A Whole Lodhi Love

 

One of the attractions of the old parts of many Indian cities is public signage. As you wander along Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi, or Chowk in Lucknow for example, you are assaulted by a dense, multi-coloured array of shop fronts displaying humour both deliberate and accidental. A sign that I have seen a few times at the entrance to parks, and especially temple grounds reads ‘Kripiya prem ka dikhawa na karem/ No Public Display of Affection’. At first, this would appear to be akin to the ‘No running, no bombing, no petting’ signs of swimming pools in the 1980s. Yet the abundance of couples in some of the main parks of the big cities suggests something both more oppressive and risky is happening. Lodhi Gardens in Delhi is famous for couples, as is Nehru Park for gay Delhi. The site of the Siege of Lucknow in 1857 – The Residency, is now a common location for more intimate conquests. It is clear that particular parks are urban sites for physical contact and it seems that these young people go there to get away from something. More public liaisons, in these days of demonetisation, are probably less appealing. As a friend Saima Rehman joked, if your boyfriend complains that you don’t spend enough time together, take him out to an ATM.

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One aspect of public physical contact that it took me a while to get used to, was the ostensibly platonic hand-holding between men. My very first, disarming sight of Indian policemen was two male constables strolling through the airport hand in hand. Some friends in my all-male Lucknow friendship group would regularly take my hand for longer than I would normally find comfortable. On discussion of the subject, they nevertheless rigorously denied the very existence of homosexuality in India. Getting away then, for those moving outside of these boundaries is clearly essential, not least because there are some people around who don’t like to see kissing. One group the Park lovers may be evading are the custodians of the nation’s ‘morality’- the various and now powerful organisations of the Hindu right. In October 2014, the youth wing of the ruling party (the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha) organised an attack on a café which had been the site of a news story around a kissing couple, believed to be acting obscenely in public. In response a Facebook group generated by a group of young Keralans called ‘Kiss of Love’ organised a mass kissing protest at Marine Drive, Kochi. Various religious organisations sent toughs to attempt to forcibly remove the protestors while the strong-arm of the state – the police (some of them holding hands)- stood by and watched. But the protests spread to other cities, including one very risky mass kissing event outside the Delhi HQ of the neo-Nazi organisation the RSS on 8 November.

We might almost say that there has been a public affection war being waged in the last ten years. Since the election of the BJP in 2014, the policing of couples in public has involved ‘Anti-Valentine’ protests and attacks. A Hindu Mahasabha spokesman leading up a public shaming campaign argued ‘we are not against love, but if a couple is in love they must get married.’ Consequently in 2015 the Mahasabha offered a ‘free’ and prompt wedding to those caught celebrating Valentine’s. As with most of its other interpretations of ‘Hindu’ culture, these groups’ view of public love is derived more from 20th Century nationalism than religious text or authority. The chapter of the Kama Sutra on 30 forms of kiss is well known. Some of the earliest Vedic texts dating back to the second millennium BC also make reference to it. Yet any attempt to point out the fluidity of India’s multiple, socially diverse and inconsistent Hindu cultures leads to violent resistance and censorship. India’s far right successfully pressurised Penguin books, for example to pulp Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, partly for this reason.

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The ‘Kiss of Love’ Protest

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These exhortations about public affection cannot be explained away as just the obsessions of fruitcakes with baggy shorts, nazi salutes and big sticks. Underlying them, as well as reaction to other sexualities, is a fundamental fear about changes in the nature of the family, and principally the freedom of women. Rana Dasgupta has recently argued that the virulence of sexual violence against women in Delhi, for example, has paralleled the expansion of urban professional and leadership roles for single women. I would argue, further, that this is not simply a product of recent changes in urban India, although its scale and public exposure has changed in recent times. There have been other moments historically when men faced sudden and large-scale challenges from independent women. These moments, in which Indian society was for a time polarised, tells us something more about both the social breadth and persistence of patriarchy and the flexibility of ideologies that challenge it.

One such moment of polarisation was the decision of India’s new postcolonial Indian state to establish a Constitution in 1950, containing one of the most elaborate and radical statements of Fundamental Rights of its time. Articles 15 and 16 of this enormously powerful document set out that no citizen could be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Neither could the state discriminate on those bases. Yet in the archive, the year the Constitution was promulgated, we can find files setting out how women should be ‘banned’ from an array of public service jobs. In the same period, legislation attempting to establish legal equality for women in the late 1940s and early 1950s – The Hindu Code Bill- was being debated. But at the heart of India’s political establishment, there was also resistance to this basic legal equality: Daughters, conservatives argued, would still not be treated like sons when it came to marriage, rights of divorce, or inheritance.

These arguments exposed a fundamental gender divide in Indian political culture – a divide most beautifully illustrated in a journal I read yesterday-Roshni- published by the largest national women’s organisation of the period, the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). In May 1949 Roshni’s editorial described an address, made by women from Madras to the future first President of the Republic, Rajendra Prasad which called on him to support the Hindu Code Bill. The fury with which Roshni reported Prasad’s reply, leapt off the page: “We must take into account the views of not only the advanced people but also those who are not advanced” Prasad responded, “I am sure that if the provisions of the Code were explained to my wife, whom I consider to be a representative of the orthodox women of India, she would not accept them”.

The editorial then took out the scalpel: ‘It is unfortunate that Mrs. Rajendra Prasad should have been mentioned at all. We have no doubt that Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s wife is the arbiter of his destiny; but is it fair, we ask, to put on her frail shoulders the responsibility of the happiness of millions of her sisters?’ But it was the special Indian Post-Truth moment that I enjoyed the most: ‘It is almost as if the father of the family should say, when a member is ill with some serious ailment, “We should not only take the opinion of the expert Medical Board, but also of those who know nothing of medicine or disease.” Roshni was in no doubt that the progressive women of India were ‘more qualified to speak on the proposal than either Dr. Rajendra Prasad or his orthodox wife. And, of course, we are sure that the latter would express an opinion in our favour, if she were informed by one of her sex.’ (Roshni, Vol IV, no. 6. June 1949, pp. 2-3).

It is difficult not to feel a certain admiration for leading figures of the AIWC. These women were aware of the intimate connection between two acts of choice: that of an independent professional life and that of a love life. The pages of Roshni for the early 1950s are full of references to the confinement of women to domestic drudgery, and the hypocrisies inherent in that role symbolically: Women were good enough to be political representatives of the nation, figures of its integrity and power, but could not be permitted economic independence. In April 1949, the editorial captured this predicament, in again criticising the men who opposed equal legal rights: ‘It is hard to convince these idolators that she does not want to be thought of as a goddess and treated like a slave and that she insists on being treated like a human being’. The difficult questions of love then, were very much in the background of the concerns grappled by the organisation, and often very directly. One of the AIWC’s leading figures, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay had been married at the age of 14, then widowed two years later. Acting against every convention, not only did she re-marry, but did so for love to a well known poet and playwright, Harin Chattopadhyay. Together they went on to produce plays and Kamaladevi even acted in the first silent film of the Kannada film industry, at a time when ‘respectable’ women were not seen on stage or screen.

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Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

It seems to me that in India today these spaces of intimacy have been increasing, despite the bigotry of the regime. But this is no simple action-reaction political moment. The forms of patriarchy that created among other things, the Hindu right’s hounding of couples has existed for a very long time in a number of institutions, including the top levels of the early postcolonial secular establishment. In some ways the term ‘patriarchy’ doesn’t capture this phenomenon, which penetrates deeply into institutions and debates through India’s colonial and postcolonial histories. In this sense, the meeting of young lovers is a very powerful symbolic act, relating to urban space, generation, moment and history. It is for this reason that places like Lodhi gardens are locations for affection not because of privacy, which is actually scant- the tombs are set out in vast open spaces. The decision to meet in such places is to begin to make a hard choice – to potentially enter what Parveez Mody has described as an unsafe, almost unthinkable in-between space. The couples we see in most parks then, may be getting away from family, or the problems of negotiating relationships outside the expectations of different community pressures. But in some ways they are also undertaking quite a profound act of rebellion.

 

 

Time is on our side

Waiting in railway stations and airport lounges between two places, probably consumes a significant portion of our daily and nightly lives, in my case the equivalent of 10 cigarettes a day. Sometimes you will the minutes to pass faster as you await your departure. At other times you wish the moment would never arrive. The experience of travelling too, both squeezes and stretches time, especially as you move between standard times zones. The very thought of where you are, and when, is a process of physical disorientation. Something similar applies to communication across those zones, as you await a message or call from someone, but this time reorientation elicits a kind of time-empathy. What are they thinking at their moment? We like to imagine that certain cultures have more or less efficient means of keeping time. In India, when I am arranging to meet someone I don’t know, invariably the greeting or handshake will be accompanied by: ‘Being English, I knew you would turn up on time, so I arrived early.’ Despite the cliché that IST actually means ‘Indian Stretchable Time’, I think for the most part whether things like trains arrive to schedule is about the scale of the endeavour. Each day Indian trains cover 3 million kilometres (or 10 times to the moon), ferrying on average 12 million people (the population of Australia, and 5% of India’s population). We should expect them to be time-inefficient. Once when travelling long distance from Lucknow to Varanasi on the ‘Sabarmati Express’, I was pleasantly surprised to see my train pulling in 10 minutes early. I remarked on this to an official on the platform who responded with a smile: ‘Sorry Sir, this is yesterday’s Sabarmati Express.’

I sometimes wonder whether this relaxed unwillingness to be cowed by the tyranny of time is also a product of different forms of sociability. Undoubtedly there are certain places around the world where it is relatively easy to strike up a conversation with strangers on trains. If you originate from the British Isles, this scope for new interactions is usually improved anywhere else in the world. My experience in travelling between Indian cities is that although there are many explanations for the volubility of strangers, among them is a particular notion of time. I have rarely travelled by train in India without striking up a conversation with those nearby or being struck up myself. The same generally applies with internal flights and more often than not the subject of conversation moves to politics or history. ‘We don’t know our history. We have to hear it from people like you!’ is a typically Hegelian response. My sense of this experience is not simply that many more people you meet in India are keen to learn from strangers, but also that when you are in someone’s company your time can no longer be presumed to be your own. The Anglophone world’s term ‘I don’t have time’ doesn’t have quite the same purchase in India. Rather than individually possessed, time seems to be experienced more collectively.

 

 

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New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, an early 18th Century time-keeper

This was made obvious to me when I arrived in Lucknow for the first time. Naively assuming that my first destination in the city should be the University, I made my way to the campus to seek out an accommodation office. Within 20 minutes of wandering aimlessly through corridors I was befriended by three young male students who made it their mission to help me. We failed to find any university digs but they contacted a friend who helped me shack up in one of the shared rooms of the Darul Safa (the accommodation for the State Assembly). I came to know the entire group of friends, and was invited to their homes in succession. But what struck me was the amount of time they spent simply in each other’s company. Not only that, my presence in the group, my time spending with them, whether or not I had other work, was assumed or expected up to a point. Effectively my time no longer felt like my own, or there was a unique kind of collective responsibility for it.

Craig Jeffrey has written about the uniquely Indian term ‘timepass’ which might also be relevant to what was happening with my Lucknow friendship group. Different to the western notion of pastime, which evokes something enjoyable or hobby-like, timepass is a way of quite passively doing something to move time forward. Bas, mai timepass karta hum/enough, I am just doing timepass, is something that you might frequently hear in a public place. Although it can sometimes be a productive way of building friendships or alliances in a social moment, its origins link back to early concepts of boredom. The latter, although not invented by the British in India, probably relates to the transition from pre-colonial concepts that included ‘cyclical’ time to the introduction of exclusive linear clock-time. Once, on a bus travelling between Lucknow and Azamgarh, I discovered that timepass could morph into something unexpected. At one of the stops, a boy around the age of 12 jumped on with a large plastic bag, repeatedly shouting rhythmically, inflecting the second syllable up: ‘Timepass… Timepass… Timepass’, This boy was actually selling ‘timepass’ – in this case cones of peanuts, neatly packed in old newspapers that he was vending from the bag. In other words, the nuts served as a material, consumable means of doing ‘timepass’.

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India was colonised by ‘time’ as much as by knowledge, and the idea that a hopelessly obsolete cyclical time was entirely replaced by the science of the clock. This reinforced European ideas that India had a poorly developed historical sensibility –an effect ultimately of its ‘backwardness’. Romilla Thapar has shown however that ancient India had both linear and cyclical time: The latter was always used in a self-consciously mythical way, for cosmological rather than temporal purposes, and linear time still prevailed in everyday life. Another mixture of the cyclical and linear appears in the gigantic early 18th Century Jantar Mantar structures in the cities of Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Varanasi, all constructed by Maharaja Jai Singh II. These enormous constructions, replacing the astrolabe, are capable of measuring the time to an accuracy of two seconds, and of creating astronomical charts – the latter vital for the astrology of late Mughal rule.

It is also perhaps apt that Jantar Mantar is the daily site for India’s contemporary political protests in the capital – the inheritors of movements against government, who turned time back on the ruler: 26 January marks the date of India’ late colonial ‘Independence Day’ – the moment in 1930, when the Congress’s one year deadline to Britain to grant ‘Dominion Status’ ran out. From late January 1930, it was ‘complete independence’ or nothing, and 26th January subsequently became India’s ‘Republic Day’ – the date on which, in 1950, the Constitution came into force, separating India from the British crown. India is not unique in its use of anniversaries, but it has made more monumental and popular use of them than most countries. Tis January Marg (30th January Street) marks the anniversary of Gandhi’s death, a date that resonated in different form to 26 January or 15 August. Birth anniversaries are also celebrated, and especially today, that of the Dalit icon Ambedkar (14th April) and Jawaharlal Nehru (14th November, or Children’s Day). There are a host of dates that challenge an older consensus: The Hindu right now marks of the death of Gandhi’s assassin, Godse on 15th November. But a more fundamental critique of mainstream temporalities is the marking of ‘independence day’ on 31 August, the date in 1952, when India’s ‘Criminal Tribes’ were released from colonial settlements or ‘open prisons’ and denotified by the state.

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Protests at Jantar Mantar on 22 November 2016

Some might argue that all of these dates, if you can remember them, are possibly just an excuse for yet more holidays to add to India’s quite full calendar of religious events when the office can close.   In India however, there is no doubt that these dates have been used as a means of connecting popular memory to particular political sites. They are a way of mobilising identities, maintaining forms of social unity in the face of potential division, and giving a lasting or temporal meaning to historically important ideologies. But just as humans interact through the sharing or wasting of everyday time, so too do these anniversaries mark out the rhythms of connected personal lives. Specific dates have meanings beyond their political context – they fix shared memories, allow us to contemplate what we have gained and lost, and make us realise that where we are going next can never be totally disconnected from where we came from.

2017: A Year of Revolution

If you walk through Delhi at dawn, before the dust of the day rises, the cash queues are already forming. Demonetisation has caused the fish markets in Calcutta to collapse, put thousands of small traders out of business, created barter economies in rural areas and left workers at Labour Chowk taking free meals at temples.  Narendra Modi’s response is to quote Bob Dylan: ‘don’t criticise what you can’t understand.’ (Hindustan Times, 20 November 2016).  I start to wonder how long the orderliness will last. And while the rest of the world begins to erupt over the extraordinary events of the year, I hazard a secret hope that 2017 may become another 1989, 1968, 1956 or 1848.

It occurs to me that it might start in India. Because if you stay in an Indian city for more than a few days, it is quite likely that at some point you will come across a political demonstration or even mass protest. There is something both uniquely spontaneous but also often ritualised about these events. Particular slogans are chanted, placards or effigies prepared for burning, and symbolic sites selected. Yet this structure is balanced by the ease with which they can grow, spread or change. Delhi has seen a great deal of them in recent years – the anti-corruption protests of 2010-11, the mass demonstrations following the 2012 rapes around women’s security, to the more recent ‘Help Delhi Breathe’ marches against the Delhi smog of October-early November.   Popular protests in India can be big or small, and driven by an exceptionally wide range of causes. From corruption, pollution, women’s security to dog culling, language and the right to kiss – city protests have also found their own symbolic sites: In Delhi it’s often the Jantar Mantar – the 18th Century observatory. In UP recently for Dalits for example, it has often been the main Ambedkar statues in big city thoroughfares and roundabouts.

What is distinctive about today’s protests in India is that they often maintain an anti-colonial character, and specific strategies for dealing with an over-bearing, unresponsive or repressive state which reach back at least to the late 19th Century. My most memorable accidental protest experience of this kind happened back in March 2006. At the time I was starting a research project exploring the changing politics of ‘corruption’ just before and after India’s independence. In an idle moment of internet surfing sitting in a hotel room in Lucknow one evening, I discovered a publicly celebrated champion of the ‘Right to Information’ anti-corruption movement in the state of Uttar Pradesh- Sandeep Pandey. This bearded man in kurta pajamas with an open smile, various searches showed me, had taken the region by storm with his use of the 2005 Right to Information Bill to expose local corruption in rural UP. Pandey, to my surprise had left his landline number on one of the pages. To my even greater surprise, when I called it, a soft voice on the other side agreed to meet me: ‘Come around to my place at 7am tomorrow morning. We can have some breakfast and then I can take you with me to an event that is happening in a village nearby and you can talk to some of our volunteers.’

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Discussing Right to Information applications with Sandeep Pandey

Foresight is often a very good thing. It allows you to prepare. Equally, it is sometimes useful to have no idea what is in store for you. If you are asked to make an impromptu speech for example in your second or third language, or potentially risk your life and career, it helps not to get nervous about it in advance. Just before setting off for the village, as we were eating a last parantha, Sandeep told me that he would be undertaking a dharna- a specific form of sit-in protest in India. The dharna would take place outside a police station in a village about 4 hours motorcycle ride away. The head of the station in question had been responsible for the detention of one of Pandey’s volunteers, influenced by the local village headman or Pradhan. The volunteer had protested about the control of the Pradhan’s office by a leading landholding family, which had effectively facilitated land-grabbing from low caste communities. Pandey looked at me across the breakfast table. ‘I have pledged to observe silence by covering my mouth with a cloth.’ He paused to gauge my response. ‘I will sustain it for up to 15 hours until he is released. Now if you will excuse me a moment, I just have to call up the District Magistrate to let him know we are going there.’ Pandey’s conversation with the Hardoi District Magistrate gave the impression they were friends and that this kind of interaction had happened before. Later, as I balanced myself on the back of Pandey’s motorcycle, it occurred to me that although I had a pad, pen and recording device, I hadn’t packed my toothbrush for an overnighter. More alarmingly, although I had brought my passport with me on the mistaken assumption that Sandeep might want to verify my identity, I was painfully aware that I didn’t have the right kind of clearances for protesting outside an Indian police station.

Motorcycle rides through the earth lanes of Uttar Pradesh can be a little uncomfortable at the best of times, but especially when your heart is in your mouth. Pandey’s voice however, describing the background to the protest was remarkably calming and behind his soft exterior, was a reassuring steeliness. When we arrived at the police thana, a very large uniformed officer with a cheerful disposition, magnified by gold-rimmed 70s style shades, walked out and entered into a prolonged conversation with Sandeep. As they spoke a crowd of villagers gathered, along with a group of Pandey’s volunteers. Eventually Pandey sat on the ground, placed a black scarf around his mouth, and sat in silence, surrounded by dozens of squatting village men and women-folk of all ages. Intermittently, because he was holding silence, he would write messages to the police officer or other volunteers.

Meanwhile, I tried my hardest to blend myself into the nearest tree, but it was not difficult for the station officer to spot me. Approaching me with a huge beam, he held out a powerful hand and delivered a crushing handshake while asking me where I had come from. Sandeep had, of course, already mentioned me to the police officer. In fact, I soon realised that my presence at the demonstration was an important element of the protest itself. Uncertain whether this was the right moment to do a bit of outreach publicity for the University of Leeds, I nevertheless admitted to the officer that I was indeed in India to undertake research. There was something very Brian Blessed about Officer P B Singh which added a blend of volatility to his apparent good humour. ‘And you are from Leeds Dr William. I have many friends in Yorkshire. Yorkshire Cricket Ground! Headingley! Do you play cricket Dr. William?’ Mentioning that I bowled a bit didn’t seem to divert the policeman away from the question I had been dreading – about the nature of my research. My main strategy, I thought, should be to totally avoid any mention of corruption. ‘Research… on the history of the civil services and police services in Uttar Pradesh’. There was a pause as the policeman leaned his face into mine: ‘Well Dr William, today you can get to research the most corrupt department in the whole of India!’

Within about an hour the officer had succumbed to the protest offering profuse apologies, as Pandey stood up and removed his mouth covering. Next followed about ten speeches from different men and women sitting among the group, all setting out the problems of corruption around the local administration and police. From the shade of the tree I noticed him gesturing over to me, and within minutes a volunteer came and led me over to the two men. ‘The protest has finished. We are shortly going to have a meeting in the police office. But would you be able to give a short speech to the people?’ I looked over at Sandeep’s assistant. ‘It’s ok – just use shudh (pure) Hindi’ he whispered.

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Until this point, it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps Sandeep Pandey had in some ways struck lucky. When I called he had quickly realised the possible effects of a foreign ‘observer’ being at the protest. Although risky, it immediately gave the protest the appearance of something broader, with the potential for wider publicity, even if my short speech hardly exhibited the literary merits of Premchand. The ensuing meeting involved the police officer effectively holding court and queues of village protestors bringing him demands, mostly around land. In nearly every case he held up his hand: ‘you need to make an application to the kanungo/lekhpal (revenue officers)’. He was right, but there was a sense of definite victory in the air- the common man had got the state to at least sit down and listen. Not only was Sandeep’s volunteer released from custody, but the policeman agreed to carry out investigations on particular local officials in the Atrauli area.

The most important point about Sandeep’s protest was that it actually achieved or changed something. I stayed the night in the village, and in the evening sat around an open fire on which a simple dinner was cooked, chatting with the older men about crops and corruption. As we drove back to Lucknow, still covered with the soot of last night’s cooking fire, the events of the previous day revolved in my mind. The dharna had been conducted with total conviction. Today it occurs to me that when the protests inevitably happen, they might be conducted with some of this conviction and strategy. Pandey had at that time chosen one of the best means of getting a pernicious bureaucracy not only to mend in a small way, but also to work. He focussed on the question of legality of action at all times, and presented officers with their own rules. He used right to information – at that time still a useful instrument – to expose wrongdoing and unravel the state’s appropriation of data and rights. But perhaps most importantly of all, he was fully prepared to commit time and to apply his principles consistently and without hesitation. There is no doubt that we are entering into a very difficult time across Europe, north America and South Asia. Most troubling is the way in which regimes across those areas have misappropriated, like Modi’s use of Dylan, the language and symbolism of anti-establishment protest. This needs to be wrested back by ordinary citizens with careful planning and the ability to seize opportunities. As Dave Eggers writing in The Guardian puts it ‘we are speeding towards a dark corridor my friends. Keep your eyes open, your hearts stout and be ready for the fight.’

 

I Want To Be Like You

As you approach the great red stones of the National Archives in New Delhi, one of the most startling sights, delights or nuisances (depending on your point of view) are the resident rhesus macaque monkeys that pass time in the grounds. Given the propensity for monkeys in India to do what they do around public buildings, you might be forgiven for imagining that they have some kind of business there. This seems unlikely, yet there is a specific primate attraction to government buildings of different kinds. Around these offices in some parts of India it used to be possible see a different kind of monkey, apparently domesticated on a lead – the larger black faced Langur- employed to scare away the smaller macaques, mostly by urinating on prominent buildings. These days, trade in Langurs is banned. So for a period of time in 2014, the Government of India famously employed fully grown humans to piss around dressed up as Langurs. This slightly camp army of men in grey tights were less effective than alternative schemes such as oral contraception or deportation. But overall they added to the rich pageant in the city’s struggle with its increasing incursions into the wild perimeters.

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Because it isn’t so much that monkeys have taken over the cities – more that cities have taken over the monkeys. There is a popular Hindi proverb: Banda kya jaane adrak ka swad? What does a monkey know about ginger’s taste? It turns out that they probably know a lot about ginger, and a whole rack of other condiments, since the city provides an easy supply of dropped food, opportunities for culinary theft and many other ways to interact with larger brained primates. In May, a woman from the region of Shahdol in Madhya Pradesh, filed a complaint in the police station against a monkey for stealing her mobile phone. Bureaucrats in Delhi have been known to argue that missing files were lifted by simians, although the government’s recent destruction of 1.5 lakh Home department records can’t be blamed on those kinds of primates. Thieving is small fish however, when you consider that India’s monkeys are reasonably proficient at driving. In December last year in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, a bus driver took a nap in the back of his vehicle leaving the keys in the ignition. A monkey managed to get the vehicle started and as he was shooed away by the woken driver, pushed the bus into second gear, leading it to crash into two other parked buses.

It’s at this stage in most accounts of the monkey menace in India that the writer moves onto Hanuman and Hindu cosmology. There are of course many ways in which the religious reverence for animals, either purely symbolic or tangible characterises some interactions with stray beasts. It has become a comedic cliché that cows for example, and particularly their faeces and urine are revered by India’s ruling party, being useful not only for cosmetic but also, allegedly, oncology treatments. But there is something both deeper and in many ways more transient in this relationship of human and animal in India than simply matters of faith or religious culture. For being ‘revered’ certainly doesn’t seem to offer these animals any lasting protections from neglect, cruelty or ecological decline. Rather, the changing relationship of Delhites and other city populations with stray animals seems to have resulted from a peculiar set of anxieties about changing social conditions in India’s rapidly transforming city spaces.

Arguably, India is a place where overall affection for animals of all kinds is relatively strong, and has been for a long time. On the eve of India’s first General Elections on 5 September 1951 – the largest democratic ‘experiment’ as it was described at the time, The National Herald reported on some new arrivals to Lucknow Zoo, and also its obituaries. Among the arrivals were two ‘abnormally large Jaipur rabbits’. In the obituary section was a ‘grievious loss… that of the female Baya, an African bird, which changes its colour thrice a year. Male Baya is left alone to mourn her loss.’ But more interesting in recent years has been the changing affective ties of city dwellers with stray animals. While violence against India’s multiplying stray dogs has increased, so too have calls to reinforce legislative protections for them. Over the last two years, municipal and regional governments in Kerala have fought against Indian animal welfare organisations for the right to cull dangerous dogs, following two incidents of fatal attacks in the state. But this battle revolves less around the tangible threat posed by the animals, than the inter-connection of urban populations in India and elsewhere. Protests against the Keralan government in the summer of 2015 spread to Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkatta, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, London, New York, Boston and Berlin for example – cities whose residents come into contact with a growing transnational urban Indian diaspora.

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We begin to get a sense of what lies within this collective sensibility for animals in looking at the work of Anupam Tripathi, India’s prominent animal rights lawyer, who last year reinforced a 2009 Supreme Court stay order on mass killing of ‘nuisance’ dogs, on the grounds that the idea of ‘nuisance’ was subjective. As a term it could not be defined. India’s rapidly expanding and changing urban conditions have created a situation in which the role of dogs and monkeys can be both positively and negatively viewed. Their removal can no longer be seen as a function of the urban, since the latter is any case increasingly ambiguous as a frame for human life. Another animal rights activist, Neha Vaz has argued that dogs have an important role to play in the very changing urban eco-system brought about by rapidly expanding human occupation. Dogs are crucial, she argues, in the control of pests and rats.

But most important for me are they ways in which India’s cities increasingly dissociate individuals from older forms of community, or collective interaction. Rana Dasgupta’s study of Delhi, Capital beautifully captures the new forms of isolation, anxiety and family disintegration running alongside Delhi’s massive growth following economic liberalisation. For Dasgupta, this creates both dissociation but also opportunities, particularly for new forms of affection, love and relationship. One possible set of relationships is with stray animals and particularly stray dogs. Many close friends who have lived for a time in large cities, or in contexts of rapid social change such as that faced by India come to view these bleary-eyed wanderers as temporary companions, or old and familiar friends. Like human friends they cannot be ‘owned’, must be trusted and given their own space. They too battle with daily hussle of the city and the loneliness of its nights. And like others living in the city, they ask to be treated with respect as well as love, but importantly on their own terms.

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There’s no money left

‘Sir, cash nahi hai/ I am sorry Sir. The cash has run out’. The uniformed ATM security guard held up his hand as I made my way to what appeared to be the only cash point in Delhi without a 50-person queue. 13 November 2016 is probably not a good day to arrive in India. A few days ago the Prime Minister, in a move aimed to expose ‘black money’ or unaccounted cash in the economy, announced the demonetization of the two largest bank notes – the Rs 500 and Rs 1000. But these days, when 86% of the nation’s currency has been taken out of circulation, I have little cause for complaint, compared to the millions who depend upon cash for their daily existence. It is not just that petty traders, hawkers, small shop keepers, vegetable and fruit sellers and all manner of people working in India’s vast informal economy rely directly on cash transactions, have no access to bank accounts or card payments. All the way up and down the supply chain, the ban on the 500 and 1000 notes has caused chaos. Fruit and vegetables are rotting in wholesalers as retailers are unable to pay for their regular stock. A whole range of services, normally accessible to the poor often by means of informal payments, is no longer available. Most crucially, medical and hospital care is affected. There have already been two cases of families losing newborn babies to urgent illnesses because they were unable to supply medical staff with anything but obsolete currency. Allegedly, it is still possible to use the old notes for some things. This includes the payment of utility bills and cremation or burial services.

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A cashpoint queue in New Delhi

The cash drought is particularly interesting to me for three other reasons that illustrate how large scale political decisions work their way right down through society – how the big affects the small. Firstly, it reflects a distinctive form of authoritarianism in the current Indian government which resembles regimes in other parts of the world. Narendra Modi, a member of the right wing Hindu Nationalist party, the BJP, was elected in 2014 as a new ‘strong man’, who would combine Thatcherite deregulation with, allegedly, a no-nonsense approach to the problems of corruption and a 56 inch chest. It is significant that Modi’s reputation was built up during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat. There, alongside the much feted ‘Gujarat model’ of development which claimed credit for an already existing regional growth rate, he mobilised popular support over time through acquiescence in a mass pogrom of Muslims in 2002. Modi, like Putin, Erdogan, the regimes of Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, the new leaders of the UK government, and now of course Trump, is a populist demagogue. His politics, like those of other right-wing regimes, depends upon large-scale gestures, which essentially mean rapid structural change: the building of dams that lead to the flooding of land, the mass expulsion of ‘foreigners’, or the banning of currency notes. But crucially, these moves are also made with deliberate disregard for the potential effects and implications of such large-scale changes through all sections of society. It is what social scientists might describe as ‘structural violence’ but with will and purpose.

The second area that cash drought in India illuminates is the problem of ‘corruption’. The banning of the 500 and 1000 notes is, according the Indian government, the honouring of an election pledge:– to do something about the huge sums of unreported income circulating in India. One national publication estimates that around 70% of the gold and jewellery market, over 50% of the consumer goods market and around 30% of the property market is unreported (India Today, 21 November 2016). To some extent then we might take Modi at his word. But people’s trust has been shaken by news of the very large sums of money deposited into accounts by industrial supporters of the BJP, and in some regions like West Bengal, the party itself, through the months of September and October, well before the plan was announced. Perhaps most important is Modi’s interpretation of ‘black money’, which presumably also covers the financing of elections in key states such as Uttar Pradesh (UP). It is surely no coincidence that the UP elections – the most important state of Indian demographically and politically – will take place in February and March 2017. It is also significant that the cash hoarding tendencies of the two main parties opposed to the BJP – viz. the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party are well known. Large sums of money, for example, are delivered in briefcases for a constituency ‘ticket’ and cash is important for the generation of electoral support. Modi has had some regional electoral reverses over the last year and he now struggles to maintain the BJP position in UP.

This tells us less about the form of corruption, than what the idea of corruption has become. Corruption in India, as in most other states around the world, is always popularly associated with its base. The largest and most significant undeclared assets are either held in foreign bank accounts, or are generated within the promise and supply of contracts and services yet to be redeemed. Perhaps the best international example of it revolves around the Panama Papers, in which not just business interests but political leaders (or their families) have held vast sums in offshore havens. The hub for these financial flows is of course the main financial centres of the world – London, New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These flows have little to do with hoarding of currency within a particular state. Similarly most of the really large multi-billion scams in India of the last two decades- those which Modi critiqued during his 2014 election campaign- took place through the manipulation of contracts and development programs, not the hoarding of currency. Yet Modi and all other leaders like him know that the technocratic and internationally recognised definitions of ‘corruption’, revolve around mechanisms such as ‘perception indexes’, that look internally within states, focus on popular experiences of the phenomenon and prescribe measures that adjust the regulatory powers of the state. ‘Corruption’, in other words, becomes a mechanism for structural adjustment and so it is apt that leaders like Modi use it as a means of internal political adjustment.

It is not all that surprising that the abiding image of this demonetisation will be a long queue of ordinary men and women outside a bank- people from all walks of life. Just as this queue is varied and every man or woman has their own reason for being there, the very shortage of cash will have unexpected knock-on effects for everyday life in India. In an article published at the term of the millennium, the anthropologist Jonathan Spencer explored the idea of corruption in India, as a phenomenon that itself created all kinds of perverse behaviours. Similarly it is the very informality of India’s economy that makes the currency drought not only particularly dangerous for certain sections of the population, but also prone to move in surprising directions. A man at a tea stall with whom I struck up a conversation smiled wrily as I mentioned my relatively cashless situation. When I produced a couple of Rs100 notes, he pointed out that if I were to attempt to change foreign currency informally, I might find that Rs100 notes were, in today’s market, worth much more than their face value. In the queues themselves, there are many people acting for others. I saw two young men playing cards on the pavement while they waited, each with a small pile of bank cards to withdraw the limited amounts from multiple accounts. No wonder the queues move slowly and the tempers are often raised. The gossip surrounding the note ban fills every tea stall and bus stop. One friend told me that she was offered four 100 rupee notes for one of the old 500s. We agreed that in the present circumstances that was quite a good deal. Most ironically, once in possession of the new 2000 note, because shopkeepers are so keen to hold on to smaller notes as long as possible, it becomes almost impossible to get change for smaller items. This renders the new large notes more or less worthless. Getting to the cash point and being flush with cash can then be almost as dispiriting as no cash at all. Having spent the best part of an hour to get it in my hands, I tried to buy a 100 rupee writing pad with my crisp new Rs2000 note. ‘I am sorry Sir. There is no way I can give you 19 of my 100 rupee notes’, the stationer shrugged. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any of the new 500s. I could give you 15 hundreds though if you want?’ I was tempted.

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The farmer on the right of his propaganda hoarding for Modi’s demonetisation is saying ‘Mera paisa surakshit hai/My money is secure’.

It is not just the complex and often contradictory ideas of corruption that these days of cash denial illustrate though. In a curious way, the note ban also lays out in a new fashion, how far India’s poor rely on the shadow economy, where the morality of how resources are acquired is less important than the supply of clean water, medical care, an electricity supply or safe housing and work. The anti-corruption crusade then, in this instance, becomes a peculiarly middle class preoccupation. Besides the long queues at ATMs and banks are other clusters of men and women – casual labourers now jobless because of the unavailability of cash. These are people among the approximately 233 million in India who do not have bank accounts. And among the hardest hit are those in remote areas: small agriculturalists unable to pay the necessary short-term labour to cut crops- an already heavily indebted rural community piling on further credit until the cashpoints work again.

Only went for one boundary

One of the best times to walk through any Indian city is shortly after sunrise. It is at this time that you can pause and consider the cliche of ‘assault on the senses’ – the assault is subdued, the air is fresher, and the life of the city that is not in evidence during the heat and hassle of the day is beginning to emerge. If you happen to be walking through the wide open spaces of regions like Connaught Place in New Delhi, you also come across groups of young men and boys playing cricket with makeshift equipment in the now empty parking areas. This morning, the birthday of Guru Nanak, it was particularly quiet although no Indian city is ever totally asleep: roaming dogs and monkeys, the call of Asian Koels, early morning street cleaners, bracing walkers and the waking street-sleepers emerging from blankets are part of early morning street life. So too is street cricket.

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There is no doubt that the concept of what can and cannot be publicly shared is quite different in Indian cities compared to anywhere else in the world. Joining in with street games is no exception and it is one of the greatest experiences of being in this place to be invited to play random street cricket, or as it is known here ‘galli cricket’ (cricket in the lanes). Back in the late 1990s, while doing research for my PhD, I was invited to join a team of young office workers playing cricket on a stretch of grass along Raj Path. I used to be a good medium/fast bowler, playing for a schoolboy county team back in the late 1980s, but I was quite out of practice. I was therefore quite relieved to see that the batsman had decided to hold the bat with just one hand. As I reached the wicket on my first run up, I noticed that his one-handed stance was not out of choice. The young man really only had one arm.

One of the many peculiarities of the game of cricket is that when batting, it is your weaker hand that really matters. In other words, if you are right handed, you need to focus on your left arm and just control with your right and vice versa. This is the best means of keeping the bat straight and hitting the ball towards the ground. Sadly my one-armed opponent was right handed and it was his remaining right arm that held the bat. This meant that he was very prone to hit the ball into the air to his left (or the ‘on-side’ to use cricket parlance). My first three balls were consequently dispatched into the air, to a convenient location a few yards out on the on-side. Yet nobody on my team suggested putting a fielder there to catch him out. At first I imagined that perhaps these young men were not particularly canny in the art of field setting. But it soon became clear that the empty field at that location was a matter of choice. To me this was an important indication of the spirit of street cricket and of sport in general. Competition and the idea of winning took on new meanings and limits.

This morning in Connaught Place, I was again invited to join in the game and again I had an over (or six balls) to bowl. There is something especially important about those six chances as a bowler that really make cricket such a great psychological game and a way of somehow reaching into a person’s character. Within six balls you have the space to deceive your opponent – lull them into a feeling of security, or surprise them in two, or even three ways. There is also something peculiarly intense and intimate about that duel of wits, the results of which can crush your spirit if it goes against you. None of that was relevant this morning, not least because my bowling was wayward. Instead what really mattered was that these young men had just allowed a complete stranger into their game – a man who had wandered up, bowled six balls and then left again with a wave.

Despite two terrible wides, I performed slightly better than expected, beating the edge of bat in my last two balls, and as someone pointed out ‘you only went for one boundary’. I was slightly baffled about where the boundary really lay, as I watched my fourth ball being launched into the main road. The uncertainty of the boundary though epitomised for me what is so great about these cities and the games that take place. The borders within which they play out, like so many other boundaries in the city, are unclear. What is and isn’t public, and what is, or isn’t controlled or owned is not demarcated, or at least not without ambiguity. Like the informality of life and work for many on India’s streets, the boundaries and borders of life are mutable. This brings enormous insecurities, but it also throws up opportunities, creativity and the need for mobility and constant change.