Benjamin in Bombay? An Asian Extrapolation

[Paper presented at Conference on ‘City as Text’, 8-10 September 1999, Department of English Language and Literature, & Centre for Advanced Studies,  National University of Singapore, Singapore]

I searched around those ruins in vain and all I found was a face engraved on a potsherd and a fragment of a frieze. That is what my poems will be in a thousand years — shards, fragments, the detritus of a world buried for all eternity. What remains of a city is the detached gaze with which a half — drunk poet looked at it." (Amin Maalouf, Samarkhand. Tr. Russell Harris. London: Abacus, 1989, rpt. 1992, 29-30.)


1    The profane aura of the city

Walter Benjamin wrote about cities during the 1920s and the 1930s. He was born in Berlin, but infatuated with Paris, where he read Baudelaire, translated Proust, welcomed the Surrealists from a distance, and concocted an urban mythology out of walking the streets, alone among crowds. He convinced himself that one could be at home in cities as a stranger, and developed an entire symbology to harmonize the paradox. The excited apprehension of his gaze consumed "the occult world of business and traders", with a voluptuousness of intent which had keep reminding itself not to be melancholic that we live in a time indemnified for humanity by a future married to technology.1 The furthest he travelled East was to spend two months in Moscow during the winter of 1926-27, to see the Bolshevik revolution, and the woman he loved, at close quarters. In the event, he saw rather more of Moscow than of either Leninism, or the woman, although both continued to exercise a quizzical influence over the rest of his life. He found the Muscovites’ sense of time so loose and flexible that "minutes are a cheap liquor of which they never get enough". To him this was their most persistently "Asiatic" quality (II, 31-2). In Moscow snow, he found that even "walking has to be relearned" (II, 23). He concluded that "What is true of the image of the city and its people applies also to the intellectual situation: a new optics is the most undoubted gain from a stay in Moscow" (II, 22). Every city thus became a potential Moscow, capable of reconstituting the reader as text even more certainly than the reader could hope to encompass the city as text.

Benjamin’s knowledge of cities was confined to Europe, as were his interests. He proved the latter by his "endless wanderings" (II, 629), which could not take leave of Europe, even when the Nazis had done everything possible to make it unpleasant for wandering Jews to stay on. What can this intriguing writer offer us by way of insight into the cities of our time and places? He attributed the radical transformation of human experience in post-industrial societies to changes in the means of production and the practices of consumption. He urged artists not to forget the materiality of their art and its techniques. His writings demonstrate the role of the metropolitan in the ambivalent relation between societal and cultural modernity. He showed a way to the recognition that there are as many passages between modernity and the metropolitan as there are cities; and though they are neither uniform, nor parallel, nor well lit, they can be brought together in understanding without smoothing out their differences.

What of Bombay in all this? The city adds a fragment to what we may describe, in terms of Benjamin’s metaphors of kaleidoscope and constellation, as the cognitive field of the metropolitan, shaped in and as discourse. In Midnight’s Children (1980), for instance, Salman Rushdie invokes Bombay as an originary island, transformed over three centuries, by the marriage of imperialism and capitalism, into today’s whirlpool of twelve million. Once it was a sleepy fishing-village, which worshipped a local deity called Mumba-bai, while the Portuguese, who loved its harbour, named it Bom Bahia.2 The city is a layered site excavated in language through the force of collective memory. "Bombay" becomes one among many names for the movement of masses — of peoples, commodities, exchanges, conflicts, aspirations, and values — through time. It serves as a locus for the double-edged conditions of modernity as realized in an Asian metropolis. It also provides an exorcism of the involuntary Eurocentrism that sets a limit condition to Benjamin’s reflections on cities.

The attempt to set up a meaningful relation between Benjamin and any Asian city — a kind of Baumgartner in Bombay — must be dialectical.3 To begin with, it might appear no more than a sublation of the contingent (in this case, Bombay) and the random (Benjamin) in the fortuitous (the capacity in each to urge a revision of the other). Each certainly brushes against the grain of the other, as recommended by Benjamin for the application of materialist thought to history.4 Moreover, any interpretive narrative of Bombay as the urban locus for India's troubled progress into modernity must find itself inextricably linked to the progress of modernity in Europe. That Benjamin offers one of the most suggestive critique of the European nexus between modernity and urbanism makes him an apt model for extrapolation into Asian contexts shaped first by European colonialism, and then by nationalism. Benjamin's work teases out the relation between the materialism of culture and the culture of materialism. His interests may have been confined to Europe, but the processes he studied have become asymmetrically global. Likewise, the relation between Bombay and India is dialectical, as between a city monstrous in its problems and opportunities, and a country more preoccupied with a nationalism occluded by a colonial past than with a post-industrial future overshadowed by consumerism, overpopulation, illiteracy, inefficiency, and corruption. In many respects, the relation bespeaks a type of the West-oriented metropolis and its Asian hinterland, as in the very different instances provided by the relation between Hong Kong and China, or as between Singapore and Malaysia. In each case, the geographical relation of island to mainland is reproduced in the ambivalent path worked out by progress between the antinomies of nationalism and globalism. At the level of imaginative production, the dialectical tension extends to the relation between Bombay and its writers, just as it applies to the tension between Benjamin’s thought and the European metamorphoses to which it was applied.

2    The city as rune

The city becomes a performative text whenever we realize our experience of it in and as language. Benjamin reminds us, "language has unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium" (II, 576). The city circumscribes a series of fragmentary impressions that resist totalization, and are interpreted by memory as collage: "He who has once begun to open the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments" (II, 597). Benjamin can name them only through metaphor — as the veil, the corridor, the passageway, the maze, and the labyrinth. Their cognitive function is subsidized by the visual metaphor of the gaze. To the gaze, experience is an exteriority, whose meaning depends on whether objects return, or "withstand", the gaze (Reflections, 144). It renders the city purely in terms of space, in which the materiality of objects is a visual experience. So the commodification of objects itself gets mediated in space. Even persons are liable to get assimilated as objects in space. Sometimes they disappear altogether, as when Benjamin cannot remember anything about the aunt who used to live with his grandmother, but "a good deal about the room that she occupied in her mother’s apartment" (II, 621). Objects and persons get constellated through their interactions within the magnetic field of space, which tells us "what kind of regimen cities keep over the imagination, and why the city ... indemnifies itself in memory, and why the veil it has covertly woven out of our lives shows images of people less often than those of the sites of our encounters with others or ourselves" (II, 614).

Benjamin reads a city as if it were a rune or a hieroglyph. As space, it is emblematic; in time, it is an allegory.5 One way of recognizing how the city transmutes time into space is to consider the consequences of metropolitan transport systems as they pull and drag traffic through the packed overground and underground densities of civic space. Benjamin develops a point made by Georg Simmel, that the city creates a new kind of uneasiness because the experience typical of public transport systems is that they split the visual field from the auditory field. People are constantly placed "in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another".6 Anyone who has travelled within Bombay will recognize how this experience is aggravated by the city’s elongated geography, and the arterial role played by local trains in ferrying a work force of several millions to and fro every day between home and livelihood. Life becomes a piecing together, and what is pieced together by memory in such situations is moments measured as space, because while "autobiography has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life. Here, I am talking of space, of moments and discontinuities" (II, 612).

Another kind of discontinuity can be illustrated in respect of the names we attach to civic spaces, When the names change, the re-naming can dislocate memory. Here are two members of the Parsi minority in Bombay — from Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey (1991) — reacting to a right-wing city administration intent on erasing familiar street names because they trace the city’s colonial past:

"Why change the names? Saala sisterfuckers! Hutatma Chowk!" he spat out the words disgustedly. "What is wrong with Flora Fountain?"

"Why worry about it? I say, if it keeps the Marathas happy, give them a few roads to rename. Keep them occupied. What’s in a name?"

"No, Gustad." Dinshawji was very serious. "You are wrong. Names are so important. I grew up on Lamington Road. But it has disappeared, in its place is Dadasaheb Bhadkhamkar Marg. My school was on Carnac Road. Now suddenly it’s on Lokmanya Tilak Marg. I live at Sleater Road. Soon that will also disappear. My whole life I have come to work at Flora Fountain. And one fine day the name changes. So what happens to the life I have lived? Was I living the wrong life, with all the wrong names? Will I get a second chance to live it all again, with these new names?..."7

Benjamin’s early writings are rooted in the quasi-theological belief that "The absolute relation of name to knowledge exists only in God".8 If that were indeed so, we should have to see the succession of namings in a city as a procession of false Gods; and the absolute concord between place and name would remain a divine mystery. The alternative is to abandon the idea of any such conjunction, and accept the city as a figure for the historicity of the struggle over names in a contestation for civic power, including the power over knowledge as personal memory.

3    The city as trace

Estrangement can be seen to cut both ways in the modern city: one can have a home where one is not at home, and one can feel at home where one has no home. One can also be turned out-of-doors by disgust at the cosy fetishism of bourgeois interiors. In Benjamin’s materialist terms, the very idea of home is transfigured by the city into interiors where the owner leaves traces that create habits out of habitats. Bombay provides many startling variants to how material traces can get deposited as signs of inhabitancy. From the fundamental deposit of faeces (because the city lacks latrines), to the forest of television antennae that festoon the meanest hutment colony (because people must have entertainment), the city is proof of how the trace makes strange (and estranging) habits out of habitats. Bombay confirms Benjamin’s description as apt. It also obliges one to reconsider what it means to have the disconcerting interpenetration of habits and habitats separated by the most gaping differences. Here is poor Baumgartner in Bombay:

Even when he had parted these curtains, entered the house, mounted the stairs, careful not to step on the beggars and lepers and prostitutes who inhabited every landing, and at last achieved the small cell that was his room, he had no sense of being walled away from the outer world¼ (Desai, 175)

The interiority of space always threatens to get turned inside out. If we cannot wall ourselves in, we can yet mark a place as ours through the silt of our deposits. Moving upmarket, in "One-Way Street" (1928), Benjamin has nothing but scorn for "The soulless luxury of the furnishings" captured accurately in the genre of nineteenth century detective fiction — "‘On this sofa the aunt cannot but be murdered’" (I, 447)! "Erase the traces" was Brecht’s refrain (II, 472) precisely because,

Here, in the bourgeois room the opposite behaviour has become an ethos in the strictest sense — that is to say, a habit. Indeed, leaving traces is not just a habit, but the primal phenomenon of all the habits that are involved in inhabiting a place. (II, 472)

The material cause that defines the modernity of urban inhabitancy is the post-Bauhaus preference for glass and metal as the building materials of our era (II, 473). Benjamin is characteristically ambivalent between welcoming them as mimetic images of the urban transparency of a classless apocalypse, and regretting the loss of individualism entailed in this metal-and-glass Utopia.9 One would have to add cement and concrete to glass and metal for retrieving the articulation of Bombay’s architecture, because it is the ghastly dullness of this material that lends its aura of drabness to whatever is immured within its walls. It becomes the veritable substance from which modern cities are made, because of the ease with which it sinks into the souls of its inhabitants. It also encourages the reproducibility of housing conditions on the most massive scale of homogenizing anonymity, thus making the struggle for individuation more tragic. What gets forgotten, or repressed, in the efficient deployment of such materials is the recognition that "technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man" (I, 487). In a fragment from 1930-31, with reference to Adorno’s "theory of shrinkage [Schrumpfung]", his own "theory of packaging [Verpackung]", and "The theory of the ruins created by time", Benjamin asks the critic to practise "deconstruction [Abmontieren]" (II, 415). Shrinkage and packaging are metaphors whose application to urban housing is self-evident. The possibility of applying "deconstruction" to housing can be said to have been accomplished, in the specific case of the kinds of city slum and hutment colony that mark Bombay, by the tragic-ironic relation they set up between their own manifest existence as urban ruins on the slope of time, and the repression of their cheek-by-jowl coexistence by their up-market equivalents.

4    The city as kitsch

It is almost a surprise to recollect that Bombay is not entirely constituted of slums and government housing. It is also the city of kitsch — for instance, in the eclecticism of its architecture, and the energetic vulgarity of its entertainment industry. V.S. Naipaul captures the public visage of the city quite accurately for the 1970s:

The Indian-Victorian-Gothic city with its inherited British public buildings and institutions — the Gymkhana with its wide veranda and spacious cricket ground, the London-style leather-chaired Ripon Club for elderly Parsi gentlemen ¼ the city was not built for the poor, the millions. But a glance at the city map shows that there was a time when they were invited in.10

In a gloss on Surrealism, Benjamin defined kitsch as "The side which things turn toward the dream" (II, 3). In Bombay, the dream is constituted by the ahistoricity of anachronism and the randomness of miscellany. The public landmarks — e.g. the Victoria Railway Terminus, the Rajabhai clock tower, the Gateway of India , the Haji Ali Temple, Flora Fountain, etc. — can appear striking so long as one is willing to ignore the clash in styles, and one takes each on its own terms. When taken together, as the city forces one to do in its synchronicity, they constitute a medley of accretions accidentally thrown together in a form of tropical Surrealism, with a dream’s capacity to sustain vividness independent of a context of stylistic tradition that is either indigenous or coherent. The mere fact that they happen to have been piled up in a particular arrangement becomes the "logic" of their occurrence in space and time. Benjamin described the Surrealist quest as a search for "the totemic tree of objects within the thicket of primal history" (II, 4). In Bombay, not only does the surreal imagination come up against totemic objects within plural histories, it also gets the opportunity to hunt for the tree of history amidst a thicket of totemic objects. Of each such excrescence, one may well echo his remark: "It is the last mask of the banal, the one with which we adorn ourselves, in dream and conversation, so as to take in the energies of an outlived world of things" (II, 4).

The second form of kitsch unique to Bombay — its khichadi — is the entertainment industry, which gladly recognizes itself as India’s Bollywood. Its grossness is as deep as its popularity is wide. It represents the Lowest Common Factor of taste taken to a transcendent point where the capacity to reach a mass audience is the perfect evacuation of Benjamin’s hope that mechanical reproducibility would disseminate the auratic more widely. What Bombay shows is that this dream can indeed be realized, but only as the most tasteless of nightmares. The Bombay film industry combines fantasy and stereotypes with cheerful cynicism into what it supplies to the masses as the auratic. In being disseminated as a socially permitted drug and anodyne, the auratic is not diluted, but contaminated. Anyone who has been even a little appalled or embarrassed by the average Hindi movie will also have wondered at the economic sustenance that keeps the industry churning out more films than the Hollywood industry, while basing them, decade after decade, on the same soiled formulas. It was important for Benjamin to have wanted the aura to lose its elitism, and spread to the masses. But there was no reason to suppose that the auratic would be made an historical exception to the law of consumption, which dictates that the consumers get what they think they want, which is cliché, not critique. The sociologist Pritish Nandy observes, "most Indian movie-goers prefer even an unrealistic defence of the right values to a realistic refusal to take notice of them".11

5    The city as labyrinth

If we return to the city at the level of the street, we enter the labyrinth or maze (II, 614) as Ariadne (II, 595, 598, 677). The personification enables the development of a mythology surrounding the condition of being lost, fearful, or anxious that a city can induce even in those who may not be inept at finding their way, or themselves. In Benjamin’s case, he confesses that he had "a very poor sense of direction" (II, 596). It is amusing to see how this handicap — unpropitious and yet apt for someone who would one day fancy himself as an Odysseus of cities — converts the banality of "Not to find one’s way in a city" into the art of knowing how "to lose oneself in a city"; although it took him most of a lifetime before he could claim that "Paris taught me this art of straying" (II, 598), whereas in Berlin, "my legs had become entangled in the ribbons of the streets" (II, 612). Benjamin would have been appalled at Chandigarh — Le Corbusier’s ambiguous gift to India — a city in which it is virtually impossible to either stray or get properly lost.

Both maze and labyrinth suggest that knowledge is not to be accessed directly in a city. The figure also implies that walking, rather than a mechanical means of transport, is the pace at which to take in a city. It requires no traversal to be complete. However, the metaphor also implies that there might be a centre to the labyrinth. Benjamin’s practice acts as dissuasion to any such notion. His idealization derives from Baudelaire’s Parisian flâneur, who is "A passionate lover of crowds and incognitos" (Baudelaire, 5). There is an entire frame of mind to which the urban jungle is not merely acceptable, but welcome. Benjamin uses Baudelaire’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, "The Man in the Crowd" to identity the city dweller as "someone who does not feel comfortable in his own company.... ‘He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd’" (Baudelaire, 48). The choice converts the defensive into the opportunistic, as in Bertolt Brecht’s sardonic presentation, "Of Poor B.B.":

In the asphalt city I’m at home. From the very start

Provided with every last sacrament:

With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy

To the end mistrustful, lazy and content.

I’m polite and friendly to people. I put on

A hard hat because that’s what they do.

I say: they are animals with a quite peculiar smell.

And I say: does it matter? I am too.12

Benjamin’s temperament prefers a less hard-nosed attitude, more preoccupied with solitariness than abrasion. He regards the flâneur as someone "who goes botanizing on the asphalt" (Baudelaire, 36).13 The characterization is both attractive and fanciful. The flâneur becomes a dialectical image,14 which evades resolution, though it provides amelioration. The tension between its panache and its defensiveness is balanced on a cusp. Benjamin has to invoke Bergson, Freud, Proust, and Valéry to interject the mémoire involontaire between the capacity of metropolitan experience to induce "a poetics of shock", and the psychological mechanisms evolved for the purpose of dealing with it (Baudelaire, 111-16). The flâneur becomes a figure for the resistance offered to what is found irresistible — the city as a medium for realizing the self. He will eventually lose himself to it, so he makes a concession by appearing to join the crowd, but only as a stroller, uniquely individual, and therefore no part of its homogenizing impulse (Cf. Baudelaire, 170). Benjamin wrote about Kafka, "Strangeness — his own strangeness — has gained control over him" (II, 806). One has only to replace "strangeness" with "estrangement" to give us a wider application for which Kafka, and Benjamin, and Baudelaire serve as emblems:

This poetry is no local folklore; the allegorist’s gaze which falls upon the city is rather the gaze of alienated man. It is the gaze of the flâneur, whose way of living still bestowed a conciliatory gleam over the growing destitution of men in the great city. (Baudelaire, 170)

What is the source of the conciliatory in the gleam bestowed by the poet on the destitution of the city? Benjamin answers, "He is for art what the dandy is for fashion" (Baudelaire, 172). Likewise, he notes that Baron Haussmann’s "urbanistic ideal was one of views in perspective down long street-vistas". For Benjamin, this represents the tendency "to ennoble technical exigencies with artistic aims" (Baudelaire, 173). This may well have been the antidote to Fascism’s introduction of aesthetics into politics (Illuminations, 241). However, one might just as well call it autism dissembled as art. It does not cope with the dehumanization produced by urbanization; it layers it over with the gleaming patina of the aesthetic. This tendency — to retain objects vividly in memory while completely losing sight of the human figures for whom they are supposed to be the context — has an odd kind of counterpart in Benjamin’s remark that "Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset" (II, 801). Benjamin becomes the locus for the problem encountered by the aesthetic impulse to recuperate from the shock of the urban, while also wanting to ameliorate the impact of technological change on the quality of individual experience, while remaining profoundly unconvinced of the equivalence between change and progress.

6    A Poetics to Shock

Benjamin was never at home even in the Berlin of his birth, where his mother used to take him for walks. Little Walter always kept two steps behind her, appearing more naive than he felt he was, just as later he was to appear more knowing than he felt himself to be, always capable of getting lost, whether out of choice or necessity (II, 596). In his last years, in Paris, he acknowledged how much the condition of aloneness had to be accepted, since he would neither mix with the German émigrés, nor could he bring himself to join the Jewish exiles, nor did he hope to find acceptance among the local French. His solitude was thus involuntary and wretched. What is remarkable is that the desolating aspect of the predicament almost became a method. He taught himself to prefer streets to houses, suburbs to the city centre, the amble of the stroller to the diligence of the tourist, and "the architectonic function of wares" (II, 25) in markets to the interiors of museums or the exteriors of architectural monuments. He even insisted that only the foreign eye saw about a city what escaped native recognition (II, 142, 262).

His recollections of Berlin are particularly revealing about the enabling as well as the disabling powers of the flâneur as figuration:

Berlin had provided meager opportunities for "The child’s first excursion into the exotic world of abject poverty" (II, 600).

I never slept on the street in Berlin. I saw sunset and dawn, but between the two I found myself a shelter. Only those for whom poverty or vice turns the city into a landscape in which they stray from dark till sunrise know it in a way denied to me. (II, 612)

No one who has walked the pavements of Bombay would use the word "exotic" to refer to "abject poverty". Well over half the twelve million inhabitants of Bombay meet every sunset and dawn on the pavement, and not by choice. In Paris, Benjamin could afford to poeticize bazaars and arcades:

I am pursuing the origin and construction of the Paris arcades from their rise to their fall, and laying hold of their origin through economic fact. These facts ... construed as causes ... allow the whole series of the arcade’s concrete historical forms to emerge, like a leaf unfolding forth from itself the entire wealth of the empirical plant kingdom. (N 50)

The Crawford Market in Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey (1991), however, is a bazaar seen from the other end of the telescope. When economic facts are treated as effect instead of cause, they become a slippery floor, "and smelly air abuzz with bold and bellicose flies" (21). Benjamin’s flâneur is not taken in by the commodification of value symbolized in the bazaar, though he consumes it avidly with his eyes. In being the remote ancestor to today’s addicted window-shopper, he remains a disinterested student in the temple of consumerism. He resists the commodity as fetish only by consuming it as an object of study. Goods need not be bought for their availability to the gaze to become a good in itself:

The bazaar is the last hangout of the flâneur. If in the beginning the street had become an intérieur for him, now this intérieur turned into a street, and he roamed through the labyrinth of merchandise as he had once roamed through the labyrinth of the city. (Baudelaire, 54)

Exact equivalents to such arcades and bazaars are easy to find in the Fort area of Bombay. There, the poetry of the commodity and the poetics of abject poverty jostle each other rudely. For the majority of inhabitants — if a squatter can be said to inhabit what he infests — the pavement is interiority pulled inside out with a literalness that places Benjamin’s figure in a harder, clearer light. The flanneries of Bombay are as convoluted as of any European city, but a stroll there is more reliably fraught with unpleasant discovery. Here is Gieve Patel’s "City Landscape":

I pick my way

Step by ginger step between

Muck, rags, dogs,

Women bathing squealing

Children in sewer water,

Unexpected chickens,

And miles of dusty yellow

Gravel straight

From the centre of some planet

Sucked dry by the sun...15

The point need not be laboured: cities like Bombay show the limits beyond which the Baudelairean figure can stroll only with extreme discomfort to the figuration. The limitation separates the Asian from the European metropolis. Radical economic asymmetry, when combined with the close contiguities in space that are enforced by a city, distort human experience to a point where the imagination has to access the violence of the surreal — as an energy from within — if it is to resist the violence from without represented by the city.

5    The Surreal City

The migration of rural populations to the metropolis is an aspect of societal modernity of which Bombay can serve as the gross index. The influx from the agrarian hinterland has been poorly matched by land reclamation, which has only augmented the city’s problems and its politicians’ pockets. In this context, the feature that characterizes Bombay, the way scars disfigure a face, is its beggars. To beg is to have shed self-respect as the least price paid to appease need in the sharp form of hunger. But the Bombay variety of begging is something else altogether: the number, the deformities, and the persistence of its beggars add up to a Surreal experience because all their deprivations are part of a gruesome economic organization. Benjamin, for the most part, internalizes the notion of poverty as a form of inward lack. In Moscow, however, he notes, "Begging is not aggressive as in southern climes, where the importunity of the ragamuffin still betrays some remnants of vitality. Here it is a corporation of the dying" (II, 27). Begging, he recognizes, is more effective when it preys upon "the bad social conscience" of the bourgeoisie (II, 28) than when it solicits pity. The same recognition animated Brecht’s adaptation of John Gay, and it should come as no surprise that when the Marathi author P.L. Deshpande adapted the Three-Penny Opera to a musical satire featuring a Bombay Beggars’ Union (Teen Paishyacha Tamasha), the burlesque proved even more savagely funny when transposed from eighteenth century London via 1920s Germany to 1970s Bombay. Thus Benjamin’s observation — "They have developed begging to a high art, with a hundred schematisms and variations" (II, 28) — applies equally well to any city in which the Surreal comes into play in collating penury and crime as a form of the metropolitan macabre. The Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal remarks,

Who hadn’t thought that fees could be claimed

for singing songs of hunger.16

In Benjamin the figure of the beggar transposes into yet another economic transposition — the ragpicker — who fascinates his epoch, creates a cottage-industry out of destitution, and invites identification from the littérateur, the conspirator, and the bohème (Baudelaire, 19-20). Thus we can show that Benjamin was aware of the economic potential to the city’s exploitation of poverty, but for the private economy of those who meet their sunsets on the pavement, he would have to turn to lines like these from a Marathi poem by B. Rangarao:

... sleep quarrels with my eyes

then sits apart sulking in corners... (Dangle, 44)

As for the dawn in Bombay, this is Nissim Ezekiel, in "A Morning Walk":

Barbaric city slick with slums,

Deprived of seasons, blessed with rains,

Its hawkers, beggars, iron-lunged,

Processions led by frantic drums,

A million purgatorial lanes,

And child-like masses, many-tongued,

Whose wages are in words and crumbs. (Mosaic, 129)

This ironic and distasted voice is still that of the poet as citizen who will walk home to his four walls. The Marathi poet Narayan Surve speaks from a blind corner, from where

We know only two roads one which leads to the factory

And the other,

Which leads to the Crematorium. (Mosaic, 149)

The plight understood by Benjamin is dull and sordid. That evoked by the Dalit has the edge of desperation, as in Namdeo Dhasal’s Marathi poem "Hunger":

Hunger, if we cannot mate you

cannot impregnate you

our tribe will have to kill itself

Hunger we have all the aces

Why talk of the songs of the half-sexed jacks? (Dangle, 44)

Bombay requires that the flâneur not walk the road, but become the road, as in the urban ballad of the Gujarati poet Suresh Dalal:

I am a road

Neither sleeping nor awaking,

And a collapsed hand-cart

I am beer and whisky

And country liquor

I am, yet nobody:

I am an extinguished lantern.

Living in Bombay

I am a terribly tired person.

I am a newspaper and a phone

And a telex and a rumour

I am a radio, T.V., Airport

And a slum.... or I am an alternative.

I am an actor without a drama

And I am an impotent heir.

Living in Bombay

I am a terribly tired person. (Mosaic, 158)

In brief, the individual living in an age of metropolitan pressure becomes the function of a massive displacement.

Moving from the divisions enforced by economic lack to those imposed by society, we note that the class structure in Moscow reminded Benjamin of the caste system in India: "Russia is today not only a class but also a caste system" (II, 35). He linked class to caste because both bring "terrible social ostracism" on their victims. Benjamin’s analogy has a counterpart in Max Weber’s equation, made in 1922, between the Jew and the Indian "untouchable".17 Weber claimed that ostracism built up caste solidarity. (In this context it is ironic that Benjamin suffered the fate of a Jew though he did not think of himself as defined by his Jewishness). There is an interesting correspondence between the views of Benjamin and B.R.Ambedkar, the principal theorist of the Dalit cause. Benjamin described the angel of history as one who would make what had been smashed whole except that the catastrophe called progress kept blowing it backwards into the future (Illuminations, 257-8). Ambedkar hoped, at about the same time, that the European angel of equality would heal an India split into fragments by caste.18 In the event, he found that the wound of history was riddled by the splinters of self-division, and a catastrophe called communalism kept blowing the nation backwards into the future.

Since stigma too, like beauty, resides in the eyes of the beholder, Ambedkar asked for an education of the mind. He argued that to educate the ostracized would not suffice until those who did the ostracizing had been educated out of their prejudice. If the contemporary Dalit writer from Bombay has cause for anger, it is because that dream of Enlightenment gets ruined in the city of modernity. The Dalit acts as the social conscience which demands that the city as a modern polity deliver its promise of freedom and equality.19 His aim shares a common cause with the Marxist ideal of a proletariat revolution, to which Benjamin lends some support. But the Dalit call for justice is redemptive, whereas Benjamin’s hope mixes the redemptive with the utopian. The Dalit frustration with redemptive justice brings their political struggle close to the despair of Benjamin’s theological preoccupations, in which history partakes of the decadence inherent to material nature, where even criticism is only the "mortification of the works" (Origins, 182), and the aspiration to harmony and closure is appropriate only in the new Jerusalem.

7    The City of Violence

Benjamin’s allegorical treatment of the materiality of experience sharpens our sense of metropolitan experience as fragmented and discontinuous. But he also retains a vision of the coherence that ought to be gathered from its splinters. He does not know how this is to be done. To him, it is an intimation, which does not deliver the promised disclosure. The lesson Bombay has to offer is that the one specific way adopted in recent history of realizing the city and its citizens as a totality, has caused the vision of the city as a polity to suffer a brutal denudation. In the Bombay riots of December 1992 and January 1993, more than 700 people were killed by their fellow citizens, mostly by arson. Millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed. The economic productivity of the city was brought to a standstill. More than 60% of those killed were Muslims. They had either been victimized, or induced into counter-violence, by a right-wing Hindu party known as the Shiv Sena (Shivaji’s army). The police remained passive. The central government did not dare to intervene.20 The city was appropriated on behalf of a narrow vision of recovered wholeness by the militant essentialism of Bombay’s Brown Shirts. The party was founded in 1966 by a man called Bal Thackeray, who had had a reasonably mediocre career until then as a cartoonist. (One wonders what the future of cities and peoples might have been if artists like Thackeray — and Hitler — had been better endowed in the arts than in rabble-rousing.)

Bombay as a city has always been ethnically diverse, comprising, among the mercantile class, Gujaratis, Parsis and Muslims, whereas the economically less productive middle-class has always been Marathi-speaking. It was the most industrialized city of India from as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century. It had metamorphosed from a textile-manufacturing centre to a vastly diversified manufacturing economy, in which the incentive of economic benefit had acted as a disincentive for communal and religious friction.21 The Shiv Sena sought to control the hybridized entrepreneurial behaviour of the city under the invocation of communalism. The 1960s had seen an influx from the southern states. That gave the Shiv Sena its first agenda: recover Bombay for the Maharashtrians. More recently, in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim riots in the north of India, the Shiv Sena turned its attention towards the Muslims, who comprise about 15% of the city population. Benjamin had wished for a recuperation that was centred on the individual in a perspective that treated all experience, and especially metropolitan experience, as postlapsarian. The ideal served a function by showing a horizon beyond the limit of what is realizable in time or space. The recent history of violence in Bombay shows what happens when this dream of recuperation is dragged across that limit. It is realized as xenophobia. Benjamin’s "Critique of Violence" (1920-21) had said, "If justice is the criterion of ends, legality is that of means" (I, 237). The Shiv Sena has shown how illegal means applied to unjust ends can yet dissemble justification as justice by legitimizing force through communal sanctions. Its policies represent a form of aggressive retreat from the egalitarianism of opportunity practiced by capitalism, of which an industrial city like Bombay has been the primary conduit for the national economy. The logic of capitalist expansion had de-territorialized the city; the Shiv Sena re-territorialized it on sectarian principles, turning its back on the logic of industrial capital. Richard G. Fox adapts a Frankfurt School thesis — that the idea of progress has had a bitter-sweet history of disenchantment with modernity — in order to develop a multiple analogy for communalism based on the notion of hyperenchantment, which bears the same relation to modernity that hyperconsumption has to greed, and hypermanagement to bureaucracy:

Communalism is the hyperenchantment of religion, racism is the hyperenchantment of biology, sexism is the hyperenchantment of gender, and ethnic prejudice is the hyperenchantment of culture. Each of these builds new forms of identity, allegiance, and loyalty that are formally inconsistent with modernity, but that are, in fact, its own creations. Each of ¼ them creates social boundaries based on ascription rather than achievement, yet each of them sustains social orders (the family, the community) and occurs in institutional settings (the state, the workplace) ostensibly based on modernity.22

Each of these generalizations has a double validity: for the forces at work in a city like Bombay, and for the Europe that was to disenchant Benjamin’s treatment of it as a civil society. In his death he acknowledged that he had written for a community that had failed to materialize. In its place arose an ashen phoenix. The same is true of Bombay. The city of India’s modernity has become the site of self-divisive violence. The political Right has appropriated the city for an aesthetics politics (Illuminations, 241). The correspondences between Fascism and Asian varieties of fundamentalism are numerous, and all of them ominous. If the conjunction between Benjamin and Bombay has any validity, it is in the troubled ambivalence with which either mediates modernity. In each, the depredations and the opportunities of modernity are delicately poised between despair and hope, with nothing to alleviate the angel of history in its backward trajectory — into the future called progress — except the vigilance of critique.


1 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934. Tr. Rodney Livingstone et al. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, 619. Hereafter abbreviated as (II).

2 Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (1980), in Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra (ed), Bombay: The Cities Within. Bombay: India Book House, 1995, 8: "when Bombay was a dumbell-shaped (sic) island tapering, at the centre, to a narrow shining strand ... when Mazagaon and Worli, Matunga and Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were Islands, too — in short, before reclamation ... turned the Seven Isles into a long peninsula like an outstretched, grasping hand, reaching westwards into the Arabian Sea; in this primeval world before clocktowers, the fisherman ... sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun ... And above it all, the benign presiding goddess Mumbadevi, whose name — Mumbadevi, Mumbabai, Mumbai — may well have become the city’s. But then, the Portuguese named the place Bom Bahia for its harbour and not for the goddess of the pomfret folk ... the Portuguese were the first invaders, using the harbour to shelter their merchant ships and their men-of-war; but then, one day ... an East India Company officer ... saw a vision. This vision — a dream of British Bombay, fortified, defending India’s West against all comers — was a notion of such force that it set time in motion."

3 Curiously enough, the following passage transposes particularly well to Benjamin: "In Germany he had been dark — his darkness had marked him the Jew, der Jude. In India he was fair — and that marked him the firanghi. In both lands, the unacceptable. Perhaps even where his cats were concerned, he was that — man, not feline, not theirs." Anita Desai, Baumgartner’s Bombay. Harmondsworth: Penguin (First published 1988), 1989, 20. Hereafter (Desai).

4 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Tr. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968, 257. Hereafter (Illuminations).

5 Cf. "In the field of allegorical intuition, the image is a fragment, a rune". Walter Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama. Tr. John Osborne. London: Verso, 1977, 176. Hereafter (Origins)

6 Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. London and New York: Verso, 1973, 38. Hereafter (Baudelaire).

7 Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey. Calcutta: Rupa, 1991, 74.

8 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977, 71.

9 For a reading that sees Benjamin in an altogether more sanguine spirit about Utopia and materials like glass and iron, see Hilde Heynen, Architecture and Modernity: A Critique. Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1999, 95-118.

10 V.S. Naipaul , India: A Wounded Civilization. (First published 1977) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979, 59.

11 Pritish Nandy, "An Intelligent Critic’s Guide to Indian Cinema," The Savage Freud and other essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, 223.

12 Bertolt Brecht, Poems. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim. London: Methuen (First published 1976), 1979, 107.

13 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Tr. & Ed. Jonathan Mayne. New York: Phaidon Press, 1964, 9: "The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet oneself everywhere at home ..."

14 Walter Benjamin, "N [Re the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]", Tr. Leigh Hafrey & Richard Sieburth. In Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History. Ed. Gary Smith. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1983, rpt. 1989, 50. Hereafter (N).

15 Sujata Patel & Alice Thorner (ed), Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995, 143. Hereafter (Mosaic).

16 Arjun Dangle (ed), Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Bombay: Orient Longman, 1992, 42. Hereafter (Dangle).

17 Max Weber, Selections in Translation. Ed. W.G. Runciman. Tr. Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, 184-85: "The underprivileged and occupationally specialised Indian castes, with their exclusiveness towards outsiders, guaranteed by taboos, and the hereditary religious obligations which they have to perform as part of their way of life, are relatively closest to the Jews: in their case, too, their hopes of salvation are bound up with their pariah status as such..."

18 B.R. Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables. Bombay: Thacker and Co., Ltd., 1945, 170. Also, B.R. Ambdekar (Dangle, 225, 227): "If European nations enjoy peace and prosperity today, it is for one reason: the revolutionary French National Assembly convened in 1789 set new principles for the organization of society before the disorganized and decadent French nation of its time, and the same principles have been accepted and followed by Europe.... The road it marked out for the development of the French nation, the road that all progressed nations have followed, ought to be the road adopted for the development of Hindu society ..."

19 Foucault has an interesting comment on the failure of nationalisms to deliver on the promise of modernity in an interview from 1984: "when a colonized people attempts to liberate itself from its colonizers, this is indeed a practice of liberation in the strict sense. But we know very well, and moreover in this specific case, that this practice of liberation is not in itself sufficient to define the practices of freedom that will still be needed if this people, this society, and these individuals are to be able to define admissible and acceptable forms of existence or political society." Michel Foucault, Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 1). Ed. Paul Rabinov. Tr. Robert Hurley et al., 1997, 282-83.

20 Cf. Dileep Padgaonkar. Ed. When Bombay Burned. New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors Ltd., 1993, 1, and passim.

21 Cf. Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 58: "Caste and kinship connections provided the basis for mobilizing capital and organizing trading and banking activity. But it would be misleading to assume that entrepreneurial behaviour can be understood exclusively in terms of community."

22 Richard G. Fox, ‘Communalism and Modernity.’ In Contesting the Nation: Religion, Community and the Politics of Democracy in India. Ed. David Ludden. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, 239.