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Raqs Media Collective: Seepage

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Raqs is a word in Persian, Arabic and Urdu meaning the trance state that whirling dervishes enter into when they whirl. You could also consider Raqs an acronym, for ''rarely asked questions.'' Either way, this book gathers texts authored by the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective (Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), a group that could be described as artists, curators, editors, and catalysts of cultural processes. Co-curators of the 2008 manifesta 7 biennale, they co-founded Sarai (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) and co-edit the Sarai Reader Series. Their internationally recognized work locates them at the intersection of contemporary art, research and theory -- often taking the form of installations, online and offline media objects, performances and encounters.
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2010
Language:
english
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176 / 177
ISBN 10:
1933128860
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Charmed, Zauberhafte Schwestern, Bd. 6: Der Geist mit der Maske

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RAOS
MEDIA
COLLECTIVE
SEEPAGE



Contents

Pacific Parables

6

Preface to a Ghost Story

16

Stammer, Mumble, Sweat, Scrawl, and Tic

30

Ashwatthama

40

Digressions from the Memory of a Minor Encounter

46

Yaksha Prashna/The Yaksha’s Questions

56

I Did Not Hear

66

Dreams and Disguises, as Usual

72

They Called It the XXth Century

88

X Notes on Practice: Stubborn Structures and Insistent Seepage in a Networked World

100

The Surface of Each Day: Questions for Cosmonauts

118

You Like Looking at Maps?

134

Value and Its Other in Electronic Culture

142

Erosion by Whispers

150

New Maps and Old Territorie

156

Cubic Conundrum

166

To an adventure called Sarai

juggernaut imperial zombie overbearing tense
tangible totalizing battlefield yes-man dissector
nadir algorithmist Kalashnikov catatonic carapace veteran Armageddon freezer director biometrician shrill cost cell accountant vault drill
evasive attester gripping abhorrent captor copyright inescapable alphanumeric secular endemic
binary system fractal gamut admonisher vain
stony abscess incorporeal decree anthrax sacrificer sepulchral summoner immune gun fetish
fall-out combat Technicolor disposer speedy disclaimer eliminator barren uncontrolled gallows
ablaze gunboat cable shunter severe industrialist
undead disillusioner electric expensive unbeholden narcotic census abjurer shield glutton
grandee dignitary inert impassive smooth conspirator calculus wreck immaterial abyss uranium
executor impenitent terrorist sensor trader eruption sculptor fascist sanctuary futurist entropic
central pillager splicer turbid unaccountable examiner sickness club venomous scatophagous
drudge viral electronic disinfectant junta hawk
secretive engorging enlightened excitor capital
energetic zamindar cleaver excessive betrayer
astringent bloc theorist concentrator canker
spinner impermeable snatcher fighter scanner
bazooka encircling corporal aggrandizer sedative excrescent beyond sclerotic thoroughbred

Pacific Parables
The Pacific Rim as a Fiction of P; lace


The Pacific Rim is a fiction about place, a filter

laborers were joined by software programmers.

through which you can look at the world if you

And roads from Napa Valley began to lead in and

choose to and confer more or less arbitrary mean-

out of Silicon Valley.

ings on to a set of latitudes and longitudes. There

Ringed by fire, held together by fragile surfaces

have been previous fictions about place straddling

that slide onto each other, girded through with

this water: One was called the Greater East Asia

pipelines, and beset by storms. You could say that

Co-Prosperity Sphere, which unleashed havoc in

the Pacific Ocean, apparently endless and bot-

the name of solidarity of the oppressed peoples

tomless, sounds almost like the Internet, which is

of Asia. Another conceived of the Pacific as a Cali-

not altogether inappropriate considering that

fornian frontier, a kind of Wild Blue West. A third

the Pacific Rim—between California, East Asia,

spoke French, drew naked women in Tahiti, and

and Australasia—probably contains within it

dropped hydrogen bombs in the water. A fourth, the

the highest density of Internet traffic.

South Pacific Bubble, was one of the first episodes

The first question we want to ask is: how can

of global financial speculation that shaped the

this fiction of location, this imaginary map, the

turbulence of our modern era’s economy.

one that we are all currently engaged in drawing,

Meanwhile, Sikh peasants from the Punjab,

not reproduce the boundaries that beset all

Chinese railroad workers from Canton, agricultural

mapmaking exercises? How can we as mapmakers

workers and sugarcane cultivators from the

avoid the predicament of an expression of mastery

hinterland of North India traversed the ocean.

over the landscape we intend to survey?

Mexicans swam or walked along the coastline,
Australian sailors, New Zealanders on whaling

Dead and Living Reckoning

ships, Japanese factory workers, Filipina nurses

We forget that cartography is as variable a

and itinerant Pacific Islander communities tra-

practice as any. There are maps and then there are

versed the Pacific, and the wider world, buffeted

maps, and there are different kinds of mapmaking.

by the rough winds of recent history. They grew

Modern maritime navigational charts, based on

fruit trees in Napa valley, felled timber in British

latitude and longitude, determine a principle

Columbia, mined tin in Peru, pressed grapes in

of navigation known as “dead reckoning”. Dead

Chile, and made what some choose to call the

reckoning, in our limited understanding, is the

Pacific Rim what it is today. In time, agricultural

method by which the position of a moving body


is deduced in advance by taking fixes from previ-

two knowledge systems, two practices and ethoi

ously known positions and then reading them

of information. The difference between them

against calculations with variables such as speed,

ultimately lay in the amount of gunpowder they

direction, wind speed, tide patterns, and currents.

had backing them. One had plenty; the other had

Prior to GPS, most navigators had to rely on dead

none. The ships that used “dead reckoning” carried

reckoning, with a little help from a compass, an

cannons and muskets; the live reckoners in canoes

astrolabe, star charts, chronometers, and longitude

were armed with arrows and spears. The knowl-

tables. Dead reckoning models itself on the

edge system with guns won the day. Pacific Island

dynamics of the relationship between a moving

navigation systems remain as relics, occasionally

object and a notionally inert surface.

resuscitated by an anthropologist or a sailing en-

We say most, but should qualify it immediately,
because for most of human history, the largest

thusiast.
Today, we who are practitioners of information,

body of water in the world was navigated using

artisans of knowledge, often forget that our

a different system of reckoning. The Pacific Island

practices are also guaranteed by sophisticated

cultures, which were probably the most prolific

weaponry, and not only of the lethal kind. Mo-

seafarers known to humanity, actually used the

dernity’s edge is ultimately a matter of ammunition.

opposite navigational principle. Reckoning was

What safeguards should we institute to ensure

based on the metaphorical assumption that the

that our encounters with the few remaining knowl-

still navigator interfaced with a world that coursed

edge, information, and communication systems

towards or away from him or her. Thus, it is not

that are different from our own do not result in

the sailor who approaches an island, but the island

their extinction? How can the business of reck-

that advances towards, and then past the sailor.

oning continue to remain alive?

Meanwhile, the stars remain constant, thus marking general orientation. The course is set by the

Cargo Cults

stars and the world; a living, dynamic entity flows

We head now in the direction of the island of

past under the navigator’s gaze. For terminological

the long wait. We refer here to a quintessentially

convenience alone, one could call this method

modern practice of faith, the cargo cults that

“live reckoning”. The relationship between dead

arose in the Pacific Islands, as a poignant marker

and live reckoning is a study of the encounter of

of the power that technology (even if it does not


work) can wield over the human spirit. In a typical

lots in many parts of Europe, North America, and

cargo cult, contact with the accoutrements of

Asia.

modern industrial civilization during wartime (in

Why do we wait for things to come to us? What

the form of airdrops of food and other essential

guarantee is there that if we create replicas of

items from large transport or cargo planes for

the structures that house cultural expressions in

soldiers stationed on the islands) allegedly con-

other spaces, then we will automatically create

vinced the islanders that all that they needed

the conditions of a new culture? Why be in such a

for utopia to arrive was the ability to attract the

hurry to acquire the latest technology, and why

right kind of airplane to land and disgorge its

wait so long for the perfect machine, the perfect

cornucopia of wealth (tinned food, white goods,

piece of code, the killer application? What is it

durables, clothes, etc.) on the island. It had been

about our situation that makes us so afraid of

observed that airplanes tended to land on airstrips

being left behind? Why do we fear obsolescence?

that were complete with runways, observation
towers, a few standing airplanes, and radars. So,

Easter Island

replicant infrastructure and replica airplanes

What more remarkable reminders of obsoles-

were built with locally available materials in the

cence can there be than the stone giants of Easter

hope that such engineering efforts would attract

Island. They too stand, as if waiting, scanning the

the bountiful flying machines from the sky. Need-

horizon of the Pacific for a perpetually deferred

less to say, the planes never landed. The islanders

future. We know almost nothing about the people

waited, and perhaps are still waiting.

and the culture that created them, nor do we

Cargo cults are a useful metaphor for thinking

know what they were trying to communicate to the

about many diverse phenomena in contemporary

big ocean by placing these standing figures.

culture, ranging from shopping malls spreading

What we do have a sense of, however, is the fact

across space to imitative work routines. When

that this activity of intensive stone quarrying

the success of shopping malls in a region spawns

devastated the ecology and social structures of

mall clones in adjoining areas that wait for cus-

the island, and that ultimately, the culture could

tomers who never arrive, we can see a cargo cult-

not bear the burden of its own communicative

like phenomenon at work. Gigantic hulks of retail,

practices. Perhaps a useful object lesson.

arrayed for miles, stand girded by empty parking

Sometimes it becomes useful to audit the social

10
and ecological footprints of our communicative

sunrise and sunset are locked into some kind of

practices.

recursive embrace. And so you have sunrise media

The making of computer hardware and soft-

that almost immediately becomes sunset media.

ware also involves toxic materials, depressed

Where the pressure of getting a headstart into your

wages, and prison labor. And a great deal of this

tomorrow or the fear of being left behind in your

occurs on either side of the Pacific seaboard, in

yesterday leaves no room for today. What remains

East Asia and in California. How can we reconcile

of the day is an insomniac anxiety about being

the utopian promises that are made on behalf

adrift, lost in the ocean. How can we best jettison

of information and communication technologies

the burden of being new, so that we can stop

with the dystopic realities of their production in

worrying about becoming dated?

our societies?
El Niño
The Imaginary Island on the Dateline
The utopian impulse is castigated elsewhere,

Sailing in the Pacific is a hazardous job.
Depending on the direction in which you are going

but remains uncritically celebrated when it

you could run across strong contrary winds. A

comes to communication technologies. Sober, even

combination of atmospheric phenomena and

conservative men in suits turn instantly into

pressure conditions creates weather systems

radicals when it comes to a new gadget. It is as if

that may be specific to, or originate in the Pacific,

that which is questionable in politics becomes

but have global consequences. One such com-

automatically acceptable when translated into

bination is El Niño, which together with its com-

culture. Every product, every device, every new

panion La Niña, arises in the waters off the coast

piece of code or procedure announces itself as a

of Peru and creates weather conditions that lead

revolution. As artists working with these devices

to the depletion of fish stocks in some waters,

we are often the most effective bearers of this

and overabundance in others, as well as hurricanes

revolutionary zeal. This takes us to our fifth

in some places, and droughts in others. It was

Pacific destination: to an imaginary island that

noticed sometime in the late nineteenth century

straddles the dateline, encompassing within

that drought and famine struck India and Australia

its circumference the diurnal revolution such that

with remarkable concordance, and it was deduced

11
that this had something to do with the way in
which the phenomenon known as the El Niño

Nauru: Birdshit and Gold
The consequences of the generation of dis-

Southern Oscillation affects the weather system

proportionate assets through operations on in-

of the Indian Ocean and its littoral region.

formation, knowledge and culture, require special

This is well known. What is less well known,

and extended treatment, and this is probably

however, is the matter of a speculative economy,

not the best occasion to do so. But there is a Pacific

particularly in the fixing of global food and pri-

Parable that can be drawn from the dots in the

mary commodity prices that capitalizes on the

ocean that are composed of skeletons and shit.

eccentric, but not irregular periodicity of the El

We refer to islands like Nauru in the Pacific (where

Niño and La Niña systems. Here you have a real

one of us actually visited over a period of a few

time based-weather report, statistical observation

years as a teenager) whose entire economy once

of meteorological systems going back at least a

consisted of phosphate mining operations that

century, commodity price fluctuation indices, and

processed fossil birdshit into gold. Nauru is a

a globally integrated market working together

parable for the toxicity that accompanies a gold

to reap enormous profits from the tamed uncer-

rush. The wealth that was produced within the

tainties of the weather. The futures market in

span of few generations—the first ship with guano

primary commodities, in food and other natural

left in 1907—was consumed within a generation,

products, works on this basis. Based on specu-

leading to a population that is currently unwell,

lation, it creates enormous wealth for some and

intoxicated, and poor. Growing up in Nauru was

misery for billions of others. Here, data and di-

not the most exhilarating experience; the teenage

saster often go hand in hand. How can those of us

utopia of a Pacific Paradise never matched up to

who work with information in a creative manner

the reality of dependence and decay. Today, Nauru

begin to get a handle on the enormously significant

has become reduced to a place where the Aus-

ethical questions that arise from working with

tralian state outsources the detention of people

information in today’s world, especially in the re-

it considers to be potential illegal immigrants.

gion that we describe as the Pacific Rim?

When the accumulated deposits of millennia
are mined within a generation, people are left
with little or no resources for the future. If the

12
ruthless commodification of nature always pro-

Sections 1411-1419). The Guano Islands Act,

duces a toxic culture, what would the relentless

which became law in August 1856 (exactly 150

mining of a commons of culture produce? An

years ago), enabled any and all U.S. citizens to

unquestioning faith in the mechanisms of intel-

take possession (for the United States of America)

lectual property takes for granted that the accu-

of any island, rock or key, containing Guano de-

mulated creative, imaginative, and mental labor

posits, anywhere in the world, provided they were

of our ancestors, which informs all our thoughts

not occupied or within the jurisdiction of any

and creativity today, is a resource available for

other government.

plunder. This engenders an acquisitive, propri-

The intellectual property regime legislated by

etary attitude towards cultural production that

the TRIPS agreement allows citizens of several

inhibits growth, learning, and future creativity.

states to patent, trademark, copyright or otherwise

The epics, stories, songs, and sagas that rep-

assert their intellectual property claims on several

resent in some ways the collective heritage of

forms of life, aspects of knowledge systems,

humanity have survived only because their custo-

cultural material, and practices (wherever previous

dians took care not to lock them into a system of

private intellectual property claims are absent).

“end usage,” but instead embellished them, which

This renders much of human culture akin to is-

added to their health and vitality, before passing

lands of Guano, primed for possession and

them on to others.

mining. They create enclosures where none ex-

The parallels that we are drawing between
guano and intellectual property rest on a variety

isted before.
When codes or languages close in on them-

of resonances. It could be argued that some of

selves, allowing no “interpolations” or trespasses

the unilateral features of TRIPS agreements that

after a point, they rapidly haemorrhage. How can

definitively shaped the destiny of Intellectual

we in our generation, immersed as we are in the

Property (IP) legislation across the world had a

language of property, ensure that there is space

historical precedent, or at least shares a reso-

left for the cultivation of the commons? We ask

nance with the piece of US Federal Law known as

this also because even initiatives like free and

the Guano Islands Act (currently embodied in

open source software, and the creative commons

federal statutes as U.S. Code, Title 48, Chapter 8,

initiative, ultimately take recourse to the language

13
of ownership and property—albeit an annotated

prison of artificial or illusory “originality,” its true

notion of ownership—to make their case. Is there

cutting edge. It does so not out of any radical intent

a language for culture, especially for the repro-

to subvert the laws of property and the commod-

duction of culture, that can elide the question of

ity, but because it makes eminent common sense

property?

for people to share information in any community
through networks of informal sociality, especially

The Kula Ring

if the act of sharing brings with it no depreciation

Unlike commodities, gifts can accrue value to

in the value of that which is shared. Rather, the

themselves as they pass from one person to

person who shares more accumulates prestige to

another in a network of gift exchange. The ethnog-

herself; and by now we are all accustomed to

raphy of the gift exchange in the Trobriand Islands,

extraordinary feats of electronic generosity (which

made famous by the Anthropologist Bronislaw

sometimes carry with them an aura of “bravado”)

Malinowski as the Kula Ring in his remarkable

as a means of earning reputations within tight-

book Argonauts of the Western Pacific, is an in-

ly-knit online communities. The new pirates are

stance of this phenomenon; as is, in a less exotic

just as desirous of chronicles of their adventurous

sense, the ways in which heirlooms add value to

heroism as their ancestors! The Pacific has dis-

themselves as they pass down generations. In a

tinguished histories of gift giving, complex circu-

digital environment it is not necessarily the

lation and custodianship principles for cultural

patina of age or prestige that will lend value to a

material, pirate economies, and mutinous sailors.

digital object as it passes between persons;

How can this history of an adventurous, redis-

rather, it is the possibility that it will be improved,

tributive generosity inform our practices with in-

refined, and have things added to it through

formation and culture today? What can Pacific

usage (without doing any damage to an always

traditions of abundant reproduction and replication

available earlier iteration of the object itself,

teach the contemporary global moment? How

which can be recovered through the layers that

may we rediscover a robust ethic of transaction

gather to a work in a palimpsest).

that does not lock culture into the dungeon of

It is this fact that gives to electronic piracy,
and to any act that frees information from the

“end user agreements” that inhibit circulation?

14
Depth, Shipwrecks, and Dark Fibre

render the deep and the dark in our work with light?

It is well known that the Pacific holds within
itself the world’s deepest spots. Many fathoms

Lemuria: Lost Continent

below the surface of the sea is the Mariana Trench,

We come now to our final destination. This

the world’s deepest place. Deep spots such as

time, we are riding in a submarine. After all, we

these are places where residues and remains ac-

were plumbing the depths of the Mariana Trench

cumulate. The depths of cyberspace, and what

a moment ago, so it makes sense to keep going

is beginning to be called “information society,” like

under water, crawling along the sea floor in search

the depths of the ocean, are places where all

of a lost, submerged continent. At the fag end of

sorts of residual pieces of information accumulate.

the age of geographical discovery in the late

Here, amongst forgotten and shipwrecked media,

nineteenth century, the public imagination in many

one encounters strange, mutant electrical life

parts of the world, in its thirst for new worlds,

forms, beings made of what Geert Lovink has called

hits upon the idea of lost and submerged conti-

“Dark Fibre”.

nents. Mariners’ tales, philosophical speculations,

So much of the discourse about information

and utopian strains of thought were dredged from

technology and communication is about light,

all across history to yield lost continents like

about transparency and knowledge, that we forget

Atlantis, and its variant in our neighborhood, Le-

that information is crucial for the manufacturing

muria. Lemuria first came into view as an at-

of disinformation. We are thinking right now of the

tempt to explain a zoological puzzle: the pattern

enormous amount of energy that is being put into

of distribution of the lemur family of primates,

the media, electronic, online and print, all over the

which hugged the shorelines of islands and con-

world, as a means to justify the naked aggression

tinental landmasses of the Asia-Pacific region,

that the State of Israel is inflicting on the people

from Indonesia to Africa. Lemuria was invoked in

of Lebanon. How can we begin to talk about the

explanations of everything from the missing

dark matter of information, or disinformation, and

link in the chain of human evolution, to the origin

the political management of information, with

of diverse language families, the origin of the

at least as much attention and energy as we do

human species, and the routes taken during the

about information enlightenment? How can we

first human migrations.

15
What interests us here is not the project of
recovering a fascinating, imaginary history so
much as a speculation about the distribution of a
life form yielding an image of a space and a continent. This can lead to a prospective, as opposed
to retrospective insight. Like lemurs, many of us
who occupy spaces within the media arts, hug
the shorelines of landmasses of cultures, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. We recognize
that something, a family likeness perhaps, an eccentric sense of the kinship of our practices, the
broad features of common questions and concerns, hint at some kind of extended lineage that
we can draw from. These would include the histories of communication that we have inherited
and the questions that our social, cultural, and
political milieus confront us with. If we are to
create cultural futures for ourselves, we will have
to place and ground our practices on the terrain
of a recovered continent. How can we begin mapping this continent that awaits our recovery of its
submerged landscape? What do we need to do
now to explore the shorelines of all our practices?

References
Teaiwa, Teresa. K., “On Analogies: Rethinking the Pacific in a
Global Context,” Contemporary Pacific, vol. 18, no. 1, (Spring,
2006): 71-87.
Turnbull, David. Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers: Comparative Studies in the Sociology of Scientific and Indigenous
Knowledge. London: Routledge, 2000.
Howe, K.R. The Quest for Origins. Auckland: Penguin Books, 2003.
Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the
Making of the Third World. London: Verso, 2001.
Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
New York: Viking, 2004.
Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of
Culture. New York: Random House, 1974.
FitzGerald, John. Contemporary Cargo Cults. http://www.actualanalysis.com/cargo.html
“Nauru: Paradise well and truly lost,” The Economist, (December
20, 2001), http://www.economist.com/displaystorycfm?story_
id=884045
“Guano Islands Act,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Guano_Islands_Act
Malinowski, Bronislaw, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Reprint,
Illinois: Waveland Press, 1984.
Raqs Media Collective. Value and its Other in Electronic Culture
– Slave Ships and Private Galleons, DIVE, ed. Armin Medosch,
FACT Liverpool, 2003, http://www.raqsmediacollective.net/
texts6.html
Lovink, Geert. Dark Fiber. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Ramaswamy, Sumathi. Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic
Histories: The Lost Land of Lemuria. New Delhi: Permanent
Black, 2005.

Preface to a Ghost Story

18

19

On leaving the nearest suitable abandoned
building, somewhere mid-leap, the unknown
citizen hovers briefly, considering detours
and the sour taste of regret.

20

21

Downstairs, there is a car waiting.
An old car with a new car smell,
like an evergreen matinée idol.
A quick getaway is possible,
theoretically.

22

23

The moment that might have been is over.
None but a nearby company of superheroes
has seen the descent or gauged its impact.

24

25

A gathering of shadows assesses the
situation on the ground.
Bodies are fragile, easily broken.
A scrap of paper, an explanation,
sustains impact better.

26

27

Elsewhere, the unknown citizen’s personal
effects, a make-do archive, await discovery.
In the bag there are five photographs and the
preface to a ghost story.

28

tremendous florid expedient file juggernaut
imperial zombie overbearing tense tangible totalizing battlefield yes-man dissector nadir algorithmist Kalashnikov catatonic carapace veteran
Armageddon freezer director biometrician shrill
cost cell accountant vault drill evasive attester
gripping abhorrent captor copyright inescapable
alphanumeric secular endemic binary system
fractal gamut admonisher vain stony abscess in29
corporeal decree anthrax sacrificer sepulchral
summoner immune gun fetish fall-out combat
Technicolor disposer speedy disclaimer eliminator
barren uncontrolled gallows ablaze gunboat
cable shunter severe industrialist undead disillusioner electric expensive unbeholden narcotic
census abjurer shield glutton grandee dignitary
inert impassive smooth conspirator calculus
wreck immaterial abyss uranium executor impenitent terrorist sensor trader eruption sculptor
fascist sanctuary futurist entropic central pillager splicer turbid unaccountable examiner
sickness club venomous scatophagous drudge
viral electronic disinfectant junta hawk secretive
engorging enlightened excitor capital energetic
zamindar cleaver excessive betrayer astringent
bloc theorist concentrator canker spinner impermeable snatcher fighter scanner bazooka encircling corporal aggrandizer sedative excrescent

Stammer, Mumble, Sweat, Scrawl, and Tic

31
To be legible is to be readable. To be legible is
to be an entry in a ledger—one with a name, place,

1. Stammer
Two performers, Mahmood Farooqui and

origin, time, entry, exit, purpose, and perhaps a

Danish Husain, tell stories in Delhi as part of an

number. To be legible is to be coded and contained.

attempt to revive a traditional narrative form

Often, when asked an uncomfortable question,

called Dastangoi (story-speech).1

or faced with an unsettling reality, the rattled re-

Among the stories they tell are accounts of

spondent ducks and dives with a stammer, a

people, incidents, places, and facts frozen as notes

mumble, a sweat, a scrawl, or a nervous tic. The

and jottings in the archives related to the Indian

respondent may not be lying, but neither may

Subcontinent’s partition in 1947. In telling these

he be interested in offering a captive legible truth

stories, they attempt to work through what it

either to the interrogator or in response to his

means to be poised on the hyphen between the

own circumstances.

terms “Indian” and “Muslim,” in whichever order

An insistence on legibility produces its own

the two are read, when they are read together.

shadow: the illegible. Between the bare-faced lie

Sometimes this exercise takes the form of a med-

and the naked truth lies the zone of illegibility—the

itation on the conflict between life and the ledger.

only domain where the act of interpretation retains
a certain ontological and epistemic significance.
We read each other for signs, not because we

The partition of India was meant to give rise
to a new “homeland”—Pakistan—for “MuslimIndians,” who, of course, would cease to be so the

are opaque, or necessarily wish for opacity, but

moment they moved to Pakistan. The new Indian

because our desires, fears, and experiences still

state, however, maintained that India was the only

require the life-giving breath of translation. The

proper homeland for “Indian-Muslims,” who

transparency that brooks no translation also re-

were Indians as much as they were Muslim. Some

quires no engagement.

strange things were bound to happen during

The tree of life, and therefore of art, would be

this tug of war over how the “Indian-Muslim” or

barren were it not for the fruit of occasional mis-

the “Muslim-Indian” could be made legible as

understandings.

present or future subjects of the two states.

1

http://dastangoi.blogspot.com/

32
A person who had been a “Muslim-Indian”

unstuck between the powers who claimed the

before partition ceased to be an “Indian-Muslim”

terms at either end of the hyphen that joined

the moment he became a Pakistani. And if he

them. Their lives, and the claims that their lives

became a Pakistani, then he could no longer easily

made on history, were no longer seen as valid.

revert to being an Indian. To the Indian state,

The legibility of the law that classified people as

Pakistan was an enemy, and all Pakistanis, who

either “Indian” or “Pakistani” now produced its

had once been Indians, were actual or potential

own illegible shadow— that of the movements

antagonists.

of people who did not quite fit into either cat-

On the other hand, after a certain date, the

egory, and who, by their actions and by the articu-

state of Pakistan, the homeland of those who

lation of their desires, refused to “fit” into either

hitherto had been “Muslim-Indians,” was no longer

India or Pakistan, but stayed on as the stubbornly

willing to accept any more “Indian-Muslim”

illegible marginalia of the unfolding of two grand

emigrants from India. They were beginning to be

narratives of new nationhood.

seen as a burden, as outsiders, and at worst as

Farooqui and Husain’s performance, which

potential fifth columnists from India in the new

takes off from the investigations of historians

Pakistan.

like Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, comes to

This meant that those “Indian-Muslims” who

a head with the story of someone we like to

had crossed over to Pakistan but subsequently

think of as the “uncontainable man.” Here is his

wanted to return to India could not do so. Likewise,

story:2

those “Muslim-Indians” who had stayed in India,

There was once an uncontainable man. Let

but subsequently wanted to cross over to Pakistan,

us call him Ghulam Ali. That is how he is named in

could not do so either. India would not let the first

the files and the correspondence that surround

kind return, and Pakistan would not let the second

his strange but unremarkable story.

kind enter. Both of these desires became obstacles

In the aftermath of the Partition of India, in 1947,

for those who governed the two new states. The

this man, like thousands of others, could not

“Indian-Muslim” and the “Muslim-Indian” came

offer a clear, concise reading of his self. He had not

2	See Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

33
yet learned to be legible to himself as a citizen of

acts of travel that it sought to contain. Legibility,

either nation. Neither India nor Pakistan could

when it eats its own tail, digests itself into illeg-

hold him in place.

ibility.

This uncontainable man wanted to stay on in
India, but went to look for a missing relative in

2. Mumble

Pakistan. His decisions were sound; his timing was

In Ritwik Ghatak’s Jukti, Takko aar Gappo

awry. Straying to search for someone, and then

(Arguments, Reasons, Stories), a Bengali film set

staying to search for someone—falling sick, tar-

against the backdrop of the first wave of Maoist

rying, confusion—all this meant that in a few

rebellion in India in the late sixties and early seven-

months’ time he became a Pakistani. People were

ties of the twentieth century, an old man, Nilkantha

still figuring out how to spell Pakistan, and how

Bagchi, played by Ghatak himself, falls in with a

to tell it apart from India. Ghulam Ali read himself

group of “underground” Maoist insurgents in the

with a stammer. The book that became his passport

course of his eccentric picaresque adventures.

had already told a new story.
Caught between petitions, jottings, and files,

His conversations with one of his indulgent
hosts, a young man called Nachiketa, which cover

Ghulam Ali tried to read himself—sometimes

a large historical remit, inevitably end in Nilkantha’s

as an Indian, at other times as a Pakistani. But all

admission, “I am confused, young man, I do not

he could say with confidence was that he had

understand anymore.” He travels with the band of

learned to play the Kettle Drum in the British In-

rebels, and yet, it is they who are all conformists

dian Army Band. Kettle Drumming is not a legible

in comparison to his awkwardly exhibitionist dis-

nationality. You cant just rat-a-tat-a-tat your way

play of ambiguity. Caught in the “cross fire” be-

through two new warring nations as if it were a

tween the certainties of the state and the insur-

parade. Not if you are an ordinary decommissioned

gents, Nilkantha’s dialogue with Nachiketa (a

soldier with nothing to your name but a quest

name that packs in a throwback to Nachiketa, the

for a missing relative. Your petitions may travel,

death defying practitioner of the “via negativa” —

but you stay where you are written into history.

neti, neti, neti/not this, not that, not the other— of

Over time, even the inscription in the file, overwrit-

the Katha Upanishad), is a celebrant of the

ten many times over, becomes as illegible as the

mumbled doubt.

34
Nilkantha’s insistence on inhabiting his con-

at the acceptance of incomprehensibility.

fusion has other ramifications as well. In addition

Nilkantha “keeps going” until he is finally un-

to its awkward evasion of articulated definitive-

done by the assurance of gunfire in one of Indian

ness, it also outlines a position based on a refusal

cinema’s first depictions of the now commonplace

to be an informant. The owning up to not being

“encounter,” a form of contact between the state

able to “understand” is as much an assertion of a

and its more recalcitrant subjects, which takes

stance of deliberate reticence as it is a tacit

place through the medium of a well-placed bullet

admission of ignorance. Often, in the course of

lodged in an insurgent head. A doubting body is an

cultural transactions, a demand is placed on

uncomfortable sprawl of questions. A dead body

the artist, curator, and critic to be a model “inter-

is a legible statistic in a police ledger. The trans-

preter”. This demand is usually underwritten by

formation of the doubting body into the dead body

the assumption that the place, biography, history,

is another kind of translation. It happens far too

predicament, relationship or situation that the

often, and though forensics is one way of looking

“interpreter” is being asked to translate are avail-

at the dead body, especially in search of well-writ

able to him as a set of transparent templates.

answers, it has not as yet yielded its own herme-

Nilkantha, by holding on to his confusion, questions

neutic science, or the kind of interpretation that

the imperative of transparency.

stays on the ball with the questions that continue

Nilkantha’s prevarication offers neither redemption nor rejection. Rather, it holds out hesitant

to haunt the record, much like the confused ghost
of a confused man.

incomprehensibility as a reason to keep going.
The name Nilkantha—one of the names of Siva,

3. Sweat

the Hindu god who revives the universe through

A judge in the western Indian city of Pune

his dance of destruction—refers to Siva’s blue

recently convicted a woman for murder based on

throat (nil: blue, kantha: throat) that he acquired

the results of a Brain Electrical Oscillations

after swallowing the poison thrown up by the

Signature (BEOS) test.3 This technique, developed

great ocean as it churned in search of the nectar

by a Bangalore-based neuroscientist, claims to

of immortality between gods and demons. The

act as an efficient instrument for determining

“swallowing of poison” could be one way of looking

culpability in crime through brain mapping.4

35
The accused, who is said to have poisoned her

“experiences.” According to this theory, should the

fiancé with arsenic at a local McDonald’s, was sub-

area of the brain devoted to the storage of “ex-

jected to an electroencephalogram. Thirty-two

periential” data light up in response to stimuli

electrodes were placed on her skull while she sat

pertaining to the scene or particulars of a crime,

in silence and listened to a series of statements

the suspect is taken to be someone who has ac-

read out mainly in the first person, some of which

tually participated in the unfolding of the events

were neutral, such as “the sky is blue” while oth-

in question. The brain is taken to preserve within it

ers made assertions which could be connected to

a legible impression of the crime, much as a roll

the crime, such as “I bought arsenic” or “I went to

of film contains an emulsion on which a scene may

McDonald’s.”

be imprinted through the action of light.

Unlike other neural investigation and prog-

The question is: is a dream, an act of the

nostic techniques used in forensic psychology,

imagination, a response to a murder in a film, an

BEOS does not rely on an evaluation of skin

“experience” or a “concept?” If the life of the

texture (as in a lie detector) or brain images (as

imagination is rendered indistinct from the life of

in Narco Analysis) associated with the making

actions then all of us are criminals, or have been,

of “true” or “false” statements by the suspect in

at least at one point or another. We have all expe-

response to a set of questions, often fielded

rienced the fear and rush of violence in dreams,

while the accused is made suggestible through

in recollections, or through recounting.

strong pharmacological intervention. BEOS

What if we did not commit a murder, but ob-

does not rely on the accused having recourse to

sessed about it instead? What if we went over,

speech, but on what is supposed to be revealed

again and again, the real or imagined details of a

by the colors of her silence. It “maps” what happens

conspiracy in our minds? Would we then be

in the accused person’s brain while she “listens”

conspirators or witnesses, or both—in turns, and

rather than when she speaks. This silent cartog-

all together?

raphy of the brain divides the cerebral cortex
into areas corresponding to “concepts” and
3
4

Would it then make sense to say that if you
are not an eligible victim, then you must be a

Anand Giridharadas, “India’s use of brain scans in courts dismays critics,” International Herald Tribune, September 15, 2008.
Lawrence Liang, “… And Nothing but the Truth, So Help Me Science,” Sarai Reader 07: Frontiers (2007): 100-110.

36
legible perpetrator? What would make better

discussions about different kinds of entitlement.

sense to be?

Habits and habitation yield to each other, and the
thin fabric of legal legibility often buckles under
the overlay of ink on ink on ink on paper.

4. Scrawl
In looking at traditional land deeds and doc-

Jane Caplan, historian of information processes

uments that encode customary titles, one is

and identification techniques, takes a close in-

struck by the scrawls that thicken the task of

terest in the evolution of the signature. To her, the

reading. The research of Solomon Benjamin, a

signature is an “equivocal artifact deeply mired

scholar of urbanism based in Bangalore, involves

within the terrain of legibility/illegibility.”6 Citing

looking at the changing ways of registering legal

historians who claimed that an illegible hand

and customary claims to land.

was seen as a mark of gentility in the 16th century,

5

Benjamin’s work takes the form of a series of

Caplan points out that “legibility” and the pen-

digressions into the meanings of signatures and

manship that produced it were closely tied to what

countersignatures. To him, the story of a land deed

was once seen as the “vulgar” commercial activity

or other such documents, is told by the marks and

of accountancy. This view reversed itself in nine-

annotations that overlay each other on paper to

teenth-century Britain and its empire, when good

form a palimpsest of claims—here reinforcing,

handwriting came to be associated with gentility.

there overruling exclusive rights—erecting, dis-

The signature, however, remains an exception

mantling, and shifting the boundaries between

to the cult of legibility. Even now, legal opinion

enclosures. Claims touch claims, infect claims,

customarily holds that a “normal” signature is

mate, proliferate. Relationships to land become

an “illegible” signature, i.e., that illegibility is a

both more and less than being simply about

defining feature of the signature, “which is not a

“property.” The rights of ownership are read against

piece of writing intended to convey a meaning,

the claims of custody. Usage, usufruct, usury,

but a graphic, symbol, or device.”7

uxoriality, estates, and estovers all shade off into
5
6
7

Illegibility, in other words, is the hallmark of

Solomon Benjamin, “Occupancy Urbanism: Ten Theses,” Frontier, Sarai Reader 07, 2007.
Sensor-Census-Censor, Investigating Circuits of Information, Registering Changes of State, Delhi: Sarai-CSDS, 2007.
ibid.

37
individuality. Children learning to write their name

claims and claimants are erased in neat satellite

legibly soon realize that growing up involves the

imaged cadastral records, information—not habi-

transformation of a readable name into an illegible

tation—becomes the key to property. A right to

scrawl. The consistency of this illegible scrawl

land is no longer a dispute to be settled by reading

through time then becomes the identifier of a well-

a layer of ink under another layer of ink. It is in-

formed adult’s ability to represent him or herself

stead a piece of information protected by a fire-

on paper.

wall, amenable to entrance only on the pronounce-

How can the knots and scrawls of human

ment of a password, and only legible to its owner.

relationships, especially as they get entangled
over generations, be read in anything other than
their illegibility? What does an “illegible” reading

5. Tic
The jagged peaks of stock market fluctuations

amount to? Would hearing such a reading amount

are legible, apparently, to sharp punters on good

to listening to the rustling glossolalia of aging

days. The nervous tics on the faces in the crowds

paper? In such situations of universally diminished

that gaze with rapt attention at the scrolling

legibility, disputes over land would often end in

news of the day’s highs and lows on the electronic

long, drawn-out negotiations that in their durability

murals that wrap themselves around the glass

acted as tacit instruments of compromise. So

facades of the citadels of finance are eloquent

someone owned, someone ploughed, someone

testimonies to the affective intensity of capital.

grazed, someone camped, and someone lived,

It is possible, some say, to read despair, skep-

and all of them quarreled and felt that they were

ticism, hope, and euphoria in the glyphs formed

as much in the right as they were in the wrong.

by these crests and troughs. If so, then news of

Today, however, property claims are hard-

investment is as sentimental as the chapters of

coded with digital signatures. Barcodes don’t

a pulp romance. The promise of romance and the

scrawl into each other the way that inked in-

hope of eventual recompense on risky bids are

scriptions once could. A patch of land is no longer

the eventual trophies for which both speculators

a field of interpretation, guarded by a picket

and sweethearts vie. Yet each lover, and each

fence with many gaps and holes. As land becomes

stockbroker, is a prisoner of a private language.

transacted on a global scale, and as traditional

Every man and woman who has laid a wager on

38
the possibility of a return in love or money has

being pursued, blur into each other such that it

done so knowing that the object of their attentions

begins to be difficult to tell losses from gains. If

may not even hear, let alone care for, the intensity

the legibility of loss lies in recognizing the state

of their longing. How many have squandered their

of being bereft, then it becomes equally necessary

dreams on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and to

to know that bereavement can render us speech-

what little avail?

less. Within silence lies another, keener illegibility.

Sentimental poets declaim that “to love is to

And who would dare edit the lexicon of a wordless

lose.” Addicted market players see the losses of

language with a million entries for only two sets

some as the opportunities for a win on the “re-

of meanings: intangible hope and opaque despair?

bound.” And so, victory and defeat, pursuit and

Just the Name
(Ashwatthama)

I.
Ashwatthama
(the man, not the unfortunate
dead elephant)
Ashwatthama
(whisper, rumor, malingering
battlefield tumor)
Ashwatthama
(wandering warrior, and son of a warrior)
Ashwatthama
(haunted, hunted)
Ashwatthama
(Abortionist of the future, prisoner of time)
Ashwatthama
(immortal, undead)
Ashwatthama
(deserter, deserted, desert Aswhatthama)
Just the name
(Ashwatthama)

41
II.
Is there an intimate fear in the moment

It is only the haunting specter of undead

of recognition of a haunted shadow, stalked by

anger that achieves immortality, passing from

memories and exhausted by time?

generation to generation in the form of an in-

A subterranean presence raging to liquidate
and erase, even as it is haunted by the aftermath

herited curse.
Ashwatthama roams in the inhospitable crack

of precisely similar acts that occurred elsewhere.

between aching memories and gnawing appre-

A self that desires to wreak annihilation, and is

hensions, between the launching of the missiles

simultaneously troubled by the annihilation that

and their landing—which cannot be avoided,

surrounds him. Cornered by rage, letting no other

since all the withdrawal codes have been forgotten.

emotion through, and yet afraid and paralyzed by
a similar escalation of rage in everyone else.
This amorphous site within eludes thought

III.
In the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic that

and description amid the continuous spiral of

narrates the Great War between the Pandavas

violence around. The edge of the spiral closes

and Kauravas that inaugurated the Kali Yug (the

mutely on everyone, no longer an agonized sound

era of decline), the episode of Ashwatthama,

or a distant blur.

the eternal warrior, is a parable that suggests the

Language dries up in this baking enormity,
the searing screen of the war machine. Living in
the parched aftermath, symbols evaporate
quickly.

durability of war as a way of life, regardless of
the mutable datelines of cease-fires.
Ashwatthama, a prominent warrior in the
Kaurava camp, is also the son of the Kaurava

We used to think it was only a stage, this “war

General, Dronacharya. Dronacharya’s fondness

of all against all.” But when Ashwatthama makes

for his son is well known, and so, the Pandavas

his appearance, another version of eternity gusts

devise a stratagem to momentarily distract

in behind him, where time does not unfold, and

Dronacharya in the middle of the battle: they

future and past are a double blackmail.

decide to spread a rumor of Ashwatthama’s
death so as to disarm and defeat him.

42
Yudhishtira, the Pandava prince famous for

withdraw a missile that he has launched. Alarmed

always speaking the truth, is given the responsi-

at the prospect that his suspended missile could

bility to tell Dronacharya about his son’s death.

unleash the apocalypse, the assembled sages ask

However, he turns the lie into a half-truth. A battle

Ashwatthama to choose a target for his weapon.

elephant, also called Ashwatthama, is felled, and

Ashwatthama seizes this opportunity to take re-

immediate after he tells Dronacharya “Ashwat-

venge for the death of his father by attempting

thama hata” (Ashwatthama is dead), he quietly

to destroy the unborn child of even the children of

says “Iti Gaja” (I mean the elephant). Stunned

his enemies. He chooses the womb of Uttara, the

with grief, Dronacharya stops fighting, and is easily

grieving widow of Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu, where

dispatched with a series of well-timed volleys of

the only inheritor of the Pandava legacy, Parikshit,

arrows from the Pandava formations. The tide of

is growing as a foetus. Uttara aborts. But the god

the battle turns, and the Pandavas are victorious.

Krishna rescues the stillborn foetus and revives it.

Enraged at the duplicity that felled his father,

As punishment for his attempt to destroy the

Ashwatthama vows to destroy the Pandavas’

future, Ashwatthama is cursed by Krishna to roam

future. He makes his way into the Pandava camp

the earth until the end of time. Ashwatthama’s

at midnight and kills the children of the five

jewelled talisman, his mani, which bestowed upon

Pandava princes by Draupadi, their common wife.

its wearer freedom from the fear of injury, disease

He is then pursued by Arjuna, the Pandava

or hunger, is wrenched from him. Ashwatthama

hero. Ashwatthama and Arjuna hurl deadly mis-

haunts the earth forever, like an injured, sick,

siles at each other, which together contain the

scared, and hungry shadow.

power to destroy the world. Alarmed at the prospect of total destruction, assembled sages pre-

IV.

vail upon Arjuna and Ashwatthama to withdraw

You must grieve, Ashwatthama, yet how must

their weapons. Arjuna knows how to do this,
but Ashwatthama has never learned how to

you grieve?

beyond sclerotic thoroughbred tremendous florid
expedient file exclusive scalding force blot abustle
unsound impatient frightener extreme code
haunting storm smart gag currency encumbrance
dazzler hunter equivocal siege incommensurable
shadow warrior enticing blade sloganeer unforgiving sensate axial bayonet berserk talisman
factory shot technopreneur superscalar cosh
corporate effective seismic automatic eugenic
45
emergency continuator impassable graph ascendant scab tabulator exterminator warrant impregnable eschaton attorney vacant eminent effigy
secure haemorrhagic copious boss accursed finagler efficient cord compulsive desolation
sponge barricaded sour hungry culture bulldozer
slaver capo solvent dismal index barrier adipose
infiltrator calamity strategist usurer disengager
collateral incommunicado coruscant bewilderer
campaign unabashed conjuror undefeated bailiff
incomparable grave entangled caprice efficacious identifier eidolon moniterist arrester unspeakable inexhaustible solid incarnate artificer
steamy sword crushing delusory actual decimator
bullet unabated contemptuous vector ravenous
fusible toxic inciting connector tycoon shock
abundant banker executioner thresher spy
simulator discoverer everywhere sacrosanct
sinker thorium archon sexy consultant engine

Digressions from the Memory
of A Minor Encounter

47
Once, not so long ago, a damp, rained-on after-

proximity, and about how stories, images, and ideas

noon’s stroll in Paris took us across the Avenue

travel. The story of Sunda, Upasunda, and Tilot-

d’Iéna, from contemporary art to ancient and

tama was probably first told around 200 BC in the

medieval Oriental art, from the Palais de Tokyo to

north-western part of the South Asian subcon-

the Musée Guimet. There, standing in front of a

tinent. Between the first telling of the story and

frieze from the Banteay Srei temple in Cambodia’s

the carving of the frieze in a clearing in the forest

Siem Reap province, which is now located in the

of Seam Reap in c. 967 CE lay a little more than a

Guimet’s permanent collection at the far end on

thousand years, and an eastwards journey of a

the ground floor, we felt the sharp edge of es-

few thousand miles. Between its carving and our

trangement in something that also felt downright

sudden encounter with it in Paris there lay a

familiar. The Banteay Srei frieze narrates a story

little more than another millennium and a west-

from the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic. The story is

wards journey halfway across the world. These

of two brothers, the demons Sunda and Upasunda,

intervals in time and space were overlaid with

whose tussle over the attentions of Tilottama, an

an elaborate circuit that encompassed travel,

Apsara—a courtesan of Heaven, sent by the gods

conquest, migration and settlement, wars and

to destroy them with jealousy—was the cause of

violence, the clearing of forests, the quarrying of

their downfall. Like most others who grew up

stone, slavery and indenture, skilled artisans, the

listening to stories in India, it was a story we knew

faces and indiscretions of the men and women

well, even if only as an annotation to the main

who would become the inspiration for jealous

body of the epic. But it wasn’t the details of the story

demons and divine courtesans, a few thousand

that intrigued us that afternoon, nor the carved

years of history, the crossing of oceans, the rise

contours of Sunda and Upasunda’s rage, not even

and fall of several empires across different con-

the delicacy of the depiction of Tilottama’s divi-

tinents, and the repeated telling and forgetting

sive seduction. Instead, standing before these

of a minor story. Contemporaneity, the sensation

stone images, made in a region roughly 3500 miles

of being together in a time, is an ancient enigma

to the east of where we live in Delhi, and exhibited

of a feeling. It is the tug we feel when our times pull

in a museum roughly 6500 miles to the west, we

at us. But sometimes one can get the sense of a

felt compelled to think again about distance and

paradoxically asynchronous contemporaneity—

48
the strange tug of more than one time and place.

layered relationships between cultural processes.

As if an accumulation, or thickening, of our at-

But this is not the only possible kind of scattering

tachments to different times and spaces were

provoked by the presence of images and stories

manifesting themselves in the form of some

that echo the familiar in uncanny ways. An in-

unique geological oddity, a richly striated cross-

creased intensity of communication creates a new

section of a rock, sometimes sharp, sometimes

kind of experiential contagion. It leads to all kind

blurred, marked by the passage of many epochs.

of illegitimate liaisons between things that were

Standing before Sunda, Upasunda, and Tillot-

meant to be unfamiliar. The first thing that dis-

tama in the Musée Guimet, we were in Siem Reap,

solves under the pressure of this promiscuous

in Indraprastha (an ancient name for Delhi, in

density of contact across space is the assumption

whose vicinity much of the Mahabharata story is

that different degrees of “now” can be better ob-

located), in New Delhi, in nineteenth-century

tained in different places; that Delhi, or Dar-es-

Paris, and in the Paris of today. We were standing

Salaam are somehow less “now” than Detroit. The

in many places and in many times. Sometimes

“now” of different places leach into each other

art, and the presence of an image does move

with increasing force. The realities of different con-

you. And as a consequence, you find yourself

temporaneities infect each other. This condition

scattered all over the place. How can we begin to

generates an active production of estrangement,

think about being scattered? Collections of ob-

a kind of nervous expulsion, a gladiatorial of re-

jects from different parts of the world are indices

pulsion scripted either through an orientation of

of different instances of scattering. The minor en-

contempt or of homage. Why contempt and

counter that we experienced in the Musée Guimet

homage? They permit the automatic assumption

is one kind of scattering. It teaches us that some-

of a chasm between the beholder and the object

times the familiar may encounter us in the guise

of contemplation.

of strangeness, and then suggests that we learn

The tropes of contempt and homage are an optic

to question the easy binary shorthand of the fa-

through which some perennially survey others

miliar and the strange as a way to think about

and then evaluate them along an axis where the

ourselves, others, and the world. It suggests the

production of estrangement has to be resolved

possibility of other less polarized, and more

in terms of either positive or negative regards.

49
The “survey” mode of understanding the world

pinned down in taxonomic terms, explained

presumes a stable cyclopean and panoptic center

away as a means to require no further engagement,

of surveillance to which the gaze can never ade-

making it impossible to blur the distinction be-

quately be returned, ensuring that a meeting of

tween the surveyor and the surveyed. In the second

visions can never take place on an equal footing.

instance of homage, the object is exalted beyond

Like Sunda and Upasunda fighting over Tilottama,

the possibility of an engagement. In either case, a

the more different parts of the world come to be

difference, once identified, is made into a factor

aware of each other’s desires, the more dispute

of cognitive and affective excision. This forecloses

there will be over who can have access to more

the possibility of recognizing that what is identified

of the contemporaneity that both desire—the one

and estranged may in fact be disturbingly similar

who has more confidence in himself or the one

to what is familiar, even though it may be located

who has more of the élan of the “other”. Key to this

in realities that are difficult to translate with co-

conflict of perceptions is a refusal to recognize

herence or consistency. It is to not recognize the

that, like the sudden appearance of a Sanskrit

face of a stranger when you look at your own re-

story in a Khmer frieze in a Parisian museum to

flection. The amalgam of the sensations of famil-

a collective of practitioners from Delhi, the rela-

iarity and estrangement evokes a new register

tionships between familiarity and estrangement

of a tense accommodation, a hospitality to the

are compromised by many folds and cracks in

presence of the “strange” that is not without at-

space and time. That estrangement is only famil-

tendant unease to the “familiar.” In the end this may

iarity deferred, or held in abeyance. Rather than

guarantee the disavowal of mutual antipathy,

recognize the fact that familiarity and estrange-

and the cultivation of some sort of cohabitation.

ment are only two nondistinctive and contiguous

We can change the framework of the story on the

instances of cognitive and affective transfer, this

Banteay Srei frieze. Sunda and Upasunda can

tendency to resolve the unfamiliar into the binary

both survive by agreeing to stay within the frame-

of the “like” and the “alien” needs constant mech-

work of a generous but awkward polyandry. They

anisms of reinforcement. The duality of contempt

can do this by learning to negotiate with Tilottama’s

and homage is one such mechanism. In the first

claims on both of their desires, and to give a

instance of contempt, the object of the survey is

little more effort at being open to unpredictable

50
encounters. What does having more of an en-

5,000,000 people in 2000 to 18,481,000 in 2005.

counter do in the domain of contemporary art? An

This means that some 18 million people in India

assessment of the amplitude of signals and the

are in daily contact (through labor, education,

intensity of contact that marks our world today is

correspondence, and entertainment) with a me-

still waiting to be made. One of the ways in which

dium that enables an exceptional level of global

this could be undertaken would be for us to try to

reach. Actual figures for Internet usage are prob-

account for the implications of the growth in In-

ably significantly higher, as most people in India

ternet-based connectivity at a global scale. The

and other such societies tend to go online from

Internet, as we know it today, is barely a decade

computers at street corner cyber cafés as they

and a half old, and its expansion can be dated to

often do not own computers or are able to access

as late as the mid-nineties of the last century.

them properly at work. No other platform of

Curiously, the expansion of the Internet and the

communication in world history has been able

recent expansion of the number of biennales are

to claim that it has the sustained attention of

precisely coincident with each other. Today, it is

13.9 % of the world’s population in a span of ten

estimated that 13.9% of the world’s population,

years. Ten years is a very short time in the history

or 888,681,131 people have some kind of regular

of culture. It is the span between three successive

Internet access.1 A majority of these are in North

Documentas. Let us assume that Internet usage

America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand,

will continue to grow at least at this rate for the

as well as in parts of East Asia (South Korea,

next twenty years. This means that in the time it

Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore). Internet

takes to produce four Documentas, approximately

usage grew by an estimated 126.4% from 2000

75% of the world’s population will have entered a

to 2005, and the highest growth rates were in

sustained and deeply networked existence. Nothing

Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

has prepared us for the consequences of this

Chinese is the second most used language on

depth and density of communicative engagement

the Internet, and a country like India experienced

at a global scale. And unlike previous expansions

a growth of 269.6% in Internet usage, from

in communicative capacity (print, radio, cinema,

1. All figures acccessed from here: Internet World States. March 29, 2005. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

51
television), this time, with the Internet and new

between an exclusive cognoscente of curators,

digital devices, we see readers who are also

practitioners, theorists, and critics whose primary

writers and editors; users who are also producers;

location is and will continue to be Europe and

viewers who are also, at least potentially, creators,

North America. Discursive networks can afford to

entering a global space of cultural production.

practice an exclusionary mode of existence only

While it would be simple to argue for a cause-and-

at the risk of their own obsolescence. Every node

effect relationship between the expansion of

in such a network can survive only if it is able

the constituencies served by the Internet and the

to affect a critical mass of new connectivities, and

growth in number of biennials and other inter-

act as a conduit for new information about a

national art events, it would be equally facile to

very rapidly changing world. In politics, it is impos-

dismiss the implications of the emergence of a

sible to conceive of a discursive framework that

deep augmentation in

does not include an active interest in what is going

global communications for the contemporary arts

on in the majority of the world. The realities of the

scene. What are these implications? First, that

Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, Sub-

the discursive communities around contemporary

Saharan Africa, and Central, South and East Asia

art, like the discursive communities in science

affect what happens in Europe and North America

or politics, are poised to undergo a significant

profoundly. The networks of global finance and

transformation; and second, that the notions of

trade, or even of distributed production that char-

bounded authorship that have dominated the

acterize the world economy today, would not

idea of what art production is in the recent past

exist as they do without the Internet. Similarly, the

are being challenged by an increasing diversity

globality of the production and dissemination of

of positions vis-à-vis the role of authorship, cre-

news is deeply tied into the substance of everyday

ativity, and intellectual property in the actual

politics. It is impossible to separate domestic

domain of global cultural practice. Both of these

politics in any major Asian or European country,

formulations need some elaboration. The dis-

from say, what is happening in Iraq today. To say

cursive framework of contemporary art, like any

this is to state the obvious. But what is obvious in

other domain of thought and practice today, can

a discussion about the economy, the media or

no longer be viewed as something that occurs only

politics is somehow seen as novel, or esoteric, in

52
culture. This prevailing surprise about the fact

from Rio de Janeiro, and games from Seoul act as

that the “contemporary” is also “trans-territorial,”

significant global presences, rivalling, and occa-

that “now” is “elsewhere” as much as it is “here,”

sionally overshadowing, the spread and influence

or that it is as “strange” as it is “familiar,” is one of

of their European and North American analogues.

the symptoms of the lag in the levels of informed

The trends in contemporary art practice and exhi-

discussion between the domains of culture and of

bition can in the end only be an echo of this banal

political economy. However, while it may still be

generality of the everyday life of global cultural

possible for some to argue, from a perspective that

traffic and transaction. The growing presence of

privileges the present state of affairs, that a

art practitioners and works from “outside” Europe

“globalisation” of contemporary culture may imply

and North America within major European and

an attempt to impose a specifically “Western

North American exhibitions, and the realization

modernist” agenda on a global scale due to the

that there are non-Western histories of modernity,

inequalities in articulative capacity, it would be

has had two ancillary effects. It has demonstrated

impossible to sustain this argument in the long

that these practices and practitioners, and their

term. The momentum generated by different

histories, have a significant global perspective. They

processes of cultural articulation set in motion

speak to the world from their own vantage points,

in various local contexts all over the world indi-

and have done so for a while. It has also led to a

cates a reality of densely networked, yet autono-

pressure by non-Western practitioners, curators,

mous tendencies, movements, genres, styles,

and theorists to lay claim within non-Western

and affinities that are far more complex than the

spaces to a global cultural space through the

discourse of “Westernization” would allow for.

founding of contemporary art institutions, net-

Even a cursory glance at the crosscurrents of in-

works of practitioners, and exhibition circuits.

fluence in global popular culture—in music, film,

One implication of this has been the proliferation

cuisine, fashion, literature, comics, and gaming—

of biennials and other international exhibitions

would reveal the inner workings of this web. We are

of contemporary art in spaces outside Europe and

in a world where cinema from Mumbai, manga

North America, and a corresponding increase in

comics from Tokyo, music from Dakar, literature

the discourse generated through and around con-

from Bogotá, cuisine from Guangzhou, fashion

temporary art in these areas. Another implication

53
of this has been the nascent presence of the cu-

ration and curation. The idea that contemporary

rator-critic of contemporary art, who is located

art has to have a centered location that privileges

in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, or who finds

a particular history or cultural framework will

himself/herself located within, or at a tangent to,

erode, and give way to the idea that contempora-

new Asian, African, and Latin American diasporas

neity is best expressed within the logic of a

in Europe and North America. At first this new

flexible and agile network that responds to emer-

curator-critic may be someone who seems to

gences and tendencies on a global scale. This

speak only to, and for his/her own place of origin;

means that the logic of spatial and cultural dis-

then he/she may be seen as working with other

tance that operated as a perennial handicap to

curators and artists within specific regional (but

the non-Western curator, practitioner or theorist, is

cross-national) settings; then with peers working

unlikely to remain of much significance. Likewise,

in similar contexts elsewhere in the world; and

the European or North American artistic practi-

finally, he/she will be seen as laying a claim to

tioner or curator will be increasingly called upon

the acts of speaking to and working with artists

to demonstrate their relevance in a multi-polar

from everywhere, including Europe and North

world where European or North American origins,

America. These claims, as and when they occur

or location, will no longer operate as an automatic

(and some are indeed occurring even now) will

set of credentials. In a world that grows more used

be based not on the operation of affiliations

to being networked, curators and artists from

based on geo-politics, geography and location,

different spaces will work together, and in each

but on elective affinities of interest, taste, curi-

other’s spaces, as a matter of course. They will

osities, methodologies, and concerns. This will

question, challenge, and subvert stable identifica-

coincide with the rise of institutional and non-

tions of spatiality and cultural affiliation with

institutional structures, spaces, and networks in

their everyday practices. This will not necessarily

contemporary art that have significant presenc-

mean better or worse art or discourse; what it

es outside Europe and North America. These

will mean, however, is that the terms “global” and

entities will become fora for discussion and ex-

“contemporary” will resonate in a host of differ-

hibition, as well as fulcrums that enable the le-

ent ways, so as to indicate the active presences of

veraging of trans-regional contexts for collabo-

what was hitherto absent, silent, or muted voices

54
and expressions. The second formulation, that of

academic and intellectual life. These new commu-

the challenge to the notion of bounded author-

nities of research and reflection are rapidly

ship as a result of the expansion of a global plat-

establishing today’s bridgeheads of enquiry, freed

form like the Internet, is perhaps of deeper sig-

from the inherent conservatism founded on

nificance for contemporary art, even if it is at the

concerns for proprietorial or commodifiable utility

moment less visible. The Internet has set in mo-

that ties production in academic institutions and

tion peer-to-peer networks and online communi-

research spaces to “safe” areas of inquiry through

ties that begin to do more than share cultural

the instruments of intellectual property. In-

intelligence; they also begin to occasionally collab-

creasingly, these “open” spaces are where science,

orate on the making of things, and of meaning,

philosophy, and social theory are “hot”; they are

often at a global scale, in a way that is at variance

more responsive to the world around them. By

with mainstream protocols of intellectual property.

placing emphasis on the commons and other

This is most clearly visible in the global open

forms of collaboration, non-property, or anti-prop-

source communities, but the influence of the

erty arrangements, open source practitioners

“open source” idea has ramifications that exceed

and theorists (be they in software, music, science

software alone. This tendency is increasingly

or the humanities) have initiated a profound

audible in the domain of a new global musical

turbulence in the cultural economy. The domain

sensibility based on file sharing, remixing, and

of contemporary art cannot remain immune to

recycling of extant musical material, with scant

this turbulence, which exists all around it. It is

regard to the admonitions either of the protec-

perhaps a matter of time before the ethic of

tors of intellectual property or cultural purity. It is

sharing, collaborating, and commoning become

also present in peer-to-peer networks founded

commonplace within contemporary art, just as

by scientists, legal scholars, philosophers, histori-

it has in other domains of culture. In a nascent

ans, and other social scientists who use the Inter-

sense, it is already visible in numerous curatorial

net to establish a new intellectual commons that

collaborations and artist-practitioner-techni-

gains strength through regular usage, participa-

cian-curator-theorist networks that transcend

tion and contribution, often in direct opposition

borders and disciplinary boundaries, that give

to the hierarchies prevalent in institutionalized

new twists to the “publicness” of public art projects,

55
and that raise vexed questions of “ownership” of

aesthetic contemplation will find itself besieged

the ephemeral and networked works and process-

by disputations, legal suits, accusations of

es that they generate. The increasingly dense,

copyright infringement, and intense, invasive scru-

cross-referential nature of practices within con-

tiny by holders of intellectual property. Making

temporary art also points in this direction, leading

art will increasingly be about forging new legal

us to think of the space of contemporary art

concepts, and creating new economies of usage,

not as a terrain marked by distinct objects, but

ownership, and participation. Making and exhib-

as one striated by works that flow in and out of

iting art will also be about fashioning politics,

each other, or cohabit within a semantic territory

practicing a new economics, and setting prece-

in layers of varying opacity. Crucially, a liberality

dents or challenges in law. The existence of

of interpretation about what constitutes intellec-

contemporary art is ultimately predicated on the

tual property and what devolves to the public

conditions of life of its practitioners. These

domain will be central to defending the freedom

conditions of life are constituted by the myriad of

of expression in art. Art grows in dialogue, and if

daily acts of practice, of reading, inscribing,

intellectual property acts as a barrier to the dia-

interpreting, and repurposing the substance of

logue between works, then it will be met with

culture across cultures. In millions of incre-

serious challenges that arise from the practice of

mental ways, these acts transpose the “work” of

artists and curators. All this cannot happen with-

art to a register where boundedness, location,

out conflict and disruption. The domain of the sign

and property rest uneasily. The work of art, the

is the playing field of a new cultural economy

practitioner, the curator, the viewer, as well as

where the generation of value is hinged upon the

and the acts of making, exhibiting, and viewing, all

principles of intellectual property. There is, how-

stand to be transformed. All that is familiar

ever, an increasing perforation of this domain by

becomes strange; all that is strange becomes fa-

practices that are at variance with the principles

miliar.

of property in culture for a variety of ethical, social,
intellectual, aesthetic, and pragmatic reasons.
The likely consequence of all this is that the tasteful tranquility that marked the enterprise of

Yaksha Prashna
The Yaksha’s Questions

56

Yakshi

57

Yaksha:
Mrtah katham syaat purushaha?
When is a man as good as dead?
Yudhishtira:
Mrto daridrah purushoh.
A poor man is a dead man.
Yakshi:
Why does the road to the parliament pass by the
central bank?
Raqs:
Because a citizen without a bank account is as
good as a dead man without a funeral, or a
monument without a martyr.

58

Yaksha:
What is more precious than gold, as worthless
as a scrap of paper, heavier than stone, faster
than the wind, slower than a turtle, lighter than
a feather, as deadly as poison, and as welcome
as a blessing?
Raqs:
A banknote. Because it can be valuable and
worthless. Because it can be sluggish and volatile. Because it can weigh you down with debt or
set you free. Because it can kill you and save
you, and because it can kill you by saving you.
Yaksha:
Why does a bank have to have guards, guns, and

59

barbed wire fences?
Raqs:
To protect people from money.
Yakshi:
When money talks, who listens?
Raqs:
The deaf hear, the blind see, the wise man goes
mad, the mad woman comes to her senses, the
gossip turns silent, the spy reveals all, money
lenders dance, misers become poets, artists
become mathematicians, thieves pray, and holy
men babble.
Yaksha:
Why do banknotes carry portraits?

60

Raqs:
Because the promise to pay the bearer can have
no meaning if it is not backed by a picture of the
head of a king, a dowager, a dictator, a dead
prophet or at the very least a magnificent wild
beast. Because a banknote without a picture is
like a security guard without a uniform.
Yakshi:
In that case, why did Ramkinkar Baij sculpt me
naked?
Raqs:
Because he knew the answer to the previous
question. And because, though everyone knows
that the emperor has no clothes, it is less well

61

known that his treasury is actually empty, and
that its guards keep their vigil, naked and alone.

62
Yakshas are the primordial, aboriginal guardian

usually features a man or a woman providing

spirits of Indic mythology. They foster the health

illuminating answers to a series of riddles posed by

and well-being of communities, bestow fertility

a Yaksha as a means to fulfill a quest, continue

on women and livestock, protect forests and water

on a journey, pass a threshold, obtain a boon, clarify

bodies, guard cities, homesteads, gold and hid-

a philosophical or ethical conundrum or resolve a

den treasure, and act as the minions—minders

vexed predicament. Failure to answer a Yaksha’s

and footsoldiers of the vast reserve army of

questions usually results in a terrible curse or a

Kubera, the Hindu god of wealth. Yakshas are clev-

horrible death.

er, dangerous, fickle, wise, capricious, generous,

See: A.V. Srinivasan, A Hindu Primer: Yaksha Prashna (Connecti-

and given to lurk in wait for unsuspecting travel-

cut: Periplus Line LLC/ Parijata Publication, 1984).

lers whom they invariably test with an ordeal of
demanding questions.

In the Aranya Parva (Forest Canto) of the Mahab-

See: Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Yakshas (New Delhi: Munshi-

harata for instance, Yudhishtira, the exiled Pandava

ram Manoharlal, 2001).

prince has to furnish answers by an enchanted
lake to a particularly demanding set of questions

Yakshas, condemned to long hours of keeping vigil

in order to win back the lives of his brothers, which,

over hoards of money, will do anything to make

in their haste to slake their thirst with the lake’s

the passing traveller tarry. Sometimes a solitary

water, they had forfeited when they had refused to

Yaksha, serving time in a remote forest, will even

be quizzed by the lake’s guardian Yaksha.

inveigle a passing rain cloud into carrying mes-

See: The Aranya Parva: The Book of the Forest in The Mahab-

sages to distant places.

harata, Vol. 2, ed. and trans. J.A.B van Buitenen (Chicago: The

See: Kalidasa, “Meghadootam,” in Kalidasa: The Loom of Time,

University of Chicago Press, 1975).

trans. and ed. Chandra Rajan (New Delhi: Penguin Classics,
Penguin Books India, 1990).

Yakshas turn up. When forests are cleared, roads
widened, land surveyed, or a riverbank mined for

The “Yaksha Prashna” or “Yaksha’s Question” is a

sand, digs reveal buried Yaksha figurines, often

well-known device for diversion, entertainment,

crude, sometimes exquisite, but always enigmatic.

and moral instruction in the Sanskrit canon. It

Each excavated Yaksha brings in its wake a host

63
of questions. Does it foretell an omen? Is there

Ramkinkar Baij’s Yaksha and Yakshi figures

buried treasure? Are there reasons to dig deeper?

stand guard outside the gates of the Reserve Bank,

Do they trigger repressed memories of fertility

India’s central bank on Parliament Street in New

cults and esoteric magick? Usually, the questions

Delhi. Their monumental presence is the secret of

cease when the excavated Yaksha or Yakshi is

their invisibility in the discourse around Ramkinkar

transported into a museum as an iconic exemplar

Baij and his so-called subaltern modernity. As

of “national treasure.”

lasting reminders of the most expensive public art

See: Tapati Guha Thakurta, “The Endangered Yakshi: Careers of

commission in independent India, their stony

an Ancient Art Object in Modern India.” In History and the Present,

New Delhi metropolitan bulk is an uneasy intrusion

ed. Anjan Ghosh and Partha Chatterjee (New Delhi: Permanent

into the mythology of the neglected and indigent

Black, 2002).

artist in the idyllic pastoral Bolpur bosom of his
Santhal Family. They can neither be resolved into

Ramkinkar Baij, who took more than ten years

a celebration of the mythic category of the “people,”

to complete his commission to sculpt the monu-

nor be seen as homage to the state. We could

mental Yaksha and Yakshi figures, had to endure

speculate that the Yakshi’s impassive blank stare,

his own set of ordeals. Questions were raised in

and the Yaksha’s barely disguised contempt for

parliament about the propriety of immodest sculp-

what he sees embody Ramkinkar Baij’s own

tures adorning the streets of the capital. News-

“Yaksha Prashna” to the Indian Republic. As of now,

papers campaigned against what they saw as the

we do not know of any answers that have a

“obscenity” of the Yakshi’s nakedness. The rumour

satisfactory purchase on Ramkinkar’s sculpted

mill gossiped about the resemblance that the

question marks.

female figure had to a leading woman-capitalist
of the day. Costs mounted, and the project soon
became the most expensive public art commission
in independent India.
See: The Reserve Bank of India, “Anecdote 3: Of Art, Central
Bankers and Philistines,” http://www.rbi.org.in/scripts/mis_
anec3.aspx

64

65

Yaksha

I Did Not Hear

66

I said what I could. I did what I could. I don’t
think there is a point in going on and on about it.
Do you?
I listen but I also try to keep going.
Tell me what happened.
Where were you?
I had gone for my tuition class. I was riding
home on my bicycle; I couldn’t make it out at
first. I mean, I had no idea.
Where were you?
I was doing what I do every Wednesday.
Where were you?
I was at my desk. Where I always am.
It was late in the afternoon, the dogs were howling.

67

I was fixing a flat tire.
I was taken by surprise.
I was listening to the radio.
There was too much static.
I wasn’t awake. I only heard my dream.
I had so much to finish.
I was at school. It was a history lesson.
I was in the wrong bus.
I was looking at him, and he wasn’t talking to me.
I was running as fast as I could.
I was in a traffic jam, waiting.
The light wouldn’t change.
I was swimming; we were four at the river.
I was at the cinema. I was bored.

68

I was naked.I was mistaken, so badly mistaken.
Then what happened?
I don’t want to talk about what happened next.
I said what I could. I did what I could. I don’t
think there is a point in going on and on about it.
Do you?
I listen but I also try to keep going.
My job is to keep books. I make sure that the entries and inventories are in order. I don’t concern
myself with anything I don’t have to.
Did you hear anything?
I did not hear what was said. I wasn’t paying attention. Not at that time.
It was out of earshot.

69

I can’t remember.
Tell me what happened.
I just sat by the phone, hoping that someone
would call.
And the TV kept going on and on.
I didn’t know whom to call.
The phone rang, again and again, and I picked it
up each time, but no one said anything.
It rained. It rained like anything.
Tell me what happened, just for the record.
Nothing happened.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was all over. It was
over very quickly.
What were you doing?

70

I couldn’t move.
I waited.
I sat where I was.
I said what I could. I did what I could. I don’t
think there is a point in going on and on about it.
Do you?
I listen but I also try to keep going.
Tell me what happened.
Where were you?
I had gone for my tuition class.
I was at my desk, where I always am.

inconvertible stalker dictator sponsor barbwired
evacuator accuser triumphalist advocate slag
shaft accoster fusion salvager continental unquestionable competitor crown game contradictor elevated embroiderer abuzz aggravator
extortionist core canon disproportionate deadweight contractor statutory acid focused abuser
sacramental covetous discord exigent soldier
enormous trenchant avalanche technologist for71
bidding untamed coagulant angry absurd implacable impairing barcoded drone inexplicable
seducer evaporator sarcoma entrepreneur accelerator gunman savage afterburner disrober
dissimulator vulgar rocket financier polymorph
surveyor politician arsenal peremptory abolishing
multiplier initiator whirlwind trenchant ruinous
inequitable neutralizer lord industrial sucker prolific misogynist flash infectious gross stern
afflatus skeletal acrid treacherous plexiglass
spender shroud investigator equalizer arraigner
ectropic weapon planetary driven gigantic unashamed headhunter crisis unknown data saturnine militarist hitman pantocrator amok scientist
cargo adrenalized superpower zealot mandarin
fancy employer professorial profiteer contingent
escrow trammel malediction zyklon-b enemy net
rogue pursuer radioactive distributor uncaring
anacoustic auctioneer raider cabinet wrestler

Dreams and Disguises, As Usual

“Fantômas”
“What did you say?”
“I said, Fantômas.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Nothing … Everything.”
“But what is it?”
“No one … And yet, yes, it is someone!”
“And what does this someone do?”
“Spreads Terror!!”
Opening lines of Fantômas, the first novel in the Fantômas series,
by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Popular in early twentieth-century Paris.

73
In a painting titled Le Barbare (The Barbarian)
(1928), René Magritte depicted what seemed to
be the shadow of a masked man in a hat. The shad-

and hats, crowd Magritte’s images. They refuse to
go away. 1
What does a man in a hat have to do with im-

ow is seen against a brick wall, and it is unclear

postors and waiting rooms? Perhaps, like the

whether it is appearing or fading away. Magritte,

narrator in the first novel of the Fantômas series

always particular about the eccentric rhetoric of

of fantastic crime novels, we could say, “Nothing…

his practice of representation, was careful enough

and Everything.”

to have a photograph of himself (in a hat) taken

Perhaps one of the secrets that Magritte keeps

next to this image. His face, quizzical, makes us

in this image—paraphrasing the title of another

wonder if he is keeping secrets from us.

of his paintings—could be that just as the image

There are two particularly interesting things

of a pipe is not a pipe, so too, the image that

about this image: the first that it should be called

suggests a suave, urbane man in a hat is actually

Le Barbare, and the second, that it is not in fact

of someone else.

the first or even the last appearance of a hat, or a
man in a hat, in the work of Magritte. Men in hats,

The shadowy visage in a hat in Le Barbare belongs to the figure of Fantômas 2, the archetypal

1	 T
 he figure of a man in a hat first appears in an image called The Menaced Assassin in 1926, and re-appears several times, including in The Usage of Speech (1928), where two men in bowler hats speak the words “violette” and “piano,” in Les Chausseurs
de la Nuit (1928) where a man in a hat with a rifle slung across him is seen as if leaning against a wall with his companion,
another gunman, both with their backs turned towards the viewer; in The Therapist (1939) and The Liberator (1947), where he
appears with a cloak and a walking stick; in The Return of the Flame (1943) where the man in a hat looms across a burning
city; in The Man in a Bowler Hat (1964), with a dove flying across hisface; in The Time of Harvest (1950), and its variant The Month
of the Grape Harvest (1959), where the man in a bowler hat is an assembly line prototype, an edition made in multiples; in The
Song of the Violet (1951), where two men in hats, one with his back to us, and the other profiled, stand petrified; in Golconda (1953),
where it rains bowler hatted men from the sky, and in The Schoolmaster, and its triune variant Les Chef d’Oeuvres (1954-55),
where the man/three men appears with his/their back(s) to us against a sea, under a crescent moon; in The Presence of Mind
(1960), framed between a falcon and a fish, and finally, in The Son of Man (1964), which Magritte did tag as a self portrait, where
the face of the man wearing the hat is obscured by a green apple. The hat appears independently in The Reckless Sleeper (1927)
and The Interpretation of Dreams (1930), along with a motley of other objects; and it appears as if the man has momentarily
lost his hat while looking at a mirror (where he sees himself as an frontally inverted reflection) in Reproduction Prohibited: Portrait
of Edward James (1937).
2	For more information on Fantômas, his career as a character, and his remarkable influence on twentieth-century avantgarde
literature, art and cinema, see the website dedicated to the Fantômas phenomenon http://www.fantomas-lives.com

74
and perhaps primal, urban delinquent, the “lord

Fantômas film Le Mort qui Tue (The Murderous

of terror,” the master of disguises who appears

Corpse) is evident in the composition of L’Assassin

and disappears, takes on many personae, and re-

Menacé.

fuses to be identified. In both The Impostor in

This dialogue with the figure of Fantômas that

the Waiting Room and in this text we seek to con-

Magritte initiated was a thread that ran through

tinue the dialogue that Magritte began with the

much of his work. In one of his occasional writing

shadow of Fantômas, and to investigate what it

fragments titled “A Theatrical Event,” Magritte

means to conduct a dalliance with the imperative

outlines the following arresting scenario: Fantô-

of identification.

mas, the quarry, and Juve, the detective in pursuit,

The imperative of identification, and its

mesh into each other as disguises and reveries,

counterpoint, the dream of disguise, are impulses

representing a pursuit, the loss of identity, and the

we find central to the story of our times. As

impossibility of being captured (except through

central as a threatened assassin, a murderous

self-disclosure).

corpse, or a missing person is to an intractable
pulp fiction pot-boiler.
L’Assassin Menacé (The Threatened Assassin),

…Juve has been on the trail of Fantômas for
quite some time. He crawls along the broken
cobblestones of a mysterious passage. To guide

another Magritte painting from the same period,

himself he gropes along the walls with his fingers.

shows Fantômas attentively listening to a gram-

Suddenly, a whiff of hot air hits him in the face.

ophone beside the corpse of his female victim.

He comes nearer … His eyes adjust to the dark-

He is unaware that two detectives in bowler hats

ness. Juve distinguishes a door with loose

are hovering outside the door with a net and

boards a few feet in front of him. He undoes his

cudgel, even while similarly attired voyeurs peer

overcoat in order to wrap it around his left

through the window. It takes a while to figure

arm, and gets his revolver ready. As soon as he

out that all of them—murderer, corpse, policemen,

has cleared the door, Juve realizes that his pre-

and spectators—are the same person. The ques-

cautions were unnecessary: Fantômas is close by,

tion as to which one is the “real” Fantômas refuses,

sleeping deeply. In a matter of seconds Juve

like a recalcitrant cadaver, to lie low. Magritte’s

has tied up the sleeper. Fantômas continues to

fascination with a tableau in Louis Feuillade’s third

dream — of his disguises, perhaps, as usual.

75
Juve, in the highest of spirits, pronounces some

Looked at in another way, the disguise of the

regrettable words. They cause the prisoner to

man in the hat and the overcoat is the only effective

start. He wakes up, and once awake, Fantômas is

passport that the “barbarian” can have in the

no longer Juve’s captive. Juve has failed again

world enclosed by the modern citadel. The disguise

this time. One means remains for him to achieve

is a means to travel from a world apparently in

his end: Juve will have to get into one of Fantô-

shadow, to a world where the sharp glare that

mas’s dreams—he will try to take part as one of

brings visibility in its iridescent wake is not

its characters.3

without the threat of capture and confinement.

Fantômas continues to dream of his disguises,

The liminal zone where roles can be rehearsed,

perhaps, as usual, and the pursuer will have to

different patois perfected, the various grades of

get into the dreams of the pursued; he will have

personhood that lead up to the man in the hat and

to participate as one of its characters … The

coat can be tried on for size, the disgarded turban

disguise may blur the line between Fantômas

or the loincloth is a waiting room. One awaits one’s

and Juve.

turn to go into the arc lights.

In the original Fantômas novels, Fantômas was

The figure of a person biding time in a waiting

at the very center of a gang of “barbarians,“ called

room helps us to imagine the predicament of

“The Apaches,” who lurked in Paris. It is as if his

people living in societies often considered to be

wearing the accoutrements of bourgeois civility—

inhabiting an antechamber to modernity. In such

the hat, the coat, the occasional umbrella, or

spaces, one waits to be called upon to step onto

walking stick—was a careful disguise, a combat

the stage of history. Most of the world lives in

camouflage cloaking a raging, rampant otherness.

spaces that could be designated as “waiting rooms,”

While it throbbed closer than the jugular vein of

biding its time. These “waiting rooms” exist in

the modern metropolis of advanced capitalism, it

transmetropolitan cities, and in the small enclaves

was at the same time at its farthest remove.

that subsist in the shadow of the edifices of

Fantômas is a barbarian in a hat, or an impostor

legality. There are waiting rooms in New York just

waiting to be recognized.

as there are waiting rooms in New Delhi, and

3

Suzi Gablik, Magritte (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976).

76
there are trapdoors and hidden passages con-

self to the scrutiny of power. The figure of the im-

necting a waiting room in one space with a waiting

postor offers a method of survival that meets the

room in another.

growing intensification of scrutiny with a strategy

Fantômas is a denizen of these spaces, which

based on the multiplication of guises and the

is why he appears in Mexico City, in Calcutta,

amplification of guile. At the same time, the term

and in Caracas. It is also the reason why he, before

impostor is also an accusation; one that power can

Superman or Batman, found his way into short

fling at anyone it chooses to place under scrutiny.

stories, comics, novellas and films in languages

It is this double-edged state, of being a way out

spoken in places as far away from Paris as

as well as a trap, that lends it the capacity to be

possible. If “The Apaches” brought Fantômas with

a heuristic device uniquely suited for a nuanced

them to Paris from some forsaken wilderness,

understanding of a time in which criteria such as

then Fantômas travelled right back to the places

authenticity, veracity, and appropriateness take

where he came from to the urban nether lands

on intense, almost paranoiac dimensions in the

of places that had not yet made it in the map of

conduct and governance of life’s most basic

arc lights.

functions. As concepts, the “impostor,” like the

The passage from “waiting rooms” to the “stage”

“waiting room,” can signify both thresholds

often requires a person to go through intense

meant for quick, sportive and easy crossing, portals

scrutiny. This happens at airports and borders. It

into unpredictable futures, that come laden with

also happens in streets, homes, and workplaces.

the thrill that only unintended consequences can

The art of the impostor becomes a guide to survival

bring, and, for some, a bleak and eternal purgatory

for people negotiating this rough passage. Waiting

tinged with its own peculiar anxiety, distrust, and

rooms everywhere are full of impostors waiting to

fear.

be auditioned, waiting to be verified, waiting to

The impostor figure also comes to us by way of

know and to see whether or not their “act” passes

another lineage, one closer to home than the

muster.

bleak sky of Magritte’s Brussels and its drizzle of

The impostor is an exemplar for a kind of per-

bowler-hatted men. We speak here of the tradition

formative agency that renders a person capable

in northern and eastern India known as “Bahuru-

of expressing more than one kind of truth of the

piya.” A “bahurupi” is a person of many forms and

77
guises, a polymorph, a shape-shifter, a fantastic

begin to think about the distinction between them-

masquerader and pantomime, a primal “Fantômas.”

selves and others in terms that require barriers

“Bahurupis” make their living by masquerade, by

to block the circulation of presences? What makes

the performance of different roles by itinerant

them arrogate the status of being the exclusive

practitioners, for the entertainment, edification

subjects of history?

and occasionally, defrauding of the general public.

What is it about the spaces of vanguard capi-

They might dress up one day as a god, another

talism that produces the peculiar anxiety that

day in drag; one day as a holy mendicant, another

their sanity will be contaminated by being in un-

day as a monkey; and a third day as a somewhat

comfortable proximity with that which lies

comical police constable—and expect to earn

outside of them or perforates them with their in-

money by merely turning up at doorsteps, or hang-

sistence presence? Why is that which itself is

ing around in public spaces, and being offered

so invasive so afraid of contagion?

money, food or shelter in exchange for nothing more

Or, as Magritte might have it: Why is Juve so

than a glance, or a brief stare. Here, disguise,

afraid, and of what? Of Fantômas—his quarry—

and a degree of necessary ambiguity about the self

or of his own reflection or shadow?

is a way of life, a calling, a means of subsistence

This inchoate fear is underpinned by a furious-

and ordering in a world otherwise deeply invested

ly-held telos of manifest historical development,

in certitude.

which both demands, and provides the wherewithal for, the construction and enforcement of hier***

archical taxonomies of people, space, and ways of

What lies at the origin of the distinction be-

living and being—of those who have “arrived” onto

tween the “citizen” (and here we mean also the

a notional center stage of human achievement,

“world citizen,” who feels at ease and has a sense

and others who have been pressured to leave the

of entitlement everywhere) and the person who

stage, or have yet to make an appearance.

neither belongs nor feels entitled to belong to a

Those who have left the stage, or who have yet

city, state, or the world at large, a person who is

to make an appea