Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

Diversity in Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’: Observations about a place of affordability & entrepreneurship

The PhD “flex” room in the Institute of Housing Studies, Erasmus University in Rotterdam is as good a place as any to reflect on the Xiaobei, or Little Africa, a settlement in Guangzhou we visited last month. Why? Because many of the students at IHS, in the Masters and PhD programs, are from African countries and the question of China in Africa is foremost on their minds. While here, I heard Rachel Keeton, PhD candidate at TU Delft, speak about her research on the planning of New Towns in Africa. In her narrative, the Chinese footprint on the creation of new urban spaces in Africa is formidable. Next to me, a PhD colleague worries about the influence of China on the planning and governance of transit systems in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa.

In Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD), we saw the other side. African entrepreneurs have been coming to China for decades, trading, running small businesses, moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and China in what Gordon Mathews and his co-authors have called “low-end globalization” in their book The World in Guangzhou. The epicentre of their activities is the PRD, which has been a trading hotspot for thousands of years and has arguably the most open outlook in all of China. The Dengfeng/Xiaobei locality in Guangzhou, I had heard from colleagues and friends, was the place to experience this phenomenon and so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring its alleys and streets.

The African presence in the neighbourhood is unmistakable with traders from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola living here. Yet we noticed that many of the shops on the mainstreet were owned and operated by those with Chinese ethnicity. A number of the shops at the edge of settlement were selling readymade garments and cheap electronics, perhaps the sort of counterfeit or low-cost items that the Africans have been known to trade in. However, as we ventured further inside, the majority of the stores seemed to cater to the daily needs of this bustling neighborhood. We saw grocery stores, outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables, chemist shops, restaurants and food outlets, hair dressers, and tailoring shops. The area had an international feel to it. I could see Turkish bakeries, French baguettes and Asian spices in grocery stores, and African and Indian clothes in the garment stores. The large number of food outlets with halal signs and Arabic signage indicated a sizeable Islamic population and indeed, Dengfeng is just as Middle Eastern today as it is African, with residents from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Iran. In fact, we learned that many Chinese Muslim families also chose to live here.

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Among the Africans, we could see many single men and some couples, even a few families with young children. I understand that most of the Africans come on short-term visas and do not stay for very long; yet there are many instances of African and Chinese inter-marriages. I’m not certain about the citizenship of those Africans who marry Chinese women and seek to integrate, but the struggle of Chinese society to accept children of mixed parentage, particularly African-Chinese kids in Guangzhou, has been a subject of some discussion in the media. Overstaying visas used to be rather common, but I believe a crackdown since 2012 has scared away the more transient traders and those who remain definitely face discrimination.

Overall, the African presence was not as dominant as I had expected.  Rather, we found a thriving multi-ethnic entrepreneurial space with plenty of affordable rental housing. In fact, the Chinese researcher who guided us through pointed out two buildings where he had rented before, as a student. To me, the visit raised questions about the particular characteristics of places that permit, indeed invite, diversity. Places that are “arrival cities“, as Saunders puts it in his eponymous book, for immigrants from across and within national boundaries. What are the processes, ranging from the use of social networks to the negotiation of rent agreements, that make these places what they are? As article after article, including this one, offer visually and anecdotally rich material as evidence that diversity is indeed something to celebrate and praise, I suspect more detailed investigations of the processes that create diversity might offer a more balanced and perhaps less flattering perspective.


  1. Robert Castillo’s blog has a veritable treasure of facts and observations about the community. He is a lecturer at the Hong Kong University’s African Studies Programme








Hi-tech Dutch ID cards helped Nazis identify, exterminate Jews: What does that teach us about the ethics of technology & the choices we are making today?

I can, in part, blame my fascination for The Holocaust on reading too much of Leon Uris in my teen years. This fascination intensified on the trip to Berlin in 2014 and continues to be a theme of my explorations in Europe since. So this past weekend, on a loose limb on a Saturday morning, I decided to explore the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam.  The motivation was a listing for an exhibition titled Identity Cards and Forgeries: Jacob Lentz and Alice Cohn on the IAmsterdam page. On a recent trip to China, a PhD researcher had presented at a workshop we co-organized her preliminary research on documents and identity that mentioned the use of ID card forgeries to help migrants access services. That discussion played in my head, as much as the recent heated debate in India on privacy and misuse of information collected under the UIDAI project, popularly called the Aadhaar, which the Indian government is aggressively developing in the form of a universal identification system for the country. The Supreme Court of India is currently in the midst of hearing petitions that contend that the Aadhaar identification programme violates an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. A curious me arrived at the National Holocaust Museum and the exhibition did not disappoint!

Set in an oppositional format, the left half of the exhibition space showcased the work of Jacob Lentz who, as the head of the Dutch National Inspectorate of Population Registers, had been at the forefront of designing a highly secure and for the time hi-tech system of ID cards from 1936 onward. While Lentz and some of his colleagues seemed to have designed the system expecting every Dutch citizen carry an ID card, interestingly in March 1940, the Dutch government decided not to implement this system. Their reason? That it was contrary to Dutch tradition.

But of course the highly sophisticated, and virtually non-forgeable, ID card system was ready for the Nazi occupiers to use when the Netherlands fell to German forces post the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940. The ID card system was brutally used by the Nazis to identify Jews (with a large J on the card itself), in order to initially curtail their civic rights and eventually deport them to concentration camps where they were largely exterminated in gas chambers. Lentz, as one of many bureaucrats who inadvertently aided the Nazi  genocide, is cited as an example of Hannah Arendt’s famous Banality of Evil hypothesis, which  highlights the absolute ordinariness of the human beings who perpetrate acts of evil merely by being complicit. Read in another way, one may say that the compliance of ordinary people under conditions of terror are sufficient to aid evil. Something we in India could keep in mind if we were ever to be on the scene of a horrendous rape, lynching or honour killing, all of which are alas becoming all too common!! I won’t go into the larger implications of the ‘banality of evil’ in the Indian context as manifested by, for example, widespread self-censorship in public life and social media in the face of a vindictive regime served by an army of online trolls. I have written on those issues before.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

~Edmund Burke

On the opposite side of the exhibit, was displayed the work of Alice Cohn, a German-Jewish graphic artist and member of the Dutch resistance who obsessively and often successfully forged these ID cards to help innocents escape. The work of the Resistance is marked by the very opposite of what I have discussed above, the involvement of ordinary people, often from the non-persecuted majority, in a commendable demonstration of altruism usually at considerable risk to themselves (on that note, check out this fantastic NatGeo piece on the psychology of altruism). Those stories reinforce our faith in humankind and at the end of the exhibition, I was left with a positive feeling despite the overwhelmingly “heavy” sense one has in a building that is dedicated to the memory of those persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust.


Exhibition space


The ID cards for Jews, marked with the prominent J


Alice Cohn


Some of Alice Cohn’s graphics work

Alice Cohn’s story has a specific resonance with the history of the building that houses the Museum. One of her bravest acts was the use of a forged identity for herself to be able to walk into a creche, located next door to the Museum, and rescue the child of a Jewish couple who were her friends. The creche is where the children were kept before deportation, while the parents were crowded into the Hollandse Schouwberg, a theatre building on the other side of the street. The story is that Director of the non-Jewish School that was run in the Museum building, and the woman who ran the creche collaborated to smuggle out over 600 Jewish children to safety, out of the clutches of the Nazis and into foster homes where they grew up safe and sound. I held on to these stories of altruism even as I wept at the small but evocative collection of material artefacts from families who died in the Holocaust.


Where the Amsterdam Jews were held before deportation


A bit further down the road, the Portuguese Synagogue. The Jewish population in Amsterdam immigrated from Spain and Portugal (the Shephardic Jews.) during the Reformation.

The Dutch Jews were concentrated in Amsterdam, and so this community was hit hardest by the Holocaust.  About 107,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the concentration camps, some 5,200 survived while the Dutch Underground was successful in hiding 25-30,000 Jews and hence saving their lives. Among them were these 600-odd children who were aided by the school. Franz, the volunteer who narrated us the story, told us that though a few of the parents of these children did return from the concentration camps, they were “neither right in the body, nor in the head” and the reunions were almost as difficult as the separation. The impacts of extreme hatred and mass ethnic cleansing are often discussed in terms of death and annihilation. Sadly, in our world today, these words have become normalized. It would do us all well to remember that between living and dying are myriad states of pain and half-baked existence, the personal and social consequences of which are almost as unbearable.

The pall of the Holocaust hangs over Europe decades after. As the extreme conservatives rise over the continent and indeed the world, people worry and fret but alas, also forget. And evil has the chance to be banal again.

My comfort food – filter coffee

A lovely account of my mum’s relationship with coffee. What a powerful thing memory and nostalgia is…. and yes, dawara tumbler sounds lovely 🙂


Everyone has a ‘comfort food’, an item of food that one associates with childhood, home, mother…….and for me for ever so long it used to be ‘curd rice’! How I grew out of that is another story, but for these last many years my ‘comfort food’ has been a drink, the filter coffee. Children were not allowed to drink coffee, but amongst my earliest memories is one of my grandfather, sneaking me a sip from his ‘tumbler’! Of course, no chinaware entered our Brahmin house then. It was a time,  long before plastic had entered our lives in any manner or form.

Coffee was a ritual and was  made only in the morning and at tiffin time, which was the late afternoon. The first thing that was done in the morning was to light the wood fire and put water to boil. My mother would have already had her bath…

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Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen

We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration.  After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.

This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.

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The impressive gate and ancestor hall in Nantou remains unchanged. The white blank wall with the UABB signage on it hides a politically contentious painting that caused a furor during the event’s opening. The controversy led to the review and censoring of many artworks, raising queries about the UABB as a space for dialogue, creativity and expression.

Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.

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Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.

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What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.

On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!


The joke is always on women, but why are we laughing?

Last week, I (among others) took offence to a recent outdoor hoarding. I was shocked by its casual sexism and peeved about the use of cheap publicity to get eyeballs. A half-baked apology only added insult to injury. But it is hard to hold on to outrage—especially when we all seem to be outrage-ing so much about so many things nowadays—and by Monday I was much calmer.

But I couldn’t get the episode out of my mind. I found myself wondering about the diversity of reactions to the ad itself, which used abbreviations for common Hindi abuses that depict incest. I also kept thinking about how some folks on social media who found the ad funny, not offensive—and I’ll be the first to say that they are entitled to their opinion—also expressed their distress about the rape of a 4-year old girl, which was reported in the media around the same time. It is hard for me to wrap my head around this dichotomy and yet, it aptly demonstrates the extent to which sexual violence against women has got normalised in our society. It takes the rape of a child to upset us, but mothers and sisters being raped is now par for the course!

I find it fascinating that, for the majority, there is no relevant link between sexist advertising (and jokes) and the dismal record of Indian cities on women’s safety. Recently released data from NCRB shows that reported rape cases increased by 12.4% between 2015 and 2016. While crime data on domestic violence, sexual assault, abduction and rape is collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), many others forms of violence that women experience on a daily basis remain poorly documented. We know from media reports as well as many micro studies these too are widespread and on the rise. The statistics on child abuse, unfortunately, are worse. Across the country young children, mostly girls, are being sexually assaulted, often times by teachers, family members, neighbours and caregivers, people whom they implicitly trust. The NCRB reports a dramatic 13.6% increase in crime against children over the last three years, with about 35% of the cases registered under POCSO, or the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012.

These numbers, shocking as they are, no longer make an impression on us because we seem to have accepted that this is how Indian society is. Our reactions to the news items about raped children comprise expressing anguish, tightening security around our families and securing good marriages for our daughters, thus passing on the responsibility of their safety to someone else. Or, for the elite, sending our children abroad.

Unlike in other issues like terrorism or national security, we find it hard to pin point the enemy in the case of gender-based violence and so we blame the ‘other’, usually folks from another class and/or religion. Helpless and frustrated, we take solace in our WhatsApp groups, our laughter clubs, our kitty circles, our YouTube stand-up comedies, our Friday beers and we enjoy a few ‘husband-wife’ or ‘blonde’ jokes. The next morning, we read about another rape story and hurriedly turn to the sports page, where BCCI slamming pollution-troubled Sri Lankan cricketers makes for an entertaining read.


Centre Pompidou: Sensory overload!

Despite a longish four weeks in Paris, its hard to shed the feeling of being a tourist. For there is truly so much to do in this city and so little time to do it in if you put in regular work hours. So I woke up on Saturday morning with determination. And my destination was the Centre Pompidou, which celebrates its 40th year in 2017.

Armed with a online ticket, I set off on a meandering path, certain that I had plenty of time. I got in a couple of quick sketches and a detour through Saint Chapelle and the Conciergerie, which are within a massive Gothic complex that once was a palace but is now the Palace of Justice, housing judiciary functions. I even grabbed a delightful lunch, sitting solo on the sidewalk, enjoying the rare autumnal sun.

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The online ticket was to be on no use whatsoever, but the long wait in the line that snaked across the massive square in front of Centre Pompidou offered me a chance to take in the mind boggling structure before me. All steel tubes and pipes, it is a geometrical and structural orgasm created by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini in the spirit of an “evolving spatial diagram”. The project was part of a larger renewal plan for the area which included the controversial relocation of the giant meat market that was inside Les Halles, which now houses a transport interchange and shopping centre. This facility was to house a museum and a public library that extended the dream of Andre Malraux (author and France’s first Minister of Culture Affairs) to decentralize art and culture. I can imagine the design being met with utter horror by the conservative Parisians, because it sticks out like a sore thumb like a disruption, offering no continuity whatsoever with the surrounding urban form nor showing the remotest respect to the heritage around. Instead it soars up, in white, blue, red and yellow, unapologetic and grand. I was to realize its true impact only a day later when I traveled to Belleville in the northwestern part of the city and saw it glisten from the top of Boulevard de Menilmontant! I read later that the architects saw their chance to bring in new ideas to capture the mood of Paris post the massive political unrest in 1968 that nearly destabilized the country. For them, the bold design signified a changed thinking.

[Click here for some delightful pics and thoughts shared by the architects on the Centre’s 40th anniversary]


Once inside, I felt like a child in a candy store! My first stop was the massive and impressive retrospective of David Hockney. The British artist is 80 this year and the show had works on display since he was about 17 years old. The span of styles and the bold statement his art is left me overwhelmed. I was in that strange state of feeling filled to the brim and drained out at the same time! And this is when the gorgeous views offered by the building rescued me. I wandered the terraces for a while taking in the city sprawling below me, recognizing the monuments on the skyline and appreciating the strange zig zag roofs of Paris.

And then, I delved into the museum’s permanent collection of modern art. I had already soaked myself into the works of the avant garde artists at the Musee d’Orsay in my first week here and later at the Musee l’Orangerie. Now I felt like I was taking that journey forward, moving through the Dada, Cubist, Fauvist, Expressionist, Surrealist, de Stijl and ‘Return to Order’ phases of modern art. An impressive collection, the vast and modern spaces of the museum have much to add to the experience, and its frequent terraces offered timely relief. Unlike the other museums, there was something informal and easy going about the Centre Pompidou. Even the staff was not in uniform and sat around casually, unlike the alert and stern security that is standard at museums across the world.

Walking away from the museum, I just did not feel like heading home. There was too much inside my head, swirling shapes and blocks of colour, too much energy! So I wandered through the lanes in the Marais and treated myself to a glass of Chardonnay, as is fitting at the end of a glorious museum-filled day in Paris.

All content and photographs © Mukta Naik


A ‘brutalist’ China Town and the Parisian ‘bo bun’

It was while sauntering through the delightful Chateau Fontainebleu during our Parisian stint this summer that I first made the connection between the 13th arrondissement and industry. Le Gobelins, a stop on the metro line (7) we often took into town from our suburban abode in summer, was where the French aristocracy got its tapestries from. Up until the ’60s, from what I understand, this area of Paris that lies south of the Seine was a marshy mish mash of industrial workshops and village like neighbourhoods interspersed with patches of gardens and farms. Inspired by Corbusier’s ideas of city planning, a massive urban project called Italie 13 was planned here in the ’60s for the urban professional classes, dominated by high rise towers and large interconnected public spaces on the ground level.

I had the chance to visit Les Olympiades, one of the prominent high-rise complexes built in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a colleague recently. We were out to get some lunch and he kindly decided to show me around the China Town nearby. Which, against my expectations, was amid this giant brutalist complex of monotonous and monumental high rises! The tall towers of Les Olympiades, which I hear are now rapidly gentrifying, frame a large plaza with a market and access to multi level shopping centres. The design of the Pagode shopping plaza, with its pagoda style roofs, turned out to be prophetic because this neighbourhood saw the arrival of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Camobodia and Laos in the late ’70s, most of them escaping the Vietnam War.

IMG_4400IMG_4409IMG_4408IMG_4407IMG_4401IMG_4396Though architecturally this area hardly looks like the ‘China Town’ one expects, many of the businesses here are Chinese owned. A south-east Asian style set of vendors selling greens on the streets and a number of food stalls selling Vietnamese food were the most obvious signs here. Sitting on the sidewalk, we enjoyed a quick meal of ‘bo bun’, a dish of rice vermicelli with grilled meat, raw vegetables and tangy sauce that has become my favourite food in Paris. This one in ‘China Town’ was way better than the bo bun I have had around the university I work at, which is only a few blocks away within the same arrondissement, part of a later and arguable more successful redevelopment project called the Rive Gauche.

One of the nicest things about being interested in urbanism is that there is pleasure to be derived from the simplest things in a city like Paris. Walks, commutes, lunches and visits to friends are all part of a giant educational and sight seeing experience. And this is how the pursuit of a good bo bun taught me quite a bit about a chunk of Paris’ urban and immigration history.

All content and photographs © Mukta Naik


A Parisian party and the realization that my smartphone need not be my security blanket anymore!

Earlier this week, I had the marvelous opportunity to be part of a Parisian soiree. The occasion was a housewarming celebration of a senior researcher in the lab I am visiting. The house in question was a beautiful apartment in a 19th century building adjacent to Gare du Nord. The neighbourhood was fiesty. Crossing the road outside the station, my eyes swept past a dosa joint and a sex toy shop among the usual cafes and tabac stores.

We punched the code and entered a hallway with the most gorgeous mosaic tile floor. A service elevator, perhaps no longer functional, marked the days gone by when servants had separate entrances. Carpeted and curved stairs led to level 1, while a square stairwell with wrought iron rails led the way further up. The red carpet, slightly frayed, was placed as a runner at the centre of the stairs and a wrought iron gas lamp, no longer functional, hung all the way from the ceiling far high up till where we stood waiting to alight.

We did not need to find the house. The voices and music wafted down to us. Pushing open the door, we walked into the lobby, where now stood a modern kitchen. The proud owner explained to me that in the original apartments, the kitchen was located at the back of the house, connected to the chambers through a long corridor and of course with a separate access for the staff. In the modern avatar, those alleyways have not been retained and usually one of the bedrooms is converted into a kitchen. This particular bold placement of the kitchen, right at the entry was refreshing to the owner, who thought it fitting with a modern lifestyle that has “nothing to hide”!

We walked into the main living area of the apartment where the party was on in full swing with much ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ wine flowing and a typical French spread of cheese, cold cuts, bread, dips, grapes and olives. The room was striking, with white walls divided into broad panels and a high ceiling. The street facing side was full of open windows, through which the city’s sounds and smells streamed in. But more striking than the room itself was the fantastic art that it was filled with. Oils, bright and somber, figures, portraits, expressionistic landscapes and number of sculptural pieces too, modern as well as ethnic, from Asia and Africa. I was enchanted. Looking around at the house still being set up, I found more paintings, frames lined up against the wall, waiting to find their spot. Inside, in the study, two fantastic male nudes looked impassively onto the mass of handbags and jackets that guests had dumped there.

Being the only person who couldn’t speak French was an initial advantage. I took many moments to soak in the atmosphere. The Parisian academics had understated style. They were all here directly from work, so nobody was overtly dressed or made up. But there were subtle touches. A statement neckpiece here, a colourful scarf there, a dress instead of the usual pants. Conversation flowed easily. These were people who had known each other for a while and the comfort was easy to see. It also absorbed me seamlessly.

I must have had long conversations with half a dozen people I hadn’t met before. Some had halting English on them, others were more fluent. Another colleague teasingly chided me for not making some effort with my French! With each of them – historians, geographers, anthropologists – I found some common interests, which only goes to show the depth and breadth of their own experiences. This was an educational experience, packaged as a genteel evening of socializing. The conversations indicated how India, is history and present, has a nuanced place in the world. I felt a bit sad about the reductive understanding of India that is being bandied about in everyday life and politics today.

At some point in the evening, I got an education on organic wine, its making and its distinct flavours, particularly the nuance that comes from its inherent instability. I found that fascinating and I’ve been thinking about this since then. The notion that food must conform to some set standard, rather than its natural range, is something we have all adopted without really thinking about the implications it has for our environment band our lives. I thought about the experiments with growing organic food that some of my friends have been engaged with back home and how much of a movement organic and local food is here in France.

At some point in the evening, a large group had seated itself on the rug around the centre table. The rest of us continued to hover around the dining table. The seated group reminded me of parties back home with close friends and family. The lack of formality, the deep and engaged conversations, the congeniality, made me immensely happy to be there. I felt strangely at home. The only thing missing was singing!

It was late and people began to leave. Goodbye pecks and thank you’s filled the room. Through the evening, I observed, not one person had checked their mobile phones. No pictures were posed for and no selfies were clicked. I think perhaps the host had taken a few generic ones. No one went back to their social media feeds even. Phones remained firmly inside those bags, in the other room. Mine too! And this, perhaps, was my biggest takeaway that evening. The realization that I, like many of us back home, use my phone like a security blanket. To combat any unexpectedness and awkwardness, and to draw a cocoon around me even as I remain present in society. It doesn’t need to be this way. Part of the reason I could have those meaningful conversations with people I had not met before was the absence of the phone and the presence of participants in the here and now, without distractions. I’m holding onto that lesson with new resolve!


Women in India are having to fight for opportunity, dignity and life; and it’s heartbreaking…

No matter where I travel, my heart remains at home in India. Especially in these turbulent times when basic humanity is eclipsed and everything is a public spectacle, a jumble of accusations and vitriolic hatred. It seems to be that dignity and respect is the prerogative of a narrow sliver of India’s population right now- Hindu, male, upper caste. The rest of us do not matter. We are to give ourselves up in the service of the nation- get an education, get a job, toil away, embed ourselves in acceptable social structures and raise children who conform. If we do so, never complaining, we are good citizens. If we speak up, we face vilification and worse, abuse. And ever worse, violence, even death.

Far away from home, I watch the news emanating from BHU, a university campus that is located in the ancient and endearing city of Varanasi, the pulsating heart of Hinduism and the constituency of PM Modi. Here, a girl is assaulted on a dark street in the evening and deigns to complain. The poor response of the university provokes widespread protests, which are met with police force and brutality. The authorities claim the protests are politicized, the students claim their demands are simple- better lighting, more security, accountability and action against those who did not respond and a functional system to address harassment complaints in the future. Instead of asking why a prominent university has been found so lacking, the nation is busy victim blaming and cooking political plots. In the meanwhile, thousands of girls across the country  have lost the chance to study ahead and become independent as their parents stare at TV screens in fear!

For a nation that dreams of being a global power – delusional factions of it believe it already is – this is sheer idiocy! How in the world are we to progress if women, half the nation, is consigned to live in fear and subjugation. I do not have to reel out the stats here. Domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, marital rape, son preference leading to malnutrition and female infanticide, insufficient public toilets and school latrines, poor public transport, disproportionate familial responsibilities in a patriarchal society, dowry related torture and death, body shaming, trafficking – the list of what women in India face everyday is endless.

Even so, women aspire and dream. They top school leaving examinations. Their performances trump that of boys year after year. They enter college with big dreams, which for most of them are trampled by early marriages decided by their families. Some of them manage to work, but drop out when family responsibilities become too hard to bear. The majority endeavor to make the best of their lives, balancing a heavy load of social expectations. A thin sliver get the right opportunities, live lives somewhat equal to their male peers. An infinitesimally small number breach the glass ceiling. They are celebrated, even as the dreams of millions are crushed.

It is irrefutable logic that India’s dreams of economic success and global power will be more easily met if women are allowed the same opportunities as men, but I will not make a purely economic argument here. India’s female workforce participation is a dismal story, we all know that. Instead of inching up, it has fallen. Yet, women work harder than ever, doing non-remunerative work at home, in family enterprises, and in large number, on the fields. All those hardworking women are counted as out of the workforce, ironically, while those who are in it walk the tight rope every day, torn between home and work, chided for the choices they make and facing increased expectations all the time.

What is the point of it all, if basic dignity is not on offer and if, instead of rectifying the flaws in the system, women are blamed each time for asking for their due? I would think that we would all have given up. Instead, we fight, we scream, we bear the brunt of the lathi charge….because we know that thousands are cowering under the wrath of a husband or the father (or the mother-in law!), thousands still are completely confined and thousand others will not even be born. We know we are the lucky ones and so we fight. Hats off to the girls in BHU who won’t back down and shame on those who attack and vilify them; they must question their own humanity. Hats off to the crusaders who have fought in the courts and campaigned and worked in communities countrywide to help women access their rights, and shame on everyone who thinks this is not their problem; they need to open their eyes. Hats off to the men who have stood by women and seen their cause as human not female, and shame on those who continue to deride feminism and the demand for equality; they need to wake up and smell the coffee!!


Travel memories: Boots that tell a story 

As I laced up my boots this morning, in my little Parisian studio, I was transported to that magical evening in Quito last year when, entirely by chance, I happened to buy them. In that moment, Paris blended into Quito and I hugged myself, thankful for the opportunities, and holding close that all consuming love for travel and adventure. 

Back to that October evening in one of the highest cities in the world. The altitude must have made us dizzy, my friend and I, because we were giggling and chattering like schoolgirls as we walked back from the craziness of Habitat 3, a large conference on sustainable urban development that the United Nations had organised. The day’s events had overwhelmed us, and we were looking for fun. My brown boots, bought lovingly my Rahul a few years ago in London (hilariously via a series of whatsapp messaging that flew across the world as his colleague modelled each pair in a succession of shops in suburban London) were beginning to fall apart. On a lark, I entered a footwear store we crossed. This was no ordinary shoe shop selling mass manufactured shoes made half the globe away! Nope, this was a shoemaker’s atelier, where each piece had been handmade with love and care. I was over the moon! Looking around, I saw this pair. Black military boots that looked like they would be super comfy. And they were, perfectly fitting too! 

I refused to take them off and the shoemaker was thrilled. He showed us his entire workshop. He babbled incessantly in Spanish regardless of whether we understood him. He kept calling me “Chica” with great affection, making me sit and pose with my new boots as he tried to click pics from his really basic phone, staring myopically into it. Finally, after my dear talented friend had bargained sufficiently, we had a final obstacle to overcome. Change!! No one takes a 100 dollars easily in Ecuador. So we put shutters on the shoe shop and marched down to the local grocery store, where change was available. Here, we were accosted by excited cries of “Namaste, meri jaan!” by local girls who had apparently picked this up from an Indian friend! We walked away in total elation. Boots bought and adventure had. 

All of this flashed before me this morning. I missed my friend a little, and I hugged myself a little. My boots felt snug and a new city beckoned…

My boots with dear friend’s boots. Pic clicked months later in Delhi, as we shared that good story once again!!

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