Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
T. S. EliotI started my narrative of the city with a story about my encounter with a particular kind of public in a globalized Calcutta: the imaged public of the 1997 book fair, the remaking of the regime's sociocultural identity and material basis in the crucible of liberalization. I preface this closing chapter with one of my many negotiations of the pablik.One fieldwork afternoon, underneath a blazing sun, I roamed the platforms of Dhakuria station in South Calcutta, searching for commuters. As the crowds swelled, I weaved my way carefully, taking on the performative identity that marked my ethnographies: deliberately shabby clothes, ragged slippers, sweaty hair pulled tightly back, a cloth bag, no note-taking, just genuine interest. I squatted on my haunches, avoiding the filthy platform, and started to talk to a commuter from a village deep in the southern reaches of the delta.We were soon loudly interrupted by a middle-
aged man, another commuter, but one whom I fixed in my mind as a middle-class clerk. I emphasize this "fixing" because it clearly shaped how I responded, with great hostility, to his presence. "Why are you asking the 'public' questions?" he shouted at me. The question was posed in Bengali, and he pronounced public as pablik. I retorted that it was none of his business: "What makes you the moral keeper of the public?"
It had been a long day and I went on to tell him that if these women were lying dead on the platform, he would most likely simply step over them and continue with his journey. Why the sudden interest? Our shouting match turned into quite a public spectacle until my initial research subject intervened: "Babu," she said, turning to him, "why are you bothering yourself with women's issues? We are talking about women's topics. They will only embarrass you, and besides they are not really of any importance, are they?" Flustered, my middle-
class clerk turned away, and the predominantly male crowd that had gathered around us lost interest as well.
And so I began to pose my litany of questions: about her village, about her work in Calcutta, about her family. To each she replied with a continuing narrative of widowhood. In fact, she elaborately detailed her husband's moment of death at the hands of a ferocious man-eating tiger that restlessly roamed the boundaries of their village.
I had heard similar stories from other commuter women, and once again I was puzzled by this description of primeval forests and prowling tigers. I pondered the gravity of villages teeming with widows whose husbands had thus lost their lives: what a dangerous place the Sunderbans must be.
But amidst the talk of death and dying I noticed that she wore all the traditional symbols of a married Hindu woman: the sindur, the bangles. Why did her narrative of Hindu widowhood not match up with her social emblems? She was, in Shah's imaginary, marked territory. As I turned to ask her this, her train rolled in. Through the push of the crowds, she shouted to me:
"I have to get home and cook for my husband and children."
"Oh, you remarried!" I proclaimed, relieved at the simple explanation. She laughed, and while boarding the train, said:
No memsahib, I have to cook for my only husband, the one who gets eaten every day by a man-
eating tiger while I wait at this station, parched and dusty, while I lose my breath on the trains, and walk through the muddy fields. He dies every day as I traverse this space. It is a terrible death for the tiger is always so hungry.
Since then, on hot afternoons in breathless South Calcutta stations, I often allow myself to mistake the frenzy of the local trains and the cacophony of its public for the roar of a majestic Bengal tiger --- not one that is on display as the last stalwart of an endangered species in zoos around the world, but instead one that restlessly roams the imaginary of an unnamed woman.--- From City Requiem, Calcutta
Gender and the Politics of Poverty
©2003, University of Minnesota