Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Personal in Public

I have come back to this space after a very long time. It has been left alone so long that I don't know whether it has stayed a public space anymore. That is the most important reason for my coming back to this space -- to express myself and to clarify my thoughts on the personal in public. It provides me space to type out my confusions on communicating personal anxieties in public spaces and it is a space which blurs the public and the personal in its very conception.
I remember starting this blog when I was utterly amused at watching someone talk animatedly on a mobile phone which was hidden from sight. The first post in this blog records my thoughts and impressions of that experience. It looked like this person was inhabiting a completely different space while we were actually sharing a rather cramped physical space -- a lift in an old government building!
I was amazed at the ease with which the public space was being personalised by this co-rider in the elevator. There was no thought given to the reactions of the neighbours, for the neighbours did not really exist. I think the last decade has made that mode of communication so pervasive that the most well-adjusted person blanks out her surroundings, invisibilises her immediate neighbours and inhabits mind spaces which are miles away from the physical space she is occupying. She doesn't have to worry about hurting her neighbors. For her neighbors don't exist. Not really. Not for her to connect with that moment.
In my childhood, one of the crucial tasks I had to learn in 'civilising' myslef into society was to understand that my words and actions can cause emotional hurt just as much as they cause physical ones. Part two of that lesson made me aware of the spaces in which liberty to hurt can be taken and the extent to which that liberty can be taken. You can sometimes say or do things which may cause some form of hurt to immediate family but you should stop yourself from doing that to people outside your family; of course, family can also mean friends who become family. If you do, it is called a tantrum. And tantrums are bad. I suspect this lesson is not part of upbringing anymore; especially because even adults have forgotten it.
Nowadays, even newspapers regularly carry features in which personal hurt is expressed in public spaces. Any why should they not? After all, there are any number of blogs which do that and are among the most popular ones in cyberspace. Also, reality television probably has the maximum viewership in the world governed by TRP ratings. However, when I had begun reading newspapers, in high school, those personal features reminded me of my grandfather. I imagined  V. Gangadhar as a contemporary of my grandfather. As it turns out R V Smith actually is! They can write rambling reminisces with mild doses of humour and the reader will indulge them just as all good-mannered children listen to a story Grandfather is repeating the thirtieth time. Feature articles were light reading, along with film and food reviews. They were spaces for the reader and the newspaper to relax.
Having said that, there is a serious danger of a feature article, even a film review, getting spoilt when the personal comes in. I do not mean the destruction caused by prejudices, I mean the destruction caused by grief. Case in point is the latest by my favourite film critic, Baradwaj Rangan. Do compare this one with that one Quite often, I reserve Rangan's article for the last on Sunday mornings, the best for the end. I like his critical engagement with cinema, his style peppered with mild humour and the ease with which he displays innocuous disapproval. The former of the two articles referred above had none of those. It thoroughly alienated all readers who are not extremely well-versed with Tamil cinema and its use of Carnatic music. If I knew the man, I would have called him to say -- Listen, it is alright to mourn.  With people whom you trust. Even when you are mourning the death of a public figure do you trust the public to mourn with you? For, the first recollection the article brought up was a call during rush hour in Bombay from someone very dear to me saying in an uncharacteristically flat and grim tone, "Listen, something has happened. It seems Michael Jackson died last night." Immediately I knew the loss he experienced with that death. It was the loss of the person who showed the capacity of the human body to create beauty. It was the loss of the man who drowned the noises in our head with his music when we were growing up. This person's friends and family who understood his loss called him to pay condolences till late evening that day. There was some form of closure to that loss, while mourning with near and dear ones. Obituaries are feature articles which mark the public end of an era; they hardly provide closure to an emotional loss to the writer of the obituary. Unless there is some distance already traversed in the lessening of emotional investment in the relationship.
One of the best contemporary writers of features seem to have blurred the difference between personal grief and public marking of the end of an era, in one of the best mainstream newspapers today. This should indicate that modes of communication are changing. The personal can be brought into the public and it is being brought for the public's notice. Spaces like this -- blogs -- started this and the trend is making inroads into newspapers of record. We witness displays of this trend in academia nowadays. In conversations -- personal, semi-official or official -- we are smoothly blurring the distinction between personal hurt and public grievance. And we are hurting and getting hurt in the process. Some recent events at work let to intense, emotionally charged exchanges over email, phone calls and a public meeting of a collective of thinking individuals. One of the emails sent to a large group at work started with a brilliant use of the first paragraph of Sudhir Kakar's autobiography. I interpreted it as the attempt to tread the razor's edge between denial and drowning in loss. Kakar had no choice but to work towards learning to walk on that razor's edge. His dead father will not come back. There is no alternative. He has to show the "courage of helplessness".
We were surely not at a funeral in our workspace. Our loss is not a permanent one. It is an instance of loss of perspectives on who we thought we are and who we think we should be. If it is not permanent it can be resolved. Probably through good communication. We might have to adapt the new ways of communication, the ones in which the personal and public get interspersed. That does not mean we cannot learn to do it without hurting ourselves. After all, we know as teachers that we are perpetual students too. If we have to lean this new trick, I am sure we can. At least, I mean to start. And that is why I am back in this space which blurs the personal and the public.