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Terms of (Public) Engagement: Dealing with the Urban Intellectual Paradox

"Dialogues with Books" event at Dialogues Cafe in Bangalore

Highly urbanised areas are structured in a paradoxical fashion. On the one hand these cities have plenty of intellectually and culturally invigorating opportunities to partake in. On the other hand the cost to survive and thrive in these cities presents such conditions that one can hardly afford the luxury of time and leisure to avail these opportunities.

This paradox adversely impacts upon the culture of public engagement in the urbanised spaces even though urban areas witness higher concentration of opinion makers and publicly valued intellectuals. But some initiatives seek to break out the prisoners of urbanisation and bring them together in order to strike a conversation. This piece looks at two of such initiatives in two of the premiere metropolitan cities of India- Bangalore and Chennai and makes some observations about what can be the “terms of [successful public] engagement”.

Dissent in Dangerous Times

A teach-in and lecture series by two “private citizens”- Vasundhara Singh Sirnate, an academician and writer and Suchitra Vijayan, a lawyer and a writer, “Dissent in Dangerous Times” is based out of Chennai. Begun in December 2016, the initiative is overtly political in nature as it seeks to create a greater space for “discussion, dissent and discourse” intended to provide a platform for critique and dissent as essential components of rights based citizenship and democracy.

Its primary concern as the name of the platform suggests, is to highlight the fact that expressing dissent and critique in present day society has become increasingly “dangerous”. To stress the threats posed to critical discourse, it cites severe regulation and compromises that avenues such as academia and media are witnessing respectively.

The concept and design of the event is based on an educative discussion. The organisers through social media prescribe and disseminate a reading list of articles and papers to read up before hand for those interested in attending the meet. Thereafter experts on specific issues deliver a talk following which the forum is thrown open for attendants to express their views, raise questions and carry the discussion forward.

A topical event this, is organised periodically on different issues. The first time around it was organised on 3rd December 2016 at a local cafe ‘Spaces’ in Besant Nagar, Chennai and the topic for the event was “The State VS Khurram Parvez”, featuring a talk by Shrimoyee Ghosh of the ‘Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society’.  The backdrop of the talk was the detention of human rights’ activist Khuraam Parvez. The subsequent edition is planned around the topic of demonetisation.

Vasundhara Sirnate when asked about her experience, expresses her satisfaction on the quality of audience present at the first edition. Though the attendance was relatively small, the people present were thoroughly engaged. The questions were interesting and plenty in number. Asked about any apprehensions that the curators had on organising such an event, Vasundhara credits the city of Chennai for the respectful audience and no untoward incidents such as heckling etc. during the talk.
Dialogues with Books

A few hundred kilometres away from Chennai in another metropolitan-Bengaluru a group of reading enthusiasts get together over weekends to talk about books and everything reading. This initiative in the true spirit of public engagement aims to strike "Dialogues with Books".

‘Dialogues’ an unconventional cafe that aims to create a space for people to come together and “jam their ideas and thoughts together”, located in Kormangala, Bengaluru organises this event. The events are advertised through social media and interested people attend them according to their convenience. The series of these sessions began in July 2016.

Deya Bhattacharya, a human rights lawyer and writer first found about it in September. An avid reader, she gelled so well with the concept that in October she took over as the host herself. She describes the event as a free-wheeling discussion where only intervention needed is for allowing everyone adequate space and time to share their thoughts and ideas.  

When asked if everyone present at the event is as much into books as one would expect, Deya says “not really”. She adds “Some come in to explore and test the waters. Some walk in and rush out. Others stay and come back again at some point.”

In a busy city where people look to unwind after their hectic schedules, "Dialogues..." presents a different kind of engagement than what a day at a pub or a movie hall can afford. Thus as Deya suggests despite not many people sharing an interest in reading or books, many do check the event out for various reasons.

For those who are keenly interested in reading it is the casual atmosphere that attracts them. The idea that no particular individual or “expert” is leading the discussion helps everyone to chime in with their thoughts and views and take the conversation in different directions. Deya opines that this temporary escape for a few hours from their busy lives into something that they are passionate about draws people towards this initiative. Finding like minded reading aficionados, an increasing rarity, is an added perk.

A Few Takeaways

Both these events or initiatives disprove the premise of this write-up, i.e. the paradox of urbanised spaces with ample opportunities for intellectual and cultural engagement rendered unutilised because of the busy urban lifestyle. Perhaps they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Both these initiatives are not organic forms of public engagement but orchestrated events. They require a few people or organisations taking the effort to organise a platform for people to come together and engage in intellectual communication inter-personally.  

What does remain proven is the fact that such initiatives are mostly possible in these highly urbanised spaces. The concentration of people interested in intellectual activities in these urban centres provide a ripe ground for the relative success of such events.

In a social space where interpersonal conversations are becoming a rarity and rarer still them being about something political, cultural or intellectual, these events are providing a different form of public engagement. What is important to notice is that to participate in these events and to genuinely enjoy them requires a wee bit of effort from the participants as well. Thus these events are creating a space for building informed narratives in society which are able to create perspectives, different from what the mainstream avenues of public-opinion-formation wish to generate.


(This article mistakenly identified the initiative "Dialogues with Books" as "Bring Your Own Book" in the original piece. The error has been rectified after being brought to notice. Any inconvenience is deeply regretted.) 

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