Ground reality

Sumana Roy | Updated on April 03, 2020 Published on April 03, 2020

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Like grass — which has no distinction of beginning or end — the life of India’s poor is an unbroken chain of struggle

At no point in my life have I so acutely had the sense of being ‘in the middle’. I think this is true for most of us. In the linear way we are conditioned to look at our lives, we are aware that the Aristotelian beginning is over, and that we are in the middle. For no reason is it called ‘middle age’ — the longest period of one’s life, one without assured bookmarked ends. But that is not the kind of middle I am thinking of. ‘In the middle’ is a state of unease. It is the state that I feel we are living in, unsure about anything, the possibility of restoration of an old order of life, or this stretch of time ending, whether it will end at all.

One of the characteristics of being human, I have come to understand, is the feeling of boredom. We’ve known that boredom, the urgent desire to explode out of its middle, but this, I must repeat, is not that same ‘middle’. This is a middle which has the possibility of turning into an end without notice. I say ‘without notice’, and, yet, coded in the sense of the middle is this claustrophobic sense of waiting. Claustrophobia is a word we usually use to denote our relationship with space, but time has suddenly turned into space: Weeks and months, suddenly turned into units of lockdown, feel like warehouses without windows, in which we are trapped. “I am an animal, my life is outdoors,” I explain aloud, in irritation.

And then, suddenly, my attention falls on my plants. I say ‘my’ even though I am aware that they are not mine. How can they — or anything — be? Do they have a sense of the middle? Long ago, when I first encountered the work of the French thinkers Deleuze and Guattari, I thought of the tree’s long stem or trunk as its middle — if that were cut, the tree would cease to live, the tree would cease to be a tree. That is how important the middle is to the tree, I imagined. I was stupid, of course. The idea of the ‘middle’ is so utterly human, one that exposes our fragility, that to superimpose it on to any other life-form is an exercise in silliness.

Outside my window was grass. I hadn’t watered it, neither had I planted it. But it had survived. Deleuze and Guattari had proposed the substitution of the tree model with the rhizome to challenge hierarchy. I am paraphrasing very simplistically, of course, but to return to grass. For the grass, there is no distinction between beginning, middle and end. A long chain of grass. A week ago, I’d read ‘John Clare in Babylon’, an essay by Tom Paulin on the 19th-century poet John Clare. Paulin describes Clare as a “nonperson”, as anonymous as the grass he identified his social class, himself and his language with. He alludes to the poem The Flitting:

“So where old marble citys stood

Poor persecuted weeds remain

She feels a love for little things

That very few can feel beside

& still the grass eternal springs

Where castles stood & grandeur died

“The closing lines of ‘The Flitting’are partly Clare’s reply to those critics who believed he had coined words which were instead ‘as common around me as grass under my feet’.”

As images of migrant workers walking from Delhi to their homes hundreds of kilometres away began to enter our protected middle-class lives, it was of Clare’s grass I thought, again. They were dying even as I was writing this, trying to meet my bourgeois deadline. They were like grass — only middle.

Beginning-middle-end, it suddenly struck me, was a gift coupon that only the moneyed class had rights to scratch. This is as true of life as of art: The breaking up of life into childhood, teenage, early adulthood, middle age, and so on, was available only to those who had money, and, as a consequence of that, to time, to leisure. The poor are not entitled to those distinctive periods of life — the little child needs food as urgently as the old man. That is their sense of life — continuous, an unending struggle, undisrupted by worry-free moments of rest. We’d been celebrating the return — or, possibly, even advent — of slow time in our quarantined lives. How easily I had forgotten that the experience of time, its different periods of our lives, even of night and day, is as much a consequence of our moneyed lives as the experience of speed and slowness. There — those who are still walking, those who will not read my inconsequential words — it is always rush hour. What Deleuze says of art in Spinoza: Practical Philosophy holds true for their lives: “One never commences; one never has a tabula rasa; one slips in, enters in the middle...”

Sumana Roy   -  BUSINESS LINE


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

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Published on April 03, 2020
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