Clogged – I

April 10, 2013

I lost your watch, but I kept track of our time,

Our time together,

And our time together when we were not together.

I lost your watch, but I kept track of our time,

The time when we walked into Connaught Place and fussed about what we could find to wear together,

What we could wear together to remind ourselves of our love, our bond, our time away from each other, and yearn for the time when we’d eventually be together.

I lost your watch, but I kept track of our time.

Our time together was filled with child-like joy and love

Times in darkness, times at the tea stall sipping lal cha,

Times in wonderment and times in agony.

We were made for each other.

I lost your watch, but I kept track of our time.

I wish I had not.

I wish I had not kept track of our time because memories are so painful, and with time, they either grow in power or erode slowly.

I lost your watch but I kept track of our time,

The time has passed. You have moved on. 

I am clogged. 

I lost your watch, but I wish I had lost time earlier … … …

Right to the City? – Rethinking Urbanization, Urban Restructuring, Change and How the City is Accessed Physically and Symbolically …

October 30, 2008

David Harvey published his piece “Right to the City” in the New Left Review Issue of September-October 2008. Briefly, he describes the capitalist process and how the city has been the space for investing surplus capital. Specifically, this is done through the constant construction boom, be it housing or infrastructure creation. Harvey is suggesting that the global crises which has affected cities across the world (also because these cities were deeply implicated in the conditions that produced the crisis) is now offering an opportunity for the marginalized “classes” of the world to come together and take control of the “surpluses” which are generated at the expense of the cities. He proposes that if the marginalized people across the world were to unite, they could probably demand a human right to the city which goes beyond merely accessing individual urban resources. The right to the city involves re-creating ourselves in the process of re-creating our cities, in consonance with the higher values of equality and social justice.

 

The above is a very, very brief summary of Harvey’s article, as I read it. I have been thinking about this article for a while, especially Harvey’s ideas and his use of certain concepts like capital, labour, finance capital and markets, to arrive at some of the conclusions in the article and for elaborating some of the arguments that he is making against private property. Let me try to dissect this article bit by bit and present some of my ideas which have emerged from the fieldwork that I have been conducting in Bangalore and Mumbai and partially in Delhi.

 

I think that we are living in a time of change. This change often appears to be very sweeping, almost wiping off the ground beneath our feet (ground being both physical and symbolic). We are also living in a time where we are bombarded with information and as Prem Chandavarkar recently pointed out in a forum, we are unable to attend to all this information at once. We are somehow more inclined to attend to urgencies and crises. We are also living in a time when the change is brought about because of crises such that change and crises seem interchangeable. Hence, I suggest that the challenge before us is to attend to the change and crises in their most minute details.

 

The city is also no longer the same entity which we used think of fondly. I remember, not so long ago, when I was this wandering researcher in Mumbai who wrote about the city and its everyday life with a sense of passion and romance. And then came the construction boom, which Harvey refers to in his article, and we saw old built structures being razed to the ground, the mill lands converted into luxury apartments, and the springing up of shopping malls. It seemed like everything old about the city was rapidly being wiped off and the city was becoming this alien entity, or, as Harvey puts it, the space where surpluses of capital were being generated.

 

In this frenzied pace of change, the poor were being pushed out of the city, to its edges, almost being invisibilized. When thinking about the urban poor and the city, we either tend to veer towards the ‘social justice’ angle or we think of the poor as ‘illegal encroachers’ who occupy urban spaces and are then, under the restructuring of the city, given individual houses for free.

 

I want to suggest that in this frenzied and often violent pace of change (and crises), we pay attention to the way in which people are trying to access the city. When I say “accessing the city”, I mean establishing physical presence in the city, consolidating presence, and developing belongingness (to put it very crudely). Very often, as Asef Bayat has explained in the case of the urban poor in Iran, the urban poor access physical space in the city and other urban services, in very quiet, ordinary and subtle ways. Harvey’s idea of the revolution as a means of instituting “justice” emerges from a fixation with a city of the past and from an assumption of the “marginalized” and the “urban poor” as a homogenous, composite and harmonious community.

 

Let me bring here some of what I heard, saw, read and narrated to me during my fieldwork in Bombay in June-July this year. Certainly, in many areas that I visited, slum rehabilitation projects undertaken by the slum rehabilitation authority (SRA) and private builders were rampant. Just right then, many potential slum resettlement and housing projects were being rapidly stalled because of the excess of slum TDR in the property markets. To explain briefly, many builders look to buying Transfer of Development Right (TDR) certificates because it allows them to construct more floor space than is otherwise allowed by the regulations. TDR has been scarce and therefore highly valuable. In Bombay’s property markets this year, the market was over-flooded with slum TDR certificates which are sold by builders who provide “free housing” to the slum dwellers in lieu of excess TDR given to them by the government. I was struck by this development because it forced me to think about how value around land is created and how this value is never constant, even though it may appear fixed for a certain period of time. This incident provoked me to delve deeper and understand the social, political, cultural and economic relations that develop around land and property. These relations are emerging from time to time, sometimes deeply entrenched in power, sometimes radically transformed under moments of crises but always evolving because existing people are consolidating their positions and new entrants are coming in, changing the relations and the equations on the bases of which these relations were created.

 

The newspapers also at that time reported how the government of Maharashtra was offering higher TDR to builders who would rehabilitate slum dwellers residing on and around the Santacruz domestic airport land. I surveyed some of the slums in these areas and saw that slum dwellers residing in different parts of the area had formed cooperative societies by mobilizing an old law/rule which allows slum dwellers to negotiate with builders and also undertake self-development if they form cooperative societies. Does one capture this move in terms of “social movements” or “collective action” which is what Harvey would be prone to do? I argue that the language of “social movements” and “collective action” cannot be applied to this situation because despite the formation of cooperative societies, not all the slum dwellers were on equal par with each other. They had come together at a moment, whether their move had emerged from emergency or precaution or calculated action. If a builder were to come tomorrow and start negotiating with the individual cooperatives, there would likely emerge elements from within and from outside who would want to stake all kinds of claims over the land parcels. Thus, in a meeting where an organization was educating some of the slum dwellers about how to negotiate their re-housing terms with the builders, some of the women started mentioning how those residents who had established their dwellings after 1995 and after 2000 were using the re-housing opportunity to obtain documents that would help them consolidate their claims over the land. These women also spoke of the trust and mistrust that developed during the various phases of negotiations with the builders that produced strange forms of alliances and opposition between people of the same area. This shows how individuals and groups are plugging into crises to consolidate their claims in ways that are not apparent to those of us who theorize about their lives and actions.

 

I hold strong reservations against Harvey’s central idea of the “human right to the city”. I argue that this notion of a right closes/fails to recognize the multiple avenues and mediums by which people try to negotiate their access to the city. It is presumed that by granting a right, you streamline people’s access to the city. But the city is not a controllable entity. It is an evolving space. And this space evolves through the mobilization of graft and of circuitries of power, politics and the state that may not appear legitimate and righteous to those of us observing from the outside. Let me narrate here the final case to illustrate my point. I refer to “housing rights” which are supposed to ensure that the poor and the marginalized get secure and dignified housing space and access to land. Much has been written about the rehabilitation and resettlement of slum dwellers under the road development projects in Mumbai. The rehabilitation process and the quality of housing provided to the former slum dwellers have been criticized. What I found interesting in one of my visits to one such rehabilitation housing colonies was how people were using the space within the house and in the open areas within the colony to carry out various kinds of economic and commercial activities. In this case, slum dwellers were given a house, in a sense a clear “property” but that awarding of property – bounded, legal space – did not prevent the way in which the space was reconfigured by individuals and some groups. Some of the women in this colony began squatting on the streets to sell vegetables; they were reported against for violation of property regulations. The new leaders from the community, some of them “transformed” in interesting ways from their older avatars, began to negotiate with the municipality to let the women retain their access to the space and continue with their livelihoods. The language of housing rights is couched in two assumptions: one of a bounded, legal space which will guarantee security and second, the housing right imagines the house in terms of ownership and not in terms of tenancies. Land accessed in various ways by individual and groups is viewed as “insecure” – certainly, it is an insecure process, but if the avenues through which these persons can negotiate their multiple claims over the land are widened/kept open, then that insecurity can turn into a resource for the city.

 

I therefore contend that instead of conceptualizing access to the city in terms of rights, we think of how those spaces through which people develop belongingness towards the city and ownership of the city be examined. This can prove to be a resource to conceptualize urbanity and contemporary cities. The ghost of restructuring in Chinese cities, which is now being excavated and demystified, is daunting our imagination of what is going on in our cities. But what is really going on in our cities is much more than what meets the eye (or the mind’s eye). It is time to think of the city anew, not in terms of a city of some harmonious past which Harvey seems to romanticize!

 

Random Thoughts From the Fingers

July 27, 2008

It’s a Sunday today. I sit down, or let’s say, I laze around, thinking about what time means. At a time when I am caught up with deadlines, I see time going away and it is a feeling of pleasure to let the time slip away. It is that feeling of wicked pleasure where I tell myself,

‘To hell, I don’t want to be a slave to time!’

And as I think about time, I am swept into a feeling of timelessness because I count the primary asset that I hold – my friendships. Let’s talk a little bit more about this timelessness and friendship puzzle.

So here I was, on a Sunday, weeping about my vulnerabilities, and P popped up on chat. It was a Sunday where I had gripped myself in this paranoid belief that if I do not finish what I have been superficially trying to finish writing, I won’t be able to face the world. At a time when I should be holding my time carefully in order to work out my Ph.D. systematically, I let that time go. I let myself go with the time in the hope and expectation that when things are to happen, they will certainly happen. But all these certainties are so uncertain. And all these thoughts, though profound, require a great deal of practice to make life profoundly real.

So time slips away. And P appears on chat and I suddenly feel swept by timelessness. I feel like the beggar who is seeking succour. And who appears to provide me with not just succour, but a feeling of hope! It is a friendship that developed from nowhere and that can lead to anywhere.

Nowhere-anywhere-somewhere …

Living in a city where you do not know whether you really belong here because we are all in search of our respective homes, friendships can mean a lot. Sometimes, these very friendships are burdens to bear. Sometimes, these very friendships are anchors that enable us – to hold ourselves, to realize ourselves and to hold on when the going is tough. Sometimes, these very friendships are a bitch and sometimes, we are bitches. But when I think of my life, I find that these friendships are what I have fallen back on from time to time. Each one is special, and each one is different. Each one enriches my life in particular ways.

On those days when my heart is heavy or when everything seems so cloudy that I cannot navigate any further, it is these friendships which come to my rescue. And at a time when I am trying to define my life somewhat, I believe that what is needed is more friendships because these are my ultimate resort, my greatest investments that will see me in good stead.

This morning, when I was caught in the grips of mundane time and worrying time (also known as future), what transported me into timelessness was that chat with P. I was reminded once again that there is abundance in the world – I am only required to seek it.

[Random thoughts on a Sunday …]

In the midst of blasts and fireworks across cities …

July 26, 2008

(I write in the spirit of my words and in submission of myself to my vulnerabilities and to the present …)

One blast here,

One there,

One everywhere.

Today here,

Tomorrow there.

One blast here

And one blast there.

So that is what we, in various parts of the world, have been hearing about in the last two days. And yet, the indifference on my skin remains. It only thickens. But I remain sensitive to more mundane issues that concern me/bother me/sit on my mind/nag me. And what is sitting on my mind as of now, is that beautiful feeling of vulnerability and the thought of what it means to be vulnerable in the city. The feeling of vulnerability is beautiful as of now because I write in the solitude of music, my words and my difficult and vulnerable self, shut off from the noise of the blasts and of the noise of the crowds that existed in my space a while ago.

So we (i.e. me and myself and my difficult self and my vulnerable self) write about vulnerability in a city. As there is no ‘city’ in the sense that we each make our own city and carve our own niches that we eventually call ourselves and city, so also there is no one universal feeling of vulnerability. Let me lay out some of the many vulnerable feelings that I feel from time to time these days:

a). Being woman in a live-in relationship with my boyfriend and a strange battle that has been going on between my mind, my boyfriend and his family;

b). Being somewhat unemployed and attempting to work through meaningful relationships rather than work for money only (and that darn inflation);

c). Taking the courageous risk of getting a house for myself in this city in the middle of my unemployment, an act that I am experiencing as a leap of faith, sometimes a great feeling and sometimes a scary feeling;

d). The destiny of being Muslim at a time when bombs burst in Bangalore and Ahmedabad and who knows where else …;

e). Figuring out the law and rules and regulations concerning various things and various relationships in a city whose language, both spoken and unspoken, I am still figuring out (what if I make mistakes …);

Now, this list might seem little, but then, it is a little too much on some days when I am unable to resist anymore. But hey, hey, this blog post is not about me. It is some kind of a random effort on my part to meander a little here, a little there and get to somewhere …

So, there are these vulnerabilities and on some days, when I feel vulnerable, it is terrible and on some days, that feeling of vulnerability is like the feeling of a warm chocolate melting in my mouth and sweetening my frizzy hair and the skin I wear on my person.

So what does one do when one is vulnerable? And that too vulnerable in a city? Well, well, it is not like I am “alone” here in this city. Despite being well connected, it is that feeling of not knowing the spoken and unspoken language of this city, that makes me feel vulnerable. And what happens when I feel vulnerable? I seek out people! And here is the story of one person that I have sought out in perhaps one of those subtle moments of vulnerability. This post is my account of that person, that person who is one more stranger in the city that I have tried reach myself out to, to hold her hand when she did not mean to extend one, and to express to her that in that moment of losing myself, when I found her, I found myself, that she helped me to hold myself together without even ever meaning to reach out me. I sought her, I reached out to her, and she did what she was expected to do – she responded!!!

So her name is V. She is my hair stylist. Now well, would it not be true for us, somewhat stylist urbane women, to reach out to our beauty parlours when we are dying with all those mad thoughts in our heads and don’t know where to go! Well, I was not in a mad state when I happened to meet V. I was very much sane, saner than what I am now.

I want a hair cut.

She smiles.

I want a hair cut.

She continues to smile.

Err, I need a haircut, where do I sit?

I am busy today.

So I will come in the afternoon.

I am busy then too.

So I will come tomorrow.

I don’t come to the parlour on Thursdays.

So when do I come?

Hang on, I will remove my diary,

and she removes her diary and asks if Friday is okay.

Tis’ okay, but I need a short haircut.

Open your hair. Hmmm … you need it cut in a way that you are able to leave it open. When you tie your hair, you look old.

Uh, well …

Okay, come on Friday, wash your hair before coming.

True her word and true to my time, I landed at the appointed hour and V began the snip trip across my hair. And we spoke. We spoke about my boyfriends and she spoke about how she lived at Bonga, the village which lies at the border of (now) Kolkatta and Bangladesh. I wonder whether the location of her home, along a border, is as coincidental as her present gender state which also lies at the border of male and female. But this was not a poetic coincidence for V alone, because, as I discovered in my conversations with her later, we each navigate the gender border without necessarily having to be in a phsyical state of being transgender. As V mentioned to me towards the end of the snip trip,

There is nothing male and female. It’s all there, at different times in our very lives …

On leaving her parlour after the first snip trip aka hair cut, I asked myself about borders. And then, in the midst of those blasts and fireworks in Bangalore yesterday and Ahmedabad today, I realized that we have all traveled the borders of life and death; we have all been at the border of chance, of fate, of destiny and of luck. And we continue to be …

On my next snip trip, when the vulnerabilities were gripping me and I was on the border of sanity and insanity, I went off to V’s and announced:

This time, I want a crop cut, like those soldiers who have just about enough hair on their heads.

No, you can’t have that. You will look funny. Let me see. We give you some other look.

Okay, then you decide,

I said, handing over my hair and some parts of myself to V in a manner of trusting her. So how many times is it that we can trust strangers in the city? But then, V was someone who I somehow liked a lot, and could hand myself over to. I could not hand myself over in the same way to the agent who was just trying to sell me a house which was built in violation of the city’s bye-laws …

So, I liked that house but it was all violated property V. How could I get it?

Yeah, I have landed into a similar situation. You know that builder took my token money and then, I figured that he had no sanctions. And guess what, he was a Hindu, believing in Lakshmi! He said, ‘Ma, I will never cheat you!’ So I said okay. Then, we had to go through a meandering procedure where I had to register myself as part landholder and we created a document which even the sub-registrar’s office had no mention of in the rule book. But then, we made a new rule and the sub-registrar said, ‘Well, we do it we do it!’

I listened to V and at that time, when the vulnerabilities of getting a place called house/apartment/home were high with all the accompanying vulnerabilities of not knowing the law, the rules, of the possibility of being ‘cheated’ and of managing all this headache of getting a place in midst of not fully knowing the spoken and the unspoken language of this city … aaaaaarrrrrrrrrrggggggggggghhhhhhhhhh. And then, I do not remain the only one who goes through this, I felt as I heard V. What a mad, strange, and bitch that desire is to have a ‘place’!!?!!? V also expressed that bitch of a desire to me when she remembered her days of working at Bandra in Bombay:

Oh, even today, I tell my cousin, don’t remind me of leaving Bombay. I don’t want to remember it at this point in my life when I know I cannot go back and when I cannot any longer hold that regret. You know, when I was working at the saloon in Bandra, the maid there had told me, ‘give me ten thousand rupees, and I will get you a jhopda on the seaface.’ I did not believe her. I said no. She insisted and even said that she would take care of it for me. I said no because who would live among these people? No, no, not me! And ten years later, when I went to the same place, I saw, her jhopda on the seaface was now a full fledged building. Damn me!

So on my next snip trip, V and I chatted less. But I only watched, her untold and undying faith in Lakshmi. She had held on to Lakshmi, and I, without her knowing and without her permission, had held on to her. It felt wonderful. She would take the fragrant smoke in her hand and wrap it around her face. She would start her day and the parlour with this ritual. And then, when her colleague came and removed some cash from her pockets and said that this had come to her today, V calmly said, while holding my hair in her hand,

It’s Friday and it’s Lakshmi. Good sign. Keep it maa.

I don’t have much to say about V at this point in my account. Let’s put it this way that I don’t want to say anything more about her. It would spoil all the warmth that I have nurtured for her in my heart. In a rational’s dictionary, I would be an emotional fool. In my city’s experience, I have just submitted and reached myself out in the comfort of another who has unknowingly helped me find myself.

I don’t know where this relationship with V will go. It may stop right here. It may go further or farther. But the warmth that I have experienced in these few encounters with V, I just want to today communicate that warmth and the good spirit to the present which is experiencing bomb blasts. And I remain optimistic and hopeful, that this warmth and good spirit, will enable us to reach out to one another, knowingly and unknowingly.

This remains my journey from vulnerability, to V, to goodwill, and I guess we all traverse these strange and beautiful paths …

To you I remain, the conduit of words and spirit.

On Freedom

July 9, 2008

This morning, I was standing at Richmond Circle, waiting for a bus. A man was moving around with a cloth bundle on one arm and one cloth piece in another. I looked at the cloth piece; it was the Kashmiri design. I immediately looked at the man’s nose because Kashmiris have a peculiar nose structure, though not all Kashmiris bear it. The nose structure was not unique, but I was certain that the man was Kashmiri. Immediately, another man came around, again with a cloth bundle on one arm and a piece in the other hand, demonstrating the goods he was carrying. This man was Kashmiri and both the men spoke the language.

On seeing them, the immediate thought, or rather the sight, that came to my mind’s eyes were those pictures that all of us have been seeing in newspapers on the front pages: mobs throwing stones and policemen/security personnel shelling tear gas and the headlines shrieking about the Amarnath Shrine controversy. So here are these Kashmiris again, these bunch of Muslims, who are demanding azaadi … But the idea of azaadi is not practical, right? That is what most people told me when I first returned back from the Valley and passionately spoke about how a group of people cannot be coerced into staying with a nation because of an idea of “national unity and integrity.” But that is a matter of discussion and of words for some other day. Today, I want to explore the notion of freedom. In the last 3-4 weeks, I have been coming across struggles, battles and fights, for freedom in varying forms.

Let me begin with myself then when I have to talk of freedom. It is interesting but I first experienced freedom when I went to Kashmir. Those muted figures of Indian soldiers on the roads, at every furlong, had made me so uncomfortable that when I reached G’s home, I felt like something was wrong and there was an uncomfortable feeling of claustrophobia that was gathering in me, like some form of noxious gas. G later helped me unearth the claustrophobic feeling by exploring it with me: we figured that the discomfort has emerged from the heavy presence of the army, which, even though it had done nothing to me, was still a discomforting factor. At that moment, I suddenly felt like heck, what a free life I live in Mumbai.

On landing in G’s house, I could not help but marvel at that large house with a garden and how there were so many rooms in the house. Rooms in the house? I had only known of kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room in that 55 sq. ft. house of ours in Bombay. And in that house of ours in Bombay, I struggled for every inch of private space. When my sister and I had started rebelling for our own space, we figured how we could never be able to afford our own space in Mumbai were we to live on our own. Freedom from home – that was such an elusive thought and yet, an idea that both of us nursed in our conversations at night and dreamt about it in our slumber, only to wake up next morning and find it distant, elusive and yet, so endearing. The rooms on G’s house – I can’t even remember how many there were and many which I had not known of. And here was G, complaining how he had established his space for himself – carved his freedom in those bricks, or rather in that door, which he kept shut always, indicating that people in the house should back off. Freedom – carved in bricks, set in concrete and shut by the door.

And then I land in Bangalore – well I am already here and still nowhere – and I hear of everyday squabbles, skirmishes, fights and battles for freedom – freedom from parents. Nah, I don’t mean to paint a nasty picture of that breed called parents, but what is most interesting in each of the squabbles, skirmishes, fights and battles between parents and children is that despite the squabbles, skirmishes, fights and battles, neither of the parties are perpetually free. What binds the two, parents and children, are a set of reactions where each one is responding from one’s own position of insecurity, of anger and of control. I don’t mean to state that freedom is never possible from parents, but that freedom has many shades where the freedom is not from the parents per se, but from the reactions that have come to define the relationship. I remember that when I first stepped into G’s room, my mind instantly raced back to the terrible battle of freedom that was going on inside me against my parents – I wanted my own space, physically and mentally – and how I hated my parents back then for ‘binding’ me to them. But as those days in Srinagar went by, I had realized that the root of every conflict lay in every home. And over time, as much as I have to feel grateful to my parents for their magnanimity and their understanding and to my teacher Goenkaji and my friends for enabling me to understand patterns of reactions and behavious, I still recognize that I am not free from several of the reactions that continue to define me as a person and the relationship between my parents and me.

Then I move into the streets in Bombay city and into the squatter settlements and in these are some of the subtle struggles for freedom – freedom from control of the state and battles for freedom from conditions of poverty. Within the power structures that shape the everyday life of squatter settlements, there are small and large negotiations taking place between various actors to carve out more space. There are struggles against the government for rights and for existence with dignity. There are struggles to move away from the controls of various groups in power. And there are struggles to increase the power of one over the other in order to attain a freedom that may seem illogical to those of us from the outside, but remains completely meaningful to those within the sphere.

Then I think of the many people in Bangalore, the professionals, who yearn to be free by having a stable job, a high income and an apartment. And yet, is that where freedom lies? I cannot be judgmental about what people perceive as their freedom because even in my maverick ways of living, I see myself as unfree. And in their stability too, people can be very much free!

If I were to stop writing, I’d end with one of things I have been discussing with a close friend for sometime now. In some of the circles that I am part of, there is the understanding that the availability of more choices implies freedom. Thus, because “the market” provides us with many things to choose from, we have the freedom to decide. The question is whether choice and freedom are synonymous? If you are left with options, does that invariably mean that you are free to choose?

I can’t say anything more. But I still think of the two Kashmiris I saw today in Bangalore, with cloth bundle on one arm and the Kashmiri suit piece on display in the other hand. And I still think of freedom and how it means so many different things to so many different people.

[This post is dedicated to Kashmir, my home and to Bombay, the place where my mind has thrived and developed without fear …]

The Idea and the Practice of a Slum

June 30, 2008

“Right there, right there!”
“Where? I can’t see the damn station. Where is it?”
“Right there, you walk past that little lane, you will hit the station.”
Grudgingly, I walked through the lane and lo and behold! I was at the platform of Govandi railway station. It just took me a little row of settlements and some open drains running by them to get to that wretched Govandi station (not to forget to mention, passing by some of the children playing around and that sole bhaiyya woman sitting idly).
Did I say wretched? Yes, wretched is the feeling I get when I am at Govandi station. Perhaps in my life, I must have been to Govandi station exactly six times. Of the four of those six times, I have traveled in the east of Govandi, towards the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). But the last two times, I have actually experienced the wretchedness of Govandi station, when I have had to get off platform number 1 and then go past all the squatter settlements, till I eventually get to the infamously famous Lallubhai Compound.

Wretched, Unpleasant …
Wretched, that wretched Govandi area! Yes, I can feel the skin on me … I can feel the anger and irritation rising in me, a feeling that I have rarely gotten as I have traveled the insides of some of the squatter settlements in Mumbai. It is not the squalor that produces that feeling of unpleasantness in me. Yes, there is squalor and squalor of the worst form that can be seen and experienced. The proximity of the squatter settlements to the city’s only functional garbage dump and to the city’s only abattoir makes the open drains and sewage in these slums the worst of their kind and nothing compared with the reasonably better off sewage facilities in most of the other slums in the city.
Squalor, yes! Squalor! But that is not the cause of the unpleasantness within me. Then, what is it?

Cut to Lallubhai Compound, between Govandi and Mankhurd:
Lallubhai Compound, here it is, or should I say there it is. Yeah, there it is, so much of what I was trying to imagine it to be and so much of the reality that I could see and tried to fathom. I was not sure what I should feel when I see the rows of cement buildings that make up this Compound. Housed in these rows of buildings are slum dwellers from various parts of Mumbai City – those whole lived near the railway stations of Kurla terminus, Chembur and Matunga; those who once had dwellings along the pavements of the famous P. D’Mello road near VT station; people from Byculla, Dadar, Parel, you name it – they are all housed here.

“That minister Nawab Malik got us to come here. He said that if we did not move here, we would even lose this house. Hence we came here.”
“We were living near the railway lines. Government decided to expand the railway lines and so, we moved here.”
“It was crazy when we first moved here. Felt like we had come to a village. My family was shunted out of Matunga and then we were made to live in the transit camps in Mankhurd for five long years till we eventually came here. There was initially a hill here. People went up on the hill and jumped off. They could not tolerate the loneliness. Only now, more people have come to live here and there seems to be some development.”

About 1.5 kilometers away from Govandi station is situated Lallubhai Compound, that infamously famous rehabilitation colony. For a moment, I almost think of the chawls in Parel area when I see the built environment here. The same noise, running around, tamashas on the street, shops below the buildings – it’s just so much Parel. And yet, it is not Parel. There is hustle and bustle, lot of activity on the roads, but it seems like Lallubhai can only be a world within its own self (but for now!). Unlike Parel where the self of the chawl is intermingled with the multiple selves of the city that manifest in various forms – the industrial estates, the media offices, the traffic, the locality of Lalbagh – in stark comparison to all of this, Lallubhai is isolated, despite being so close to the row houses just across the bridge which house the wealthier residents of Govandi.

“Lallubhai is a clear instance of the US housing projects for the poor. The poor were evicted from the city areas and placed at the outskirts of the city. Complete ghettoization.”

Could I say that Lallubhai is an instance of ghettoization, another import from the Americas into the urbs prima indis? Undoubtedly, Lallubhai is a ghetto, almost like people are being brought from the city and thrown away into some form of confinement. And yet, I would be condemned and damned if I were to say that people have been confined. Ground floor houses have been converted into shops, beauty parlors, English teaching classes and STD-PCO booths. People go back to the older neighbourhoods for work and for reaching their children to schools. Some of the residents have given up their homes for rent and have begun to live in the nearby squatter settlements or in and around their original places of residence.

I walk around the area. A thriving women’s hawker market has come up on the roads. I am told this is an “illegal” market because it is not certified by the municipality. The drains and rats between the buildings remind you of the house-gully situation in Null Bazaar where the settlers are harassed by the overflowing sewage between two buildings.
There are groups of unemployed boys loafing around the area. I am told that these have become frequent lately.
The rickshaw drivers make their killing each day – five rupees a seat for a one-way ride between Govandi station and Lallubhai. The local autorickshaw fellas seem like another socio-political group emerging in the area, they being camped around the naka which is their adda.
Then there are the various forms of groups and organizations that abound within Lallubhai – the women’s savings group, the hawkers’ federation, National Slum Dwellers’ Federation-Mahila Milan-SPARC – all housed within the same office premises of what is mentioned in bold as the Public Information Center.
There are financial networks woven within the social and political fabric of the area – the grain merchants, the jewellery shops which double up as lending and borrowing institutions, you name it.
There are social and political organizations that I am unaware of but which likely exist – the very networks that existed in the squatter settlements and that formed an important aspect of the everyday practice of a slum.
Isolated – ghettoized – confinement – sorry to disappoint, but the space of Lallubhai is only unfolding with time. The self is emerging …

Rethinking the Idea and Practice of a Slum …

“It’s good that people have been moved into these flats. They will learn to live in a sanitized environment. They will learn to live with dignity and respect.”

“They get more space than what they had in their little slums. This rehabilitation is benefiting the people.”

“It will take a while for the slum dwellers to learn to live here. They are not used to the vertical way of living.”

“The community has to learn to accept one and all. The lepers’ rehabilitation colony in Oshiwara is placed away from the rest of the rehab housing. People don’t want other groups to live around them. The community will have to learn.”

“Now, there are a lot of Muslims coming into this area as tenants. The Maharahstrians are reducing in numbers.”

By now, I have been going to all those areas in the city that I did not ever venture into while I lived here for 25 odd years. There are times when I pass through those unevenly lined row houses and I ask myself – why is this labeled a slum? By what standards are these well furnished houses within this apparently uneven settlement classed as slums?
It would be highly banal on my end to state that the idea of a slum is quite different from its practice. But let me state what I felt as I experienced Lallubhai compound. That visit to Lallubhai has made it clear to me a slum is not merely a physical structure as it might be projected in policy and media. The slum is a network and simultaneously many networks and several circuits – all these networks and circuits connected with the space of the city, with the locality and meshed into numerous scales of statedom and nationdom and globaldom. When people are “rehabilitated” into flats and built structures, some of the circuits and networks are severed but at the same time, other connections become stronger and some connections become even more oppressive than they previously were.
Consistently, I also hear remarks of how the slum dwellers had occupied the lands and have now gotten flats in return for free, that they are now living in sanitized conditions and their lives will improve and that they should learn to live in the flats rather than escape from there. The stories in Lallubhai betray all these notions. While some of the more upwardly mobile among this misleading category of “urban poor” benefit with the receipt of the house, for many other individuals and families, the receipt of the home could not be a greater curse. These have been families that have been in the bottom rung among the poor and that the house in Lallubhai for them is a liability more than an asset. For these groups, the monthly payment of electricity bills and maintenance fees coupled with increased transportation costs and the loss of their jobs or the lack of increase in salaries but rise in expenses, all of these factors lead us to rethink whether the house is truly a marker of improvement in their lives. And then there are several among those who never made it to Lallubhai despite living among the same populations who were to be ‘rehoused’ – the process of rehabilitation and the political dynamics are in no way equal for all – some get the house, some decide to move out, some are deprived, and much more than what I can know and tell … And as for the sanitized living, the more seen, the better – the poor garbage lifting facilities, the overflowing drains between the buildings, the lack of water until water is fought for as an entitlement, and the teeming rats – yes certainly, sanity and sanitation have to be rethought as much as the idea and practice of the slum have to be reconsidered.

Beyond …
That pervasive feeling of wretchedness and disgust continues within me until I reach Govandi station. It persists beyond as I pass Wadala, Chunnabhatti, Sewri, Dockyard and even further, into the passing days … It travels within me and beyond me. I am still thinking what the city is and how the city is continuously accessed, both symbolically and physically, from time to time …

Fort, Bombay – 400 001

June 23, 2008

Fort,
Bombay – 400 001.

Clean footpaths,
Spic and span,
Bombay – 400 001.

Clear,
Smooth,
Walkable,
No hindrances,
Bombay – 400 001.

But vendors operate,
Surreptitiously,
With their plastic thelas,
Wrapping up the bright blue plastic,
And running away with their wares when the municipality van comes around,
Bombay – 400 001.

“Three to four times a day,
the van comes,
these days.
Have to watch out
And then …
Bhag bhag bhag, abe bhag, gaadi aa gayi”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Is that not ruthless?
Three to four times a day?
What do they get by denying people the right to earn a decent living?”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Traditionally, citizenship has always been linked with property,
And more so in the recent times,
When you are a valid citizen only if you are own property,
And all those encroaching space are violators of the law,”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Wow, this area is all quiet, all empty,
and what time of the evening is it?
Only 7 PM?
The vendors would shut down at 9 and go back to their homes!”
Bombay – 400 001.

“But I remember,
When I was working here,
A decade ago,
There used to be these hutments on the footpath,
And we would come down in the afternoons,
And during the slack evening hours,
To watch TV,
Because the pavement dwellers were the only ones who had a public television!”
Bombay – 400 001.

And we walked,
“Hey, look there!
The TV is still there,
There,
Exactly there!
Just where it used to be,
Ten years ago!”
Bombay – 400 001.

And then as we walked further,
“And look there,
Can you see the squatters?
Their shanty homes still there,
In that walled little compound,
They used to be there when I was working in this area,”
Bombay – 400 001.

Hidden, yet evident
Those shanty hutments!
How people access the city?
How people make their claims,
On space,
To determine their livelihoods?
Political society – civil society …
Yakka yakka do!
Bombay – 400 001.

So what happens when a space is cleaned of its numerous claimants,
And clear owners of property are established?
Are the contests completely removed?
Does the space become irreversible?
Does clear, titled ownership reign supreme?
Bombay – 400 001.

Of property, claimed spaces and accessing the city

June 6, 2008

It is strange to feel a sense of communion with Bangalore city. In recent times, someone mentioned how he found Bangalore to be a flat city while Bombay was a city thick with stories. Perhaps those stories abound in Bangalore too, but I have isolated myself enough not to recognize them. One such story has been surfacing since the last two days and has gotten me thinking, once again, about space, about accessing the city, about urban land, and about the notions and practices of property.

It is indeed strange to feel a sense of communion with this city, this city which has since sometime been labeled as the epitome of fast paced and messy growth. “It is S. M. Krishna’s fault,” I am told, “He has brought the city to be the way it is today. He sold it to the real estate sharks and to the global land developers.” I wonder whether the story of today’s Bangalore is as simple as this. It is rhetorical to even make such a statement, but what needs to be stated is the fact that the story of this city is yet to be told, in all its thickness and richness. The story of this city is not all flat; it is the story of our times. I will try a little now …

So, it is absolutely strange to feel a sense of communion with this mad city called Bangalore. The airport has moved to 40 kms away from the city. The traffic is as bad as it could be. The city’s drains are already overflowing even with the wee bit of heavy showers. What is becoming of this city? That is the plaint with which civil society movements and organizations started in Bangalore, the city which is overflowing and teeming with the good governance and fight-corruption organizations. But that indeed is a flat paradigm of the city. I am confronted with the question of how do I understand and frame the notion and process of change?

Yes, it is indeed strange to feel one with this city, this city that is usually seen as a flat and a doomed-to-fail city. But it is not. It is a city which is at the crossroads of very important trajectories and what defines these trajectories are the contests and conflicts over accessing urban space. I was watching the Majestic area through the windows of the BMTC bus – every nook and corner of Majestic is occupied, legally and illegally. Sometimes, the illegal don’t even know that what they are engaging in is deemed illegal by law and planning. Everyone needs access to space – space, both metaphorically and physically. Booksellers on the footpath, pirated VCDs and pornographic material, bags, shoes, clothes, security services, banking services, pawnbrokers, jewellers, restaurants, hotels, malls at the side of the roadside messiness and occupied spaces – in Bombay they call this cheek by jowl. In Bangalore, I would say that the different times of the city co-exist in Majestic area and beyond. Different groups of people and individuals have occupied space, some nook, some corner, some cranny. And there are occupations and professions that exist in this area which are hidden from the eye but very much located in this geography. Majestic reminds me of a different time in the city. Yes, there are plots on which malls are being constructed in Majestic too and in a few years, the malls will be there unless something drastic happens. But what you see in Majestic is the existence of all kinds of time streams – yesterday, today and tomorrow. That yesterday is not disintegrated from today and tomorrow; it is intimately connected. And that yesterday will be shaped by today and tomorrow just as much as today and tomorrow will be shaped by yesterday. The physicality and the mortality of yesterday may disappear, but yesterday itself cannot disappear. Majestic says this to me as I observe the hectic and frenzied pace of urban space in this part of Bangalore.

As I move from Majestic into Rajajinagar, I am further surprised. Rajajinagar appears much more insular than the Richmond Town area that I live in. It appears that Rajajinagar is living in a time of its own. Photographs of Dr. Rajkumar, the famous cinestar whose death rocked the city, abound in this area. Rajkumar seems absolutely alive and kicking in the spirit of Rajajinagar. Perhaps, his presence even defines the locality of Rajajinagar and marks this space as distinct from other parts of the city. A strong feeling of Kannadiga-ness envelops you if you walk carefully through the area – the sounds, sights, smells, scenes- they strongly remind you that you are in the state of Karnataka of which Bangalore is an important geographical party and symbolic aspect. A subtle sense of the Kannada nation grips you as you walk preceptively, a feeling that is distinct and particular to this area. Now, with the Bangalore Metro expected to run through this area, one will have to wait and watch to see what processes the notions and practices of modernity, locality, community, urbanity, nation and globalization will generate.

Clearly, what has been most interesting about this form of participant observation across the Western parts of the city is the ways by which people have occupied urban space. At Magadi, as we see the hectic and frenetic construction of an underpass, we also simulataneously note that under the trees, there are people who are making and selling bamboo curtains. At Majestic, one notices fruit-cake kind of constructions that were certainly not planned, but created over time, through various networks of politics, graft, deception, illegality, identity and finance. Rajajinagar abounds with spaces that are known in our parlance as “neeche dukan, upar makaan”, again a form od practice that planning defies as illegal and that is increasingly coming under scrutiny with the construction of the Metro Rail. These are spaces which are being practiced variously and in ways that may not be recognnized by urban planning and law. They exist and yet, there is a strong feeling that runs through a large number of us that eventually, these spaces may be destroyed, taken over, annihilated and subsumed. Urbanity is being conceived as this process of the big fish eating the small and the small eating the smaller. The question is whether the current stream of urbanization requires much more intense attention to the processes that are taking place, irrespective of outcomes, if we are to nuance our understanding of change, growth, future, ‘development’?

As I moved into Nagarbhavi, I noticed that virgin properties which were once rocky lands, are now being constructed over. The pace of construction in the area is tremendous. I realized that the potential construction of the Bangalore Metro Rail around Vijaynagar will lead to property prices rising in and around the interiors of West Bangalore. I recognize that this is one of the ways in which property markets develop. The question that arises is whether the growth of property markets, the conversion of multiply claimed spaces into single ownership and title deeds that can be traded between people ‘legally’, is an irreversible process? Are the trajectories of cities defined? How do we conceive of the future? How does one draw on the past to understand and conceive the future? I begin with these questions and many more …

It is absolutely strange, yet wonderful, to feel a sense of communion with the city. It is an enabler, one that allows you to see the city as an organic entity that has life and is not a determined/controlled mass of space …

Walking in time

May 16, 2008

Between now and then,

We walk in time.

I walked in time.

(Half a kilometer),

(On Langford Road).

I walked,

In Time,

Between Time,

In myself,

Between my-selves,

I walked in time.

Sometimes in the Past

I walked.

Sometimes in the Present,

(Present!!!),

Future tense (haha!).

Future tense,

Present:

I walked in time.

(Half a kilometer),

(On Langford Road).

[I walked,

In Time,

Between Time,

In myself,

Between my-selves …]

Making Pictures of Mother Mary and her son Infant Jesus,

(Wondering how people practice their faith,

What do they put their faith into?)

Where is my faith?

Where is my trust?

I walked in time.

Between time.

Within myself,

Between my-selves.

Wondering what faith was all about …

Wondering what I was all about.

Wondering what I am made of,

Wondering what people are made of.

Back in time,

(Just a little bit)

I danced to California Dreaming

I fought

With myself,

Shedding a few tears,

As I sat with complete strangers who were trying to help me pay my electricity bill (haha!)

And I kept fighting with myself,

They were struggling with their machines,

Trying to help me pay my electricity bill,

While I kept fighting with myself

And dancing to California Dreaming

Fighting with myself,

Dancing to California Dreaming

Fighting with myself,

Dancing to California Dreaming

Fighting with myself,

Dancing to California Dreaming

Fighting with myself,

Dancing to California Dreaming

Fighting with myself,

Dancing to California Dreaming

Until the bill was paid

And I cried

And gave in to myself.

I am vulnerable.

Breakable.

Walking in time,

I am vulnerable,

Breakable,

Malleable.

Walking in time,

I danced,

I Cried,

Paid the electricity bill,

Enlightened myself.

As Garth Brooks says, “The greatest conflicts are not between between two people, but between one person and himself.”

Making conversation … Relating … Anxiety of Silence

May 16, 2008

All the leaves are brown …

I write listening to California Dreaming by Mamas and Papas. Nothing could be more appropriate than this.

All the leaves are brown …

So these days, as I take stock of myself and everything around me, there are things and issues that I think about and feel amused about and muse about …

Making conversation is one such issue that I have been thinking about. Ah, the joys and anxieties of making conversation …

You wonder whether you are being stupid, you wonder whether you are coming across as smart, you wonder whether you will run out of things to say, you wonder when there will soon be a silence …

(Dreaded Silence!!!!)

Will the silence be short?…

Will it live long?…

Will you have anything to say soon? …

Will you have anything to say sooner than later? …

Will the words come immediately? …

What will happen if the silence prolongs? …

Will the conversation just end? …

Will you then have to drift to talking to someone else? …

Will the person you are conversing with get bored and move on to talk to the next person around? …

All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey, I’ve been for a while on a Wednesday …

If I didn’t tell, I could leave today …

California Dreaming on such a Wednesday!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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