Do You See?
Jajabor: The Migrant City
Someone once said: writers have a soul that cannot even stay in heaven; it will journey on. As a writer, I see my nomad self traverse myths and histories, and idioms and images from the cities of my origin to the cities of my dreams. What I encounter in the process is, “Jajabor – The Migrant City”, my proposed project.
The Migrant City walks with millions. It is my studio, my study.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s Assamese song “Moi eti jajabor” (I am a nomad) is perhaps known to a significant number of people at least from its lilting tune. The universal appeal of this melodious song lies in the fact that it exhorts the urge in every human to undertake journeys through difficult climes and terrains. From the banks of known rivers to unknown city streets, we trek with the song until the beauty of the world unravels itself for the seeking soul, tired by her sojourns.
However, putting aside the romance of the nomad’s journey if we look at timeless works such as Pather Panchali, another aspect of the universal truth emerges. Poverty and suffering has constituted the age-old paradigm of migration, forcing populations to leave their ancestral homes. What befell Harihar-Sarbajoya-Apu-Durga in Satyajit Ray’s classic movie is a fate many carry even today, in conditions worse than ever, given India’s monumental caste-class problems. While the city waits to receive them, it turns into a migrant itself. With the migrant feet that have journeyed from village to town to city, and in turn from city to city in their endless quest for life and love, the city too has followed the migrant souls, temporally and spatially. Decade by decade and block by block.
My work speaks about waves of population coming and receding from the city, while the city itself changes its landscape, its borders and barriers, and its topography of urban dwellings. High-rise blocks dot housing areas that earlier flaunted old-world asbestos-roofed homes; pavements appear or disappear; mushrooming shopping malls come to exist with the crowd milling around in flea markets where migrants bring in their fare of beads, crafts and colours. A view from below best illustrates this. It indeed shows us how the marginalized and her search for a life of respect in the urban jungle affects the entity of city itself. Shops, bazaars, slums, construction sites etc. come up and continue with the migrant’s evolution or doom. A fascinating journey indeed, the Migrant City walks from a temple town to a city newsroom to a First World seminar room and even back.
A bilingual born and brought up in Guwahati, Assam, my city for me was a conduit for my double-edged heritage. The born-into heritage of Assam and the cultural-political influences of Guwahati from the ‘70s to the late ’80s prepared me for a longer haul ahead. Also, the inherited legacy of an undivided pre-Partition Bengal-Assam whose part my parents were, made me look back every now and then in search of idioms I want to re-create for myself. Sylhet, Sunamganj, Dhaka, Guwahati, Tezpur, Kolkata, Delhi – the train of cities in my experience does not obliterate one another, but supports the link each provides to the other. Often I felt that I have watched these cities, including even my birthplace, from the archway. The centre never held on.
Later when I moved to Delhi, standing at the threshold of the city and not truly belonging to any ONE place enhanced my “city” perception in a particular way. There I saw the imaginary city juxtaposed with the so-called real one with its spaces of “to-do’s and not-to-do’s”, it signage of “the allowed and the disallowed”, and its collective of “the walled and the un-walled”. A Migrant City!
The migrant city in fact, walked and ran with me and even flew across the Atlantic to North America where I witnessed the City and the Inhabitant interact in very special ways – ties of work, specialized training, globalised trade, new culture orientation, economic and knowledge aspirations, etc. bind the Migrant City to its population – whether it is a university town in rural America or the coasts or the Big Apple itself.
Through my poems Dialogues with Delhi (published in Kritya, India), Questionnaire (published in Omega journal, Howling Dog Press, USA), Narrative Limits (2nd Prize winner in 2008 all-India poetry contest under HarperCollins-India and Open Space, published in the collection ‘Borders’ from Talking Poetry), Her Gardens in Two Hemispheres (published in Muse India), Battery Park City, Sem(an)tics and City Siblings; and the essays Pariscope (published in Troubadour 21, USA) of the ongoing “Euro-series”, and the work-in-progress Felinity of the “Assam-Delhi- series”, I want to bring alive the Migrant City in its different aspects.
Three tentative segments seem viable under the main project “Jajabor: The Migrant City”:
- Text and the City: my poems that dialogue with the City and the Inhabitant – this will result in a workshop with other artists/participants
- Hands and Hemispheres: my essays that follow the life of the City and the Inhabitant in their reality and fictionality across continents, as I see these elements from the periphery of cities – this will result in another interactive workshop possibly with oral stories of migrant experiences
- Within-Without: poems, essays, haiku on “City Memorabilia” – songs, videos, advertisements, monuments, street signs, restaurants, slums, bazaars, skylines… – this could team up with a partner artist’s presentation, one who has highlighted similar “city memorabilia”.
I’d love to hear my readers’ suggestions. The creative effort is an interactive process, so come on, give me your ideas!