Author Archives: ramblinginthecity
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!!
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…
A jaunt to the gorgeous Musee d’Orsay made my day today. The museum stays open till late on Thursday, so I wound up work early and walked down from Place St Michel where I’m staying along they Seine. The weather has been exceptionally kind and the walk was leisurely and easy.
The museum has been on my hot list for Paris not because of the excellent collections it hosts, including a choice selection of works from my favourite French Impressionists, but because of its architecture. And it is indeed a spectacular transformation of a Beaux-Arts station, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even though this rather nasty review of the renovated buildings that appears in 1987 suggests that a breaking up of the volume inside the station was a misstep, I must say that the beauty, intricacy and monumentality of the vault hit me the moment I entered the space! The building combines both elements of the Beaux-Arts style, the structural metalwork as well as the ornamentility and this is still very visible in the current interiors. I do believe the ordering of the galleries has been redone in 2011 though and it is quite easy to figure out how the collections are arranged.
The icing on the cake, of course, was the special exhibit on the portraits of Cezanne, which I savoured with the aid of the audio commentary!
I arrived in Paris this Sunday past with some excitement and much trepidation. The excitement was not on account of being in arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Three weeks of being here in summer had satiated some of that hunger. The excitement was about having solo time to think and write, something that is hard to carve out in the mad bustle of our lives in the Delhi NCR. The trepidation was the other side of solo time, the loneliness, which for a social person like me is hard to bear.
Luckily, I have found accommodation in the heart of Paris, at St Michel Place, in the Quartier Latin. Everyday I see clumps of tourists being taken around on guided tours. And smaller groups exploring the city. It’s not terribly busy at this time of the year though. Back to the accommodation- the Maison Suger is part of the Fondation Maison des Science de l’Hommes which is dedicated to international cooperation in the field of social sciences through the support of research. From what I understand, the foundation does not run its own educational institutions, but offers post doc fellowships and research residencies for scholars across the world. The Maison Suger is one such residency and I was lucky to get a timely tip-off and support from my colleagues at the CESSMA Lab at University Paris Diderot. So here I am, in a beautiful old building: the Latin Quartier was built in the Middle Ages (I have yet to find out more about the building itself)!
On Day 4 of being in Paris after some initial struggles, I finally feel like being alone is not such a bad thing. I woke up this morning and hit the gym, which I found all to myself. The walk to the gym took me down some labyrinthine stairs, made of solid stone masonry, and that was a treat too! I opened the windows to hear the lovely sounds of little children as they walked with their parents to the nursery next door. Delightfully, the corridor that leads to my room looks onto the inner courtyard of the nursery and I feel happy to know that the little souls are prancing about there through the morning, right next to me!! I have spent my days at work and my evening reading quietly and though I miss home a bit, I feel like this is a chance to dig into myself and concentrate.
Now, as I fix myself breakfast and look forward to my little jaunt through the city’s Metro system, I feel blessed and grateful to all the people and circumstances that are making this possible for me. I know that it does not befit me to complain about being lonely, instead I hope to use my blog (like I have done before) as a tool to vent, keep myself on track, and conjure new possibilities.
By Richa Bansal who sent me this short and introspective piece on a difficult day when life revealed itself as beautiful….
I have always run a race with myself. Right from childhood. With due rewards of course in terms of career success and associated benefits. But not without its cost. The biggest one being I forgot what it meant to slow down, even if for a few moments.
Until today, when a severe back spasm and a hearty scolding from my physiotherapist placed me under ‘house arrest’ for five straight days with strict instructions of ‘no going to office’, ‘no alcohol over the weekend’, and ‘no exercise (for two weeks!)’. Clubbed with daily physiotherapy and muscle relaxants I didn’t particularly relish. In short, I had to rest it out and there was no shortcut.
I was appalled! Having been trained as a journalist in my formative years, I am used to finding my way out of sticky situations and often enough having my way. This time I had to comply. Not so much because I wanted to but because the pain was too much to bear.
I am used to being super active. If not working, I am doing high intensity exercise (my room has most of the basic equipment of a gym), or making an errands list (a must when you live alone), or catching up on news, or having a whatsapp/skype call with friends abroad, or compulsively responding to emails at night.
Yes, I meditate for a few minutes in the morning, but after that it is non-stop. I didn’t realise or value the importance of stopping in the tracks to appreciate the moment – be it the rain, a walk in the park, or watching the twilight hues. Even if I ever did, being an obsessive planner cum organiser, some list would be constantly running in the background in my head.
Naturally, as I trudged back home, I was grouchy about how I was going to get through five full days of rest. As I was planning all that I had to reschedule, my back creaked again, and a book I recently purchased called ‘Present over Perfect’ flashed across my mind.
I suppose it is not a coincidence that in the last 10 days, I watched Shauna Niequist talk about her book on Oprah Winfrey’s show, where she spoke about how she used to ‘skim’ through life and then decided one day to slow down. Not give up. But re-craft her life. Deconstruct it and decide what to retain and what to let go in order to improve the quality of her life. I was inspired enough to buy the book off Amazon but hadn’t yet opened it.
Walking up the stairs, I noticed that the weather had suddenly changed, and the sun was about to set. It was twilight. I didn’t want to lie down again, so I decided to go up to my terrace, which is surrounded by greenery and stroll a bit. Since I was not meant to even walk fast right now.
And as I stood there barefoot, with a cool breeze flowing through my hair, an overcast grey sky with shades of pink and orange, the leaves of the plants on the parapet swaying slightly, the white flowers gleaming, a salty smell in the air which precedes rain, and birds flying home – I calmed down. I was present in that moment, not thinking about anything else, not worrying about what needed to be done, but simply taking in the twilight.
Twilight has always been particularly calming for me – there is something about the stillness of that transition zone, which I find mystical. Somewhat of a parallel to life – so much of which is in flux.
I used to go for evening walks by the lake near which I grew up in Calcutta all throughout my growing up years and often watch the sun set over the water – the solitude was blissful. And I realised suddenly how much I missed it. A few moments of solitude, not once in a while, but throughout the day are essential.
And in that moment, I decided that I was going to enjoy this forced ‘house arrest’. I was going to go up every day to my wonderful terrace for the next four days to soak in the twilight. I plucked a white flower, came down, placed it on my altar (yes, I pray) and said thank you. And messaged my physiotherapist thanking her for forcing me to slow down. Her response – ‘Great. One should take such breaks without pain ;)’!
In the face of disaster, active citizens are already filling the governance gap; let’s upscale this now!
Owing to an attempted shift to more academic writing and partly in reaction to the few friends who haven’t been too thrilled with my use of this platform to rant, my posts over the past year have been fewer and less about opinion and more about experience. However, what’s the use of nurturing a blog of your own if you cannot occasionally rant!
My peeve today is, unsurprisingly, the flooding many cities across the world are experiencing and the general unpreparedness we have seen in dealing with them. Experts have attributed the higher incidents of flooding to changing patterns of precipitation (in the form of storms, rain, typhoons, cyclones), both in terms of the amount and the timing. Whether or not we link this to climate change, to me, is a moot point right now as we stare at mass destruction and anguish in Houston, eastern India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mumbai.
Reports pour in from friends in Houston, those evacuated worry about their homes, while those who are hunkering down currently safe are concerned about rising waters, survival with limited supplies and to what extent they can help others in distress. While attacks mount on the administration for not heeding warning systems and anticipating the scale of disaster, the focus is on rescue and prevention of further damage, as it should be. In Mumbai too, friends host strangers who are stranded in the vicinity, others despair and curse, life comes to a standstill and the government is unable to answer questions about the absence of warnings and alerts. In both cases, local government did not admit guilt; Houston’s officials have defended their decision to not evacuate ahead of Huricane Harvey, while in Mumbai the government did too little too late. That both cities have had previous experiences with flooding makes this even more unpalatable.
Some of the bad press for Houston is also stemming from its infamous no zoning and limitless growth stance (see here and here), and therein lies an obvious comparison with cities in India where urban sprawl and massive unregulated growth are undeniable realities. In India, this was driven home to us post the December 2015 floods in Chennai (see urban expert KT Ravindran’s piece here); and now, the idea that these disasters are not just nature but considerably exacerbated by human folly has been firmly established. Even as India banks on its cities to become ‘engines of growth’ and economic powerhouses, this dream is seriously challenged by its inability to plan and manage urbanization even in an everyday sense, leave alone in the face of a disaster!
A discussion on how this might be fixed is a long one but I will leave that for another time. For now, I’d like to dwell on how it is not enough to blame the government and the system. We must go beyond this to ask pointed questions and hold them accountable in specific ways. For instance, by displaying maps of floodplains and flood levels juxtaposed with built form, we can demonstrate how the State has disregarded basic environmental logic in its plans. While doing fieldwork in Gurgaon’s urban villages recently, for instance, I recorded vivid accounts from locals about how natural drains and ponds (johads) were covered over by government officials in order to built community centres and roads! These oral histories combined with GIS mapping and government data obtained through RTIs can clearly demonstrate the flaws in planning. But if this evidence remains confined to academic journals and limited circles of activism, it cannot create the pressure needed to prevent more of the same from continuing to happen!
This means that we as citizens need to engage with issues related to development and the environment. We need to move towards active citizenship. I can think of many ways to include citizen oversight over processes of planning and development, but the dream of participatory governance can only come true if we engage pro-actively without first waiting for the government to set up the processes for that engagement. For starters, we can educate ourselves about governance processes in our cities, about issues we face and about the environmental status of our communities, we can organize training sessions to empower citizens to manage disaster relief operations, we can ensure our communities follow laws on waste segregation and disposal, accessibility and water harvesting…..the list of actions we can take is endless and many of us have made commendable beginnings already. Those beginnings need to coalesce into movements that force governments to act!
Beyond this, we need to turn our gaze inward to reflect on how we are part of the problem here. After all, we are the consumers that sprawling development projects and mega infrastructure projects are catering to! We have bought into that ideology (and the imagery) of unlimited growth and ‘world class’ development. Rarely did we think about the environmental consequences of our consumption, rarely did we support those who did voice these concerns. Today, when we shout ourselves hoarse about the failures, we too need to feel a sense of responsibility. The world over, the mantra of sustainable development has focused on the first principle of REDUCE. Of course, this is directly in conflict with capitalistic urges to consume more, but we do need to question where consumption is taking us. We need to ask: Can we become responsible consumers?
These are no longer mere ideological questions, but matters of utmost urgency for citizens living in an age of urbanization, rapid environmental deterioration and yes, climate change! It is no longer enough to encourage our kids to submit cute ‘Save our Planet’ posters to local art contests and consider our jobs done. In an age of paralyzed governance, the citizen must step in to fill the gaps.
My three week stint in Paris draws to an end tomorrow. It’s been a work trip peppered with lots of outings with family, though they did way more sight seeing and touristy activities than me. That’s what they have been here for. As for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed having solo time at work. This is a luxury in India, where the work place is a juggling act involving much more than the core components of research like fieldwork, analysis, reading and writing. Much time is spent in project and team management and in attending meetings and conferences too. I enjoy all that buzz as well, so carving out time for more solitary kind of work has been very challenging indeed!
Here in Paris, the work environment has been conducive for solo activity, though I share an office space with two other researchers, both senior to me from whom I am learning a lot through observation and everyday conversations. The solitude has helped me increase my concentration span and somewhat improve my ability to schedule work more realistically. It has also taught me the value of reading beyond my subject, something I have wanted to do for a long time. The importance of embarking on a PhD at this stage in life has come home to me as well, as I interact with academic researchers at various stages of their careers.
For the most part, I find my colleagues here immensely focused and dedicated to their own sliver of research (though not in a restrictive way). PhD students and scholars working on remote Asian and African nations have spent years teaching themselves new languages, delving deep into understanding the cultural traditions and political economy of faraway lands as well as spending vast amounts of time physically experiencing these geographies and cultures. As a relatively new entrant to social science research, I realize my training as an urban planner somewhat limits my attitudes because I tend to focus on solution-oriented approaches without adequately steeping myself in the context. This is a drawback I am determined to address going forward.
Being outside my comfort zone and a change of scenario also helps me reflect on myself in other, more personal ways. My time here has strengthened by belief that life must be a delicate balance of self-confidence and humility. The former in the sense that I imbibe the importance of being myself, not judging myself too harshly, not overthinking everyday decisions and certainly not worrying about appearances or what other folks think of you! This has been a work in progress for the last few years and its got a fillip here in Paris. Humility in the sense of being open to new ideas, really listening through when other people talk, opening out the senses without judgement and leaving the ‘I’ out of as much a possible. To be honest, I have not progressed as much in this because temperamentally I am the talker/do-er/impression-maker type. Stepping back and toning down when I need to is something I am aware of but have not been able to practice as well.
All in all, these reflections form the base for my second stint here in September this year. I will be unaccompanied by family or friends then and will be living alone for a month for perhaps the first time in my life (yes, believe it or not!). During that trip, I intend to catch up on the missed out parts of tourism, the alternate experiences in Paris and also work much more on my journey towards serious and focused research.
If you are disturbed about the series of mob-driven lynchings occurring across India, you are not alone. Thousands of Indians were out on the street last evening in at least 12 Indian cities and a few international locations to express their dismay and protest. The tagline used #NotInMyName is telling. It disowns the type of Indian who would use violence to settle a debate or an argument. It rejects the form of Hinduism that bases itself on hatred and the ‘othering’ of minorities. With my largely liberal upbringing, one that included the usual ingredients of everyday Hinduism (ritualism, temple visits, certain food practices), I find it normal that people would be nauseated by the normalization of violence and the senseless killing we are seeing around us. I feel this too when women are raped, when soldiers are killed by terrorists, when old people are mistreated, when children are sexually violated by their family members and beaten inside classrooms by teachers who are meant to be their gurus and mentors…….
I do not think my views are ‘leftist’ because I feel this way. No, if anything, they are humanist regardless of the political hue you wish to read inside them. They stem from the belief that certain things are essential rights: the right to dignity and a peaceful existence, the right to a life mediated by the use of peaceful means of dispute resolution, the right to self-improvement and growth (and everything that comes with that including opportunities for education, skill attainment, decent work and quality of life). At a basic level, I would be surprised if most of us didn’t agree to these ideas. Would we not want this for ourselves, for our children? By that logic, if we believe that humans are born equal, we should want it for everyone else, and their children too. I know this is idealistic and I know that many people do not believe in fundamental equality. But that’s bigotry; whatever the form may take (race, religion, cultural values, ethnicity, language, complexion, caste, what-have-you) and I will take every opportunity to stand against bigotry, without any apologies whatsoever.
Yes, I know, things are not black and white. We seem determined to disagree about everything. We are debating on nomenclature (Is this lynching or something else?), we are pulling statistics to determine trends over time (Is this a new phenomenon at all?) and we are debating the political and religious hue of protests against it (Are these leftists? Are the protesting Hindus truly Hindu?). That is the nature of politics. Shivam Vij makes a point about the ineffectiveness of such protests as a political tool to oppose the right wing (read here) and he may be right. From what I can observe from far away, this is an expression of dismay and frustration reminiscent of the post-Nirbhaya protests. I would not consider it insignificant.
However, two features defined the post-Nirbhaya protests. One, they gave expression to a very personal sense of fear, one in which each family felt like they could be a victim of the type of violence Jyoti had faced. That is not yet palpable at this time, because Hindus believe themselves to be immune. This is a fallacy. No one is immune once the rule of law ceases to have respect. Two, a long standing gender movement existed in India and activists could leverage post-Nirbhaya public support to push forward an agenda that worked towards women’s safety. Of course it is debatable whether the outcomes have truly questioned patriarchal norms or merely resulted in increased restrictions on the movement of girls and women, but policy conversation around public safety in terms of security, transportation and infrastructure has certainly increased. The number of women reporting sexual crimes has also gone up. So there have been tangible benefits. With current protests, there appears to be no clear leadership that can help build the momentum, but it is possible that one could emerge. For me, these appear as opportunities for feminist and youth-centred political discourses, but we do not have something strong enough to resist appropriation by mainstream political movements yet.
Having said this, it will be tragic if these beginnings are not taken forward in some way. First, we need to oppose those trying hard to brush away these murmurs as insignificant by painting them in broad-brush strokes like anti-Modi, anti-elite (read here). I don’t think the protestors are such a united, clear set of people yet (and that might be a strength in disguise). We also need to focus on the disintegration of the rule of law, which threatens everyone and not just a certain minority or those with particular dietary preferences. I’m not sure this is a policing issue as one commentator suggests (read here); are we to be a society in which folks are civil only because they fear punitive action?
In the end, it is about agreeing to what exactly is the ‘social contract’ that we commonly understand and practice. What is that voluntary agreement among individuals by which organized society is brought into being and invested with the right to secure mutual protection and welfare or to regulate the relations among its members? I’ve been in Paris the past few weeks and have had many passionate discussions on these issues with folks here; given France’s history, these issues have been a matter of intense and prolonged public debate and there is a common understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. I am not sure if in India we have invested adequate time and energy discussing this at all. Yes, the Constitution has served as a template for us, but how many Indians really have had adequate exposure to this most wonderful document. If movements to protest against lawlessness are to gain traction, they need to appropriate that space in which these discussions can happen, without violence or judgement.
The weather changed yesterday morning, turning cool, even a bit chilly. And a brisk walk seemed like just the right thing to do. I walked a section of my tram ride to the University today, from Port Choissee to Maries Bastie on Rue Massena, in the 13th Arrondisement of the city. This is not a neighbourhood that the tourist books and blogs write about but it’s bustling nevertheless. It’s clearly an area where many immigrants have settled, especially Asians. Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants line the streets.
There’s plenty of relatively new high rise affordable and mid-income housing that has come up in this area, amid what look like older mid sized blocks. Mostly these blocks emerge right off the street, with the ground level space accommodating shops, supermarkets and parking garages. Now and then I see what look like gated enclaves, some with nice little gardens inside. But I can see all of these from the street. There are no solid boundary walls, only see through fences. Eyes on the street all the way!
It’s a totally walkable area and well connected with public transport like all of Paris. In fact, the tramway runs in the centre, two lanes of motorable road on either side, a lane of parallel on street parking, cycle paths and a wide pavement on both sides. Definitely more square metre area for public transport, cycling and walking than for motorised traffic!
I’ve been watching these sights from the tram the past week but walking down the street today made me realise that these kind of neighbourhoods are an excellent case study for how modern redevelopment projects can build on the positive aspects of traditional cities by retaining and even enhancing public facilities like public space, schools, markets and sports grounds. In this way, the neighbourhood can cater to additional densities and remain efficient and compact, improving life for the able bodied and differently abled, young and old. The sheer diversity of people I encounter everyday while riding public transport speaks to this.
Please don’t forget to watch the accompanying video on FB which shows boundary details of the apartment blocks and how they relate to the street. Link below