On Armchairs and Catastrophe
By Atreyee Majumder
The impossibility of thought. I feel it every morning while participating in the feverish ensemble of armchair work – of staring at our laptop these days – consuming an important milestone in human history, a pandemic. Armchairs are meant for you to momentarily be a recluse, withdraw from the world a bit. Recline. Put your feet up if you need to. Aramkedara in Bangla. Grandfathers, across cultures, can be imagined in this curious piece of furniture. My grandfathers, both dead, must have not been the thinking type; they did not leave behind armchairs. So, I sit on floor mattress in my C R Park living room, propped up with floor cushions, and call it an armchair. My legs are stretched. Cradling my laptop. Pondering on the impossibility of thought, and inevitability of armchair struggles. Why ‘struggles’ you ask? Let me elaborate.
We – those of us who make a living out of documentation and interpretation of the ‘real’ world – are at a loss these days. Because the going out into the world to collect fodder for interpretation is not possible as a deadly virus has unfurled a death-opera. We are cooped up at home, at this cross-section of history. Trying to find meaning for our professional and intellectual selves. Many webinars are afoot, explaining how we can do research over the telephone or the internet. The internet is the only canvas of travel we are allowed. Journalists and policy experts are doing a great job of it – reviewing emails and leaked documents of the government and providing scathing critiques of authoritarian governments, at home and abroad. We watch videos of Barkha Dutt walking with migrants and sharing snippets of their nightmares. But not all of us are brave enough to get on the roads. We share in the nightmare of the lives of the Others, through our smartphones. We helplessly critique governments. Some of us have turned into epidemiologists or public health experts.
We watch the numeric narrative of death and destruction in websites like worldometer.info. The death toll climbs. We unmake previous plans. My husband paints feverishly. There are painting materials strewn about our living room. He makes versions of Rothko and Roerich. He oscillates between narrating the death toll to me, and making brightly coloured paintings. I watch his anxiety about the future from a distance. It is in sharp relief to my numbness. I don’t check the news. I find out about Modi’s speech from my mother. I read books. I write bits of poetry and pointless prose. I couldn’t give a hoot about anthropology. I stare into the bottomless pit of Twitter to activate my mind. Paul Holdengraber posts quotes from John Berger. Ranjit Hoskote and Rana Safvi and Ardra Manasi post beautiful translations of poetry of alien tongues. Some feeds post relentless art. My screen is flooded with Joao Miro and Kandinsky and Saul Leiter and the poetic wildlife photography of Arati K Rao. I follow a few Twitterfeeds of anthropologists and anthropology journals. There is a short piece about fieldwork on the internet with Catholic monks whose digital sermons are bringing solace to their parish and many beyond. I follow a few feeds of the Bhagavad Gita. Many of these are asking quiz questions about what makes the ideal Krishna conscious person. Apparently, the right answer is that the ideal Krishna conscious person will be unfazed by material difficulty. Thousands of migrants carry their young on their backs as they walk the long road home. A kid carries his carrom board on his head. The Bhagavad Gita says, to be a Krishna conscious person, you must not be bothered by material difficulty. I wonder if I should retweet. To hell with the Bhagavad Gita, I think. And I am a believer. A renowned priest and scholar had asked me to practice meditation and chanting. And my armchair struggle simply won’t permit it. My struggle is performed in writing and walking. I simply cannot get myself to meditate. I wonder if those journalists who are tirelessly documenting the migrants on the road, can sleep. Or better still, if they meditate. I grow restless. As does my artist-companion. As does everyone else whose lives are now entirely orchestrated around the square inches of a computer and phone-screens. Divorced from a slice of reality, we commit ourselves to online pooh-poohing. At railway track deaths and cabinet meetings. The government doesn’t exist, I think. It is only a projection of the war in our heads. I get angry at potential university candidate letters filled expression of compassion for the poor and weak. Fuck compassion!
I write a couplet “the gods must be hungry/I walk through this night”, and it fructifies into a tired poem about bourgeois horror at the scale of violence in the world. The Gita says, everything happens correctly, human interpretation of events is irrelevant. I think of this hard, brutal diktat. I am told by my friend, the priest and scholar in Vrindavan, that we may be maya for God, we can’t be maya or illusion for ourselves. If you hurt us, we hurt. If you don’t feed us, we feel hungry. May I quote the Gita to migrants on the road?
In all of this, there is the uncomfortable question of anthropologists! Anthropologists are celebrating their reading lists on Twitter, and asking searing questions about the relevance of the field in the time of the pandemic. We feel distant from them. The questions I want to ask in my fieldwork on Vaishnav practice in the Braj region of India, cannot be asked – they are unaskable. How does one do fieldwork silently? I remember Veena Das’s (2007) account of a woman who talks about mundane violences and is never able to name the primary violence of her life – rape – during the Sikh riots of 1984. All the ethnographer does is eloquently read silence. Perhaps, Natasha Myers’s attempt at capturing the silent life of plant systems, may be of use as well, at this time. I think of Benjamin’s (2002) and Teju Cole’s (2011) experiments with walking – and living in one’s head. Perhaps, the asking of questions to ferret out details of one’s inner life, must end. In the pandemic times and otherwise. Perhaps, we have been completely, totally, missing the point. That all the while, we were talking from our armchairs. Now that we are physically incarcerated in our armchairs, our inner wars are showing. Perhaps, ethnography was always about an inner war. What will I say to myself after watching this world with my violent, naked eye? Perhaps, that is what anthropologists have been grappling with the whole time. It’s just now the wounds are showing. I want to trade in silence. Only silence. Perhaps, the armchair is the only place I can possibly find the field in. Perhaps, I have never left my armchair.
My friend, Shreevatsa Nevatia (2020), writes eloquently about how the history of having been institutionalised has prepared him to deal with quarantine angst a bit better. He was forced to occupy his multitudes at this time of forced aloneness, without a phone or a computer. I think of knowledge economies, these days, as a kind of madness. As a kind of constant attempt at keeping the mind at bay with various kinds of mental gymnastics. I am not just blaming news here; news is the just crime scene of this phenomenon. I am constantly babbling in my head, the world is constantly filling me in with images and sounds and words through the internet. Knowledge systems are constantly worried about their survival in the future where many kids may not come to university at all. Knowledge is making a woeful, last attempt. Most renowned intellectuals are making themselves relevant in op-eds. Zizek writes about the pandemic. All of it a most pathetic attempt at shutting out the most fearsome inner war.
Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Unviersity Press, 2002.
Cole, Teju. Open City. New York, NY: Random House, 2012.
Das, Veena. Life and Words: Violence and Descent Into the Ordinary. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.
Myers, Natasha. Conversations on Plant Sensing: Notes from the Field. Nature & Culture 2015, 35-65.
Nevatia, Shreevatsa. How Bipolarity Prepared Me for The Panic and Confinement of COVID-19. Huffpost India, April 26, 2020.
Atreyee Majumder is a poet, writer and anthropologist. She teaches at the O P Jindal Global University. She is currently researching the contemporary life of Krishna bhakti in Vrindavan. Her first book on the time and space related to late stage capitalism – Time, Space, and Capital in India – is published with Routledge (2018).
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