By Anu Karippal
I will never get tired of looking out of my window, or the bus or car I travel in. Human beings are the most fascinating beings; even more intriguing is the multiple relations we build with the space we use. We call them public, private, and some personal, constantly produced through human performance. Yet, all of these intersect and intercede into a mysterious mesh. Public spaces in India are so very confusing. Engineers build roads, walkways, skywalks, but Indian crowd finds tiny outlets in such places to become vendors, flower sellers, panipuri sellars, etc. Every city has a smell. The town I live in, Amruthahalli, has a smell too; an amalgam of jalebi, dosa, and panipuri. And sweat. Streets also hold our secrets. Take a look at the street and you see people and things. You think how simple everything is! Yet, look closer, and you will see a city in a different light. You will see a girl petting a stray dog; you will see people in love; people in grief; people in anger; an old man with his cat, his only possession. I would say, public space is rather an accumulation of all individuated, personal spaces.
Boundary-making is integral to humans and to what makes a space public or private. We make boundaries: geographical and emotional. A home has boundaries: some are invited to the drawing room and some beyond that. And to some, we provide access to one’s room and the tiny drawer in the cupboard where one’s secrets lie. It’s no different with the human mind. The mind is a labyrinthine, much like a city. We give a surface view of self to some, and to some a more intimate self. Like Manu Joseph writes in Illicit Happiness of Other People, a house if looked at for too long will begin to look like a person. We make boundaries in our friendships, we forge groups, include some and otherize the rest.
Berambadi in Gundlupet unfolded more of such intricate relations with space, of how people constantly make and unmake boundaries in their quotidian acts. We think we know things, but the space decides to play a game with us. To fool us around. We try to control and manage it by calling it public and private but space plays out in an endless penumbra, leaving us in confusion.
Once Kumar, a colleague, and I were on field, taking the socio-economic profile of community members. We went inside a house to make a rough estimate of house size. To our surprise, what we call vacant space was inside the house. There were clothes hanging to dry as light sifted down the floor, making shadows. Kumar and I wondered what do we call this – part of house or vacant space? I also thought what it is that makes us call some spaces vacant. How can a space that isn’t part of the house be vacant? It’s rather a dynamic, happening space, where plants, creatures, and humans interact. Yet we call it vacant. Such constant linguistic uses reiterate and produce meanings of space, almost without us knowing.
Shops offered interesting spaces of enquiry in Berambadi. Most of the shops in Berambadi are part of the house, making up a room facing the road. The seller is visible to the viewer amongst the sweets and bakery items, exclusive to the village, through the big window. To the viewer, it’s a shop. But for the seller he is part of his house. An insider-outsider view. The shopkeeper juggles between the role of a seller, a public person and a being embedded in a personal space – a father, a husband, a son.
Some spaces are sacred, and some profane. Some trapped between the two, like the temple in Berambadi. Devasthana, the temple located geographically in the centre of Berambadi, has on either sides of the entry Tulsi pots, informing us we are entering a sacred space. Temple that has prayers early morning and evening, however, is a different place at other times of the day. In the late evenings and mornings, one will see the temple surrounded by men of all ages chatting, gossiping, watching people that board and un-board the bus from Gundlupet, looking at pretty girls. With so many people around, I forgot it was a temple. Once Kumar and I, while enquiring the possibility of a community toilet in Berambadi, heard from the Panchayat and people that we cannot have a toilet surrounding the temple, despite the availability of space. A space so sacred, yet stages chatting and gossips that are considered worldly, that belongs to the realm of the profane.
Space is a puzzle; we control them, naming them personal-public, sacred-profane. Yet they are all enmeshed into each other, trapped. Space fools us around, always. Events give space meanings and we make and unmake them constantly.
Anu Karippal is a researcher at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. Anthropology and the mundane life intrigue her. She writes poetry, practices photography, theatre, and dance. Long walks keep her life moving. She can’t imagine life without windows or for that matter, music.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.