“The Road” – A Photo Essay from Siddhartha Biswas

The road has been much romanticized in literature. Literary texts like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road speak of a neo-romantic identity crisis that plagued not only the youth of United States of America, but a whole generation of postcolonial and post-imperial people who had to negotiate with a world shifting through value systems as fast as technological advances allowed. The road signifies journey and the quest for location. International or intra-national migration was, and still is, the core concern of postmodern existence.

But along with the idea of migration there are basic movements and journeys that signify the location of dislocation. Roads and roadways offer a representation of the daily struggle, the banality, and often the ennui of a lived experience that goes beyond the philosophy of home as high culture knows it. The road often allows the gaze to discover other lives and other quests for living. The images offered to us in passing are but passing glimpses of myriad existential struggles which neither theory nor fantasy can adequately address. These images are at the same time momentary and eternal and they indicate that life on this planet remains deeply divided and that the postcolonial merely becomes the neo-colonial. The struggle against colonization never ends. Photographs often develop into silent, yet eloquent, witnesses to certain uncertain individual struggles and they manage to preserve moments that indicate a larger personal – sometimes communal – narrative.

 

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The familiar Indian rural landscape often brings one to strange encounters. Bovine political issues become irrelevant when such on-road encounters offer a glimpse of a life that can be serene.

 

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Another familiar image becomes far less serene with the epiphany that this pastoral scene ultimately points to the dispossession of the tribal community. The women who are so romantically presented in popular cultural narratives are ultimately the poorest of poor and the completely otherized. They have little of their own, and they must survive by engaging in hard labour. The idiotic idyllic ideas survive only on the blood and sweat of such marginalized existences.

 

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No one knows hardship as these hill people. The photograph amply represents the daily toil of villagers who must climb every mountain because they are there and must be scaled not for achievement or conquest, but for daily sustenance. Their presence in the glitzy world of digital existence proves how nothing has changed for the marginalized in the age of eroded democracy.

 

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The labour of millions of such people who live with one single goal – to keep on living – end up in disappointment and deprivation. The daily here is often romanticized, but the toil remains unacknowledged and conveniently overlooked.

 

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Poverty is global. But poverty in this part of the country, along with its own political intricacy, turns the road into a path to unknown ends. This is a province which has a very different tale of colonialism.

 

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Tourists and their cameras look for memories. Sometimes they get intertwined with other memories which they can never be a participant in. But these memories go on; they look at tourists as a monotypical presence. Their lives, with their monotonies, become harder as the demands of the urban and the privileged grow into appropriation of their basic livelihoods. Industry, even the tourism based ones, often play villain in the lives of the local.

 

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Rs. 100 per ride; perhaps three to four rides per day in full season; and barely any income for the rest of the year. A large number of citizens still have such demons to face. And when tourism is tortured, even the hope of survival starts to dwindle. Colonials often come in the guise of saviours and take away all livelihoods.

 

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This is the image of a slightly privileged existence – a cycle is luxury when we are talking about the sun-scorched world of North India. A daily journey of many miles is something most of these men, many of them in the profession of the holy, must undertake to earn their dal and roti.

 

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As Yeats had said aged men are always paltry things. The journey ends in ruins and what is left behind weighs heavily. Introspection is fine, but only when sprinkled with insight. Age often only brings rigidity of belief. But looking forward is positive only when no misconception is overlooked.

 

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Aged women have a very different existence. Their irrelevance is magnified by the gender defined roles set in social discourse. In this photograph the lady is paying respect not to any divinity even though she is in a religious space, but to a number of village elders (unseen here like patriarchy was for most of history). Her body language clearly indicates the kindness she needs for survival. Such is the story in much of our little corner of the world.

 

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The gentleman in the photograph was suffering from excruciating toothache. The other side of his face was badly swollen. But he did not stop from his duties for one moment. No available medicines worked and in that part of the world dentistry was limited to the capital of the province – which was two days away. He did not complain. It was not merely a sense of duty. But also a fear that he might lose his livelihood. Drivers are plenty, demand is not. Workers are plenty, work is not. And still we celebrate development.

 

 

 

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Those who build roads do so with borrowed colours. Their lives are usually as gray as the materials they work with. This is perhaps the greatest gift of capital-centric ideologies that those who build and grow are skilfully relegated to the background; invisible but for the colours given to them by others. They merge with the roads, while roads emerge from their sweat and destitution. They belong neither to the road, nor to the people who map them.

 

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One of the strangest phenomena about corporate colonialism is that it does not hide itself. It remains clearly visible, but just outside the reach of those who serve it. The luxury constructs the other side of the divide and the colonized remain firmly located in their impoverishment. The only advantages given are tools for service. In this case the footwear of the woman is a necessary tool as she must walk miles to reach her place of service.

 

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The myth of the mendicant monk is rampant in all cultures. But in colonial cultures these acquire a significance far beyond the average. These men, sincere or delusional, exist in the periphery of the perceived normative life. They are venerated by some, and must face extreme hardships, unless celebrated by the powers-that-be. Perhaps they do reach some kind of sublime, or remain enmeshed in spiritual discontent. It is very easy to discard or dismiss them adopting a quasi-rational political stance, but they are, and will remain, an integral part of the hegemonic need of diversion.

 

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Art in our part of the world is never free of religion. A beggar must also have help from religious icons. The flute rarely will be enough. The other end of the artistic spectrum is also not independent of this notion. We may look down upon the so-called superstitions, but their presence has an immense impact on the lives of most. And that itself is a value that demands analysis. Life must be understood first, only then can one grasp how the neo-imperial powers grasp not only politics, but the ethno-cultural life of an entire people.

 

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The joy of false privilege motivates a very large number of people all over the world. Denial, and the delusion that one belongs to the core power paradigm, are integral for any joyous participation in any display of faith.

 

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But religio-ethnic privilege has its own power structure. There are many who are discarded not having the glamour and sacred glitz and quietly spend their days by the road watching, perhaps reading life that flows by. They survive barely, they pretend little and having no artificially added aura, they are ignored by most. There are many of them who dot the landscape and the gaze of power happily ignores them.

 

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Even those who are somewhat privileged have many gazes upon them. Within the urban sphere the paradigm of the red riding hood becomes quite powerful. The gendered hunger spares none and quite often, even in the heartland, there has to be enough sartorial armour that can protect the prey from the eyes of the privileged predator.

 

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The world of want has rarely raised its voice. For ages this world of the under-privileged and the marginalized has stood quietly by the road, watching and perhaps yearning for something better. This voicelessness has been conditioned by handsome sprinklings of false promises – both worldly and other-worldly. But generations have come and gone, generations will come and go. Everything will remain the same.

 

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The Road remains amongst the best metaphors that can completely encompass the movement of humanity in time. The Road is made by human hands. But how one travels keep on defining our state of civilization. The Road through unspoiled nature only serves to remind us what we ultimately are. A sense of that is necessary to have perspective. One should not be blinded by whatever level of privilege one is located in. One should walk with wonder and understanding.

 

 

 

Dr. Siddhartha Biswas is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of English, University of Calcutta. His doctoral work was on the screenplays of Harold Pinter. He has written a number of articles in reputed journals in India and abroad. His books include Theatre: Theory and Performance (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK) and Looking for Home: Journey and Boundary in Postmodern Texts (Atlantic, New Delhi) among others. His areas of interest include Postmodern Theatre, Translation Studies and Popular Culture.

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