Let me talk, speak ’n express

Published: November 9, 2009 - 13:20 Updated: July 27, 2015 - 17:09

Obstruction to freedom of expression makes the insistence on one's own space and speech invaluable. When public spaces are patrolled and right to express oneself is suppressed, personal freedom is at stake

Ankita Chawla Delhi

We learnt to talk as children. We also learnt about things that were to be talked about and those not to be uttered. Each one of us have our own set of rules - forbidden and otherwise. Collective memory, collective amnesia, collective restraint and collective audacity - all this collectively design our understanding of communication and control.

We are taught that a fine balance must be maintained between the said and the unsaid. At school, contrary to our conditioning, we learn that freedom of expression is a fundamental right of every citizen of the country. By then, expression itself is limited, defining this freedom as one with obvious strings attached.

India is a multilayered, multilingual society which somehow manages to keep its balance with different sections expressing and repressing various aspects of life and language. Here, censorship means different things to different people. It is dependant not only on education, but also on social and cultural conditioning. Freedom of expression or the lack of it should be measured by geographical, historical, religious and regional background. Freedom for some can be taboo for others.

But as cities grow and regional specks wander, how valid are these censorship norms? Do we care? Porn is available, and the ones who want it, know where they'll find it. Marijuana is available - those who need it manage to get it. We are a country of the talkative. We talk, we speak, we express, and we act or procrastinate. We scream our existence and ideology, with or without sound.

The message, however violent, radical, redundant or conspiring it may be, reaches the target audience, in ways most commonplace. It could be sent out through a film poster, a political banner, a sign or the colour of a building.

The message travels anonymously, through mediums considered most usual. One such medium of expression is the astounding number of public transport vehicles on the roads. What is it that they do not advertise? Their names, their faith, names of their kids, their favourite actresses, weight loss helplines, social messages, remnants of election campaign posters, political opinions are for all to see.

While the fuel tank of a truck says, "Iraq ka paani", the rear of the truck flashes lyrics from the driver's favourite love song. In a small way, a little paint glorifies the truck driver's right to expression, his political awareness, opinion and also his preference for Bollywood music. And, if anyone honestly has trouble with it, then, "Buri nazar wale tera mooh kala". It's a mobile, travelling medium which flaunts political understanding and supreme cultural sense.

Indian roads are definitely among the very few places where we want the car behind us to honk. "Horn OK" - (so how have you been? Did you see my new car? Oh yeah, survived the accident last week somehow!). That is our cultural sense: creating a space for sound, images and for socialising. You socialise everytime you sit in Chintu ke papa da auto or curse the Snazzy Boy in a red SUV for driving like a maniac. This is information packed in an assortment of signage that is movable. In what better way can the message disseminate itself? No expression can be worthless, by virtue of existing in the first place. However annoying it may be to see old walls of a historical tomb defaced, yet for a few disapproving seconds you stand witness to the love Raja has for Sunita etched on the monument walls.

Graffiti art has a new meaning here. A garbage pile gathers in front of the wall with a placard that asks you not to litter. Laws don't necessarily assure they will also be followed. Defiance of censorship is commonplace. What makes it tolerable is the jingoism around the defunct control mechanism. The point isn't to flout authority for the sake of it. It all boils down to the failed attempt to rationalise this authority.

Through the countless public vehicles and public places, people read the messages everyday while commuting. They also witness insubordination to censorship and thus authority. They add to the debate by affirming or refuting the argument.

The State machineries also capitalise on this wide area of expression - from painting election propagandas on walls that say "Stick no bills" to announcing literacy campaigns and family planning programmes. Walls are like blackboards with everyone scribbling on it.

Censorship or not, expressions find their way into the public domain. Government mechanisms merely manage to divert the messages from one medium to another.

In Delhi, there is the Jantar Mantar to express our dismay, disgust, dissatisfaction and disapproval. Almost everyday, rows of demonstrators line the road outside. Other than government officials who live in Lutyen's Delhi, tourists, some journalists and dissenters stand witness to the pleas and protests. While we are "allowed" to protest within a given circle, somewhere it defies the original idea of non-conformism. We have the freedom to protest, but it has to be regulated. That is, freedom has strings trailing behind it. Hence, the civic space comes to the aid of free expression.

It is the obstruction to expressions which makes the insistence on one's own space and speech so valuable. When public spaces are patrolled and right to express oneself is suppressed, it questions personal freedom. When the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women was formed on a popular social networking site, I was excited to join. When the Pink Chaddi campaign followed, pink, lacy, most provocative chaddis made their way out of the closet. The Kama Sutra day on March 1, 2009 became a way to celebrate Indian culture in, what I can imagine, the raunchiest of sarees. As the dichotomy of assertion and restriction plays out, new age tools crop up everywhere. Innovative ways of being heard, spring up.

Books, movies and paintings get banned and censored all the time. Lives of Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, Deepa Mehta and MF Hussain are at stake because what they say scream defiance and attempt to make audacious statements.

However, for those who listen, the books are read, the paintings valued and the films appreciated. If someone cares to speak, there is always a crowd listening and eagerly so. The grain of a thought planted as a child in the mind becomes a tad difficult to displace, even though censorship aims to root it out. Look around you, everyone has something to say, everyone is listening.

Obstruction to freedom of expression makes the insistence on one’s own space and speech invaluable. When public spaces are patrolled and right to express oneself is suppressed, personal freedom is at stake Ankita Chawla Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews