If you haven’t experienced democracy in an ordinary form, in the everydayness of your life, chances are you don’t know what it means. Democracy is practice first, principle later. It is all very well to speak the language of rights and duties, of crime and punish, of votes and numbers, of allies and opposition, but democracy is foremost, before everything else, an inter-relational philosophy. While teaching theatre-making, one of my favourite exercises is called ‘Home-Image’. Students are asked to create a performed image of what home means to them. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. They are encouraged to dive deep inside, churn those memories, think hard and long about how they would crystallise their home into a single moment, a single enduring image; indeed dwell upon what home is. Nearly every piece displays a warm, affectionate place where they feel deeply loved (rarely not), but none I remember shows home to be, at its core, a democratic space. Home is shown as territory, as psychological, as physical, marked by how joy was cooked, in the pile of unwashed days on a stool, in its maternal odour, through its paternal voice, in its seasonal prose, to its undiscovered recesses known only to the dweller, the student. But seldom has the childhood home been narrativised as essentially unpredictable. This has been a source of immense bewilderment for me.
Home almost always is shown as being presided over by an authority, in body or spirit. In Indian households, perhaps more than any other, this authority holds itself beyond query, even the query of love. Think about the innumerable times you couldn’t question your father or mother for fear of being scolded, berated, shamed. Think about countless ways in which you needed to lie, hide, or flee lest you are punished, reprimanded disproportionately for something you did. Recall the unnumbered moments when you gave into their whims, to their symbolic calls of tradition and order, not because you understood it for what it is, but because their hearts would hurt if you didn’t perform as they said. Because their love for you would hurt. All these occasions are also opportunities for democracy to be practiced, for perspectives to be heard, for aspirations to be asserted, for confessions to be made, for hands to be held, for empathy and love to be truly shown, for dialogue amongst parents and children to take place. And yet the domestic space, the most intimate of all spaces, one which protects the dreamer in us all, one that profoundly shapes our souls, is also sadly a graveyard for democracy. Indian houses are characteristically furnished with affection, and are inherently undemocratic. If you cannot think of your childhood home as being constituted of all of you, of everybody’s poetry and prose, of occasional anarchy, chaos, and disorder, chances are that the authority’s rhetoric shaped your experience of home. Home is after all, according to Bachelard, the quintessential phenomenological object, meaning that this is the place in which the personal experience reaches its epitome. Home is charged with mental experience.
An Indian house is a final house, tethered irrevocably to an idea of authority. To be truly democratic, a home will need to be unforeseeable, even if this means that the future image of the home is impossible to be held together, especially in the dream of the patriarch. The more this authority inscribes itself into the home, the more this home wills itself into the architecture of the self. Homes, while being a source of immense emotional strength, also become over-determined spaces. Democracy and unpredictability go hand-in-hand. A decade spent in teaching has shocked me into realising that our young come from inherently undemocratic spaces, dragging their undemocratic selves to class, to art. It has made me realise that my childhood home was not an exception but a rule. In jest, I often ask my students to share an account of democracy in action from their lives, from their homes. Not when they go to vote, not during elections, not that farce where democracy is sabotaged and reduced to power brokering. I mean sincerely, from our wearisome common lives, give me an instance of democracy in practice. What follows is an awkward, painfully long silence.
PS. Which side you are on regarding the current crisis of our country reveals the complexity of your understanding of democracy, and the depth of your convictions.
Pic - Tiny Homes, Facilitated by D Gillian Turner, CVAG.