15 January 2016
The documentary, Cities of Sleep, explores the liminal existence of New Delhi’s homeless.
If it is human to want a proper place for sleeping, to be deprived of such a place must mean becoming less than human. Indeed, we are ‘conditioned’ to sleep in a familiar and known space. This underscores what it means to be a person. But when someone is unable to find a place to sleep, the line that separates the human from the animal becomes nebulous. This realisation haunted me after watching Shaunak Sen’s documentary film, Cities of Sleep. It is a superbly imagined and crafted film on what afflicts the poor in some of the most neglected corners of New Delhi’s urban landscape. The night lives of the city’s homeless are brought into focus as their liminal existence and choices are explored as unobtrusively as possible. The subtle background score lends a melancholic touch that goes well with the film’s disturbing themes and the uncomfortable questions it poses.
Ranjeet, a caretaker at a sleep shelter, philosophises in the film, “It’s not just about the dearth of money. Poverty means you can’t become fully human.” This statement goes to the heart of the problem. When you are poor, you have less of everything that comprises the idea of life. Cities of Sleep shows us the world of sleep shelters, where the human and the animal can enter each other’s territory and blur the distinctions between the two. There is a telling scene in the film where a dog is discovered sleeping in one of the shelters on a wintry night. But the caretaker kicks the dog out saying, “the place is not meant for dogs”. The sleep shelter claims its ‘human’ territory and excludes the animal. The dog is an uncomfortable presence for the caretaker, perhaps because its state resembles the state of the people sleeping there. Once the dog is kicked out, through an act of control and power, the space is reclaimed for humans. It is a similar act of control that often keeps other people, who don’t meet the shelter’s standards for admittance, out in the cold as well. The same attitude allows the law, and the policemen enforcing it, to banish human beings into the animalised corners of the city.
Authenticity is not a question of ‘being himself’ for Shakeel, but ‘being in the world’, of surviving it
The most intriguing character in the film is Manoj, alias Shakeel. Gufran bhai, the caretaker of a children’s night-shelter, describes Shakeel as lazy and a habitual liar. In the film, we see Shakeel fake being lame while begging at a red light. We hear him say, in the voice-over, “when you are utterly poor, you feel oddly relieved; at peace even. You have fallen as low as you possibly could. Things can’t get worse, and it is okay.” Shakeel’s interpretation of his situation, if read alongside the film’s images, leads the viewer to infer that being utterly poor also allows him to be who he is, or rather, who he is not. Looking poor does not render him pitiable enough within the economy of beggary. So he prefers to invent a handicap, his body mimicking the movements of the lame, to evoke sympathy from prospective alms-givers at the red light. There is no obvious moral quandary; it’s a pragmatic choice that helps him buy his meal, and a place to sleep at night.
Shakeel, we come to know later, changed his name, simply to fit into the larger Muslim community in the sleep shelters of Meena Bazar. He prayed in the mosque to validate this new social identity. It will be simplistic to judge Shakeel’s actions in terms of what is real and what is fake. Just as the material condition of poverty throws Shakeel into realms considered less than ‘human’, his circumstances require him to stray from his ‘authentic’ cultural self. So he plays at being Muslim, to better fit his cultural habitat. His decision raises questions about whether economic and cultural safety – which allows the performing of an ‘authentic’ expression of cultural and religious identity – is a privilege open to only those who are relatively well-off. Shakeel performs a superimposed religious identity, both publicly and privately, erasing all stable distinctions between these two spheres of existence. We don’t know what Shakeel believes in or what his faith is, except for his decision to live as a Muslim in New Delhi. He does not lose sleep over who he is. Authenticity is not a question of ‘being himself’ for Shakeel, but ‘being in the world’, of surviving it. To fake authenticity is his game. In Shakeel’s world, or his version of the city, he gains entry more easily by playing what he is not. While the city denies him his identity, Shakeel opts to create many invented identities. Lying allows him to travel at ease, and find a place in a world that denies him even a proper space to sleep.
What does sleep mean to Shakeel, who looks for a shelter to put his head down, every night? His quest for sleep begins in the moment of negotiation with the caretaker at a sleep shelter. The presence of such a setup – where negotiations and payments at the gate are required to enter the theatre of sleep – is Kafkaesque. For Shakeel, sleep is the law twice over, as both apparatus and place, regulating where he can and cannot sleep.
The film’s viewer realises that sleep is conditioned differently for those who are below the poverty line and not as easily accessed. The lines of control within a nation-state are far more numerous than at the national border. To enter the borderless world of sleep, Shakeel has to breach the borders guarded by capital and by the law of capital.
His situation is similar to most migrant workers in a city like New Delhi, who leave their familiar habitats and come seeking jobs in unfamiliar neighbourhoods. They toil in the open, in the city’s ever-expanding spaces, vulnerable to the risks of being outside. While the demands on labour are harsh, workers can choose to find work as long as they sell their labour cheaply and accept the entailed risks. But, as Cities of Sleep shows, the worker’s time for sleep cannot be jeopardised because his labour depends on whether or not he gets the time and space to rest. As eloquently showcased by French philosopher Jacques Rancière in Nights of Labour, the artists and poets among these workers in cities like Paris disturbed this easy distinction between labour and rest by indulging in creative activities during the nights. But Shakeel is an even more exceptional case as his life doesn’t lend itself to such definitions or distinctions in the first place. Shakeel is not the productive migrant worker, dividing his time between labour and sleep. He is rather the itinerant beggar, the trickster, the migrant with an invented identity who poses a challenge to the notions of normative productivity and citizenship.
The film informs us that Shakeel is a man who makes constant disappearances and appearances. It throws light on how he has a tendency to escape the constraints of space. Poverty cannot tie him to his place and even the legal demands of citizenship cannot force him to carry a secure and stable identity. He is intuitively resistant to the compulsions of law by escaping identification. Shakeel works with the ‘freedom’ that poverty forces on him – the freedom to play with the possibilities of multiple identities. It is precisely this radical gesture that makes him a unique character within the order of things. Seeing him walk the streets at night, under the mellow light of street lamps, wearing a jacket and a cap, or wrapped in a blanket, you feel he is an otherworldly creature. Shakeel is the shadow entity that defies the law, moving in a space that exists between sleep and sleeplessness, between animal and human. He belongs to the open, to the animal dangers of the open, and neither us nor he, himself, can predict his life. Shakeel is the excess created by human laws but not contained by them. But while he roams free, for the most part, he temporarily rejects this freedom when he returns to the shelter to seek readmission to sleep. For a short time, he is subject to the laws of the city.
Cities of Sleep offers another intriguing parallel between the performance of the self and the nation-state
Shakeel left his hometown, Bongaigaon, in Assam, after assaulting his wife and father. Recounting what led to the violent incident, Shakeel says that his wife had asked him to buy meat to be cooked for lunch – a request he refused to comply with immediately. In his dubiously structured narrative, the wife’s apparent threat to leave for her parental home, led him to punch her, bang her head repeatedly against a wall, hit her with a stone grinder and beat up his dad with a stick when he tried to stop him. The incident led to Shakeel losing his married status, his home and his sleep in one stroke. When his wife left him, Shakeel, unanchored, landed up in New Delhi. Meagre lives live on meagre emotional and material luxuries. Sleep was best, Shakeel admits in the film, when he shared the bed with his father. Now, he no longer enjoys sleeping. The awakening of the animal in him – masculine, patriarchal – had come into its own and had thrown him into a wider, difficult world, where other, more powerful, men made the rules. By committing an act of violence, Shakeel also attacked his ‘good’ sleep, and now roams the sleepless urban jungle. His narrative arc describes the tectonic shift from the human to the animal.
Cities of Sleep offers another intriguing parallel between the performance of the self and the nation-state. Shakeel shows considerable enthusiasm to attend and witness the Republic Day parade along Rajpath. He watches the parade from behind a barricade, which the police use to keep the crowd in check. Shakeel offers no views on the parade in the film. But his zeal in attending the show is perhaps instructive. It can be read as a trickster’s enthusiasm for another trick, the patriotic one, played out every year to commemorate a special day in history. Shakeel knows he is at the other end of this ritualistic event and barricaded from it, but he is not completely out of sight. It is possible for him to watch the show, just as it is possible for the state to keep a watch over him. The Republic Day parade and Shakeel are the two opposite ends of the nation’s discourse. But if it is the state, and its appointed gatekeepers, who animalise the lives of people who look for sleep in its cities, isn’t such a state also beastly for producing the fundamental contradiction between ‘animal’ and ‘human’ life and everything that traffics between them? As an unwilling subject of the state, Shakeel is the face of this unpalatable question posed by the film.
~Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. He has contributed to Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook, the Hindu, the Economic and Political Weekly, the Wire, among others. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by the London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.