You’re solid until you’re gone

On Studio Oleomingus' daring interventions into India's past, present, and future

May 4, 2023 / Nikhil Murthy

You probably saw something about the Partition of India in last year’s Ms. Marvel. There’s just no way to understand the scale of this catastrophe. Fourteen to eighteen million people left their homes behind. Over a million died. When the subcontinent achieved Independence, the lines for the two countries were drawn by Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had never been East of Paris. He did it in five weeks, upturning scores with the strokes of his pen.

You can read the facts and see the numbers, but that doesn’t bring you any closer to understanding. Two of my uncles lived in Delhi as Independence happened. During the violence, they tried to hide a couple of kids in a cupboard. It’s not a lot to ask that you can save two small children. The mob came through the house and found them. They killed those children in front of my uncles. They told my uncles that they would have killed them, too, had my uncles been North Indian. They said that South Indians couldn’t understand. I don’t understand.

Ram Navami was a few days ago. This marks the birth of Rama, the seventh Avatar of Vishnu and the favorite deity of the Indian right wing. As a side note, no one flattens the beauty and complexity of Hinduism more than the right wing. They try to make a monolith out of thousands of years of practices and so excise many of the more interesting aspects of the culture they avowedly protect. You cannot understand the evolution of religion without accounting for this; the way it morphs to clearly define who lies within and who lies without. This is why the last Ram Navami had Hindutva groups playing Hindu prayers and Islamophobic pop songs outside mosques.

Near my house is a lake called Sankey Tank. It was built in 1882 by Col. Richard Sankey of the Madras Sappers as a safeguard against water shortages. I’ve walked around that lake for over 20 years of my life. I go there three or four times in a normal week. It’s the best place for a small walk near my house and it has gotten worse to walk in every year. There’s always some half-done eyesore in the middle of it. Currently, it’s screws for lamp posts without the lamp posts they deserve. 40% of the money paid for development in this area goes towards bribes.

We need beauty to counter the brutality of hatred, a brutality stoked by people who want and benefit from a banal world.

Recently, the local BJP government, the same government that drives so much of Hindutva, proposed a flyover through the lake and the widening of the road next to it. When a few locals held a peaceful march to protest this, the police booked criminal cases against 70 of them. I missed that march. I had a lot going on then, and I just didn’t have the capacity to go to a political protest. I haven’t tracked down the citizens’ body in charge of Sankey Tank yet. This is a very important, very local issue to me, and yet I cannot make time for it.

People make the time to provoke Muslims on one of the biggest days of their year. You cannot say that this isn’t important to them. Religion matters a lot to many people, and violence of this nature is inextricable from it. Hinduism is no exception.

This particular tactic has a long history. My field of interest is the Indian Independence Movement, and Hindu groups have provoked Muslims in this way at every step. It’s natural to see the Independence Movement as one of the Indian nationalists’ against the British Raj. Still, it’s just as important to see it as a struggle amongst ourselves, a struggle to ensure the rights of the marginalized in the subcontinent, whether through religion or caste. That axis has seen far less success far more opposition from within. The one against the Raj is over; the one in ourselves still needs to be fought.

It’s a poor and shallow struggle that has no art in it. We need beauty to counter the brutality of hatred, a brutality stoked by people who want and benefit from a banal world. Oleomingus makes beautiful games. They take a palette and architecture with history and make the future of games from them. These are games rooted in the fabric of Indian life and that sense of place makes them radical in a universe that too easily blends together. When you see the toothpaste in A Museum of Dubious Splendors, there’s only one place that it could have come from.

22.720365, 75.852747 (2023) | In the Pause Between Ringing (2019)

Video games do not merely center the colonial protagonist;  they make colonial systems concrete in their mechanics. Oleomingus’ games are a necessary intervention towards an industry that has calcified, not out of malice, but merely a lack of imagination.

Not only are they imaginative in setting, in prose, and in visuals, but these are also games that do the masterful trick of making the player more imaginative. The most incredible part of their games is that they are wonderfully mystical but never fall into the Oriental fantasy. Games tend to treat the East as a backdrop, in front of which the white main characters can act, never as a place in which native people live. Instead of that shallow trope, Oleomingus delivers something much more fantastic, something surreal, evocative, and magical but with the solid foundations of the indigenous histories and traditions that they draw from. Folds of a Separation is not a game of the larger-than-life white hero but instead a small story about healing a hurt done by such a figure.

This is a necessary antidote to the brutal simplicity the modern day pushes us into. Every day, there is less space to be an individual, less space to be a person as the systems we live under push us into boxes that get ever smaller and more rigidly defined. 

I don’t know if you know that India is broken. It’s tempting to see Modi as just another piece of the global puzzle, as maybe another Bolsanero or Erdogan or even a Trump or Tory, as just another part of a global right-wing  movement. He might even be the same as the rest, I can’t speak to the reality of other countries. It’s immaterial to do so. The banality of evil is such that it flattens the experience of life. The games of Studio Oleomingus make us whole again.

Video games do not merely center the colonial protagonist;  they make colonial systems concrete in their mechanics.

There has been a collapse in India, of the government and of the people that choose it. Whether this has been a slow collapse or a fast one, I cannot say, but it has been a complete one. There have been dozens of criminal cases filed against people putting up posters in Delhi. An actor was arrested for a tweet. Rahul Gandhi, the most high-profile member of the opposition, was convicted by a court on the most farcical of charges. The Indian people are far too welcoming of a dictator. Mein Kampf is always a bestseller here.¹

As people making art in this space, we all try to stay too small to notice, too small to be hit. I fear the jails that Folds of a Separation speak of, just as I lament the separations of India today. We are too easily put into categories meant not to find common ground, but to define spaces of exclusion. There is no space in the common grounds for dissent and so there is no space for dreams.

I have three facts that I want to give you, an American reader, from my armchair here in Bangalore. (i) The tax on tea that prompted the Boston Tea Party was meant to bail out the British East India Company, the same company that started the colonization of India. (ii) The American Revolution directly caused the ruler of Mysore State, now the state of Karnataka in Modern India, to go to war with the British in India, during which he routed their forces at Pollilur with rocket artillery. Copies of those rockets were used by the British army in 1812, now immortalized as “the rocket’s red glare.” (iii) The end of the American Civil War resulted in the legal emancipation of 4 million human beings in the United States and also a recession in India as the demand for uniforms disappeared and with it, the biggest market for Indian textiles.

There are lines connecting all of us. Innumerable lines, invisible lines, and lines of every other kind as well. There is only one thing that all of these lines have in common and that is that they exist and will continue to do so forever. It’s in an exhibition like this that you can remember this to be true.

Right now, I remember the house that was here before the house I’m in right now. We moved to Bangalore in 1999 with the explicit intention of replacing the building that was there. There are probably only two people that remember that house, my father and I. My brother was too young when it was demolished and everyone else has passed. There are a lot of memories that are in this house now. This is where I grew up. More people will remember this house should the government choose to demolish it as they’ve done to so many others. When you read about a house bulldozed in the paper, it is just a line of text. It holds no weight.

Right now, this house around me feels solid. It shows its age in a lot of ways. The ceiling is damp. There’s mold in the bathroom. Everything is covered in dog hair. The house is still solid though. It has weight. When you read about a house demolished, it’s not your home.

The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Place marks the demolition of Babri Masjid, the culmination of a campaign by the BJP, the party now ruling the country. They went across the country, whipping up a mob that eventually destroyed the 16th Century mosque. Thousands of people died in the riots that followed, riots encouraged by the man who is now India’s Prime Minister. I imagine that the mosque felt solid too. Nothing feels quite as substantial now.

World over, you’re strong until you’re weak. You’re solid until you’re gone. When I play Edible Place, I think about how you can go from one to the other in the blink of an eye. It was true for the Masjid. Maybe it can be true of these fascists as well.

The Indifferent Wonder of Edible Places (2019)

## Colonial Mechanics

The Great Game of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is a good entry point to the spirit animating the colonization of India. The idea of Asia as a board on which the Russians and British maneuvered for control and in which the British felt they were bound to win through their pluck and stiff upper lip, and honest sense of fair play. We all have our blind spots. The bigger one here, though, is that these areas are not a pitch on which one plays, they are places in which people live, yet this framing is familiar to anyone who plays games now. Sport and the games that follow it have clear rules, boundaries, and winners and losers.

Games tend strongly towards growth for the sake of growth, towards determinism, and most of all towards a lack of true consequence for the players. From here, we quickly get to the end justifying the means. A chess win is worth the same number of points no matter how you achieve it. The board doesn’t care whether 90% of the court survives or only 10%.

The games of Oleomingus add a desperately needed nuance to a medium that too often falls into a narrative of good and bad guys and good guys who are good not for what they do, but who they are and who they are is always the player themselves.

Colonialism lived off boiling down things to simple numbers and then trying to push those numbers up, as do the neocolonial, capitalist systems that define today. We need games with complications and yet games with quiet in a world that is bombastic and abridged. We need games with something to say that isn’t encompassed by the status quo. Thankfully, we have the games in front of you now.