PLANET INDIA – INTERVIEWS BY ANDREA PAGNES
Cybermohalla Ensemble – A Search for the Eleventh Question
Originally published in STORIE Cultural Magazine, 2012
The interview with Shveta Sarda of the collective Cybermohalla Ensemble was realised during VestAndPage's artist-in-residence at Sarai-CSDS in Delhi, India, in April 2011.
The Delhi-based Cybermohalla Ensemble is a collective of practitioners and writers that has emerged from within the project called Cybermohalla, a network of dispersed labs for experimentation and exploration among young people in different neighbourhoods of the city, that was initiated by Ankur: Society for Alternatives in Education (Delhi) and Sarai-CSDS (Delhi) in the year 2011. Over the years, the collective has produced a very wide range of materials, practices, works and structures. Their work has circulated and been shown in online journals, radio broadcasts, publications, neighbourhood gatherings, contemporary and new media art exhibitions. Their significant publication includes Bahurupiya Shehr (Rajkamal, Delhi 2007) and Trickster City (Penguin India, 2010).
Andrea Pagnes: Shveta, "Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so." I would like to start the interview with this sentence of Doris Lessing. I think it's the most appropriate to portray your incredible experience. Can you tell us how the Cybermohalla project has begun?
Svetha Sarda: Capacity is something, which can pierce like a thorn, and intoxicate like a potent brew, like the dhatura plant. Dhatura is thorny. It has a long history for taking one into delirious states, even death. One doesn't think of blossoming flowers when one thinks of Dhatura. One thinks of wild intoxication, the possibility to be in a travel without destination, giving yourself up to a dream state, become frenzied, and tasting danger! That, to us, is capacity: an inescapable piercing, a frenzied dance, infectious, unmindful, active.
How is capacity recognised? Diversity and multiplicity are always, already present in everyone's ways of thinking. They become significant when they collide with one another, and so bring forth possibilities, imaginations, and wanderings.
In 2001, we began to meet every day, to converse. The questions that confronted us once we began were – What is thought? What is to be in thought? What is thinking? What is thinking with many others? Thinking is a debate with oneself, which carries on without concluding. It is a debate so that one looks beyond frames of weighing-scale form of thinking: Good and bad, personal and common, inside and outside, thought which is "ours" and thought which is"“other's". Thinking battles these partitions.
Who will produce the imagination for where we stay, where we live? What are the boundaries of this "where": and do they exist? In Hindi the word for "where" is jahan, which also means "world". How does thought extend between these two ideas of jahan? What will our resources for thinking this be? How many can participate in this unknown search, in which one has no way of knowing what she might find, or invent?
Think of an entangled thread. Thinking is not to disentangle, but to inhabit and chase entanglement. Sometimes you feel stuck, and sometimes a vast expanse opens out before you. It is in how you face such moments that you define your challenge. A readiness to confront the unexpected is an attribute of thought. It makes one seek conversation.
Conversation: with ones self, with that which surrounds you, with your peers, a group, those resources through which you move beyond yourself. Conversation is neither about being heard, nor is it merely about lending an ear. The challenge in a conversation comes from not knowing what might elicit questions; the surprise is of what the questions are. The self gets challenged and its boundaries are pushed. When we bring into conversation those thoughts that we have been thinking, we make a move from being consumers to becoming creators. Conversations are where potential bursts forth so that our self, our thoughts, our conceptions of what is around us lose their bearing, become fluid and flow towards creating new worlds.
AP: Let me continue to quote Lessing. It's more or less accepted that Literature is analysis after the event. To become and learn how to be a better writer, actually there is only one thing: to write. In so far that in the writing process, the more the story cooks, the better. Hence, to be good writers means to work hard, every day, even when you fall asleep, your mind is still gearing on that particular story you are writing. You are a group of young boys and girls; many of you are not 30 yet. I've seen you working in this room every single day, for hours. It's admirable, no question. But to do so I guess that that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life. How much this cost to you, or the experience you are pursuing does fulfil you in every sense?
SS: If, when thinking about a life, a time or a thing, you allow yourself to be held captive by it, it is doing great harm to yourself. If this is happening with your thought, it means it's happening to you. It sucks in and suspends everything around you too. How will it be possible for someone to create new threshold in thought when held captive in this way? The challenge, always, is to be able to transcend such enclosures of time and create new formulations of time.
When time begins to engulf and enfold you, does it remain possible for you then to question the events that unfold in that duration, to battle their shadows, to grapple with their infinite dimensions? Time is lived, experienced, made sense of through moments, in which we halt, we stay, or we slip. To take a decision about remaining within, or stepping out of the complex weave of time one inhabits is where we collide with ourselves. To swim with the tide of something one is writing is to forget oneself and live in another way. One makes time abundant by creating, thinking, generating potential and remaining in active debate about these.
AP: How do you get the "raw material" for your books? And what can you tell us specifically about Cybermohalla writing process?
SS: "Raw" and "cooked" are unstable markers. "Raw" is where you contest the forgetfulness of the self. It's where you contend that part of yourself which feels its limits too quickly and too strongly. For six years now, for instance, we have been reading and thinking with the diaries of a man. Each attempt we have made at reading, at thinking through the diaries has been incomplete. But over the years, each attempt and the conversations engendered by them between us have also brought forth riddles, contingent thoughts, tentative questions, stories, and texts. We are still searching for a way of thinking with the diaries. "Raw" and "cooked" cannot help an engagement with this process. Being in stillness with something over a long duration produces new dimensions in thought.
It is not that the world is outside us and we write it. It is in the process of writing that the "I" of the writer actively creates the world. Everything that travels through you is an invitation to thinking. The challenge is to bring your resources into a collision with them. That is the site of thinking.
AP: Your last book Trickster City, published by Penguin, has been announced as "Writings From The Belly Of The Metropolis". For your writings you have chosen to adopt the method of the "short story", a form of literature that Raymond Carver transformed into a real style, giving it an undoubted quality, opening to contemporary literature new frontiers to explore. What does the method of the short story represent for you? Do you find in it the most suitable way to report and tell of the things you concern? And if so, why?
SS: As a form, the short story both challenging and interesting to us. We find that with it we can prise things open and take them into a new realm of the unresolved. For instances, "The Shape-shifter", "His Diaries", "Moment of Decision" are short stories in the book and we find that the form allows us to take things into indeterminacy. At the same time, it is also very difficult to draw lives into, or narrate as stories. There is so much around us, we encounter so many different ways of living, and there is always a tension between the thing one encounters and ones own way of expressing it. One grapples with the form something might take. We don't begin by saying we will write a story about something. Innumerable ways of narrating a thing already exist. These collide with how one may express something oneself. It is in this tension that the form something will take begins to shape.
Trickster City is composed of our attempt to think. If you say Trickster City is all short stories, you will have struck off 50 per cent of the book. The section on Nangla, for instance, which is a very substantial section in the book, is blog entries with dates, and written by many together over the period of demolition of that neighbourhood, and the form in which we inhabited, thought and wrote that time is retained in the book. The last section of the book, Frontier, which is about a new colony emerging in the outskirts of the city, is comprised of notes, reflections, conversations from our daily travels there, when it had just begun to get settled in. We have a deep relationship with Ghevra still, and have subsequently written from Ghevra, and these writings have taken other forms. The section "Daily Hurts/Daily Acceptances" by Kulwinder and Rakesh in Trickster City is a face-off between different forms of thinking. Kulwinder uses the form of the newspaper report, and Rakesh's writing is through short aphorisms. That section is a classic instance of intoxication battling thorn, and thorn battling intoxication.
AP: Which writers are your points of referral, or from which you took inspiration?
SS: The diaries we were speaking about a few moments ago re-emerged in our midst with a renewed force a few months ago. In these diaries, a man has made a record of his everyday. Each diary entry records the expenses incurred and the things he did during the day – where he went, for example. Ordinary things. But every dairy entry ends with: "Everything else is ordinary." This gap between the record of daily transaction and the line, "Everything else is ordinary" is important to us. Reaching the formulation, "everything else is ordinary" is a thought journey, and it occupies each of our minds in different ways and with varying intensities.
A book we have recently read together and enjoyed immensely, and which is also available in English translation is The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules by Manohar Shyam Joshi.
As far as our points of reference or inspiration are concerned, we draw from everything – from literature, art, cinema.
AP: During the round table at "Almost Island Dialogues," dedicated to you [Indian International Centre, 03-11-2011], someone hived up a question regarding the fact that "cause and effect" are not so present and clear in some stories you wrote. Personally, first I think that if there are no laws for the novel, let alone in a short story! There never have been, nor can there ever be. I do not think writers ought ever to sit down and think they must write about some cause, or theme. If a writer writes about his/her own experiences, something true is going to emerge definitely. But here is the question: many times you report stories told by other people that you collect, not so much of your personal ones, why so? I mean you give voice to as much people as possible, this also socially honourable, almost a mission. Yet don’t you feel sometimes the need, the urgency, to tell and write exactly what you lived (personal experience), what you feel (emotions), what you think (ideals, point of view, also political), in the most exhaustive way, and that this is something that has a priority as well?
SS: What is the ambit of the personal? How far does it extend? After all, a writer doesn't write the world, as it exists; he must create the world he writes. What does it do to your thinking when you alone occupy your mind? And what happens when your mind is peopled by many? We try to keep each other in a state of awareness about this, and about the structures of feelings in which lives are seen, consumed and narrated.
This world belongs to everyone, everyone is present in it and yet, all of us live different lives. When we write, we write from within the multiplicity of time we inhabit and the multifariousness of the shapes the world takes. To us, the challenge always is to think of whom, how many, can we bring into our thought when we think the world. When you make the world, you are in the process of making yourself.
AP: As a reader, surfing among the pages of "By Lanes" (2004), I have often found myself suspended in a limbo populated by many questions, but no solutions. I say this – and it's not a critic at all – because while reading some of your stories, sometimes the "scream" seems suffocated, and the tears dried up before wetting the eyes. As if to say "we understand what's going on, and we can't do anything". Is this for your personal decision, a precise style goal?
SS: We are in debate with the stable structures of thought and affect through which life is lived, thought, consumed. Once one among us, Suraj, said, "Today morning when I woke up, there was silence all around me." This silence is where thinking had to begin. There is a text, "My Room," in the Book Box (Cybermohalla, 2003) in which a girl is lying on her bed at night and her pillow is soaking up her tears. The girl is the writer herself, and she starts thinking about the tears – the tears become the site of thinking and you don't remain with the tears anymore. Thinking isn't about asking, "Why is she crying?" One has to think about what it is that she is trying to bring into thought as she is lying on her bed, crying. We call this the search for the eleventh question.
With their first ten questions, any two people in conversation create a traffic of experience between each other. They ask about each other's life, they inquire about work, relationships etc. and get to know enough about one another to form in their mind a story. But after that, where can the conversation go? One 50 year-old man in our neighbourhood who Lakhmi and Rakesh used to meet sometimes in the evenings to ask about what he thought about life, what kind of poetry he wrote, who were the other people in his life, said to them one evening, "Come after today only if you have questions that are outside of my work and my relationships." This is the realm of the eleventh question. It's the realm beyond mere repetition and narration of experience. The eleventh question is where the person asking the question, as well as the person answering it, will have to cross new thresholds in their thought, surprise and be surprised.
AP: Contemporary literature seems to be changing; it is become an outpost of journalism: we read novels and stories for information about depressed areas of life we don't know, as yours. We read to understand, know and find out what is going on out and in there. Literature has become the mirror of fragmented societies, and fragmented consciousness, reflecting a world that we all reach out desperately, not knowing that we do it. The risk in doing so is that literature is progressively loosing what makes it great: the quality of philosophy. However, you have recently given a proof of what is your theoretical armature (ref. Almost Island Dialogues, CM paper), rising up the question about "what is the text; where does it comes from," saying that "In everyone's life, there are things which are beyond the visible, which are their enigma. Writing is neither about explaining that enigma, nor about making it explicit. Rather, a text is created by how far, how deep into the puzzle, the enigma you can, are willing, to go." Can you explicate this sentence a little be more exhaustively? What is the role of the "I" narrator?
SS: Any place anywhere weaves an enigma around itself. But it is not only place that is an enigma, which may be unravelled through writing. The self of the writer is also unknown to him. Writing is not to clarify, it is not to unravel, or to make legible, or to describe, to inscribe, to make known. It is to write from within, from inside the unknown, the enigmatic, the mercurial in life. For that, one writes not in her own language, not by telling her own story. She writes by inventing places and characters through which she may explore her own questions – which are not predetermined, or known to her before she begins. For a writer, writing, then, is neither to become witness to a place, nor to that which she creates. It is a process in which she works out the distance and the compacts that get made between her "I" and what she creates, what she makes emergent in her writing. What can, what might the writer become in her writing – that is a constant question.
AP: Some sentence of yours that grasped me is about the sense of time, as when you wrote that time stops when the water stops running from the tap. Here it seems to me that it isn’t only the terror everywhere, and the fear of being conscious of it, that freezes people. It’s more than that.
SS: How do we recognise that we are, that we exist? What does it mean to be empty of fear? And how is it different from bearing that situation which produces fear? What situations and scenes in daily life make one aware of one's own limits?
The everyday is full of entanglements, disorder. Through which scenes from life does it become possible for one to make and sharpen ones questions, construct ones arguments? That which is happening happens day after day: time gets its shape by passing through each unfolding event and life accretes around this slowly congealing time. Each day, like a surface, is created anew with this cycle. Our thoughts, our ways of living collide with this surface and that is how scenes emerge in thought, like puzzles about life itself.
AP: Well, before saying thank you by heart for the many things and stories you let me know, only few last words about Cybermohalla's future projects.
SS: Time seems always to get divided into past and future. That which has happened, is known becomes the past, and what is yet to come becomes the future. Is it possible to conceive of time through what is happening now? How can "now" become the ground for building something, which will endure? We are an ensemble, a constellation of people in thought, in the process of creating and thinking through some questions of life, of discovering and inventing ways and languages in which they may be spoken and find an existence in the world. Over time, we hope, these formulations will collide with many other ways of thinking and something new will emerge in the world in this way.
Continue reading the interviews by Andrea Pagnes of the same series: