The Gazetteer Of Dreams


By Shiv Visvanathan

Illustrations by Samia Singh

EVERYONE CALLED him Dipanker Babu. He addressed himself as D. Mr Dipanker J Gupta, as he was known on his visiting card, was assistant director in the Bureau of Standards, Kolkata. He had begun as a technical assistant after the inevitable B.Sc LLB but worked his way up quietly. What helped were a series of transfers of his seniors to Delhi and Bangalore. Most of these younger officers left the city, preferring what they called the quality of life in other cities.

Mr Gupta was 50, settled. He had inherited a small house, oozed respectability. His life was eventless but like many small men, he found action in bigger events — from football to politics. Gupta was the ideal Bengali, a spectator.

A spectator is a wonderful species of human being. He is one who finds agency through participation. He is a trustee, one of the millions who keep the memory of events alive, playing it like cassette tapes on demand. Repetition or redundancy, the excess that comes with obsession, rarely bothered them as they were uncrowned lords of their kingdom, the drawing room. Come the evening, D and a thousand clones like him settled on chairs, demanding endless cups of “chaaii”. Without chai — or tea, as the British called it — the Indian middle-class culture could not have survived. If America runs on petrol, India survives on tea. When Gandhi claimed that tea was the ruin of India, he distanced every Bengali. A man, who did not understand the culture of tea, did not understand culture, let alone civilisation.

A spectator was a special kind of being. A spectator consumed events. But he was not a consumer. A consumer is obsessive. He is because he buys. A consumer essentially lacks taste, but spectatorship is a discriminating act. It demands knowledge, a sense of folklore, a celebration of life. A spectator is a commentator.

Sociologists are wrong to say that hermeneutics, the act of reading and commenting on texts, disappeared with mass society. Hermeneutics just transformed itself. One did not need priests to interpret the Vedas or the Bible. Here, everyone turned events into texts and interpreted them. It could be cricket, football, the fortnightly serial, politics or the latest book. Calcutta had its own demography of hermeneuticians. Where else in the world could you get a discussion on Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques on a half cup of tea? The sadness of Calcutta never suppressed its zest for events. The local, global, the cosmopolitan, all merged in the melee of events that ranged from the IPL to Durga Puja.

A spectator understood rituals. He saw life as a rule game. Occasionally, he invaded the field, but that was only an occasional outburst displaying his sense of angst of how a game was proceeding. Spectatorship, as a psychoanalyst once told me, was a brilliant solution for the bhadralok of Calcutta. When you no longer create history, it is best to watch it contentedly. Spectatorship, unlike the search for revolutions, creates few casualties.

• II •

D WAS a typical spectator, in fact, an ardent one. But he was not a typical man. He had his eccentricities. One was not quite sure whether they were genuine or add-ons to his life. But I think he believed in them because he lived them out. In that sense, D was an archaic creature. He might have been a coward in real life but when it came to his hobbies, he showed courage and conviction.

D loved Macaulay. Let me clarify. He was not like Nirad C Chaudhuri or VS Naipaul who internalised the values of colonialism and became heroes. D was a genuine nationalist as only a post-Partition Bengali could be. It is only when some one halves your soul that you realise the value of it. D loved Macaulay for his sense of order. English, he felt, was the language of order. Order was born through the file. But the file was only the meanest of lists, the LCD, the lowest common denominator. It was a modest attempt at classification. A file was a modest thing. It was only an invitation to order. It still needed taxonomy, it required labels. One had to make lists. Lists were the beginning of connectivity. But files domesticated empires. The file was the model for the gazetteer, the survey, the census. Files understood boundaries and punished trespassers. Files knew when the story ended. All you had to explain was the file is closed or the file is missing. A file was an English man’s substitute for conscience.

D saw Macaulay as the God of files. Which was a bit unfair. I think there was a displacement here. Macaulay was the patron saint of the Babu. The Babu was the clerk with an undergraduate degree, a creature condemned to life in a secretariat. The Babu was the keeper of files and he considered it the noblest of roles. It was pure trusteeship to bring order into the anarchy called governance. Between alphabet and calendar you could tame an empire.

• III •

D WAS an amateur historian, self-styled curator and memorialist on anything to do with Macaulay. He had acquired a slapdash of social science, which was helpful. Recognising the right concept was almost a form of political correctness. It was like communing with the right reference or remembering the right notation. As D would proudly explain, Macaulay was a misunderstood giant. As D reiterated — and reiterate was a word he loved — Macaulay understood Empire because he understood language and bureaucracy. Central to both was the invention of the Babu. Macaulay was the Gregor Mendel of the Babu because D felt Babudom was a genetic trait. To use a later metaphor, D felt that Macaulay had almost culturally sequenced the human genome of the Babu. Gene and culture, as he once imperiously proclaimed at an Asiatic Society lecture, were but creatures of language.

As an insight, it had a grain of truth to it. D was never to know that he anticipated what the great linguists Ramon Jacobson and Lévi-Strauss were to argue later. Culture and gene were both coded as languages. In many ways D, like other dilettantes, often sounded original. Occasionally, he was. He once argued that the IT revolution that everyone was ecstatic about was a mere fallout of English. He proudly insisted that without English schools, there would have been no comparative advantage over the Chinese who were just Mandarins who could not speak English. He dubbed it poetically and misleadingly as the absentmindedness of the other Empire.

D hated the word governance. He felt Empire was a more literate word and more honest. Empire smacked of the semiotics of control, the logic of communication, while governance felt like a set of traffic signals, a set of over-determined codes in the age of emergence. D, like all amateur social scientists, summoned the quote and anecdotes wherever he could. The misplaced quote was the bane of amateur sociology. D loved to cite the story of Joyce, his Joyce — J, as he called him. Joyce was the only one who shared the intimacy of the initial. Joyce was special.

J was proud of his son, proud of his wordplay. He thought of his son as a samurai of the word, intent on wordplay and defined by it. J once went to meet the revered Dr Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst who hid his Hinduism by speaking of archetypes. J told Jung proudly of his son’s facility with words. Jung listened thoughtfully. As the boy swum through his words, Dr Jung sadly delivered his verdict. He told Joyce that his sense of words made him a genius, but the boy’s use of words revealed he was a schizophrenic.

For D, governance was a form of schizophrenia. It had none of the semiotics of the Empire, the literacy of rule as he called it. Governance for D was an autistic exercise in rule, a rule by consultants. To rule, he claimed, one has to be a Curzon or a Bentick. To rule, you have to invent the regime of the text. Quoting the historian Bernard Cohn, D summoned the ornamentalism of history, the list, the census, the gazetteer, the survey, the Commission of enquiry. Each, he claimed, was a meditation on the relation of ruler and ruled. Governance, he insisted, operated on stereotypes. D’s dream was to create a library of gazetteers. He claimed that all the violence of Orientalism was legitimised by the beauty, the excessiveness, the verbal diversity of a gazetteer. His favourite was the Watt’s Dictionary of Economic Plants. The Empire would not have been an empire without Watts’ dictionary. A thesaurus of plant life was a tacit framework for an empire. To describe and to classify, to list was to rule. In classifying life, you determined a way of life.

Like all amateurs who functioned as clerks in little jobs and anonymous postings, D was a scholar, literati who dreamed of few moments of fame as a scholar. An occasional poem, a letter to the editor, an anonymous comment often rudely edited in an English little journal was their moment of glory. D’s dream was to write a gazetteer of his city. He claimed that a gazetteer had a character. He once pompously proclaimed that a gazetteer was a model of Clifford Geertz’s idea of ‘thick description’. Words added to words, lists bundled into lists, labels declaring order without ambiguity conveyed the sense of the gazetteer. I do not know where he picked up his knowledge of Clifford Geertz. Maybe it was an article in SPAN that he once saw. Thick description was a craze that he would recite with glee like a magical spell. A gazetteer was a thick description of life, a tropical forest presented as a conceptual Kew garden.

• IV •

D survived happily at his office till he turned around fifty-five. The trouble began soon after. His son failed the school exams. School exams were more sacred than religious rites. To fail an exam was the final middle-class catastrophe. It was a literate man’s earthquake. Everything you took for granted came tumbling down. Failure is the one stigma, the one taint a middle-class man cannot stand. Mediocrity is acceptable. It is even a form of sanity but failure is catastrophe. To fail an exam was to face ostracism. One did not belong to this world. A failure was exiled into a Dantesque hell.

His first symptom of distress was actually comic. It was a belch. A belch is almost a reflex but unlike other reflexes it can produce embarrassment. D belched more often, only his belch was noisy. It lacked the innocence, the contentment of a child’s burp. Nor was it the burp of elderly uncles after a good meal. They latter used it as a weapon of certification. Such a burp was a noise at the right moment and at the right time. It was tolerable even within the norms of etiquette. D’s burp was more intrusive. It exploded like a stifled geyser in front of his superiors. The burp popped up in the middle of strangers. It showed no sense of status or hierarchy. It was potentially volcanic and D realised it captured the lava of repressions in him. He showed small traces of forgetting.

For a man who can summon Tennyson or Tagore at will, to miss a quote is to miss a heartbeat, an anticipation of distress. He redoubled his efforts, reciting huge chunks of literature loudly to himself. The pleasure of retrieval was an assurance of a stillstable self. Of course, once or twice he came late to office. It raised eyebrows. He was proud of claiming that people set time by his arrivals and departures. Coming late was unpardonable. But these bouts of delay were so occasional and distant that he began feeling normal. Punctuality was necessary and inviolate but a sense of ageing was normal. Ageing added grace to style. He looked in the mirror and was content with what he saw. He decided that a walking stick would be a premature affectation.

Trouble began in that very week he was congratulating himself for his decorum. Day time was clear. It had a secular guarantee to it. Night provided the question marks. He began dreaming. D did dream earlier but his dreams were predictable as seasonal secretions. Earlier his dreams were limp, lacking even the promise of erections. As he murmured, they sounded like memos to himself. They conveyed nothing that he had repressed, just a hint of antiseptic mnemonics.

His first sense of difference began when he began dreaming in colour. For an antiseptic life, colour conveys the threat of obscenity. It is like possessing a mistress who begins parading herself in the open. When your mind becomes a palette of tints and shades, when your life turns tropical in its variety, when emotions, which are dry, get lush and leafy, when a life, which has been as dry as laterite, becomes flush with life, you shake yourself disbelievingly like a dog. Fortunately, a dog rolls on the grass to rid itself of any irritant but dreams, dreams are more stubborn. They claim residency, insist on the humus of hospitality, sprout tendrils like a Lantana plant, bright, yellow and stubbornly defiant.

D was puzzled. For a man who thought of the timetable as the ultimate masterpiece of civilisation, a palette of dreams was threatening. Adding colour to your life, even if only in dreams, evokes guilt. He was puzzled at the enigma of colour. To sense all the colours of desire made him feel odd. The world, the correct word, he reminded himself was peculiar.

WHEN DESIRE enters an Indian life after fifty, one does not go to a psychoanalyst. The villages are more pragmatic about emotion and provide the shaman and the exorcist. When dreams as collective projections create excessive anxiety, there is always a witch hunt. But a city, a middle-class city, has little place for the primordial. It was an embarrassment of riches that D could not stomach. The general response was to turn religious, drop in more frequently on the temple, attend a satsang, and visit the Ramakrishna Ashram. But D realised, like most Hindus, that religion for a diurnal life was not always religion for a nocturnal one. Darkness had its own fecundity. What made his nights disturbing was the sheer succulence of metaphor. It was a symptom that life’s juices were flowing but not along the dykes and channels he was expecting.

When the mind ambushes oneself, it turns wary. It is almost as if a stranger has entered dismissively and set up his camel’s tent. Your inside feels leased out to a stranger. But when you are a creature of habit, a 10 to 5 species with a regular sense of leisure, life still appears tolerable.

The next rupture came when D was walking one evening at Lake Terrace. It is an odd place completely colonised by pigeons. The birds express themselves vehemently on any unsuspecting passerby. Regulars on a walk always carried umbrellas as an act of protection and defiance. One could be immaculately clean under its protection.

While walking contentedly with his old friend, D suddenly sensed his old world tremble. Walking a distance away under another black umbrella was a man who looked identical. To look in a mirror gives one a sense of familiarity. It is reassuring. To confront a double is to feel a sense of catastrophe. A double you have not dreamt off makes you feel illegitimate. You feel soiled by the unfairness of the ambushes of life. A double is like an apparition, a replica, a projection, not quite shadow, not quite illusion.

The man disappeared into a crowd as D hurried to him. A double is a memory that haunts you in an intense way. It is your past, your present eluding you in a split-second moment. Like all literate men, when D was in doubt, he took refuge in texts rather than friends or experts.

He rushed to the Asiatic Society library taking a minibus to Park Street. The society, now moribund, was the home of great Orientalia. The Orient is an archive of the archaic. It is a file of myth, old memories, a genealogy of traumas, a multiverse of pornographies, a collection of bacchanalia that makes Rabelais look nasty, short and brutish. D rushed down a familiar but darkened alley of books.

Libraries, colonial libraries are an ode to mustiness. But the Asiatic was a blend of phenyl and the dankness of a wet rag. If smells are memories, this one was unreasonably pungent.

He was looking for a little monograph, a little afterthought of a book by a great psychologist, Rank… Otto Rank. He had heard about him in a talk at the Asiatic Society by an Austrian anthropologist whose name he could not remember. At that time, he found the idea of double fanciful. Now it seemed doubly urgent. But the book was difficult to locate. His urgency acquired the quality of a bite. It dug deep as his helplessness increased. A missing book can be an excruciating form of absenteeism, a rank indifference to the urgency in you. Doubles would have felt more real with a meat of a text in front of him but the double felt like a trickster with both apparition and text missing. It makes you feel like a pawn in some weird chess game.

D never saw the man again and yet the meeting never ceased to haunt him. He went to the local temple, hung around. The company of gods does not help till you find the right one and then Indian pantheon feels like a collection of yellow pages with a few torn out.

D went to the local park, a little scrap of apologetic grass, sat on a wooden chair that once had pretensions of green. He lit his cigarette for company and smoked thoughtfully. But smoking was little consolation. Then he did something strange. He went back to his office and sat in silence in his cubicle, feeling like an alien. The familiarity of a place changes with time. The office in the evening seemed a different place. Even the paperweights on his table felt unreal. The tangible world suddenly became as fragile as cobwebs. When life acquires a gossamer quality, it conveys a sense of the mysterious.

Fear demands domestication. It cries out for order, for labels, for description. Dreams demand recognition and with or without decoding. As the story fades without constant retelling, a dream feels stunted without constant decoding. An enigma that is ignored loses its sense, its aura of mystery.

• V •

D HAD little faith in psychoanalysis, and even less in spiritual therapy. He sat pottering at his table. Suddenly a thought struck him. He recognised that it was weird. He was nibbling at his various dreams and he asked himself whether dreams could have standards. He discarded the idea with a shudder. To industrialise the unconscious would have been the ultimate bourgeois dream and he was too much of a romantic to will that. Yet, it continued to nag him. An ISO for dreams. A metric system for the unconscious. He laughed uneasily and sensed the categories of his official life were attempting to invade into his dream world. Order, he suddenly understood, involved a transfer of metaphors. He took out a sheet of paper and wrote “My dreams”. Then scratched out the first word. Life appeared more in control as he impersonalised his problem.

Like most Indians, he felt that recourse to psychoanalysis was taboo. To take your dreams to a professional was a confession of pathology. One admitted to an illness. He sat thinking for a while. It struck him that Indians were home in a world of myths but wary of the language of dreams. The orientalist in him realised that they were only variants of language. In fact, he felt dreams were almost botanical, a type of species that needed a Linnaeus to classify them. Taxonomy felt more homely and comfortable, less intrusive and humiliating than psychoanalysis.

He wrote out a list of his dreams. It looked like a shopping list, more like a dhobi’s list, looking for order and connection in them. He began wondering whether a Grey’s Anatomy of dreams was possible. It was an amateur’s dream of instant fame. A classic book as a bestseller. He smoked another cigarette and then drifted home, succumbing to a soap opera on TV. But the possibility of being a scholar of his own dreams intruded. He saw it as an avenue on therapy, something that would also provide a distraction.

• VI •

TWO DAYS later, he began browsing around libraries, steering clear of Freud. He had decided firmly that there was no sexual content to his dreams. They could be exotic, not erotic. Secularising dreams, he felt, demanded a removal of guilt and the Christian theology that infected them. Dreams, he said to himself, were botany. One needed a morphology of dreams.

D’s burp was more intrusive. It exploded like a stifled geyser in front of his superiors. It showed no sense of status or hierarchy

He came home with a small booty of books. He picked them randomly but there was an underlying affinity, a kinship about them. He had the predictable ones, Jung on archetypes and some more unexpected ones. He picked up Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Frazer’s The Golden Bough. He had Roheim’s Gates of the Dream and Radin’s The Trickster. Along with it, he brought back his favourite compendium, Watt’s Dictionary of Economic Plants. He was getting a sense of control. The secret of his problem must be in these tomes. There was one more book I must mention. He had Grierson’s Linguistic Survey already on his table.

He went home and lined up his books like a fort, a set of ramparts. That evening he abandoned TV and began work. He found a little notebook, a bit yellow at the edges but serviceable. He was excited. He felt like William Jones of the dream. ‘An Oriental Jones’ knew language, smelt of myth, loved dictionaries. A man like Jones could be a shaman of the dream. D felt Freud was a spring cleaner, a man who tidied up dreams, a hygienist who made dreams antiseptic. Sometimes the amateur has a confidence, a naïve arrogance no professional can dream of. The orientalist was first of all a collector. To enjoy dreams, you had to hoard them first.

D began his work quietly, listing out all his dreams. He sensed some were domestic fables, some part of collective myths, some felt like telegrams, others like haikus. Some repeated themselves in an epic refrain. He began classifying them by colour, by day, by events, by metaphors. The list accumulated over the day. His files began looking impressive.He fondly called it his godown of dreams. There is something both exotic and familiar about a catalogue. It smells of everydayness, a bit of anarchy and suspense lurk at every corner. D surveyed his empire of files possessively and walked around the assembled rows like a Napoleon of dreams, content with what he possessed and confident his empire was growing.

He suddenly turned patriarch, and forced the family to hand over its dreams. He was a clever gossip and an astute listener who could spot a fabrication. Metaphor and language haunted him. He loved their tropicality. Language bled so copiously. It was fleshy and fertile. He began a thesaurus of dreams, creating like a homemade Lévi-Strauss, the mythemes of each dream. He borrowed from folklore, he dipped into epics. He classified dreams by gender and locality, in terms of tropes and types of narrative. What began as a tidy garden was now a forest of symbols. The little notebook had grown to an archive of files.

He had decided firmly that there was no sexual content to his dreams. They could be exotic, not erotic. Dreams were botany

D GAVE dreams a voice. He provided order through simple categories, listing them out like a society’s confessional. It was one man’s dictionary, and also his own labyrinth. All his dreams had a municipal order to them, classified by locality, properties, listing similarities and differences. His work was a geography of dreams, a tableau of narratives arranged by locality. He began as a reincarnation of every orientalist, classifying dreams in every dialect. He classified dream states according to seasons, argued that each sub-caste had its own province of dreams.

He began fancying himself as an ecologist of dreams. The unconscious, he felt, was too restrictive a word for desire or fancy. It reduced the world to a basement or an attic. Ecology added contours, a more complex geography. Dreams, he stated, needed maps and storytellers. Like his Joyce, he felt dreams were geographies, geographies of the imagination. Ecology and geography were tangible, more real, more scientific. Geography was empirical, while psychoanalysis was apologetic of its fictions. It was the weaker side of Victorian life. Dreams belonged to the world of discoveries. It was a pity Freud had turned them into half-baked inventions.

D became Risley, Prinsep, Grierson, Sunita Kumar Chatterjee all rolled into one. He felt official and therefore legitimate as he created a dream census of his locality and then his municipality. If dreams were ever sublimated into scholarship, it was in this gazetteer of dreams. It was like a morphology of plants where domestic plants described local life and exotic plants spelt of myth and legend. An ordinary reader could play with it; rearrange it like snakes and ladders, or like a crossword puzzle. D’s work had become dream almanac and dream dictionary. A private obsession had become a public masterpiece.

D felt his project flow like a river, like the Nile or Ganges depositing the silt of life. He savoured the word silt. It smelt of life, of life expressing itself. Silt and humus were his favourite words. Dreams worked like silt and humus. They were not repressions. Freud, he claimed, was captive to the wrong metaphor.

A catalogue might dream of order, of dreams in rows and columns, dreams tagged with labels, but dreams are anarchic creatures. The metaphor of the plant cut both ways. Gardens have an architectonic but a plant is an unruly creature.

His diaries of his project were too cryptic. Often D wrote in a strange version of mirror handwriting. He had heard Leonardo did that but with D it was an affectation. Oddly while D was content with the dreams of men, it was the dreams of women that bothered him. Women’s dreams were wild, luxuriant and they raged beyond sexuality. The domestic space, he realised, was an alchemical space, efflorescent and pungent with the primordial. It was in the dreams of women that the species seemed to mutate. It was as if each woman was a prolific Calvino, and gossip, he realised, was the stuff of dreams. Women, he felt, cooked dreams from strange recipes of desire, with images that oozed with a power and a force that puzzled him. The Kalis of the dream, he called them, stunned by the ferocity of their words, with stories that spurted forth pancreatic with hormonal smells of desires untold, undreamt by men. Women’s dreams were beyond pornography. The Bengali man was irrelevant to her dream. Women dreamt of creatures from a different pantheon.

D suppressed this section. He felt it belonged to a different time. He said they were poetry of a different mind. Women, he felt, were a different species living subterranean lives under their skin. As a consequence, he became more reverential. He wanted to find, to name a Goddess of dreams but his masculine mind could not summon it or move past Durga, Kali or Shakti. Names, he confessed, were labels, nominal words, not expressions of a zest creating a demonology of life that no literary work had till now captured.

He realised that women were a continent, a universe that men did not understand.

Women’s dreams were beyond pornography. The Bengali man was irrelevant to her dream. D suppressed this section

Dipankar Babu worked on his project for thirty years, listing out the language of dreams in every dialect. The language of the dream varied with every locale. Dreams not only had their own dialects, they often created their own ecology and their own sensorium. D listed them all faithfully with his team of friends. He called it his co-operative of the dream. Gradually, his memory of his double faded and what he found, in what he called the rivers of language, was more life-giving.

Calcutta, as a city, has a way of honouring its eccentrics. It honours them through gossip and rumour, everyday references citing D from his columns in the Patrika. D was read, quoted and debated. People pointed to him in walks. He became more distinguished and distant, a savant of the dream, a scholar shaman of cultures. D became a presence, a part of folklore. Folklore is a piece of time where life and death blur and a man exists as gossip long before the obituaries mark an end to living. D began his work as a tentative idea in 1968. He died of old age and overwork in 1997.

• VII •

D’S DEATH banalised his achievements. A larger-thanlife project shrunk to a little still life, a desiccated mummy of his succulent work. The books and archives he created lay untouched for a few months after his departure. Then one day his son, the failure, began reading his father’s work and was amazed and impressed. He was then a small-time, small town journalist parched for stories. He saw his father as a human interest story but realised that the gazetteer of dreams was bigger news than he had imagined. But sadly, he saw D’s work instrumentally. He struck a deal with a Delhi firm to publish the corpus. He found an obliging anthropologist from Chicago to write a foreword. He collected local icons, folk drawings and peppered the book with motifs that conveyed ethnicity and authenticity, a tourist’s banalisation of a new universe.

The Gazetteer of Dreams was a bestseller. It won many awards, gave a sense of life to the moribund Asiatic Society. It was celebrated as India’s answer to The Golden Bough.

Tirthankar, the son, was candid. He claimed wryly, almost dismissively, that he never suppressed his dreams. He usually added, “After all, I live off them.”



Shiv Visvanathan

Visvanathan is an anthropologist currently teaching in Ahmedabad. He has held visiting professorships at London, Massachusetts, Stanford and Arizona. He is currently completing a book on dissenting imaginations in science called The Loneliness of a Long Distance Scientist.


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