Living in Limbo

Johny ML
22/04/2016

About 12 years ago, when the Tom Hanks starrer 'The Terminal' hit the screens worldwide, we all came to know about the plight of a man who spent almost 18 years in the Terminal One of the Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris as a refugee. His name is Mehran Karimi Nasseri. He was an anti-Shah activist in Iran, who was expelled from the country in 1986. After seeking asylum in many countries, he finally decided to settle down in the U.K. However, on his way to London, at the French airport, he found to have lost all his papers and since then, he had been living there as a 'stateless' man. He penned a book titled 'The Terminal Man,' which was the source material for the Tom Hanks movie.

Airport terminals are no man's lands. You lose your country when you are inside an airport terminal. Not only the conceptual status of a nowhere land, but the architectural finish of these structures make airport terminals the extreme cases of 'no-identity' lands. What about Mr. Nasseri who spent almost two decades in an airport? The experience might have helped him evolve his life in the terminal as a constant performance, one that is political, cultural and even spectacular. The naturalization of living as a man without a land would've given him a new identity: the identity of a stateless man. But what about those people who have passports, homes, familiar language and families, and yet forced to live like 'stateless' ones?

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Rahul Ravi

Rahul Ravi's photographic series 'Living in Limbo' tells how such people lead their lives. Shot almost eight years back, when he was a student at the Photography Design Department of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, this series was shown in certain international art expositions. Looking at the photographs of the asylum seekers and refugees all over the world -- a new and massive phenomenon caused by militant and fundamentalist organizations like the Islamic State -- and also at the photographs of those who live under the perpetual threats of the militaries of hostile countries as well as of the militaries of their own states, I tend to look at the people who live (though not in conflict zones) in limbos created by political, religious and cultural prejudices as well as ridiculously complicated systems of governance and citizen management.

Photographers all over the world have taken interest in people who live in political and social limbos. While they focus on the eyes of their subjects that speak volumes about their present state of living and being, and also at the physical gestures and clothes in order to reveal the plight of their existence, Ravi's photographs stand distinct mainly because the above-mentioned structural paraphernalia that define a photograph taken in a refugee situation are absolutely absent in his series. In these pictures, the subjects, a few elderly Muslim men in their bedrooms or drawings rooms (a very natural setting for a head of the family to be in in a photograph) are seen sitting tensed and looking at the camera with a sense of resignation. Ravi has taken special care to cut all the other human presences out of his pictorial frames so that these subjects get an iconic treatment in his photographs; yet they resist becoming icons because of the pall of gloom shrouding their faces.

Who are these people? The story has the scope of a minor epic narrative, but they remain short stories read less and hardly acknowledged. However, they aren't just left alone like that. Had it been so, they would've been much better and happier. The state always asks after them. The state is always looking at them. They are under the state's microscope. It's like living under a CCTV camera that would make anyone either a paranoid or a resigned one. The latter has happened to them. We've heard the stories of those Indians languishing in the jails of Pakistan and vice versa. They are all treated as 'suspects.' The lucky ones get freed through bilateral negotiations and the ill-fated ones rot in those jails and die, leaving no trace. In Ravi's pictures, we see those people who escaped jails but carry the jail in their consciousness and conscience; or rather they are asked to live so.

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These are the people, Muslim Men of more than 60 years old, who happened to have a Pakistani passport. They are Keralites, natural Malayalees who had dreamt of making it big in foreign lands. In 1960s and early 70s, the Middle East was beckoning many of the skilled and unskilled workers from the poorer sections of Kerala. People sold whatever they could and handed over the money to the agents who procured work permits or visas for these migrant laborers. Middle East being a conglomeration of Muslim countries, the first lot that responded to the labor market there was the Muslims in Kerala. Hindus waited and watched, initially with disparagement and then with awe. Money had started flowing into the state turning the Muslim families in Kerala richer by several notches than their Hindu counterparts. Sooner than later the Hindus also started chasing the gulf dreams.

In the process, many got duped by the agents. Some reached shores that were unheard of before. Some reached, as a comic relief, in the very same Indian shores. A few got job in places like Karachi, in Pakistan. For those who had gone to Pakistan without suspecting that one day the political differences would make their lives a living hell, Karachi was as good as Mumbai. The religious affinity and similarity might have helped them to feel confident too. They started working there and sending money back home. Things were going on smoothly till they got the offer of becoming Pakistan citizens. Pakistan said that they couldn't shuttle between India and Pakistan without a Pakistani passport. Many people returned to Kerala, but some of them stayed on only because they wanted to protect the economic gains they had achieved. They didn't find it a difficult proposition so long as they could travel to Kerala and live with their families during the vacations.

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Over a period of time, things worsened at both ends. Pakistan stopped Indian laborers migrating to its own cities. The ones living there already had got Pakistani passports. Once they came back to Kerala, they didn’t want to go back. But unfortunately, they were no longer Indian citizens. Technically, they were Pakistani citizens. So the present status is that they live in their own country as foreigners.

Ravi captures their pathos; all their jaws and lips are drawn down and their eyes show no spark of happiness. Their body posture shows they are uncomfortable in their own bedrooms and drawing rooms. They have to go to the local police station every week to sign the register that they haven't made any anti-national move. They can't just leave their town without letting the authorities know. If anything untoward happens, the police reach their doorstep to pull out all their Pakistani 'antecedents.' They just don't want to talk. They all have clammed up.

I've seen so many others photographing the lives of the people who are living in self-assessed limbos. For example, the Portuguese still living in Goa who were photographed by the late Prabuddha Dasgupta. None of them look like lost or sad. They are confident because they accept the fact they have been 'invaded' by India. They've accepted their fate to be Indian citizens though they have their romantic memories about Portugal. Ironically, many of them haven’t even visited that country.

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In Ravi's photographs we could witness the real limbo. They are not economically deprived nor are they deprived of human care. But they are deprived of the state's protection and the dignity that they deserve as natural citizens- all because they carry the Pakistani passport.

Mehran Nasseri looks like a writer in his photographs. If we don't know much about him, the photographs could pass him off as an artist or philosopher. His eyes are sharp with no sense of resignation seen on his face. He shows confidence, perhaps even a little glimpse of craziness. The surroundings he has created for himself within the airport terminal look more like a writer's residence than that of a refuge. In Ravi's photographs, however, we see the opposite. These people are in their homes, but they are devoid of confidence. The human sap has been squeezed out of them by the state. In fact, these photographs should be exhibited in all the airport terminals all over the world just to tell people that you are what your documents say.