Walls that speak

Raising Concerns


Boundaries Broken: The remains of a half-demolished building wall.

I remember, as teenagers, we used to sit on this wall after school hours, swinging our legs about, watching people and cars go by. It was a red brick wall with a grey cement ledge. During the monsoons, soft velvety moss would grow out of it, not that it ever bothered us. The last time I drove past it, I pulled over and stared at it, nostalgically, flooded by a blue-tinged melancholy, blue perhaps because our uniforms were blue. I doubt any of us had engraved our names on it, we were not particularly sentimental. But if we had, it’s been painted over. But the wall remains, in its physical sense and as a thing of our past, etched into our tucked away memories.

I’ve always been intrigued by walls, often reflecting the mood and emotions of a place. After moving to Bangalore, while I was still getting a sense of the city, I used to peep out of buses and autos to take a good look at the city’s walls. As strange as it seems, I’ve often turned to these to find out more about the culture and people of a place.

Sometimes, when people are desperate to make themselves heard and don’t have a clue who to turn to, they take the liberty of expressing themselves on these walls. ‘Stop exploiting artisans’, ‘Rights for Tamilians’, ‘If faith can move mountains, why use RDX’, ‘Let’s talk about drugs to our children, before it’s too late’, ‘Want to be a member of the friendship club?’ — all scribbled across walls in Bangalore.

Not to glorify any of this, since these often step over boundaries and fall straight into vandalism. But without doubt, it does bring to surface some of the concerns of the people who live in and around, whose voices often get dimmed.  

In fact, these walls needn’t always be a direct reflection of people’s concerns, but they certainly do speak a great deal about a place and its people. The hastily pasted film posters, the half-torn political flyers, advertisements and the million-odd inscriptions that read ‘Do not urinate here’. But the man standing, facing that very same wall seems to have an aversion to rules. He relieves himself right there, onto the wall. Call him a rebel or a fool. Would a difference in their tones have helped, maybe a ‘please’ or ‘kindly’? I suppose not.

Platform for expression

Even the walls inside train toilets for that matter. It never ceases to creep me out, but I must confess, I’m almost as equally amused. It’s as if people lose all their inhibition and can without fear of judgment or embarrassment, be at their perverse best inside there. Ordinary people turn artists, drawing figures of men and women indulging in all kinds of sexual activities. Phone numbers are indicated, just in case some lonely soul is looking for company, I suppose. Body parts are represented graphically, some with captions, some without, some lewd, some erotic. There may be no romantic serenades, but love continues to be professed upon these walls along with screaming confessions. ‘Ranjini loves Tahir’, ‘Santhosh loves Sylvia’, ‘Gopal loves Sebastian’. It seems to be some sort of creativity-stirring space. It’s probably the sense of anonymity or is it that to some extent, there is a deep sense of repression that prevails in our society? I wonder sometimes, if these ‘casually’ left phone numbers get any desperate lustful calls.

But there is art on the wall that does qualify as wall art. Graffiti, to some extent, is an accepted form of wall art, though there are many instances where it is considered to be  damaging to public property. Graffiti, which has for long been used to convey social and political messages has in recent times been associated with the underground hip-hop movement. Popular for its rebellious streak, it has seeped into pop culture in a big way, mostly as a form of street art. However, as a part of their ‘Beautiful Bangalore’ initiative, the BBMP (Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike) plans to wipe clean the city walls and public spaces that have been defaced with writings, film posters, advertisements and graffiti.

In popular culture too, walls play a significant role. In 1965, Malayalam novelist Vaikom Muhammad Bashir had written an autobiographical short novel called Mathilukal (Walls), which was later adapted onto the screen by filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Set inside a prison, it is the poignant story of a man and woman who fall in love with each across walls that separate them, never once seeing each other, but finding ways to pursue their passionate romance. Another obvious reference to walls in popular culture is in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a 1982 musical by Alan Parker, where the wall is used as a metaphorical device. Such is the wall, taking on many forms, serving many purposes, triggering emotions and inspiring ideas. Walls as boundaries, as a means of security, as defining territory... and even the mental walls that exist between us.

A grand aunt of mine was so taken aback when she heard that in the US where my cousin lived, the houses had no compound walls. “No walls, how can that be?” she shrieked, in her shrill voice, her eyes growing wider. After that, declaring herself a ‘radical’, she tried convincing her neighbours to break down their walls and live in a wall-free colony, with no physical borders. “Let’s be progressive!” she shouted dramatically. They dismissed her suggestions and continued with their evening gossip sessions, over their walls of course.

But there is something about broken walls, isn’t there, a certain sense of despair? Every time I see a house being demolished, I feel a wave of gloom wash over me.  
Though most people don’t give walls a second glance since they tend to seem awfully inane, these days references to walls have increased, although in a slightly different context. “Oh my god, did you see what she wrote on his wall, isn’t it weird?” I heard a young woman ask her friend, who then moved closer to her, both curiously huddled over a table. I saw the confusion on my mother’s face. “They are talking about some social networking site, you know, like Orkut or Facebook,” my sister explained, in hushed tones. Apparently, they were as nosey as us. My mother flashed a knowing smile, she had just joined Facebook.       

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