets. She is hoping and praying that someone will get off from the row before her station arrives, but just as someone gets off, two chaloo commuters rush to claim the spot, pushing her off balance. The moves continue and Dee is so engrossed in them, she is startled when she hears the announcement about the next station. It is time to prepare to disembark. She turns to face the door and is thrilled with herself that there is no one standing before her. The station arrives. The door opens. Before Dee can take a step forward, a swarm of commuters rush in, pushing her. She falls backwards, hitting her head on the floor. She waits for someone to help her get up. The commuters around her are muttering about why she is lying in such a strange position and wasting space. The door closes.
This piece was triggered through my interfaces with Ritika and her work on everyday scenes of public transport in Delhi. It emerges here through a reimagination of stories, hers and mine, creating a new format of conversation between an artist and an anthropologist. Paintings © Ritika Sharma, reproduced with permission. Cover image: Travelling with Insecurities (triptych), 2015, oil on canvas, 48 x 102 inches.
Ritika Sharma is an artist based in New Delhi and has done her bachelor’s and master’s in fine arts at Delhi College of Art. She has participated in various art camps, workshops and residencies, including the International Artist Residency (2017) with Art for Change Foundation and a month-long workshop and exhibition Moving Images at The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art and Serendipity Arts Trust. She has recently shown her works at NGMA, Bengaluru, Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, Kanoria Art Centre, Ahmedabad, and Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi.