An event without loudspeakers

    An event without loudspeakers

    On August 25, 2008 there was a quiet meeting at Mirzapur in Ahmedabad. Individuals who had suffered in the blasts of 2008 and the riots of 2002 met to talk, compare notes. It was a Ripley’s

    Believe it or Not of stories but what was more unbelievable was the meeting itself. This essay is a reflection on that event, spanning one afternoon in the life of a city.

    It was one of those eventless events that few newspapers write about. There was no big politician, no big explosion, no riots, no murders, just a gathering of ordinary people moved by a basic idea. A simple meeting to connect. To talk. To listen. To nod. The victims of 2002 met the victims of 2008. There is none of the repetitiveness of 9/11, reiterating an event to a point of redundancy. It was an eventless event of lives marked by earlier ones. An encounter group, Indian-style.

    It is held in Qureishi Hall, just off the Lakhia petrol pump. Rain frames the event as people drift in, listening to a quiet drizzle of stories. A mixed crowd of blast victims, riot victims, Hindu and Muslim. People drift in and out as if it has the conviviality of a katha but there is no godman or guru egotistically holding forth or prescribing formulas. The listener is also a storyteller.

    Listening. Hearing. The ear takes over from the eye. There is no gaze, no scrutiny, no surveillance. Just the act of storytelling. An I linking to other Is. The drama is in the patience. There is none of the hysterical melodrama of media outbursts. Just that this has happened. We need to know. We have to listen. Individuals sharing without suspicion, curious, caring, eager to know. A quiet ‘passing the parcel’ of stories. A fragment, an anecdote, a fact, a suggestion. It happened to me. It happened to you. What now? Rituals of recognition inaugurating a new community. Thus is democracy reborn not with the accusing finger but the shared story.

    A clutter of housewives. A huddle of men. No branded shirts. This is the world where the local tailor survives, where collars eke a quiet life. Nylon saris and hennaed beards editorialising in comfort. I suffered therefore we are.

    Paper plates with namkeen being passed from hand to neighbourly hand. We share therefore we are. A community is born from a sense of loss, a sense of survival. I lost a family but there is no accountancy for revenge. Suffering and survival offer the new civics of hospitality. What is conversation without food? Food and memory are in circulation, one digested with the other. Namkeen, the spice of the story, and hospitality, the spice of a community. Between exchange and communication, the gift and the story, a little community is born. Democracy can survive its disappointments as long as gossip, care, curiosity and hospitality thrive.

    They are survivors. Talking of blasts. A bomb is a plasticky thing. A location. But revenge cannot match the togetherness of sharing. Only in a story can two wrongs be converted into a right. Communalism combat but combating with love.

    The victim is a poetic but secular category. There is no Hinduness or Muslimness to it. But revenge is communal.

    One realises that suffering is no mere language-game. It needs the sadness of silence, the grimace, a laugh eking out its subsistence existence as it speaks about the eye that was lost, now hidden behind goggles. As they listen, people’s security meets police raj.

    It is so quiet that both cops and stray dogs, inevitable accompaniments to such a crowd, sense it. The cops are dozing, content in the eventlessness of the event.

    A retired policeman muses that peace is disturbed not just by war but by the preparations for war. One can add that since war began in the minds of politicians it is in the minds of people that the defences of peace must be constructed.

    There is a new sense of community. Mobile phone numbers are exchanged. One misses the visiting card. A phone number is a promissory note that we must talk and talk again. A community that is the promise of more stories. Between the witness and the testimony lies the informal economy of storytelling.

    Hindu, Muslim, meet quietly outside politics and history. No impatient pressmen running out in half an hour, content with a quote, the paragraph of clichés. An event without loudspeakers, unprecedented and moving. Perhaps civil society is learning to redefine itself, solving "problems" the state is busy formulating. This meeting is not a panchayat of suffering, a jan sunvai of pain. These wonderful inventions still have an asymmetry. In them democracy seeks to provide a hearing aid for authorities. This is also not a community couch, a formalised therapy in the psychiatric vein. It is more prosaic, more everyday. It does not seek to solve problems. It merely seeks.

    The violence of Gujarat has created many small inventions, tactics to combat a majoritarian state. Professor Bandukwala’s unilateral act of forgiveness was one. He sought to move to everydayness since justice was not available. It broke memory as a burden. Teesta Setalvad’s idea of a conversation is another. It promises to be even more inventive. Truth does not need loudspeakers.

    The poetics of the conversation must not blind us to the civics of these inventions. They are of little tactics, devices that the city desperately needs. It is not just events one is talking of; one is emphasising the spaces that an individual needs to explore new forms of citizenship. Civil society has to invent continuously to sustain community against the state. They cannot be acts of conspicuous consumption that the state and development agencies love but something more sparse, playful, improvised, open to participation and modification. This ‘the dialogue on pain’ has quietly achieved.