Megalopolitan Loneliness

[Inspired by reading of Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes – Decline of the West, published in 1918. A seminal and controversial work – the work contains a memorable paragraph on how a megalopolis looks like and how does it evolve and then with a saturnine frenzy, devours its own children.]

The observers of human heart – artists, poets and very very few scholars of other domains could detect something that was born with the megalopolis itself – urban agony in one of its psychological manifestation : loneliness. 

Being alone and being in loneliness are altogether different things. The former is the amniotic fluid for a creative mind and the latter is an absence – of meaning. Now, meaning must be poured into the infinite tube of existence that manifests itself in the form of the megalopolis and all kinds of business and entertainment industry come to fill the void.

One of the subtlest observers of urban loneliness in Calcutta, Buddhadev Basu has written couple of essays on this theme in 1960s in Bengali and I am reminding myself of the essay read while being alone few years back :

  • One of the curses of our time is that it is afraid of melancholy. So much so that it refuses to consider melancholy as a fundamental state of mind  and is in a constant urge to transform in to a medical / clinical problem instead of understanding it. Feeling lonely ? Let us have a face-book chat. Not very happy, let us visit a mall. Very lonely – have some anti-depressant. Not having anyone to talk to or just sit in silence (megalopolis erases silence and darkness and hence makes us psychologically always exposed and naked). It does not occur that this state of being may be an existential stuff we are made up of. 
  • I have observed some people are always with the herd – always busy and looking for the next engagement. Time wears them. They do not look forward to something planned but with an occult dream that the next visit to the mall, the next purchase, the next collisions in the party, the visit to the 50% off sale, the next post will release them from the prison of their own vacant mind. Alas ! It never happens. In the universal lottery of events, they try to cheat the Machine. Businesses have a vested interest to reinforce that illusion. Advertising is the complete apparatus that slithers into their sensory openings. Most of such “adventures” with  untrained mind culminate into a kind of tiredness (especially in a populous megalopolis where one must think first about the parking slot of the car rather than the hunger of his adventurous mind) and through dialogues, most of these people remember the tiredness and the sleep thereof as the memory other than baboon like clicking of photos in their phones which they are restless to upgrade. Those who go with men, the less they become men – so said the old man of the Desert.  Only five hundred years back, Pascal nailed the problem in a pithy sentence that eventually translates that men are afraid of being with one’s own thought. 
  • Five hundred years back, men ran the risk of finding demons, witches and demi-gods everywhere. This was superstition and but now a more dangerous form of plague affect most of the people : the Unthinking.  The Great Unthinking is everywhere. The articulate among them celebrate this Unthinking as some achievement or evolution. This has a political aspect : if we become so complex to ourselves and our environment and others create such a puzzle to us, we are only a step away from the sword of a Conqueror who will cut the Gordian knot with his sword and we shall wonder at this accomplishment but will be a slave forever under his sword. The first step to Careerism. The price of Unthinking is eternal slavery. 
  • In his essays where the megalopolis was Calcutta, a special case, Buddhadev Basu lamented the fact that there is no single place where authentic food of the land could be found – everything is some kind of admixture or counterfeit or Eastern overdone. He rarely went outside his home in South Calcutta where he lived in a small flat and created some of the works in prose and poetry which are too advanced for his fellow citizens in the city to appreciate in a wholesome manner yet. Some forty years after his essays were being written, Calcutta has changed much and with this in mind, I had editorial walks in some of the new public spaces erected by private money – the Malls. These Malls provide some of the functionalities a temple provided in more religious times. Architecturally very average, completely discounting the maths of footfalls, car-parking, entry roads, security aspect, directional advisory, height and lighting and the populous aspect of our cities – these reflect the same Eastern overdone. There is hardly any character of these places. I befriended a security guard there and he summarized it : many people come here to pass time. They have no purpose. They just roam and watch. Some come to buy a specific thing but end up buying lots of useless things. This behaviour of spending money on useless things appear to be counter-intuitive (when all MBAs from Harvard to Fagin College of MBA conclude how price sensitive Indian market is) but it is not so. These “things” satisfy one of the cravings of mind these people are hardly aware of – these things, useless or useful is not the question. This allows them a temporary relief from the loneliness of Megalopolis. The more we lack meaningful human relation and communication,both will tend to the the baseline : sensing things and thus senti-mentalizing them  and sex – the last resort of communication. 
  • Buddhadev Basu did discover another aspect of megalopolis and infinitely important for us – the absence of Beauty and melancholy’s eternal association with Beauty. So much so that artists of the highest calibre in Europe declared : every beautiful object of Nature is melancholic in a sense. Just look at Mona Lisa or at Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Our own Vaishnav poets were well aware of this and they declared separation from the object and the subject of love (বিরহ) deeper and more profound than actual union (মিলন)। Our Malls also create a sense বিরহ – separation of Beauty in its gross form – not possessing those things. But the problem is that this barrier is not insurmountable and for those whom  it is, there are plethora of money merchants helping with the devices of hire-purchase, credit cards, EMI, 0% interest and as such. All Beauty that can be reached by gross means are worthless. It must have been possessed by us by someone then. The most-beautiful garden must have been brought by some rich man. The most beautiful house must be someone’s already. The most-beautiful woman is already few seconds older the moment the label is applied.  True Beauty is so potent that it is always pure and as if discovered just now – here and now. It is this lack of our mind and psyche that pushes us and we create a pile of objects and burn in anxiety and envy to upgrade them !!!

Since 2008, I have been visiting these Malls with the purpose of understanding what lies beneath. I have found some interesting aspects and noted them in Calcutta Culture Glossary – a fancy project.However, being a citizen myself of the adopted megalopolis, I sometimes find my own mask of distance and unfamiliarity falling off and I see myself surrounded in a very large amphitheater, doors of which are all these Malls, the citizens spectator and rows and rows of cars parked outside and a terrible dread seizes me.

I know that suddenly the gates will open and I know not what beasts will come and I find myself alone although I see many like me waiting in bated breath for the show to start but terribly bored at the same time.




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