By Ila Ananya
Manjunatha sells scarves. He comes to Cubbon Park every day with scarves around his neck and arms, walking in circles around the kilometre the park is spread out over. He enters from near the bamboo grove, before walking to sit on the benches near the stage where there have been Bharatnatyam performances, and when he is tired, he sits under the trees in the grass. The scarves are of different lengths; some are white, and there’s also a blue, a pink, and a red. But you don’t always know that Manjunatha is a scarf seller — sometimes he just seems like a strange man with white cotton hair and a lot of scarves, and one eye bigger than the other — until he comes to you first and opens conversation.
Four of us made Manjunatha the scarecrow some Sundays ago. We were at Cubbon Park, and Maraa, a media and arts collective in Bangalore, had just organised open scarecrow-making sessions on every Sunday of October. The idea, we were told, was to explore the ways in which Cubbon Park has changed, looking at how people received and resisted this change — we were, with our scarecrows, supposed to communicate our memories, desires, fantasies, fears, and sorrows in the park. In that immediate moment, three of us knew it as the park we brought our dogs to on Sunday morning (my dog is impatient to come here from the night before), and as the place for school picnics.
S and I dipped our hands in a can of brown paint to colour Manjunatha’s face. In the end everyone asked us why his face was red — “think about these things,” we were told — and next to us, A and N stuffed hay into Manjunatha’s blue shirt and kept asking us if we were sure of the size of his paunch. Two other women were making their scarecrow a lawyer, talking about how they would come to Cubbon for hours to study for their law exams, and I think of how S and I would sit under the tree at a park near home reading about Wordsworth and how he wandered lonely as a cloud, before our Literature paper when we were in college.
Cubbon Park is different in the morning and evening. It is also different on Sundays and other days of the week and like all other public spaces, it’s different when you’re there with people, and when you’re there alone. On one Sunday morning you might see young men with chiselled abs standing shirtless on a tree posing for photographs, while a woman who has taken an oath of silence walks many large golden retrievers with tikas on their foreheads. Sometimes couples will pose in silk saris with thick zari borders and suits. Perhaps there will be an afternoon when a boy comes up to you after he sees you sitting alone, asking you about love and why his girlfriend broke up with him — “Mujhme kya kami hai,” he will say. On another day, when you tell your friend that you are going to meet someone there, she will inform you that when you invite someone to meet you at Cubbon Park, it implies at least a make-out session somewhere in the bamboo groves.
After five Sundays of making scarecrows, Maraa organised a show with some of them, as an understanding of the public space of Cubbon Park. I was sure our scarecrow wouldn’t be there, but S and I went to see them at Venkatappa Art Gallery anyway — much of our curiosity came from wanting to see who other people had imagined. The room is strangely dark in the gallery, and when you enter, in the corner near the door, there is a man with a camera for an eye. He lives alone, eats pure vegetarian food, listens to Carnatic music, and wears a suit with polished shoes — a regular walker at Cubbon Park. As he walks, his camera eye notes everything that must be removed from here: no uncultured indecent behaviour, no lovers behind bushes, no vendors, no girls out after 5:30 pm, no lounging migrant workers. Two scarecrows down is a security guard with a whistle for his head that is large enough to feel like you can hear it ringing — don’t climb trees, don’t sit on the grass (but I’ve always sat on the grass), don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t love openly.
It’s possible to imagine the conversations between the makers of these scarecrows as they tied their hay together, and chose the clothes that they want them to wear. We had talked about Manjunatha as we made him. We said that he was good at making conversation with his customers. Sometimes he talked about the weather, and then, before he tried to sell them a scarf, he asked them what they do. They tell him. In return, he told them about selling scarves; if they spoke Kannada, the answer was longer, and it was a little shorter if they spoke Hindi or Tamil. I imagine that if they’re reading, he always begins by asking them about their book, and sometimes both of them pause to buy the sweet chai from the tea seller walking around the park with his large flasks. Since the rules against hawkers in Cubbon Park have got stricter now, we say that Manjunatha gets away from the security guards because he looks old and eccentric, like another scarecrow someone had made, of a man who just liked to smile. On most days, people buy his scarves.
Another group of young men have made their dream girl. Her scarecrow is in the centre of the room, almost looking as though she’s suspended horizontally from the ceiling. She’s a foreigner in a blue dress and black heels, with bright red lipstick. She isn’t shy — instead, she climbs rocks and sleeps in the grass; she giggles and pouts and poses. Then there are two other scarecrows, one of a man, and the other of a woman. They would meet at Cubbon Park because their parents didn’t approve of their relationship — in this story; the man now roams here alone because the woman he loves has refused to come here after a man sat opposite them and masturbated. Now, they have nowhere else to meet.
Then there are scarecrows of a lesbian couple. There is also Kamini who became Harish, whose lover only knows how to love Kamini. When they meet every Sunday, he brings Harish saris to give to her. In a corner, there is the scarecrow of a man masturbating. There is another of a sex worker who has been gang raped, and who slapped and threw a stone in the face of a policeman who abused her — “teri maa ki chooth, main mera lauda,” he had said.
It seems like these scarecrows all make sense in the room together, in the same way that they are all at Cubbon Park on a given day. The foreigner dream girl is imagined and hoped for, just like a High Court lawyer who just really wants a cigarette. We imagine Manjunatha fondly; he isn’t terrifying or a person to be avoided. The masturbator is real, as is the security guard, the sex worker, and the man with a camera eye. The lovers remember themselves in moments that they also hope will come again, and all these people — the hawkers, the beggars, the lawyers, the lovers — their stories are linked not only by this common public space of Cubbon Park, but also the ways in which we see each other in public spaces.
In these scarecrows there is the strange sense that Cubbon Park can be one giant scarecrow with all these stories.