Wednesday, November 7, 2012



Jason Bourne is a well-trained CIA assassin who, as goes the plot of the series, tries to find out who he really is. What is he looking for, really? In ‘Bourne Identity,’ we find he has a dozen passports under a dozen aliases and a whole world insistent on taking him down for reasons he isn’t aware of. As he looks into why this is happening to him, he goes on a deeper, much more profound quest – for identity. Identity, here, is a question of legality and closure, where Bourne would like to see himself as a citizen again with a single legitimate passport and pertaining documents, a place of residence, perhaps, and people once close to him, whom he would rediscover in the process. 

The journey with Bourne is organic. There is a human being fleshed out even in the ruthless assassin he is, a character that we find we can empathize with and root for. And three films down the line, by which time we get familiar with and fond of Jason Bourne, we, along with the man himself, discover that he actually isn’t Jason Bourne. He is, in fact, called David Webb, an army man adopted by the CIA for an operation and ‘converted’ to Jason Bourne in a training module, where Bourne is a character, an identity that is created and ascribed to the man that Webb had become. 

Now, there are two points where his identity becomes problematic as I see it. The first is when David Webb becomes Jason Bourne, a process illustrated as a classic example of CIA brainwashing. The second is Jason Bourne coming to terms with the fact that inside the Bourne machine is a man who once lived – someone, he learns, is called David Webb, who was ‘transformed’ to Jason Bourne through an excruciating set of initiation rituals. 

Aside from, or perhaps even including, the set of characteristics he had been force-fed with, Jason Bourne is still who he is. Or isn’t he? So he is, in our heads, where we had gotten more than accustomed, through piggy-back rides on his shoulders in chase sequences where we bonded on adrenalin rush. To us, he is Jason Bourne; we shall not be swayed that easy. To himself, however, we can’t say. 

Thomas Blom Hansen, in ‘Violence in Urban India: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’ and the Postcolonial city’ writes that the ‘proper name’ is something that, when replaced by a set of characteristics to describe the thing in question, just doesn’t work the same way. The term “a grumpy, cynical, almost worn-out archaeologist with an eye out for adventure and a knack of handling it,” doesn’t do as much justice as calling him ‘Indiana Jones,’ or ‘Indy’ for that matter. But it could very well be because we had been conditioned this way, to an extent that we find comfort in representing him through his name and an uneasiness otherwise. 

I’m aware that my examples have been individuals (and fictional characters, that too!) so far, and I understand that a city can, in no way, have an individual for a metaphor on the lines of the ancient Greek theory of society as an organism. But then I believe the problem has been put on the table, alongside Blom Hansen’s theory on the proper name. For an entity as vast and of indescribable diversity as a city, a proper name or, more simply, the ‘right name’ is practically impossible. You get used to a name through its constant reiteration, most of which has got to be authoritative, as Blom Hansen claims. 

The name, in case of representative naming, is both cause and consequence of what it signifies. In case of a city, as much as the name, if it has to be ‘proper,’ needs to represent the space, historical context and, if possible, the collective(?) identity of all its people, it also would go on to define the same for its people. ‘Mumbai,’ for instance, is not just (‘not even,’ as Blom Hansen would say) a consequence of the ‘Maratha pride,’ but also serves as a cause for the same. As he rightly quotes Zizek here, “the identity of an object is the retroactive effect of naming itself – it is the name itself, the signifier, which supports the identity of an object.” Jason Bourne is aware that he is Jason Bourne, where ‘David Webb’ comes in to confuse. As is, unless I’m terribly mistaken, the case with Bombay and Mumbai. 

The fundamental argument of the book, which Blom Hansen spoon-feeds to us, is made clear in the first few lines in a sub-heading called ‘the Argument’ that he writes in the introductory chapter. Let me quote him word-by-word so as to not deprive you of the full blow of his statement that, I believe, I would take away in an effort to paraphrase. 

This book analyzes the historical formation of the political discourses, the identities and the conflicts that changed Bombay from being the preeminent symbol of India’s secular, industrial modernity, to become a powerful symbol of the very crisis of this symbol.

I think he does a world of good in putting across the core idea of his book in four (three, here) lines that give the reader the requisite amount of clarity in proceeding further with it. And he does himself a disservice in that he isn’t being elusive about it. 

As the statement puts across, we find ourselves up against two facets of Blom Hansen. One is the historiographer/storyteller who, like an old mariner, mixes stories of the state and the city with stories on how he collected those, meshing them into a compelling narrative as perceived and told through the perspective of one who was as beguiled as he was startled by what he saw, read and heard about. 

On the other, we have the critic, who could weigh the information he gathered and who doesn’t hesitate to take a stance, as he unabashedly says so himself. In his persuasion to see things the way he’d like to see them (which he has averted to a substantial degree, the fair amount of neutrality that, I think, he has achieved), the critic might have hit a few blind spots, but the historiographer never loses track. There’s a story in hand, it’s compelling, and he’s delightful in his rendition of it. 

All through my reading of the book – and I shall, first and foremost, admit to an equal ignorance of both scenarios – I couldn’t help but try to put Mumbai and Chennai in a tabular column. Both were ‘Presidencies’ during British rule. Post-Colonialism, thus, applies to both, as does the conflict on the ‘proper name.’ Again, I shall restate my ignorance in the lack of an argument to support the existence of such a conflict, but I am, mildly, aware of an amount of nostalgia in the former that has people only grudgingly accept or merely become accustomed to the latter. For instance, I come from an institute that still continues to call itself ‘IIT Madras.’ So does ‘IIT Bombay,’ for that matter, actually. The reason here, however, is a certain pride that the institution insists upon keeping close to. And the ‘brand.’ 

Another similarity I find is in the concept of a Tamil nation (a concept I wouldn’t entirely dismiss either), not far from the situation in Maharashtra, with the identity of the ‘Maratha’ and the heroic notion of Shivaji that has been naturalized through the ages. Tamil, the language, has been the rallying point for political parties as the DMK and more aggressive fronts like the MDMK and the PMK, and even though I wouldn’t peg them alongside an entity as severe as the Shiv Sena, there’s still a certain level of manipulation and opportunism that’s definitely comparable. The cause is indefinite as Blom Hansen’s idea of identity based on language; and trust is a first-class ticket for a plane that won’t take off. 

It’s like the man who feigns drought in Summer in a village so he could make a Rain-God and become priest in a quest for control. If anything, the policy has been Machiavellian; the idea of a ‘Maratha’ is loose, and harmful in that it is exclusive of a whole bunch of people, which becomes problematic in a cosmopolitan environment and, more importantly, in the making and existence of a city of multiple identities that can’t be put in a single bracket. A Tamil nation, in this way, implies the same, where settlements of any other linguistic group will have to be excluded and/or marginalized. Of course, the whole idea is combative against existing or imagined discrimination, but the solution is not as simple as a ‘Do not enter’ sign – which, in the case of exclusionary policies, is implied and not even explicitly stated. 

It’s here, perhaps, that I was most disappointed in Blom Hansen. A collective identity of a city on the whole might be practically impossible. But is it not necessary? Like I said, ‘Indiana Jones’ is not “the rogue archaeologist who wears a hat and cracks a whip” – he is ‘Indiana Jones.’ What can ‘Mumbai’ be, then? ‘Bombay’ was, in no way, better, as has strongly been stated. Under the veil of elitism, modernity and aspirations were intense social, cultural and political anxieties that burst out with the press of a trigger. And ‘Mumbai’ did nothing to make it better, if not intensify it further. 

I agree that Blom Hansen has done well in presenting us with the problem – understanding is the first step towards change. But has that step taken us any closer? 

‘Violence in Urban India: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’ and the Postcolonial city,’ deconstructs the name to be an inadequate signifier, at least in the case of calling Mumbai ‘Mumbai.’ Perhaps we have reached the state where we number cities and not name them, with an excuse of ‘starting from scratch’ to tackle the problem of space, historical context and collective identity. But then again, there’d be a section of society that comes up and says that the digits don’t add up the way they ought to. And another that gives a new number that represents them better. The argument is endless, my review is not. I stop right here.

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