2018 Newsletter 7: the Dharma of Space

Yes, I know I have been incognito for a while. It's not as if I don't have things to write about - if anything, it's the opposite: too many trains of thought are competing for the narrow gauge rail between brain and hand. There's no recourse but to insert order into this pandemonium.

Or even better, I should simply force myself to write and write and write. There was something about that year when I wrote the Jayary every day which made writing a lot easier - I know I had to do it come what may and that understanding made it easy to commandeer the rail line.

If only it were so easy. Write write and write, yes, but for whom and why? Doesn't writing as work - or its seductive cousin, "writing as habit" - sound like a neoliberal productivity hack engineered to serve the masters of aggregation? I am stuck between the devil of procrastination and the deep sea of productivity.


Part of the mental turmoil comes from being back in India, where I have been for almost two weeks; a change of scenery confuses the mind and freezes the hand until it's ready to move of its own accord. Just as I was despairing, I -literally- hit upon a theme that's been in the back of my mind for a long time: the relationship between space and ethics, or to put it slightly differently, the dharma of space.

South Indian cities are sprinkled with darshinis, i.e., hole in the wall restaurants where you can get a reasonably nutritious meal for about 50 rupees. My favourite snack/meal is the set dosa, which, as the name suggests, is a set of three fluffy dosas served with a vegetable stew and some coconut chutney. I prefer set dosas to their crispier cousins; for one they are less oily and second, you get three for the price of one.

Anyway, I was crossing hundred foot road in Koramangala after finishing my daily set when a motorcycle almost hit me. He assumed a pedestrian would simply get out of his way but I was having none of it. This being Bangalore and not Delhi, we parted ways after exchanging evil stares, but the interaction reminded me of the extent to which public space in urban India has been privatised.

What do I mean?

Let's take a road. It's meant to be a public space for everyone, with a reasonable division between the tarmac for vehicles and the footpath for pedestrians and trees and dogs. But the tarmac is really a private-public partnership, since entry into the road is restricted to those who have purchased their own enclosure, i.e., a car or a scooter or motorcycle. Even worse, when we say road widening, we really mean tarmac widening don't we, i.e., expanding the space available for those who can bring their own vehicle to the party and shrinking the space for those who can't - the poor, the stationary (e.g., trees) and the nonhuman. What's formally designated as a public space is in reality a subsidy for people with money.

Meanwhile, the footpath is also increasingly captured by storefronts, vendors, construction and other private entities, so much so that it's impossible to walk on it. In other words, if you're vehicle-less like the vast majority of Indian citizens, your access to public space is shrinking by the day. A walker in this new dispensation is a person who can only occupy the margins, the small strip that straddles the edge of the tarmac and the edge of the footpath.

Question: What does all of this have to do with the dharma of space?

Answer: Space is a better carrier of dharma (or adharma) than the law or the constitution.

Open a social science or philosophy book at random and you will see that democracy or justice is defined in terms of legal or formal capacities: equality before the law, guaranteed constitutional rights etc etc. In this scheme, democracy falls from heaven and is captured in a holy text like the constitution, which in turn is interpreted by the priests and enforced on the ground by the organs of the state. Space plays a minor role in this conception of justice, and when it does, it's subservient to the power of the law: for example, the law decides that all of us can vote and therefore, the space within the voting booth becomes available to me every five years.

In contrast, consider a highly spatialised idea of justice that consists of

  • opening spaces that were previously closed, i.e., make it as easy for bicyclists to occupy the tarmac as cars and protect the interests of trees as much as trucks and

  • closing spaces that were previously open, i.e., protecting the bodies of women from being violated by men

When put this way, it's obvious that space is always being worked upon; just as capitalist labour consists of working upon material substances to produce widgets for consumption, democratic labour consists of working upon space (though not only space) and making it available for public enjoyment. Space is both the backdrop against which production happens and also an outcome of the productive process. The more space is privatised, the more it becomes a factor of capitalist production than a factor of public enjoyment.

That dual role should give us a clue - independent of our political inclinations - of the importance of space as a glue. As abstractions, the state and the market seem like two very different entities: one driven by rules and the law and the other by profit and competition, but the two come together under the universal umbrella of space in every place where activity happens: on the street, in the house, on the farm and in the factory.
Dharma moves easily from private to public and back again, though not always in the way we might intend it to do so, but its always a matter of this world, it's always tied to the condition we are in. As bodily creatures who occupy space and move through it, there's no conception of dharma which isn't spatial. That's why one of the great discourses on dharma happened on a battlefield on the eve of a great war (which should alert us that it's not just space we should be paying attention to, but also time).

In other words, space is a constituent factor of the human condition. So let me end with a question:

  • Is Dharma an avatar of space or space the avatar of Dharma or both avatars of each other or neither?