Strangers in a Place They Call Home: Lawrence Liang

Publishing a post for Lawrence Liang who is unable to do so himself at the moment. This piece also appeared in the Hindu this morning. I flew in myself from Bangalore last night and scenes of departure, though not nearly similar to those at the train stations, were palpable at the airport as well. Let me add to Lawrence’s words below three more thoughts that are still forming in my head. The first is the weakness of the word of public institutions and officers in our cities and how little solace they seem to offer or reliability they seem to have, particularly for “minority” residents — (how that word seems to have lost all other meaning other than identifying targets). Panic is also evidence of the fragility of structures that are meant to protect difference rather than just tolerate it. As Lawrence says below, the empirics do not negate how real the fear itself is.

The second is the limits to ideas of “tolerance” in response to diversity versus a more affirmative and protective inclusion — what would it take for the space between rumour and panic to be wider, deeper and further so it is not so easy to bridge?  Here a range of global experiences on cities and their attempts to hold difference are well worth looking at — we are not the first and nor will we be the last to fight this battle which is, in a sense, as old as cities themselves. But, to take one example, would we tell a different story today if public services in Bangalore were framed in response to the diversity of the residents — where they were offered, in all the languages really spoken by residents including the hundreds and thousands of residents from the states of the Northeast? Would the word of the Law minister have more power then? Would panic hesitate? 

The third is a reminder of how Indian cities still belong to states. The supposed linguistic and ethnic organisation of our federal structure has scripted a different urban future for many of our cities — how can Lawrence’s desired anonymity and cosmopolitanism take root if Bangalore still belongs not to its residents but to the idea of Karnataka?  Onto Lawrence’s much more articulate thoughts.

Strangers in a Place They Call Home

Lawrence Liang

One of the underrated pleasures of living in a city is anonymity —guaranteed not by the fact that you look the same as everyone else but that no one really cares that you look different. And a truly cosmopolitan city is one in which everyone looks different. I have been fortunate that for the 30 or so years that I have lived in Bangalore I have not had to deal with the fact that I look different. Save for occasional reminders of my Chineseness, the city has given me enough space to be who I am — cinephile, bibliophile, foodie — without having to bother too much about questions of identity. It is therefore disconcerting to suddenly step out into public spaces self-conscious of my Mongoloid features. Paranoia is not a grand sensation and it manifests itself in the myriad minute gestures and encounters. It seems unbelievable that the experience of a city can change so rapidly because it is clear to me that the last few days in Bangalore have been precisely about that. A miasma of fear, doubt and anxiety has descended on the city. It is possible that much of this has been fuelled by rumours and hearsay; and while the rumours may be false the fear sadly isn’t.

The large drove of people from the northeast fleeing the city in overloaded trains does not bode well in a country haunted by trains carrying tales of violence from its place of origin.

It was from around August 14 that one started hearing of threats being made against members of the northeast community followed by accounts of isolated attacks. Most of these circulated by way of SMSs, e-mails and through Facebook. Is there a grand conspiracy behind this ecology of fear as some suggest? It is perhaps too early to say and one would do well not to hazard any guesses. But the fact that a mere rumour could result in an exodus of a large number of people points to a more disturbing trend. Most of the people leaving are migrant workers employed in the hospitality industry, beauty parlours and private security. That a relatively large number of people have not felt safe and secure in a city that they have lived in for many years is symptomatic of a larger problem of integration. While there has been a lot of lip service in the last few days to Bangalore being a hospitable city, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we may have bestowed the tag on ourselves in a moment of self-conceit. Perhaps it is a much more tenuous compact based on benefits gained from migrant labour without the grant of full cultural citizenship. And perhaps it is time to ask if years of having to deal with quotidian humiliations, passive aggression directed at cultural practices (dress, food, sexuality) is what is responsible for Bangalore’s failure to instill a sense of belonging among migrants.

At any rate, this is a much longer term problem that all cities in India will have to address since a host-guest relation is measured not just from the perspective of the host but also by how much the guest feels at home. I am not even certain that a city claiming cosmopolitan status should use the host-guest metaphor. Arjun Appadurai says one of the markers of globalisation is that a very small percentage of people will die in the place they were born in. Cosmopolitanism therefore describes our urban reality as one in which, at some level, everyone is a stranger, yet we all possess the right not to be treated as strangers. Indians living abroad know this only too well; perhaps it is what Amitav Ghosh meant when, writing about his love for Egypt, he said that it gave him a right to be there and a sense of entitlement.

The more pressing issue at hand, however, is the question of what unfolds in the days to come. Over the past few days there have been impressive efforts at building trust and confidence. Representatives of the Muslim community, the northeast groups and civil society organisations have come together to assuage the fears of people.

While there may be stray incidents of aggression or intimidation, fears of planned targeting of a community do not seem to be empirically grounded. And yet we are on a precipice and things could spiral beyond control. The people returning to the northeast may have left out of fear but once they reach home the fear could easily turn into anger. There is the danger that this rage may be directed against minority or migrant communities in their own States, and of that violence then turning the fiction of violence in Bangalore and other cities into a reality.

The need of the hour is to contain this spillover effect. Politicians of all shades and the media have to recognise the vital role that they play in diffusing the situation rather than inflaming it. Rumours and riots have always been insidiously linked to each other and we have no choice but to deal with the situation before us with utmost care and responsibility. Centuries of immigrant struggles have won us the right to say that a city can belong to us even if we do not belong to the city. And if we do not care of what belongs to us, we will run the danger of losing it.

6 thoughts on “Strangers in a Place They Call Home: Lawrence Liang”

  1. I have a couple of questions that may seem insensitive and politically incorrect. I will ask anyway because I genuinely want to know.
    1) Why cosmopolitanism?
    2) How is this cosmopolitanism to come about?

    Tamil communities in Bangalore have been the target of violence some years ago(with a hostile state government as opposed to one that claims to protect it now) That did not cause an exodus of these Tamils to Tamil Nadu. It is true that some of these communities have been in Bangalore for hundreds of years and wouldn’t have anywhere to flee to. But it doesn’t explain all of them. What’s the difference between the two scenarios?

    To generalize the case of the migrant, is there no onus upon the migrant to attempt to mingle in with the crowd of the city?

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  2. I am in Kolkata, and am very upset by what i see happening in Bangalore. Nothing to add, just to say that i am very sorry.

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  3. There are many lessons in this happening. i shall mention them one by one.
    Lesson for immigrants, be they from north-east or from any other state or from abroad. Not to believe rumours whether spread by word of mouth or by vernacular/fringe newspapers. To believe only what you actually see. Try and develop reliable local contacts on a more intimate basis who can give you a reality check on developing situations.
    Lesson for parents (of immigrants) back home . Please do not transmit your subjective fears to your wards. Have more faith in them. if the situation so warrants, your wards will, on their own, return home due to their instinct of self-preservation.
    Lesson for hosts. Please be in more contact with your guests. be they students, be they workers, professionals, businessmen etc. Understand their fears, apprehensions, their need for help and so on. Be pro-active in helping them to integrate.
    Lesson for authorities. Be pro-active instead of the usual reactive mode that authorities are normally in.
    Lesson for politicians. You have for once, reacted very well, judging by the unanimous response of the parliament. That is however not enough.
    Lessons for all of us. Reactions are not enough. We need to travel to the places that the immigrants have gone back to. We, the politicians of ruling as well as opposition, the bureaucrats including the security establishment, the youth, the elderly, the NGOs from host areas have to go and persuade the people to come back. The hosts should adopt one or two immigrants per family to give them a secure feeling

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  4. I was pained to read about the Bangalore issue in the papers. Quite apart from a sense of deja vu in crowded trains carrying tales of violence to their destinations as so poignantly alluded to by the author, I feel alarmed by the ease with which rumour-mongers used social media to create an atmosphere of fear and panic. A very unfortunate turn of events.

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  5. The current crisis really brings with it a sense of deja vu as to how vulnerable minorities of any sort, are. It also demonstrates our extremely fragmented polity inspite of all the apparent claims of ‘unity in diversity’. The people from the North east were the victims in the current crisis, but none of us can claim to be forever safe, as at a crucial moment any of us maybe in a ‘minority’ of some sort. This trend, indeed does not augur well for we as a people.

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