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On Spaces

I write this essay days after Gravity won seven Oscars. The idea of space as, well, an alternative extra-terrestrial space or site where man and the earth are decentred, where all that we human beings argue and kill over is distanced into insignificance, has been with us for a long time now. We continue to relativise our understanding of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial space, drawing upon Indian mythology, Einstein’s theory, Tagore’s songs and poetry, Boethius’s philosophy, the last zooming out shot in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, even a recent short documentary offering the astronaut’s take on twentieth-century history. Gravity, however, is a typical Hollywood film in the way it reaffirms man’s or, in this case, a woman’s mastery of space. It domesticates space by mapping it in terms of direct vertical distances from homes in America. It treats space largely as an extension of the earth, another locus for human beings’ relentless, solitary struggle for survival and mastery. In the process of envisioning space, Gravity destroys its mystique. It neutralises the terror of space that hits us when we lie down, face up, on ground, high or low, earthen or concrete, open enough to let nothing earth-sprung or man-made trespass into our view. The film tries to retrieve that mystique somewhat by creating an “outer” space, within its narrative but just outside the camera’s ken. It is into this void that Matt Kowalsky is sucked and irretrievably lost when he runs out of oxygen. This manner of space death, death without disembodiment, is chillingly anticipated by Wordsworth when he imagines the deceased Lucy “rolled round with earth’s diurnal course”. Of course, Matt Kowalsky will not do so in the company of “rocks, and stones, and trees” but the undifferentiated orbiting mass called space debris.

As I travel around a little, in my home state West Bengal and India; as I daily move between the apartment which I share with my husband and my son and the department where I share space with colleagues, students and persons whom we in Indian academia collectively refer to as the non-teaching staff; between the kitchen where I share space with Meena, the cook, and Jamunadi, who does the dishes, and the car where I share space with my husband who drives it and my son whom I fight over the front seat with, I realise how fundamental the relativity of space is to our daily, lived experience, and how formative it is to our perceptions and conceptions about life in general. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind anticipates with uncanny farsightedness a fact integral to both modern and post-modern understanding of reality:

Time travels in divers paces with divers persons. I’ll tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.


In Bangla, we speak of sthan-kaal-patra as the root contingent factors determining experience and its interpretation and I can’t help noting the succinctness with which this oft-repeated phrase from everyday discourse captures the tangled cohabitation of spaces and times. In fact, it impels me to add a rejoinder to Rosalind’s observation: “time travels in divers paces” not only with “divers persons” but even with the same person in “divers” spaces. This feeble attempt at reiterating a post-Einstein truism of the twentieth and the twenty-first century betrays the naive wonder of ignorance no doubt. However, I, and I am sure many others, do sometimes experience scientific axioms even without being privy to their status as theoretically derived axioms.

Nowhere does the diversity of spaces and times strike me more than in a hotel room. For one, I never cease to wonder at the effortlessness with which I adopt the hired, borrowed, temporary staying space called the hotel room into my notion of a living space, even a home outside home. I conveniently allow myself to forget that it is a space that has been and will be used, barely hours, if not minutes, before and after I do so. I even appropriate the objects that occupy this space – the dresser, the bed, the chairs, the table, the wardrobe –  objects that let me order and organise, with the help of imaginary lines, that single room into the likeness of an apartment with its own carefully designated seating area, sleeping area, and dressing area. I am fascinated by the manner in which my sense of privacy is transformed in a hotel room. In what is primarily a bedroom, I can let in multiple attendants on room service and pretend to retain a semblance of privacy nevertheless. In a hotel room, not letting an attendant in for a regular cycle of ordinary chores is likely to arouse suspicion. Unlike one’s own home, a hotel room is a space where your life is laid bare to strangers, in a way that reminds me of the Songs and Sonnets of John Donne. Donne turns the camera in on his bedroom and pillow talk in a carefully controlled, verbally packaged, exemplary public spectacle. Indeed, in some of these love-lyrics, Donne presents a carefully selected outdoor locale as an extension of that same intimate private space. Viewed purely in terms of space, a hotel room is an enigma, at once alien and homely, actually public but quick to offer a faux sense of privacy, where the private is always on public display.

As to time in hotel space, that’s another proposition. Once inside a hotel room, time seems to expand elastically, offering perplexingly limitless opportunity for eating, sightseeing, sleeping, reading, games … everything that we struggle to fit into our quotidian schedule at home. Soon, however, this elongated time confronts us with a terrifying sense of emptiness. Maugham’s Lotus Eater probably died of an extreme version of that terror. And we hastily retreat into our everyday space and routine. I, and no doubt others, have experienced the elasticity of time in yet another way too. When I move from one space to another for the first time, the span of the journey feels intolerably elongated. The journey back through what is by that time familiarised space invariably feels shorter.

The train compartment allows greater control of the extent of public display. Time, too, being more finite here, as is the space, we are better able to manipulate our fellow passengers’ perception of our selves. Am I reading a book? A magazine? Listening to music aloud on my phone? Taking calls in a hushed voice? Or booming? Working on a computer? Everything is a signal, either befriending or estranging. This is one space where I can stare at fellow passengers for slightly longer than on the bus or on the metro, though. And the right kind of stare can trigger an engaging conversation culminating in enthusiastic sharing of phone numbers and addresses. Once off the train, there is an almost equal urgency to blend into the comfortable anonymity of the crowd, a decisive suspension of the intimacy crafted by the physical proximity of close seating in train compartments. That’s what makes the last scene in Ray’sNayak so unforgettable: the actor celebrity, making polite conversation with celebrity-hunters from behind the anonymity of dark glasses, silently follows down the platform the fading figure of the woman who had coaxed him in course of their overnight journey from Calcutta to Delhi into sharing his inner life, his conscience and his consciousness. The train compartment induces a curiously collapsed, compressed version of the time-phases through which relationships are formed and then snapped. Entirely by virtue of the compression of space.

It is no mean coincidence that I should have begun writing this piece in a train compartment, in the middle of a conversation with a Bengali lady, slightly older than I, accompanied, like me, by her husband and son, but, unlike me, a trained architect. I couldn’t resist the temptation of asking her what architecture was all about and how it bore upon her current managerial, administrative work for her husband’s e-learning firm. She replied with great matter-of-factness that architecture was about managing space in a way as to maximise utilisation and minimise wastage and that in a sense she was still drawing upon those skills in her current work. I was as usual both relieved and confounded by the determined exactitude of scientific definitions. Is there ever any single uniform way of ordering space, any one completely satisfying architectural model? What is wastage and what is utilisation?

As I read The Lowland (I am admittedly but deliberately late in picking it up when everyone else seems to have read it already, but I never like crowding a book by reading it at a time when everyone else is – I like the space that deferred, delayed reading affords), I become doubly aware of the diversity of terrestrial spaces, of lived spaces. As an uncle of mine drove me up the six- or eight-lane highways past five states in East Coast America back in April 2000, I would gaze at the vastness of the land, the availability of unutilised, virgin space suggestive of America’s affluence. Similar expanses of landmass in India – uninhabited or sparsely inhabited – probably indicate the opposite – lack of development and hence lingering poverty. The stunning beauty of Jharkhand, our neighbouring state, may well owe itself to this paradox. And highways have a unique way of showcasing open country, of widening the traveller’s perception of surrounding space from within the cosy limits of the car interior.

Correspondingly, sprawling housing estates and amusement clubs are constructed for the rich in Kolkata and India just to give them exclusive access to the open but enclosed and secured spaces increasingly hard to come by in a land bursting at its seams with people. I am reminded here of the curiosity awakened in Lahiri’s two sibling protagonists by the enclosed paradise called Tolly Club. Having lived since early teens practically across the street from precisely the same hidden, magical greens, I can relate to the aura it commands in those of us who never managed to scale its walls onto the other side. My first sight of those greens was when I went to see Tim Supple’s RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream staged on the Royal Calcutta Golf Club grounds. Money may or may not succeed in buying us real time or leisure these days (time has nothing to do with escape from the grind of daily chores). But it certainly buys us physical space. Where AC three-tier bogeys accommodate three berths, AC two-tier bogeys fit in two. And first class bogeys, I imagine, offer the security of a shuttered door for privacy in addition to space. Similarly, the difference between economy class and business class and executive class air tickets is ultimately about bought space.

In my childhood, I would be filled with awe every time I visited my maternal uncle’s home in Delhi. Prosperity meant that every member in that household had, in successive houses of either lateral spread or vertical height, a large room to themselves, shielded by doors that were not always left ajar. My brother and I, by contrast, had narrow reading desks in the same room, and frequently visiting guests meant that we were often sleeping on the floor in the living room. My mother and my father had each grown up in even more crammed quarters, studying on the side of the very bed, I have been told, on which the male parent and his friends were probably playing cards or talking politics over tea.

In the crammed middle-class Bengali homes of Kolkata, the demarcation of living space, dining space and bedroom was and probably still is an unheard of luxury. Even today in such homes, guests are directed straight into the bedroom for a chat. Alternatively, a bed instead of a sofa constitutes the primary furniture in the living space. All that has changed, of course, with prosperity. As has the decor of Bengali middle-class bathrooms. The well-lit Western style bath and toilet of our new-age apartments afford the luxury of a private home within a home, a space where our stream of consciousness runs riot, where we can play-act in front of the mirror without being branded mentally unstable. At the risk of sounding crude, I cannot help observing how the Western style toilet and the tall or wide mirrors augment our sense of the bathroom as a private narcissistic space, the only place where we can be absolutely alone, absolutely invisible except to ourselves, and well, if we are so inclined, to God.

For the less fortunate humanity who live on Kolkata’s streets, however, privacy must be contrived in flimsier ways demanding considerable cooperation from the passers-by. I often stare shamelessly at families dwelling on the pavements along Southern Avenue. I see elder siblings affectionately cradling their equally grimy younger ones, spouses chatting, mothers spanking their children, picking lice on their hair, without the least obvious self-consciousness of being watched. One day, I purposely watched a woman who had just had a bath at one of these deep tube-wells on the street changing her saree right there, expertly screening her body as she draped it with one loose end of either the wet saree she was shedding or the dry one she was putting on. Not for a moment did that everyday ritual seem unseemly. My mind wandered back to the two adjacent bathing ponds inside the Cossimbazaar Palace, one for female bathers, the other for males. What about prying eyes, then, I wondered instantly, suddenly recalling the stereotypical blazon occasioned by just such an act of voyeurism in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. In villages even today, I am told, there are separate bathing hours for men and women. This is exactly how sharing our limited space in India ultimately translates into sharing or dividing time. In villages and crowded urban neighbourhoods, I have seen men reading newspapers and chatting well into midnight, men and women brushing their teeth out on the road, men rubbing up a rich white lather all over their torso by the side of a tubewell. Encroachment of public spaces in India is undoubtedly habit, but a habit instinctively acquired and mastered in collective desperate need for space and privacy, for some time away from the claustrophobia of the average Indian home and the Indian family. The converse, of course, is – and I may be essentialising here – the chilling loneliness of unlimited space that pervades all of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction about America.

All that is changing, though, even in India. Even in moderately well-off homes here, the lack of physical space has meant other kinds of contrived, constructed privacy – in cyberspace. As more and more terrestrial spaces disappear under and behind buildings, more and more people take refuge in their cellphones, their IPods, IPads and Galaxy Tabs, creating enclosed, controlled spaces for themselves “in the cloud”. Here, at least for now, there is no threat of over-crowding. I do have a room of my own now, finally, mostly shared, sometimes all to myself. Yet to me “a room of one’s own” has essentially come to mean my desktop and the crowded desk on which it is stationed. And yet, when I chose a desktop background, I went for a google image of the historical novelist Hilary Mantel’s attic study.

As we create cloud space for ourselves, our poorer compatriots, all beneficiaries of the revolutionised Indian telephony – are busy creating cellular privacy for themselves. The other day, I saw a woman in Bhubaneswar, clearly not well off, beaming as she spoke into her cellphone. We carry on, though, oblivious, or at best inwardly chafing at, the havoc that this same facility is playing with our lives – invading our space and time shamelessly.


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