Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Hometown: The City in the Postnational Landscape

October, 2010

with Jyoti Puri, published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLV, No. 41, October 9, 2010


The nation is under siege, and the attrition comes from both without and within. The cross-border flows of capital, communication, and people produce a trans-national dynamic across the horizon of the nation, while the various regional, local, and subaltern upsurges pose a sub-national wave. This double vortex generates what has been proffered as a postnational condition.


The sociological and political critiques emerging from a postnational framing argue that the nation has not quite lived up to the promises of its originary dream. Envisioned as unique, unified, and egalitarian political communities, postcolonial South Asian nations, not unlike nations elsewhere, are marked by fragmentation, repression, and ambivalence. Even as South Asian nations fiercely resist movements for autonomy and sovereignty through indescribable violence, the fractures of regional, ethnic, religious, class, linguistic differences are more evident than before. Concurrently, contrary to the decline of the state, states in South Asia are simultaneously expanding and retracting, or in short, being reconfigured. Even as they expand in unprecedented ways through militarization, states are retracting and realigning in a vast complex of relations with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and other regional, national, and transnational private constituencies.


What are left unresolved in scholarly framings of the changing dynamics of national states are considerations of “home,” or meaningful existential, cultural and political affiliations to space. Our point of departure is to foreground questions of what makes specific places a “home-space”; how do we begin to think about affiliation and belonging to space in a way that does not privilege the national?; what is the nature of affiliation to the city in particular that presents an alterity to the nation. We are interested in both the emotive as well as the political aspects of such affiliations, and in the existential, cultural and political forms of belonging to specific places. Postnational interventions have been useful in noting the limitations of nationalisms but less effective in positing alternatives. The postnational is spoken of as a new ethical condition or a political practice but its spatial structure is hardly addressed, especially when the discourses of the nation, homeland, and region are essentially socio-spatial constellations. Our interest is in exploring the dynamics of belonging and cultural-geographic spaces, which may include the nation but are not, in fact, contained by it. Cities, especially in South Asia, may open up alternatives, or at least, an anotherness, within what is claimed as the postnational landscape.


Attention to cities is not justified simply by the rising trends in urbanizations in contrast to the “eroding” nation (even though more than half the world’s population is now urban for the first time in human history), but by renewed claim, following Henri Lefebvre’s persuasions, about the city as expressing and symbolizing “our being and consciousness.” We seek to bring the declining relevance of the nation and increasing significance of the city within the same field of exploration to present the city as another viable site of affiliation and engagement in light of the nation’s predicaments. It seems that we have been too quick to concede to the romance of homeland and nation as sites/spaces/containers of attachment and belonging (as well as loss), for subsumed in the extrapolations of such “homes” are the rich and complex textures of places such as the city. However, with the contradictory characterizations of “home” in common parlance, it is not clear how that resonates in/with the city: While cities are home to vast millions, the predominant discourses are about unmanaged growth, sprawl, migration, struggle for survival, and, in effect, “unhomeliness.”


To identify and unravel the lived, affective, and affiliative properties of the city, we deploy the term “hometown.” The phenomenon of hometown, despite or because of its highly charged and gauzy sensibility of “home,” offers a particular way of understanding the nature of the city. By bringing hometown to the foreground, we are emphasizing a distinction between the abstraction of homelands and nations and the lived spaces of belonging and embodiment. The important point here is that an abstract spatial coagulation (whether at global, continental, regional or national scale) is always negotiated through the specifics of a social habitus. What the recalcitrant presence of the city, in various narratives and representations, indicates is that even the attachment to nation or homeland takes shape through the particular, everyday textures of place—the call of the fish vendor at a neighborhood in Dhaka, the neon signs at an intersection encountered daily in Karachi, the smell of exhaust and the puttering of an auto-rickshaw in Delhi. When one returns from travel abroad, one does not return to an India or Bangladesh per se, or for that matter an Africa or Asia, but to a specific city or place, a Lucknow, a Chittagong or a Kathmandu. A place that is perhaps a hometown.


The Apocryphal Space of the National State

In the discourses of national states, the combination of space and scale normalizes the national state as the legitimate, overarching authority and primordializes the relevance of territoriality and sovereignty while subsuming and obscuring the significance of the local and particular (Ferguson & Gupta, 2002). Indeed, as Aditya Nigam (2009) notes, the national works by erasing the presence of notions of belonging that circulate within South Asia, des, vatan, and nadu. Maps are especially potent spatial representations that help colonize places into the spaces of national states. Not just spatial depictions of national states, continents, and landmasses, maps continually capture and shape our imaginations of what counts as space and our relationship to it. Speaking to the shift from place to abstract space, sociologist Craig Calhoun (1997) notes how maps before the 18th century were either local, for city plans or charts, or meant to give directions to travelers, or, we might add, aimed toward military encounters. Calhoun suggests that it was the influence of the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century that encouraged the proliferation of the “national” model, which was reflected in and facilitated by maps that divided the world into discrete nations and their territories. Maps-as-logo (after, Benedict Anderson) help literalize and opticize territory, augmenting the pre-occupations with borders, and sovereignty, the defining characteristics of the national state. The result is the flattening if not obliteration of the cognition of places.


No wonder, then, that national states are frequently willing to sacrifice innumerable lives and wreak unaccountable havoc in order to retain national territory or regain territory believed to rightfully belong to the nation. The several wars between India and Pakistan over the contested terrain of Kashmir, the inexhaustible injustices committed within the Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir and Pakistan’s attempts at recuperation of territory derive from the ontology of national spaces. Just as the space of nation and state is no longer separable, territory and sovereignty are fully inflected with affect. As Michael Billig (1995) notes, national geography has to be imagined as total, unified, and unique; there can only be one Macedonia, just as East Pakistan had to be renamed Bangladesh following the 1971 War of Independence.


The particular spatial configurations of the national state reproduce a powerful set of discursive-material claims that continually normalize the national state as our spatial coordinate, the locus of cultural and political belonging, and that which completely and fully contains us. Space and affect, the material and representational constantly work together to appropriate the grammar of belonging and attachment to the national state. The predominant notions of belonging and attachment emerge from a synthetic relationship of affect and politics that is reproduced in the mundane as well as the spectacular spaces of the national state. Belonging connects us to something, giving us membership within a group or collective, but insofar as belonging connotes possessions and property, we are also the things that belong to something larger than ourselves. Thus, as much as home and nation belong to us, we belong to them. Belonging also connects us to other people and relates us to others through descent and kinship. It bridges putative distinctions between the intimate and the public spheres. Not surprisingly, then, the affective idioms of national state, much like homeland, are wrought through metaphors of gender, kinship, and heterosexuality.


Belonging brings together multiple affective valences of the national state—allegiance and affiliation in the politico-legal sense with affinity and attachment at an emotive level. The space of the national state is more open to such valences in comparison to the fabric of homeland with its implicit exclusionary structure. What emerges from here is a critical differentia of allegiances and affiliations. It is possible to be naturalized as a citizen-member even if one is never quite fully accepted within the fold of the nation. At the same time, the racialized and religion-based exclusions that mark more than one nation of South Asia are painful reminders that some groups are excluded despite their equal claims to soil, blood, and a common past. The particular mix of affect and politics plays out in a number of different ways, mediated by hierarchies and differences engendered and nurtured by ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, language, and social class. Despite and, in fact, through these differences of belonging, spatial and affective idioms of the national state claim not only our political attachments but attachments of the heart. Nation, home, and heart are used interchangeably, just as are rights, citizenship, and state.


What forms of belonging to a socio-spatial matrix are available that are not contained by the discourses of homeland and national space? It is a question shared with scholars such as Mary Layoun who ends her book Wedded to the Land? Gender, Boundaries, and Nationalism in Crisis with the assertion that alternative ways of conceptualizing and living difference, an “otherwise,” has always existed alongside the hegemony of nationalism (Layoun, 2001). Layoun’s strategy regarding the unsaid and unmarked, however, poses a problem. Perhaps the problem is not so much in terms of what lies unsaid but the ability of scholars and researchers to pay attention to what is actively lived, experienced, and desired alongside and outside the framework of nationalism. Layoun is right to note the fissures and fractures in dominant accounts of nation and homeland that are revealed through the storytelling of the marginalized and the dispossessed. Yet, the focus on the interplay between dominant narratives and silences, between nationalisms and its alternatives, obscures something particularly critical: that accounts of belonging, of cultural, political and spatial affiliation are by their nature multiple. Accounts of homeland, nation/state, home, community, origins exist simultaneously where they are sometimes neatly aligned, sometimes in irregular lines, but always numerous. To ignore the very existence of multiple accounts and to focus on the other-wise of nationalisms, or the silences and the interstices, ironically, is to leave intact the structure/edifice of nationalisms. Instead, we suggest fresh and richer articulations around the particularities of space and the spatiality of the city.


The City in Spatial Imagination

Salman Rushdie’s rambunctious de-construction of the nation in Midnight’s Children begins with this line: “I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time.” A later collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands, written as a cartography of journeys also begins with Mumbai, with an old photograph of the house in which Rushdie was born (Rushdie, 1991). Dating it to 1946, Rushdie pauses to describe the peculiar house, with its red tiles and bougainvillea creepers, captured in the photograph and his emotions of an estranged present and a homely yet removed past. Rushdie ruminates on the haunting of loss experienced by those exiled from home and nation but also of the generalized nature of this condition that renders the past itself a country from which everyone is more or less banished (1991: 12). Still, the disjunctions of time and space are most acutely felt by those for whom ties to homes of past and present are rendered incommensurable, even contentious.


Rushdie appears preoccupied with the project of the nation and its mythical derivatives in order to understand how we form affiliation to such constructs, and how they define our subjectivities. But, the opening line of Midnight’s Children and essays in Imaginary Homelands give away clues for other forms of affiliative practices than what Rushdie is explicitly dismantling. While Rushdie remains relentless in de-normalizing the nation as homeland, he has spoken more than often in agreeable terms about Mumbai (“my lost city”) and New York as sites of his domicile, and even perhaps as loci of desire. It appears that for one as cynical about allegiances and affiliations as Rushdie, the city is a more viable destination than the nation.


The silhouette of the city also appears reluctantly in sociological critiques. Gayatri Spivak perambulates the city while “de-singing” the national state. Spivak sees the national state ambivalently, as a problematic but also as a possibility. She reaches beyond the national state in an effort to theorize Asia as a “critical regionalism” but invokes it as a buffer to the emergence of the Asian megacity (Spivak, 2008). What is striking, and particularly significant for us, is Spivak’s begrudging admission of two cities that she considers as hometowns, New York City and Kolkata, in this larger discussion. And she detects moments of such resistances in these hometowns. Spivak admits: “I continue to feel a clandestine comfort that the megacity-effect is resisted in New York and Kolkata is somehow resistant to it” (Spivak, 2000, 2008). Here, an intimacy of the national state and hometown is indicated in their mutual contra-position to the global megacity.


It is at those moments of the phantasmal appearances of the city in the nation-think (as Spivak calls it), we are left to wondering: Why is the city discussed so tentatively in South Asia? Where is the city in spatial imagination and theorizing in the way it circulates from James Joyce to Henri Lefebvre, and from Italo Calvino to Saskia Sassen? The work of a number of South Asian (or South Asia-born) writers invokes the spatial landscape of the city in the content and structure of their fiction (the textual form of Midnight’s Children, like James Joyce’s inscription of Dublin in Ulysses, is an analog of the rambunctious city of Mumbai), but again it remains mostly undesignated and unmapped. Works of fiction, from Midnight Children to Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines and Qurratulain Hyder’s A River of Fire, and certainly R.K. Narayan’s stories of Malgudi, all of which have been incorporated overwhelmingly within postcolonial conversations of the nation, can be re-read within a South Asian city thematic. And if read closely, perhaps a hometown or two might appear there in the textual interstices. And it is that city that we are trying to recover.


But what is that city? What is the scope of city-think in South Asia when the discourse has not gone beyond seeing the city, first literally as an urban landscape, and then either as a catalogue of catastrophes or capitalist-consumerist bonanza? The pragmatic or politico-economic discourse on cities is a far cry from considering the city in existential terms. Cities become distinctive or “enlivened” not only by topographical features, urban morphology or civic enterprises, but by imbrication of one’s self in the fabric of the city whereby one becomes a dweller or inhabitant besides being a politically constituted “citizen.” Joseph Rykwert (1976), in describing this blatant gap in contemporary studies of cities, recalls the words of the 4th c. BCE Athenian general Nicias to his colonizing soldiers: “You are yourselves the town, wherever you choose to settle… it is men that make the city, not the walls and shapes without them” (1976:23).


The implication of Nicias is that there is a mutuality of self and space that is not fully engaged in political or sociological interpretations of the city. While humans may live in cities, cities live in them as well. It is this obvious but elusive mutuality that we wish to bring forth through the claims of hometown. Hometown represents a charged relation to a particular place, which is shaped by human emplacement, affiliation, and imagination. Despite being under-theorized in socio-political critiques, spatial narratives of “home-ness” perpetuate in deeply compelling ways, because they articulate a “life-world,” or the fundamental human condition of being-in-the-world. The point is not that hometowns are perfect, immutable or foundational places but that we are always emplaced in a specific locus, and we seek, as much as possible, to make ourselves at home in those places, and we do so in lived and practiced ways—routinely, emotionally, and psycho-geographically (In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie’s nostalgia wells up as he discovers that the listing for his father still exists in the city’s telephone directory).


How then to think of the city within a home thematic in modern South Asia where it remains constrained by developmental or sociological parameters, where the city is conceived either as a financial matrix or demographic constellation? Ashis Nandy’s (2001) “psycho-analytical” treatment of the modern city is a point of departure for a historiography of homeness in South Asian cities. In South Asia, home is caught up in a singular narrative with the city and modernity: the silhouette of one and the anxieties of the other are like warp and woof of the national fabric. Ashis Nandy proposes “journey” as the principal trope in understanding how the making of home – or more likely the thwarting of one – constitutes the modernity of South Asian cities. The modern South Asian city, which is the colonial city catapulted into a post-colonial connurbation, is constituted of two such journeys, and they are also decidedly ambiguous ones: movement from the village to the city, and from the city to the village. The two journeys constitute more of an oscillation, and, it is this oscillation, and its various fluctuations and tensions, that describe the quandary of the modern national state. The trope of journey can also be used for the Partition narrative where the journey can seen as relocating from a specific town to an abstract nation, from the reliability of a home-world to the ambiguity of the nation-home, perhaps best emblematized by Sadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh.


Even as Nandy works through a binary spatiality – the city and the village – an important conclusion is reached, that the modern Indian city, borne of the lofty songs of the nation, of which Chandigarh is the greatest composition, instead of providing a new home, offers a “planned homelessness” (2001: 25). This is a critical indictment that describes the unsettling nature of the modern city. If the asymptotic oscillation between the two spatial loci is the character of the modern city, a transnational exchange characterizes the neo-liberal convulsions of the contemporary city. To the earlier binary oscillation between the city and village now must be added a transnational movement and transcontinental spatialities. Homeness is now caught in a trialectical conundrum and the city occupies new spatial coordinates.


(Partial Text)