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Books > History > Day’s End Stories (Life After Sundown in Small-Town India)
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Day’s End Stories (Life After Sundown in Small-Town India)
Day’s End Stories (Life After Sundown in Small-Town India)
Description

About the Book

 

The nightscape of the Indian metropolis has been eulogised in film and literature. But what of small-town India?

 

Day’s End Stories, through a series of essays, chronicles nightlife in the towns of this country, covering not just dance and drinks, but also night-time activities that fall outside the conventional. Once darkness descends, Amitava Kumar visits the forgotten cultural spaces of Patna and Bettiah; Sumana Roy journeys with women carriers, past Siliguri, to the India-Nepal border; Shiladitya Sarkar takes a midnight rickshaw through the firefly-lit lanes of Puducherry; and Vinod k. Jose recollects, with awe and longing, the late-evening film screening in Mananthavady.

 

The writers uncover, at dusk, the topography of small-town India, sprinkled with taverns, temples, cafes and cinema halls. Equally, they delve into the nocturnal public cultures and subcultures of these spaces, their wonders and trappings intact.

 

They ask: How best can the nightlife of a small town be defined? How do social mores and beliefs impact late-evening wanderings? What pursuits are acceptable under the cover of darkness and what kind are deemed strange and subversive? How does the political climate colour the hours after sundown? Most importantly, has nightlife here come to define a rather parochial idea of modernity, that is attached to the metropolis?

 

Tabish Khair, in a crucial essay in this collection, studies jejuri and Gaya, and attempts to answer the last question. He says: ‘The metropolis need not be cosmopolitan... similarly, the small town can be cosmopolitan in its own ways, as I discovered while growing up in Gaya - the interest we had in other spaces and different cultures was often in excess of what I have encountered among some people who have grown up in London or Copenhagen or Delhi.’

 

Day’s End Stories wishes to acknowledge precisely this - the cosmopolitanism of small-town India - and impels us to reconsider the metropolitan gaze.

 

About the Author

 

Subuhi Jiwani has worked as a journalist, an editor and a researcher in Bombay at publications such as Time Out Mumbai, DNA (Daily News and Analysis) and ART India magazine. She studied at the New School for Social Research, New York, and the Tata. Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Bombay has been, and remains, her home.

 

Introduction

 

As adolescents, going out at night seemed to imply that we (for one never ventured out alone) had a life. Initially, that ‘we’ included myself, my older sister, our immediate neighbours and kids our age in the building. Over time, it extended to boys and girls we met in our tuition classes and those we ran into in the early years of junior college.

 

It was a carefully rationed privilege, this access to the cool club, of which we first got a taste at the dandiya raas functions and the AGM dinner parties in our housing society. It was always a ritual: dressing traditional or fancy (depending on the occasion), wearing my mother’s large round bindis or moderately high heels, applying kajal and lipstick, and yes, priming ourselves to be in the company of young men - without the supervision of our parents. In those snatches of night, when we slunk away from the crowd, were stolen moments of what we then saw as freedom.

 

Perhaps, we wanted to be the women in slinky dresses and stilettos, stepping gingerly out of air-conditioned cars, accompanied by desirable men - images we had seen on satellite TV in the early years of economic liberalisation in India. We wanted to be in mosh pits, to head-bang, to be sprayed on at rock concerts that were still a rarity when I was growing up. We wanted to be in strobe-lit nightclubs, mesmerised by thumping techno beats, a simulation we created by attending afternoon socials at nearby discos. And we wanted this because it seemed to bring us closer to an image of cool, to the idea of the West.

 

By having a nightlife in this conventional sense, Bombay became ‘cool’ - it was our city’s badge of honour. We were not like ‘the rest of India’, where conservatism gripped the hinterlands and there was a spate of crimes against women. Here, we could dress ‘however we wanted’ (well, almost) and go out with guys, as long as we didn’t take public transport and were escorted back home just a little past midnight. We inhabited this little bubble of make-believe with pride.

 

False pride is a delusion one can sustain only for so long. As young women in the’ 90S, our mostly chaperoned worlds rarely took us to slums, villages or smaller cities. Vacations were spent at hill stations, on tours with other families, and slowly, abroad. Hill stations were attractive for the consumables they offered or for the short-lived reprieve from big-city life. Aspiration gripped us like it did many middle- class families; thereupon, it found expression in our parents’, and subsequently, our own desire to study abroad.

 

I studied in suburban Bombay until the twelfth grade and, thereafter, attended an undergraduate liberal arts college in a small town in Illinois. The closest big city was three hours and a sixty-dollar train ride away - a tall price for any foreign student thinking in rupees. So, I was stuck in this town ‘somewhere on the American Prairie’, as I later referred to it, with a population of about 33,000.

 

The first thing I noticed was how empty the roads were. I was used to encountering rickshaw, taxi, car, bus, handcart, cycle, cow, dog, beggar, shit... all in the space of a street. But here, I sometimes found myself being the only pedestrian on my side of the road. I felt like I was peered at and suddenly visible, like a little organism under a microscope. The hundreds of the city, who had earlier provided anonymity (and sometimes, slipped their hands under one’s skirt), had wafted away and left a vacuum in their wake.

 

Ten minutes out of town, you’d see an expanse of cornfields with a lonely barn in the distance. Here, too, the evening sun lit the field a glowing amber, but rarely did one spot a child in the window of the barn or an animal scampering about.

 

The town had a mall with all of four stores - none of any repute - and not a single eatery. Retail therapy, thus, felt more like retail boredom, except at the Salvation Army Store on Main Street, the town’s thoroughfare, where I found many used clothes that I wore for years after. The town’s only cafe, about a fifteen-minute walk from campus, closed at 6 pm, just when I finished a shift at my part-time job. My days and nights, then, were mostly spent on campus, shuttling between the dorm, the dining hall, the library, the cafe and lectures, walking the same sidewalks, greeting the same trees.

 

Night was a time capsule that held dinners at 6 pm and long hours at the computer centre, but also parties at frat houses and the occasional jazz night at a local bar. Most fraternities were groups of overbearingly loud and beefy football players, but the one I sometimes visited was made up of artists, mathematicians, musicians and philosophers. Or at least, young men from nearby towns and villages who aspired to be these things. Besides their quirkiness, it was their love of marijuana that brought them together and kept their ties strong. I walked in like a stray, unable to forge bonds with the international students. In the oddity of these small-town folk, I felt a strange sense of comfort.

 

On jazz nights, the college’s music majors polished their compositions - and their moves: nodding heads, tapping feet, flaunting all the wild body movements that improv inspires. We, in the audience, shook our own heads, caught up, as we were, ‘in da flow’. Whether or not you are a jazz connoisseur, you want to look like one, in a jazz capital or in a town without a jazz scene. The latter, this place had in the audience the student population but also farmers from close by. I remember distinctly seeing a local at the bar once, gyrating to the music on the stereo long after the musicians had packed up. He wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, tight blue jeans and a long, curly moustache. It seemed to me a scene from a country film; the question was only: What was I doing in it?

 

The condescension that many of my fellow students showed for this ‘hick town’ rubbed off on me too. This moniker had more to do with class than with a place’s smallness or assumed provincialism. Small towns were where ‘white trash’ lived out their presumably blinkered lives and ‘hick’ was a member of their breed: uncultured, loud and brash. Rosy-eyed as I became for the metropolis, and blinded by its promised allure, I kept asking myself: What am I doing in Hicksville USA? The question bothered me so much that two years later, I transferred to a university in the metropolis, where I thought I belonged. I was twenty then.

 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that belonging is hardly dependent on place, and even the places where you lay roots may, one day, uproot you. But the call of the metropolis, if one may call it that, is an idea I’d like to take apart here. When does the big city call out to you? And what might that call, that yearning, say about the place you are in and how you see it?

 

In my case, nostalgia for home got translated into a longing for the big city. But years of living on tight budgets in a big American city taught me that the metropolis glimmers mostly from afar. Close-up, it takes money and power and privilege to be a part of its glow. I lived mostly in Black and Latino ghettoes, took only public transport, ate fast food for lunch and Chinese for dinner, and continued to shop at second- hand stores.

 

It strikes me that the big city’s promise of diversity, expressed in thought and in the array of skin colours on the street, also drew me to it. At my small-town college, I was happy to attend classes on native American history and African American literature, but where was South Asia in the curriculum? Why was I, so often, one of the only students of colour in my classes? Why was anthropology being taught in such an old-fashioned way, and why wasn’t it crisscrossing with contemporary politics? I wanted a radical curriculum, something that questioned the methods of anthropology as a discipline, and not an excuse for an education in the social sciences that clubbed together sociology and anthropology as ‘So-An’. I came to the big city, then, in search of a place that could nurture my interests, but also to swim in an aquarium of different kinds of fish. I’ve wondered what makes people migrate from small towns to big cities. While one mustn’t generalise across cultures and contexts, some plausible reasons are aspiration, anonymity, livelihood, and the promise of freedoms, however limited. Tabish Khair’s essay in this volume hints at an answer: Growing up in Gaya, he says that dreaming of being a writer in English was not only seen as impractical, but also as something worrisome. ‘When you grow up in the middle - classes of small towns like Gaya, you cannot set out to be just a writer. The social net under you is not strong enough, and the chasm below it is huge.’ This is one reason why, he says, he has always had a job ‘on the side’, as a journalist or an academic. That he now lives in Denmark and teaches at a university there may be a coincidence, but for those of us working in the English media, we know that the publishing houses and newspaper jobs and editing gigs are mostly in the big city. The small town may offer you a job as a stringer, but can you be a writer in English and choose a path that doesn’t wind around the metropolis, even intermittently?

 

Admittedly, small towns in India are as alien to me as wild poppies, but like a child enamoured by a field of flowers, her eyes wide open, her nostrils alert, I have tried to read and listen and learn about life in smaller places. Ideas travel from laptop to laptop and, one August evening, the idea for this book arrived in my inbox. I have since been trawling through the internet and visiting bookshops in an attempt to find voices that can speak of night in places other than the metropolis. Why, you might ask, look at the small city or town? Because, perhaps, like an old-school anthropologist, I am still drawn to the unknown or the lesser known. Or, the white man’s burden has become my metropolitan person’s burden, and this anthology is an attempt to unload or, at least, confront that baggage. Some questions have helped me measure the weight of the baggage: Does a city’s nightlife say anything about its allegiance to ‘modern values’, as it is often assumed? Must we look at life at night as distinct from nightlife, which is mostly driven by the idea of consumption, bourgeois or otherwise? Might the close of day and opening of night imply something other than the release from assembly lines and desk jobs?

 

Night, as a time capsule, holds many possibilities and means many things in smaller places. Activity on the street or in public places varies from none to a steady flow, but the essence of night lies not in the quantum of a town’s offerings, but in the texture of the experiences it offers. For instance, Amitava Kumar tells us that light can, in places like Bettiah in Bihar, be an intrusion in the lives of people used to structuring their lives around power outages, to the privacy the cover of night offers. In Patna, where men may still fear the darkness because of its threat of kidnappings, murders and dacoities, Kumar looks for a slice of city life that might offer a different picture. Surely the city cannot be only the playground of anarchy, he wonders. And he looks to its cultural activities as evidence of a different kind of Patna.

 

Other writers study the drift of time, and the small, forgotten revolutions they stir in the small town. In her essay on Aligarh, Taran N. Khan recalls the time when she, as a young woman, was chaperoned to the annual agricultural fair, a place which offered a chance to exchange looks with the opposite sex and, possibly, brush hands too. She returns to observe the lives of her young female cousins today and asks: What has changed?

 

Change is also what Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih maps in his historical essay on nights in Shillong. He goes back to the early storytelling of the Khasis around a fire; moves through the nightly recreation of migrants who moved in during the colonial period; and then speaks of the cinema-viewing culture in the ‘80S, the hotel club-going trend today, the night game of badminton in his neighbourhood, and the noisy and fun filled Khasi funeral that goes on late into the night.

 

As a youth in a small town in Kerala’s Wayanad district, Vinod K. Jose had seen a four-day Kurosawa festival that changed the course of his life. Years after having moved out of his hometown of Mananthavady, he recounts how he sometimes felt like Dersu Uzala in the big city and how, more importantly, the films brought about a cultural awakening in him that took him to cities beyond state and national borders.

 

There are other essays too that chart transformation, but some shifts upturn familiar spaces, leaving behind deep fissures and crater-like scars. Evenings and nights in Ahmedabad take Zahir Janmohamed to malls, dinners and parties, but he is constantly reminded of the city’s communal Past and present - and his own difference - despite his attempts to look beyond the communal question and the Gujarat riots of 2002, which affected him and informed his work.

 

Night, so far, has been seen as a time for recreation, but Sumana Roy reminds us that the cover of darkness may allow some to earn their livelihoods. A Siliguri resident, Roy waits in her car at a town near the India-Nepal border as middle- aged women or ‘carriers’ cross it, smuggling in goods strapped on to their bodies and hidden under their clothes. Their night-lives make them vulnerable to violence from the police and others, but they seem to view this quite matter-of-factly, almost as a part of the job. This makes Roy sit back, analyse her own working life and the harassment she experiences at the workplace. She ends up looking at the ways in which she sees these carriers.

 

Ways of seeing are also explored by Akshay Pathak, who returns home to Bikaner, to streets full of evening talk and food, but finds the desert sunset different from the one he left behind. Dharini Bhaskar, in her turn, camps overnight on the edge of a cliff in McLeod Ganj, and wonders about the nature of exile, for Tibetans living in the mountain town and shuttlers between cities like herself. Finally, Shiladitya Sarkar from Kolkata, who moves to Puducherry for a year, fills lonely hours in Tamil bars, and later, at seaside cafes in the company of newly made friends. Pondy, he discovers, pays homage to Bacchus, Rajnikanth and Sri Aurobindo, under the cloud of its French colonial hangover.

 

What might these nights say about a city or town’s allegiance to modern or conservative values? Perhaps very little, given that these are highly subjective experiences of only a handful of people, a majority of them men, English-speaking and upper-middle-class. They do, though, make portraits of night and pictures of small towns, each of which get tacked on to the pages of this book. We can read through them as one would travel through a group show of paintings.

 

Early in the tour is a picture of a series of poems about a small temple town. It is also a picture of the insides of our own reading minds. Tabish Khair, in a crucial essay that pertains to the ideological construction of the small town in India, dwells on the alternate cosmopolitanisms of such places that are seen, for the most part, as unchanging, backward and conservative, especially in contrast to metropolitan centres. However, through a close reading of the poems in Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Khair shows us that Jejuri and its inhabitants upset such ideas of stasis. A ‘provincial’ temple town though Jejuri may be, it is also secular in its own way and opportunistic when it comes to pilgrimage commerce. Besides this, drawing from his own experience of growing up in Gaya, Khair tells us that he recalls not a narrowness that is commonly associated with small towns, but a burning desire to know the world outside, something he has often not seen in the big cities of the world like London, Copenhagen and Delhi. If cosmopolitanism can be defined as an openness to other people, cultures and ideas, to difference, then Gaya and Jejuri, in Khair’s opinion, can be said to be cosmopolitan in their own ways.

 

In this context, instances of parochialism from the big city may help us tip the scales a bit, and remind us that cosmopolitanisms exist as islands in larger seas of intolerance, perhaps, irrespective of geography. Tirades against’ outsiders’ in Bombay, whether it was South Indians in the 1960s, Muslims in the 1990S, or Biharis in the 2000S, are indicative. Or, closer to the theme of the book, the ban on dance bars and their supposed threat to our ‘morality’ and ‘culture’. Despite the lifting of the ban by the Supreme Court in July 2013, dance bars are yet to become fully operational and bar dancers are yet to be seen as workers earning a respectable livelihood.

 

What we are speaking of, then, is the prevalence of certain kinds of attitudes towards the night and those who step out of their homes after sundown. I am reminded of one of my first journalistic assignments after I moved back to Bombay in 2004. I was to write about the city’s night, from 7 am to 7 pm. With the intermittent company of a photographer till midnight, I spent the rest of the night alone, taking taxis from one venue to another. Looking back now, I wonder if I was courting a certain kind of risk, blinded as I was by the metropolitan gaze. Violence against women, after all, is not restricted to deserted alleys or dependent on what we wear, what time we’re out and whether or not we’re in the big city. I remember writing: ‘A woman who takes on the city’s nightlife alone is either an oddity, a brave gal or an excuse to be sympathetic. ‘2 I know today that had something happened to me that night, it would have been because I had ‘invited’ it, because I was out, all alone, at night. Whether I was in a big city or a small town wouldn’t have made a difference.

 

There are fewer women’s voices in this book than I had hoped for. But we do see portraits of three different kinds of women in three small places. Yet, despite their carefree and fearless wandering at night, despite societal prescriptions, deep down in our collective unconscious, sunlight still seems to make us feel safer, in contrast to darkness and all that lies within it.

 

Must we begin to see day’s end in a different light? Must we reclaim the streets for ourselves? Perhaps, in the hope that we may be able to live without fear. And the sun.

 

Contents

 

Prologue

v

Introduction: So Many Night Capsules

ix

Bihari Nights

1

The Bigness of Small Towns

18

Little Women, Fewer Men

37

Seeking the Spirit of Night

51

A Country of Words

69

Escaping Home, and Returning

93

Crossing Lines

109

Raat Ki Rani

133

‘Monsieur, Keen on Rajnikanth?’

153

The World Came to Town

178

 

Sample Pages

















Day’s End Stories (Life After Sundown in Small-Town India)

Item Code:
NAG619
Cover:
Paperback
Edition:
2014
Publisher:
ISBN:
9789383260812
Language:
English
Size:
8 inch X 5 inch
Pages:
228
Other Details:
Weight of the Book: 175 gms
Price:
$15.00   Shipping Free
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About the Book

 

The nightscape of the Indian metropolis has been eulogised in film and literature. But what of small-town India?

 

Day’s End Stories, through a series of essays, chronicles nightlife in the towns of this country, covering not just dance and drinks, but also night-time activities that fall outside the conventional. Once darkness descends, Amitava Kumar visits the forgotten cultural spaces of Patna and Bettiah; Sumana Roy journeys with women carriers, past Siliguri, to the India-Nepal border; Shiladitya Sarkar takes a midnight rickshaw through the firefly-lit lanes of Puducherry; and Vinod k. Jose recollects, with awe and longing, the late-evening film screening in Mananthavady.

 

The writers uncover, at dusk, the topography of small-town India, sprinkled with taverns, temples, cafes and cinema halls. Equally, they delve into the nocturnal public cultures and subcultures of these spaces, their wonders and trappings intact.

 

They ask: How best can the nightlife of a small town be defined? How do social mores and beliefs impact late-evening wanderings? What pursuits are acceptable under the cover of darkness and what kind are deemed strange and subversive? How does the political climate colour the hours after sundown? Most importantly, has nightlife here come to define a rather parochial idea of modernity, that is attached to the metropolis?

 

Tabish Khair, in a crucial essay in this collection, studies jejuri and Gaya, and attempts to answer the last question. He says: ‘The metropolis need not be cosmopolitan... similarly, the small town can be cosmopolitan in its own ways, as I discovered while growing up in Gaya - the interest we had in other spaces and different cultures was often in excess of what I have encountered among some people who have grown up in London or Copenhagen or Delhi.’

 

Day’s End Stories wishes to acknowledge precisely this - the cosmopolitanism of small-town India - and impels us to reconsider the metropolitan gaze.

 

About the Author

 

Subuhi Jiwani has worked as a journalist, an editor and a researcher in Bombay at publications such as Time Out Mumbai, DNA (Daily News and Analysis) and ART India magazine. She studied at the New School for Social Research, New York, and the Tata. Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Bombay has been, and remains, her home.

 

Introduction

 

As adolescents, going out at night seemed to imply that we (for one never ventured out alone) had a life. Initially, that ‘we’ included myself, my older sister, our immediate neighbours and kids our age in the building. Over time, it extended to boys and girls we met in our tuition classes and those we ran into in the early years of junior college.

 

It was a carefully rationed privilege, this access to the cool club, of which we first got a taste at the dandiya raas functions and the AGM dinner parties in our housing society. It was always a ritual: dressing traditional or fancy (depending on the occasion), wearing my mother’s large round bindis or moderately high heels, applying kajal and lipstick, and yes, priming ourselves to be in the company of young men - without the supervision of our parents. In those snatches of night, when we slunk away from the crowd, were stolen moments of what we then saw as freedom.

 

Perhaps, we wanted to be the women in slinky dresses and stilettos, stepping gingerly out of air-conditioned cars, accompanied by desirable men - images we had seen on satellite TV in the early years of economic liberalisation in India. We wanted to be in mosh pits, to head-bang, to be sprayed on at rock concerts that were still a rarity when I was growing up. We wanted to be in strobe-lit nightclubs, mesmerised by thumping techno beats, a simulation we created by attending afternoon socials at nearby discos. And we wanted this because it seemed to bring us closer to an image of cool, to the idea of the West.

 

By having a nightlife in this conventional sense, Bombay became ‘cool’ - it was our city’s badge of honour. We were not like ‘the rest of India’, where conservatism gripped the hinterlands and there was a spate of crimes against women. Here, we could dress ‘however we wanted’ (well, almost) and go out with guys, as long as we didn’t take public transport and were escorted back home just a little past midnight. We inhabited this little bubble of make-believe with pride.

 

False pride is a delusion one can sustain only for so long. As young women in the’ 90S, our mostly chaperoned worlds rarely took us to slums, villages or smaller cities. Vacations were spent at hill stations, on tours with other families, and slowly, abroad. Hill stations were attractive for the consumables they offered or for the short-lived reprieve from big-city life. Aspiration gripped us like it did many middle- class families; thereupon, it found expression in our parents’, and subsequently, our own desire to study abroad.

 

I studied in suburban Bombay until the twelfth grade and, thereafter, attended an undergraduate liberal arts college in a small town in Illinois. The closest big city was three hours and a sixty-dollar train ride away - a tall price for any foreign student thinking in rupees. So, I was stuck in this town ‘somewhere on the American Prairie’, as I later referred to it, with a population of about 33,000.

 

The first thing I noticed was how empty the roads were. I was used to encountering rickshaw, taxi, car, bus, handcart, cycle, cow, dog, beggar, shit... all in the space of a street. But here, I sometimes found myself being the only pedestrian on my side of the road. I felt like I was peered at and suddenly visible, like a little organism under a microscope. The hundreds of the city, who had earlier provided anonymity (and sometimes, slipped their hands under one’s skirt), had wafted away and left a vacuum in their wake.

 

Ten minutes out of town, you’d see an expanse of cornfields with a lonely barn in the distance. Here, too, the evening sun lit the field a glowing amber, but rarely did one spot a child in the window of the barn or an animal scampering about.

 

The town had a mall with all of four stores - none of any repute - and not a single eatery. Retail therapy, thus, felt more like retail boredom, except at the Salvation Army Store on Main Street, the town’s thoroughfare, where I found many used clothes that I wore for years after. The town’s only cafe, about a fifteen-minute walk from campus, closed at 6 pm, just when I finished a shift at my part-time job. My days and nights, then, were mostly spent on campus, shuttling between the dorm, the dining hall, the library, the cafe and lectures, walking the same sidewalks, greeting the same trees.

 

Night was a time capsule that held dinners at 6 pm and long hours at the computer centre, but also parties at frat houses and the occasional jazz night at a local bar. Most fraternities were groups of overbearingly loud and beefy football players, but the one I sometimes visited was made up of artists, mathematicians, musicians and philosophers. Or at least, young men from nearby towns and villages who aspired to be these things. Besides their quirkiness, it was their love of marijuana that brought them together and kept their ties strong. I walked in like a stray, unable to forge bonds with the international students. In the oddity of these small-town folk, I felt a strange sense of comfort.

 

On jazz nights, the college’s music majors polished their compositions - and their moves: nodding heads, tapping feet, flaunting all the wild body movements that improv inspires. We, in the audience, shook our own heads, caught up, as we were, ‘in da flow’. Whether or not you are a jazz connoisseur, you want to look like one, in a jazz capital or in a town without a jazz scene. The latter, this place had in the audience the student population but also farmers from close by. I remember distinctly seeing a local at the bar once, gyrating to the music on the stereo long after the musicians had packed up. He wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, tight blue jeans and a long, curly moustache. It seemed to me a scene from a country film; the question was only: What was I doing in it?

 

The condescension that many of my fellow students showed for this ‘hick town’ rubbed off on me too. This moniker had more to do with class than with a place’s smallness or assumed provincialism. Small towns were where ‘white trash’ lived out their presumably blinkered lives and ‘hick’ was a member of their breed: uncultured, loud and brash. Rosy-eyed as I became for the metropolis, and blinded by its promised allure, I kept asking myself: What am I doing in Hicksville USA? The question bothered me so much that two years later, I transferred to a university in the metropolis, where I thought I belonged. I was twenty then.

 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that belonging is hardly dependent on place, and even the places where you lay roots may, one day, uproot you. But the call of the metropolis, if one may call it that, is an idea I’d like to take apart here. When does the big city call out to you? And what might that call, that yearning, say about the place you are in and how you see it?

 

In my case, nostalgia for home got translated into a longing for the big city. But years of living on tight budgets in a big American city taught me that the metropolis glimmers mostly from afar. Close-up, it takes money and power and privilege to be a part of its glow. I lived mostly in Black and Latino ghettoes, took only public transport, ate fast food for lunch and Chinese for dinner, and continued to shop at second- hand stores.

 

It strikes me that the big city’s promise of diversity, expressed in thought and in the array of skin colours on the street, also drew me to it. At my small-town college, I was happy to attend classes on native American history and African American literature, but where was South Asia in the curriculum? Why was I, so often, one of the only students of colour in my classes? Why was anthropology being taught in such an old-fashioned way, and why wasn’t it crisscrossing with contemporary politics? I wanted a radical curriculum, something that questioned the methods of anthropology as a discipline, and not an excuse for an education in the social sciences that clubbed together sociology and anthropology as ‘So-An’. I came to the big city, then, in search of a place that could nurture my interests, but also to swim in an aquarium of different kinds of fish. I’ve wondered what makes people migrate from small towns to big cities. While one mustn’t generalise across cultures and contexts, some plausible reasons are aspiration, anonymity, livelihood, and the promise of freedoms, however limited. Tabish Khair’s essay in this volume hints at an answer: Growing up in Gaya, he says that dreaming of being a writer in English was not only seen as impractical, but also as something worrisome. ‘When you grow up in the middle - classes of small towns like Gaya, you cannot set out to be just a writer. The social net under you is not strong enough, and the chasm below it is huge.’ This is one reason why, he says, he has always had a job ‘on the side’, as a journalist or an academic. That he now lives in Denmark and teaches at a university there may be a coincidence, but for those of us working in the English media, we know that the publishing houses and newspaper jobs and editing gigs are mostly in the big city. The small town may offer you a job as a stringer, but can you be a writer in English and choose a path that doesn’t wind around the metropolis, even intermittently?

 

Admittedly, small towns in India are as alien to me as wild poppies, but like a child enamoured by a field of flowers, her eyes wide open, her nostrils alert, I have tried to read and listen and learn about life in smaller places. Ideas travel from laptop to laptop and, one August evening, the idea for this book arrived in my inbox. I have since been trawling through the internet and visiting bookshops in an attempt to find voices that can speak of night in places other than the metropolis. Why, you might ask, look at the small city or town? Because, perhaps, like an old-school anthropologist, I am still drawn to the unknown or the lesser known. Or, the white man’s burden has become my metropolitan person’s burden, and this anthology is an attempt to unload or, at least, confront that baggage. Some questions have helped me measure the weight of the baggage: Does a city’s nightlife say anything about its allegiance to ‘modern values’, as it is often assumed? Must we look at life at night as distinct from nightlife, which is mostly driven by the idea of consumption, bourgeois or otherwise? Might the close of day and opening of night imply something other than the release from assembly lines and desk jobs?

 

Night, as a time capsule, holds many possibilities and means many things in smaller places. Activity on the street or in public places varies from none to a steady flow, but the essence of night lies not in the quantum of a town’s offerings, but in the texture of the experiences it offers. For instance, Amitava Kumar tells us that light can, in places like Bettiah in Bihar, be an intrusion in the lives of people used to structuring their lives around power outages, to the privacy the cover of night offers. In Patna, where men may still fear the darkness because of its threat of kidnappings, murders and dacoities, Kumar looks for a slice of city life that might offer a different picture. Surely the city cannot be only the playground of anarchy, he wonders. And he looks to its cultural activities as evidence of a different kind of Patna.

 

Other writers study the drift of time, and the small, forgotten revolutions they stir in the small town. In her essay on Aligarh, Taran N. Khan recalls the time when she, as a young woman, was chaperoned to the annual agricultural fair, a place which offered a chance to exchange looks with the opposite sex and, possibly, brush hands too. She returns to observe the lives of her young female cousins today and asks: What has changed?

 

Change is also what Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih maps in his historical essay on nights in Shillong. He goes back to the early storytelling of the Khasis around a fire; moves through the nightly recreation of migrants who moved in during the colonial period; and then speaks of the cinema-viewing culture in the ‘80S, the hotel club-going trend today, the night game of badminton in his neighbourhood, and the noisy and fun filled Khasi funeral that goes on late into the night.

 

As a youth in a small town in Kerala’s Wayanad district, Vinod K. Jose had seen a four-day Kurosawa festival that changed the course of his life. Years after having moved out of his hometown of Mananthavady, he recounts how he sometimes felt like Dersu Uzala in the big city and how, more importantly, the films brought about a cultural awakening in him that took him to cities beyond state and national borders.

 

There are other essays too that chart transformation, but some shifts upturn familiar spaces, leaving behind deep fissures and crater-like scars. Evenings and nights in Ahmedabad take Zahir Janmohamed to malls, dinners and parties, but he is constantly reminded of the city’s communal Past and present - and his own difference - despite his attempts to look beyond the communal question and the Gujarat riots of 2002, which affected him and informed his work.

 

Night, so far, has been seen as a time for recreation, but Sumana Roy reminds us that the cover of darkness may allow some to earn their livelihoods. A Siliguri resident, Roy waits in her car at a town near the India-Nepal border as middle- aged women or ‘carriers’ cross it, smuggling in goods strapped on to their bodies and hidden under their clothes. Their night-lives make them vulnerable to violence from the police and others, but they seem to view this quite matter-of-factly, almost as a part of the job. This makes Roy sit back, analyse her own working life and the harassment she experiences at the workplace. She ends up looking at the ways in which she sees these carriers.

 

Ways of seeing are also explored by Akshay Pathak, who returns home to Bikaner, to streets full of evening talk and food, but finds the desert sunset different from the one he left behind. Dharini Bhaskar, in her turn, camps overnight on the edge of a cliff in McLeod Ganj, and wonders about the nature of exile, for Tibetans living in the mountain town and shuttlers between cities like herself. Finally, Shiladitya Sarkar from Kolkata, who moves to Puducherry for a year, fills lonely hours in Tamil bars, and later, at seaside cafes in the company of newly made friends. Pondy, he discovers, pays homage to Bacchus, Rajnikanth and Sri Aurobindo, under the cloud of its French colonial hangover.

 

What might these nights say about a city or town’s allegiance to modern or conservative values? Perhaps very little, given that these are highly subjective experiences of only a handful of people, a majority of them men, English-speaking and upper-middle-class. They do, though, make portraits of night and pictures of small towns, each of which get tacked on to the pages of this book. We can read through them as one would travel through a group show of paintings.

 

Early in the tour is a picture of a series of poems about a small temple town. It is also a picture of the insides of our own reading minds. Tabish Khair, in a crucial essay that pertains to the ideological construction of the small town in India, dwells on the alternate cosmopolitanisms of such places that are seen, for the most part, as unchanging, backward and conservative, especially in contrast to metropolitan centres. However, through a close reading of the poems in Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Khair shows us that Jejuri and its inhabitants upset such ideas of stasis. A ‘provincial’ temple town though Jejuri may be, it is also secular in its own way and opportunistic when it comes to pilgrimage commerce. Besides this, drawing from his own experience of growing up in Gaya, Khair tells us that he recalls not a narrowness that is commonly associated with small towns, but a burning desire to know the world outside, something he has often not seen in the big cities of the world like London, Copenhagen and Delhi. If cosmopolitanism can be defined as an openness to other people, cultures and ideas, to difference, then Gaya and Jejuri, in Khair’s opinion, can be said to be cosmopolitan in their own ways.

 

In this context, instances of parochialism from the big city may help us tip the scales a bit, and remind us that cosmopolitanisms exist as islands in larger seas of intolerance, perhaps, irrespective of geography. Tirades against’ outsiders’ in Bombay, whether it was South Indians in the 1960s, Muslims in the 1990S, or Biharis in the 2000S, are indicative. Or, closer to the theme of the book, the ban on dance bars and their supposed threat to our ‘morality’ and ‘culture’. Despite the lifting of the ban by the Supreme Court in July 2013, dance bars are yet to become fully operational and bar dancers are yet to be seen as workers earning a respectable livelihood.

 

What we are speaking of, then, is the prevalence of certain kinds of attitudes towards the night and those who step out of their homes after sundown. I am reminded of one of my first journalistic assignments after I moved back to Bombay in 2004. I was to write about the city’s night, from 7 am to 7 pm. With the intermittent company of a photographer till midnight, I spent the rest of the night alone, taking taxis from one venue to another. Looking back now, I wonder if I was courting a certain kind of risk, blinded as I was by the metropolitan gaze. Violence against women, after all, is not restricted to deserted alleys or dependent on what we wear, what time we’re out and whether or not we’re in the big city. I remember writing: ‘A woman who takes on the city’s nightlife alone is either an oddity, a brave gal or an excuse to be sympathetic. ‘2 I know today that had something happened to me that night, it would have been because I had ‘invited’ it, because I was out, all alone, at night. Whether I was in a big city or a small town wouldn’t have made a difference.

 

There are fewer women’s voices in this book than I had hoped for. But we do see portraits of three different kinds of women in three small places. Yet, despite their carefree and fearless wandering at night, despite societal prescriptions, deep down in our collective unconscious, sunlight still seems to make us feel safer, in contrast to darkness and all that lies within it.

 

Must we begin to see day’s end in a different light? Must we reclaim the streets for ourselves? Perhaps, in the hope that we may be able to live without fear. And the sun.

 

Contents

 

Prologue

v

Introduction: So Many Night Capsules

ix

Bihari Nights

1

The Bigness of Small Towns

18

Little Women, Fewer Men

37

Seeking the Spirit of Night

51

A Country of Words

69

Escaping Home, and Returning

93

Crossing Lines

109

Raat Ki Rani

133

‘Monsieur, Keen on Rajnikanth?’

153

The World Came to Town

178

 

Sample Pages

















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