Friday, November 30, 2012

Theorizing the everyday

I am still amazed at the incredible everydayness of this world. My moods change like Austin weather, and no morning follows the night before. I am pliable as putty and my nerves seem to be made of very thin twine.

How shall I tell you about this everyday world? My life is governed by a few tasks and many uncertainties. This afternoon I walked out of campus to meet a prospective landlady. As I walked out of campus, I noticed all traffic moving in one direction like a sea of lemmings even as the opposite lane had been cleaned of all populations to make way for the cavalcade of the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The political part of this aside, can you imagine the spectacle this makes for? People lined the sidewalks by the hundreds even as the numerous cooks, helpers, and watchmen from the far reaches of India, many of them from Assam, peered down from rooftops. Flags lined the road dividers. Busstops crammed with lungi-clad men and gold nose-ringed sari-ed women dutifully bordered the rituals of power. Policemen heroically held back traffic, denying the ridiculousness of a 1:150 ratio.

So many men, so few women. So much traffic. Such little quietude. So much honking. And one empty lane.

Last week on a bus back to Chennai from Pondicherry, we all peered out as the bus stopped before a few hundred body strong funeral procession. We sat still in the insulated air-conditioning as the crowd gathered strength and police attempted to re-route traffic. Being the massive vehicle we were, we had no choice but to stay put in our first-class seats to the unfolding spectacle. Batons were wielded, instructions yelled silently as if in a fifties movie, and the quiet buzz of both morbid spectacle and public grief permeated the bus. The gentleman in front of me pulled out a newspaper reporting on the very incident we were watching. Somebody whispered that it was the deputy tahsildar, a local government official, who had committed suicide along with the entire family. Four bodies in all. The crowd parted for a little bit as our bus shimmied alongside two vans carrying shrouded bodies. The middle-aged woman next to me commented as to how she could not make out how the bodies had been distributed between the two vans. I later discovered that the deputy tahsildar was a woman. She had set herself on fire. Her family rushed to help and had been engulfed by the flames.

Last week, as a friend and I scoured the streets of Madras seeking suitable accommodation for two , we were followed around by a podgy, middle-aged man on a motorcycle. We paused to take his photograph on my phone and loudly announced to him his registration number and the actions we intended to pursue at the nearby police station. He left. The thought of our tiny triumph came with its attendant awareness that this is such a gendered space.

Many theorists have claimed that the politics of certain spaces lie in their everydayness and their ability to defeat certain determined ways of knowing and knowledge. That in their very elusiveness, they stick it to institutional and hence rigid forms of being and knowing. In other words, the everyday world is full of subterfuge.

This is an undeniably everyday world. You can touch, taste, feel, smoke, snort, and choke on it. If you plan it too much in advance, it will smother you in its elusiveness. And I cannot get rid of the fear evoked by its un-knowability.

And yet, even as I swallow dust and stare out grumpily at this world and these strange people and roads that defeat my plans, at other times, it seems like this might be important to know. This might be another way to live.