Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Thursday, December 29, 2011
A few colleagues and I went out for dinner some time back and bonded over the usual small talk of renting and work and relationships. One of my colleagues made the conversation rather spicy by telling us that he lived in a commune in Amsterdam where there were about 10 people and that they often had dinner together in the evenings. He admitted that it was partly due to the cheap rent that drew him to this commune as much as the ideals. This got me thinking of a commune I encountered in my fieldwork two years ago when writing my book. I had gone to the Central Himalayas for research where I encountered the Mirtola ashram, a place where people voluntarily left their 'material' life behind in the cities and dedicated to living a simple and 'honest' life through the tilling of the land, growing their own produce, living with and within nature and praying to the Gods through a ritualistic practice every evening. Within a matter of months, much infighting began. Some did less and some did more. In this forced egalitarianism, hierarchies pushed forth. A leader was born to maintain harmony amongst equals. Irony was born. Kerala, an unusual and heady state in the South of India which has been uniquely a voluntary communist regime within the larger capitalistic space of India. This community in a way was a small slice of the larger Kerala ethos of high education, strong emotion and deep political leanings. We all pursued our art on the side while we earned our living through odd jobs of sorts. I taught in Mary Roy’s school at that time, the mother of the now famous Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize winner of God of Small Things. There was something magical about living with artists…the passion and sharing of resources, ideas and inspiration; jointly marveling at fireflies that took over the skies at night as the electricity went out as part of our daily routine, and of course, sharing common indignation on the state of reality – the roads, the price of rice, the traffic jams, the soulless commute, the burdened families, the dowry system. Until, one day, we got the rude awakening that our commune was not sufficient to protect our kind from the common worries of the day when we came home one day to see our artist friend lying on the ground with his wrists slashed, blood gushing around him. He survived but the commune did not. One went to Mumbai and became a professional artist; another went to join another commune called Auroville, the City of Dawn in an adjacent State; another became a founder of a business, abandoning all art, while another became a web designer. Myself, I left for San Francisco to pursue my art, hoping to become a muralist or painter. Tenderloin for the first two years. In 1996, this was the blind spot for cops where in principle, there seemed to be a live and let live agreement between the authorities, the prostitutes, and drug dealers. On my second day, my apartment was broken into. At the end of the week, my roommate got harassed by the local gang, pushing her off the edge, making her head back to New Jersey where she came from. Yet, behind this all, a communal feeling was formed. I got free muffins from the café next door; I got a free pass into the nightclubs around there and was protected by the watchful gaze of the bouncers and pimps around. It seemed that my ticket into this commune was my waitress and immigrant status and my artist naiveté. Today, there is little chance that I’d get entry into that same commune regardless of their familiarity with me. I no longer belong.