The author Anna Pavord says in a moving documentary about living space, “Space is our best defence to an increasingly aggressive world.” It is perhaps curious that spaces, particularly spaces of freedom, are often associated with open, public spaces, of commute, dissonance, people, commerce, which is why so many demonstrations of freedom emerge in the same realm.
The history of space and freedom is the history of modernity, the history of old cities breaking the barriers of elusiveness and liberation for the common man, from city barriers and fortifications to the creation of gardens and public houses of expressions, creation of streets where things could flow freely, wide boulevards, lower awnings, monuments of liberalism — educational institutions, private enterprise, court houses, museums. Throughout history, and the evolution of the modern thinking human, unusual spaces have existed wherever human craftiness and imagination have allowed them to exist, as adaptable and fluid as people have willed them to be.
Gardens are among the few remaining vestiges of humankind’s creativities, and luxuries, in the past of kings and aristocrats, and today of people who live in and around gardens. As Virginia Woolf puts it in Kew Gardens , gardens are important because they are repositories of our past lives.
Perhaps not so rationally, when I think of freedom, I think of the freedom of choosing colours, to be able to blend and stand out, breathe and perish whenever one chooses to. Consider Woolf’s use of the colour ‘green’ in her story ‘Blue and Green’. She takes a shard of glass, pours green down it, places animate and inanimate objects around it, makes the grass glisten, runs camels through mirages, flops frogs over, and sets unbroken stars; all before the night seeps in with its shadows and “blots of blue”, ending the saga of the ‘green’. Colours can do wonders for the soul, and it can rip apart the ordinary to create fleeting spectres of what our lives could be, or who we can be today, with the freedom to make the green vanish suddenly into blots of blue. Unusual spaces stolen out of the preserves of what we know and imagine have terrific possibilities. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee, credited with ending the Second Liberian Civil War by leading a women’s peace movement, started to bring together young girls ravaged by war and abuse, to a shared space of a community, scaling up the comfort and space of a single room into wider rural communities of trust and commitment, where girls are slightly more immune to fear and hopelessness. These are unusual spaces because they exist in places that have witnessed violence at unprecedented levels, and continue to do so, unusual because of the participants (the girls) who could have given up and didn’t, unusual because women like Gbowee create these spaces of freedom out of nowhere, quite like Woolf’s ‘blots of blue’, appearing magically out of ‘green’: urgent breakthroughs and unusual spaces for the abundantly free mind.
Shohini Sengupta is Senior Resident Fellow, Corporate Law and Financial Regulation, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy