Gossip, Conspiracies Tempered with a Sliver of Information
The Ancient Agora of Athens is all but gone now, but there have been significant excavations in recent years (the Athenian Roman Forum has quite a few pillars standing). The Roman version of the agora, the Roman Forum in Rome is still better preserved and you can still imagine what it might have been thousands of years ago as the prime civic space for political discourses, legal proceedings, intellectual debates, buying jewellery (I imagine), and so on.
There is something rather romantic about this notion of a free flowing, chaotic, intellectually charged public space as a space of the exchange of ideas. It fired my imagination to think of a poet like Mir Taqi Mir, surrounded by his fawning admirers, almost carelessly versifying poetic gems while a scribe scrambled to write them down faster than he could utter them. Or Ghalib, who wrote with such anguish about the destruction of Delhi's bazaars in the anarchy of 1857.
Perhaps this is stretching the concept of the marketplace a bit(well the ghats of Kashi do house many vendors), but the idea of the public debate remained a cornerstone of different schools of Hindu religious discourses as well. Within the orthodox tradition, in cities like Kashi (Banaras/Varanasi take your pick) public dialectics between different schools of Hindu metaphysical thought was a common feature.
But then we had spiritual figures who refused to be typecast within any and every typecasting straitjacket and declared:
Kabira khada bazaar mein, sab ki maange khair Na kahoo se dosti, na kahoo se bair
Kabir, standing in the marketplace, wishes all well
To them, I'm neither friend nor foe
(It is incredible that so many of Kabir's sayings have been handed down to us through what was essentially an oral tradition. But then so have all the Vedas over thousands of years. In this they have a striking similarity with the Homeric works Iliad and Odyssey which for a many hundred years were a purely oral tradition)
This is as far as the intellectual exchange of the marketplace goes. There is another, fascinating aspect of the marketplace - the underbelly of public space where rumours, political gossip and conspiracy theories fly thick and fast, the fasted method of viral communication in medieval times. There would be endless speculation about the health of the king or sultan, his favourites, coups plotted by his sons, all forming the substance of the political gossip that kept the bazaars abuzz.
I've heard many refer to Delhi political circles as basically like medieval courts and bazaars - with kings (or queens) and courtiers, powerful harems, and a bazaar where gossip and political speculation circulates seamlessly and yet surprisingly almost never finds its way into the mass media (I think the Indian media has figured out quite smartly that information is power only as long as it's sort of private). However, it is a circuit where if you get connected to even a minor node in the system, you can access a substantial amount of political information and gossip.
In fact, in Delhi you can practically breathe political gossip by just being at the right place at the right time (and no, don't bother getting on the IIC waitlist - you'd have better luck scouting random panwallahs outside political party offices).
The coming of the internet has of course altered this playing field somewhat - how much I have no idea. Suddenly you have this cyber bazaar that provides a great avenue for gossip, speculation and conspiracy theories, while affording relative anonymity that emboldens you and makes you a little less vary of consequences.
This is essentially what the War for News website sort of was with respect to the world of Indian media - except there was very little information and gossip of consequence being transacted and just mostly a lot of speculation about the sexual lives of journalists (you'd have to wade through hundreds of comments about who's sleeping with whom before you'd get one comment about who's making deals with whom).
I really like to follow some of the more interesting and complex conspiracy theories that have been floating around in this cyber bazaar of ours. Two of them, which were sort of the impetus for this post were the ones related to the death of Benazir Bhutto. It's been fascinating to read comments in Pakistani politics and intelligence forums because they are thick with arguments and counterarguments about who and why. In contrast to the Western media (which turns to its old standby al Qaeda), the clear favourite of the Pakistani conspiracy theorists is either ze General and the intelligence types, or ze fundos among the intelligence types acting on their own.
Another interesting conspiracy theory discussion that has all the features of bazaar intrigue is the role of bankers, the financial industry and Federal Reserve in manipulating the American economy and influencing political decisions - including the Iraq war. Regardless of where I stand with respect to the role of big finance in the government, the most enlightening aspect of the entire exchange has been learning about the characteristics of the US Federal Reserve and how it differs from other central banks around the world.
Another discussion that's pretty big among those paranoid about loss of sovereignty is the buzz around the Amero, the so called single currency modeled on the Euro that is supposed to herald a supra-national American Union uniting the countries of North America. The American government has repeatedly clarified that no such currency has ever been planned or is anticipated in the future. But the conspiracy theorists point out that the European politicians had gone blue in the face denying the Euro before the discussions had made some headway. All this is fascinating stuff - if anything I doubt the Canadians would want to trade their dollars for this mythical Amero given how strong their currency is right now.