Monday, August 10, 2015

Against the idea of stillness: or modernity as vertigo!

Recently I came back from an academic conference in Amsterdam on transnational migration. I too presented my research findings about the knowledge workers from India who come back to the country after spending several years in the west. Mine was a mostly happy tale of acceptance and embracing. Some others spoke about migration caused by distress, about being stuck on the high seas between the African and the European continents. For those three days of the meet, the world seemed a restless place forever churning with movement. But were we all exaggerating the frantic mobility in the world? 

Thus wondering, I sought some repose during the next few days during long walks in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam, all cities which created their wealth only upon interacting and trading with rest of the world, which I must admit made me even more giddily aware of human movement on the planet – all these towns were teeming with tourists seeking their own kind of novelty and relief in a foreign land. I made so many foreigners feel miserable, unable to help me with the directions. Around the same time my Dutch friends and colleagues were packing stuff and heading en masse for their own preferred holiday destinations. It felt as if even as the whole world was descending on Holland, the Dutch were busy vacating their own lands. This transient swapping of territories seemed strange but no stranger than the Mall in Shimla in the month of April this year swamped as it was by the Delhi crowds, with the locals giving them a wide berth. 

I then came back to my state Bihar, known for its dramatically high levels of migration among both the educated and the unskilled poor. One of the first bits of news I got from my grocer was a most tangential one - his father with his fifteen neighbours and relatives has taken off on the Mansarovar Yatra and is currently walking somewhere on the Chinese territory. 

I will scale down the picture further and describe the scene at the main thoroughfare in my village in Bihar. During my visits there I spend my mornings watching a streaming procession of commuters leave the village from six to ten in the morning. By eleven, the village has emptied out and you only see old men, women and infants. The grand village institution, the banyan tree remains where it’s always been with no one but a few goats hanging around in its shade. As in Mumbai or in Delhi, so in my humble Tiwari Tola – my host’s son gets back from work around 11 PM. 

But all this is just half the tale. Or only the tangible part. 

Even as men and women move, the information, the news, the mail seem to move in a way that makes an avalanche look like a snail. Very often you don’t know who is where, but also who knows what at a given moment. The point is not to throw up our hands in despair over how to manage all this. The real point is we are already managing it, constantly absorbing and emanating information and opinions, and not doing hopelessly badly either, despite the profound shortfalls.  We millipedes need no training to walk.

One of the traits of modernity is every generation thinks it is on the brink of a fundamentally new era, the new man. Kurzweil or no Kurzweil, singularity or no singularity, as you cross your forties, the mad vortex seem to settle into a modest churning of the here and now, of the homely slipper - shuffling movement between the kitchen, the study and the bedroom.

The benign view from the tourist brochures is as you get to know more people, you develop more understanding and the ability to be understood. A more realistic view would suggest as you meet more people you risk hating many more people and in turn being hated by them. 

The question is – is there more rejection than acceptance on the ground where you stand at a given moment, however briefly? If there is more acceptance, you have achieved the stillness mentioned in the title. For the moment, that is! But the fact remains that across the globe people are ‘moving’ and learning to ‘manage their lives with these constant movements’ – rich or poor; urban or rural.

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