In the time of Facebook


(Excerpt from a paper I am trying to write.)

The port is silted and inactive. The river-lined strip of industrial activity have begun looking like relics of an earlier register of industrial effervescence. The Victorian scene of the gaunt laborer - hammer-in-hand, striking at a gleaming hot piece of iron - flakes of sparkly metal flying about, repeats endlessly along Belilous Road, Balitikuri, Dasnagar. Libraries stand around in the firm embrace of brittle manuscripts and uncelebrated books, waiting for the appreciative reader to come along. A craving for the nod of the distant outsider is enacted in these delirious felicitations and public displays of nobleness – the magic touch of which will liberate this place of its nauseous confines. They live in the chasm formed by the grand take-off of capital – bystanders on a ruinous landscape, scarred by the speed and vigor of the take-off. They remember the imminent collision with the urgent force of capital that they had once experienced with the colonial interventions at building up this space as a viable node of manufacture, commerce and docking facilities. 

Today, some of its rural pockets are yielding land for the construction of industrial parks, while older industries and urban structures stand as mere ruin – unable to reorient themselves towards the new directions of progress, and structures too solid to dissolve like monetary investments.  The burden of these derelict, fatigued older structures of trade and manufacture form the defining components of this landscape and public culture it engenders. Surrounded by installations of ‘frozen time’ and an obsolete modernity, the urban publics of Howrah take the stance of framing their being in a wider scale of imagination. They embrace city-stances, deriding the chaos and moral ambiguity at the root of the urban condition, imagining all the while, the scalar dimensions of life on a metropolis. 

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Mala, the seventeen-year-old niece of Narayan Ghosal, asked me at night if I had a boyfriend, also if I had a Facebook account. She likes to roam around the village on her own she said. Hence, the mela days were good for her. She had a ready excuse to be able to get out of the house and go for a stroll. She said she didn’t like to go anywhere with family, because family people mostly like to sit in one place. She wasn’t into theater unlike her father and cousins. She was training in recitation – abritti – and maybe someday, she would get into theater. Why do people want to have Facebook accounts? I ask. To put up their photos, and other people’s photos, she says. She doesn’t have one, her family wouldn’t like it, and she doesn’t want one either. Girls here mostly have boyfriends, and if their families don’t agree, they run away. Run away and do what? I ask. They come back a few days later, of course. Their parents are definitely not going to throw them out of the house. Don’t the parents call their cellphones when they run away? I ask. You’re too na├»ve, she says. Of course, they throw the SIM card away. Do the girls go back to school? They do, but only for a week or so. Then they stay at home and usually have a baby soon after. Many registers of Western feminism, urbane gender relations are routed through the internet, movies and other media to configure Mala’s dreamworlds. She takes me to be a legitimate representative of these transmitted worlds, and affirms their current moods through my responses. She roams the spatial confines of the village and frequents the mela, to configure mobility and non-familial modes of being in the otherwise tightly marked routes of the village. In her flaneurial walking routines, she makes unfamiliar out of the familiar. The unfamiliar is the key to exoneration from the finitude of the village. Her penchant for walking around the village creates scalar disturbances within the seemingly stable place – the Maju village. Maju grows into a bounded village that constantly redraws and reinterprets itself, in light of messages mediated by Facebook and anthropologist-friends.

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