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Reflecting on my summer stint in #Paris

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.

A whirlwind #workation in Indonesia: Is travel planning overrated?

One of the interesting contradictions in my life is how little I research my travel before I set off, despite being a researcher by profession. This trip to Indonesia, which Greg and I had planned as a recce visit to explore collaborations and case sites for a new project, was one of those in which I literally landed up at the airport with a lets-see-how-this-goes attitude. Part of this was related to how much we had riding on this trip work-wise, the nature of the visit was exploratory. We didn’t even have a fixed itinerary- except for the knowing when we arrived in and departed from Jakarta, we were literally making this up as we went along!

Far from being apprehensive, I was enormously excited about this trip. It felt like a true adventure, which would entail seeing a bunch of places I had never imagined going to and a couple that I didn’t even know the existence of! There were a few comforts though. One, Greg speaks Bahasa Indonesia and had spent enough time there to act as guide and interpreter (he did a fantastic job of that!). And I had been to Bali and Surabaya earlier this year (yes, this is my 3rd trip in a span of 3 months!), gained an initial understanding of Indonesian people and had a few reliable contacts there.

My expectations about how much I would be able to “see” on this trip were low from a touristic perspective and because I really enjoy the urban wandering as much, if not more than straight-jacketed tourism experiences, this wasn’t much of a concern.

And so I land up seeing four Indonesian cities and some of its countryside in eleven days. First: Jakarta, the sprawling capital and primary city, where the country’s economic and political power concentrates, where young people dream of living and working, where life is buzzing and traffic is painful. Second: Yogyakarya, fondly called Jogja, city of universities and students, a special region where the Sultan still rules, once laid back and pretty, now seeing new wealth. Third: Kupang, out there in eastern Indonesia, capital of the province of Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT), a sleepy city with hilly outcrops and stunning beaches. Surrounding by hinterland that is arid and poor. Fourth: Semarang, a large industrial port city in Central Java, a city that celebrates its colonial history even as the part-rural counties around it pulsate with the excitement of promised new industrial investments.

 

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We do this by buying tickets hours before we fly out, sometimes even deciding on the go! We use Whatsapp shamelessly to contact NGOs, academics and government officials wherever we go. We end up working long stretched in cafes, using their free Wi-Fi connections to take Skype calls, write emails, consult collaborators and download data, all for the price of a few cups of coffee! We try budget hotels and budget-budget hotels and laugh at the Spartan decor and not-really-there breakfasts. We meet people who go out of the way to help us (some of them were meeting us for the first time!), giving us their time, inviting us into their homes on weekends, finding us contacts and even accompanying us to difficult meetings. Everything works out and we accomplish nearly everything we had hoped we would, with minimal pre-planning, mostly by being able to take reasonably quick decisions, by keeping our wits around us and by listening carefully to what our Indonesian contacts had to say to us. In my opinion, the Indonesian cultural traits of respect for outsiders, gentleness of manner and inordinate helpfulness were our biggest assets on our trip. And since we weren’t overthinking the trip before we started, I think we got a lot of the ‘pleasant surprise’ factor out of it than if we had had everything perfectly lined up!

 

Watch out for more posts about our experiences in beautiful Indonesia!

 

Already published: Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua

 

Shenzhen Diaries: In anticipation

I first heard of a possible trip to Shenzhen in mid-March from Partha (we work together at the Centre for Policy Research) during a taxi ride from Delhi to Gurgaon. The name Shenzhen triggered memories of conversations we had about the buzzing Chinese city across the water from Hong Kong back in the early 2000s when Amma and Papa (my in-laws) lived in Macau. Those were the years shortly after Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macau (in 1999) were handed over to China and much was changing in the Pearl River Delta. Papa was flying helicopters for a private airline at the time; and in addition to his usual stories of the rich folks he ferried between Hong Kong and Macau on the famed casino circuit, he was talking about the rich business investors he was flying to Shenzhen and Zuhai, both among 5 Special Economic Zones set up by China along the Eastern seaboard in 1980 as key elements of economic reform. On my trip to visit them in 2000, a year before my wedding, they even took me on a day trip to see the wonders of Zuhai’s swank streets, tall glass buildings and sparkling amusement parks. I wondered if I should expect Shenzhen to be something similar. Over the next few days, however, Shenzhen slipped my mind and I got busy with other things.

Then, in the last days of April Mary Anne and Fu Na arrived in Delhi from Shezhen, full of immense curiosity and enthusiasm, surprisingly unaffected by the oppressive heat of the Delhi summer. Over the intense conversations we had while showing them around the urban villages and slums of Delhi and Gurgaon, I began to piece together a different picture of Shenzhen. Of spaces similar to the ones we work in here in Delhi where migrants and long-time residents squeeze together, feeding off the glitzy growing city and yet, strangely distanced from it. Of a city of hope and entrepreneurship but also struggle and despair.

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Our plans to visit Shenzhen began to crystallize over the month of May and I crammed as much reading about the city and its environs as I could. The picture became fuzzier with every paper I read. Facts and figures, strains of urban history and theory mingled together, shapeless and drifting. I stored as much as I could in a mental shelf labelled “Shenzhen, China”.

We landed in Hong Kong airport in late May and the mountains rising out the water greeted me like familiar friends. On the ferry across to Shenzhen, I finally allowed myself to give in to the excitement of anticipation coming to an end, of the relief of seeing and feeling a city that I’ve tried in vain to conjure out of mere words. Join me on my journey as I attempt to synthesize and interpret what we saw over an intense week of exploration in Shenzhen. Presenting, the Shenzhen Diaries.

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Experiencing small town India at Narendranagar, Tehri Garhwal #employment #migration #aspiration

Having tried my hand at being an entrepreneur, I’m always impressed by people who are brave enough to venture into new territory with ideas and initiatives. My friend Biplab is one such person. I’ve known him for a while, though not very well. And when my research work started focusing on what’s happening in small cities, I remembered his venture and drove over for a chat.

Biplab runs a BPO called EGramServe in Narendranagar (will refer to it as NN), a town of about 10,000 people a short drive uphill from Rishikesh. In starting this venture, he (like several others, of course) has created a window of opportunity for young people who otherwise have no choice but to migrate out to larger cities. The stories he told me, about his own entrepreneurial journey and the experiences of his employees, stuck in my head for days after our chat. And I decided to pay NN a visit. As I was leaving, my kids were curious to know if that’s Narendra Modi is from (no escaping NaMo)!

After an eventless and comfortable train journey (a frequent traveler on this sector, Biplab is an expert in wangling seats even when tickets are unconfirmed!), we got there early Monday morning and walked around town. As a planner, I was struck by the orderliness of the town. NN came into prominence in 1919 when King Narendra Shah of the erstwhile kingdom of Tehri Garhwal moved his capital here from Tehri. It’s orderly main street and relatively wide streets and uncluttered feel contrasts sharply with the messiness of other pahari towns, which are usually trading or market towns. The shops and residences along this main street, I learnt, are still owned by the municipal board and leased out to individuals.

Approaching Narendranagar

Approaching Narendranagar

EGramServe occupies the ground floor of the only hotel in town

EGramServe occupies the ground floor of the only hotel in town

The managerial staff at the BPO lives on the top floor of the same hotel. Was mighty amused at the interiors!

The managerial staff at the BPO lives on the top floor of the same hotel. Was mighty amused at the interiors!

Criss-cross wires and a typical hill town view, albeit much less crowded than any other I've been to!

Criss-cross wires and a typical hill town view, albeit much less crowded than any other I’ve been to!

Mainstreet, the legacy of a royal past

Mainstreet, the legacy of a royal past

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An early morning view, but it doesn't get too busy even at peak hours

An early morning view, but it doesn’t get too busy even at peak hours

More vestiges of a royal and institutional past

More vestiges of a royal and institutional past

IMG_6205The view from NN, which is also the closest town to the world famous Ananda spa resort, is beautiful. It is a remarkable thing that, so close to Rishikesh, this lovely hilly location that experiences excellent weather is so tranquil and languid, the pace of life barely impacted by the proximity of the fervent religious tourism of Rishikesh and Hardwar below or the seasonal tourism of the hill stations above.

The town looks onto lush forest areas and the lights of Jolly Grant airport and Rishikesh sparkle in the distance during the night

The town looks onto lush forest areas and the lights of Jolly Grant airport and Rishikesh sparkle in the distance during the night

IMG_6169Its tranquility is reflected in the conversations I have with its residents, some of who are from families who settled here during the time of Narendra Shah and consider themselves insiders and others whose families have migrated here from surrounding villages or from other parts of Tehri Garhwal in search of livelihood.

My two-day visit was a most interesting experience thanks to Biplab’s warm and sincere hospitality. He was kind enough to give up his accommodation so I could be comfortable and also enthusiastic enough to introduce me to people all over town. Over the next few weeks, I hope to unscramble some good information from the 20-odd interviews I managed to take. I hope to understand better the experiences and aspirations of the young people who work in EGramServe, their linkages with their family/community and what role cities like NN can play in keeping young people close to home.

I was driven back to Haridwar railway station by two enthusiastic members of Biplab’s team. The most marvelous drive through the lush greens of Rajaji National Park alongside the Ganga canal  served to remind me of how precious the hills, the forests and the rivers are for our survival. In addition to providing opportunity, I remember thinking, encouraging sustainable development that involves communities that can no longer rely on agriculture for survival (low productivity, climate change) is critical. And here too, small cities like NN could be important in tying these rural communities together and linking them to regional economies.

The Ganga Canal, a critical irrigation waterway in the region

The Ganga Canal, a critical irrigation waterway in the region

The road we took through the Rajaji National Park is closed at dusk because of the frequent crossing of wild elephants. They've known to attack and crush cars in the past!

The road we took through the Rajaji National Park is closed at dusk because of the frequent crossing of wild elephants. They’ve known to attack and crush cars in the past!

Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!

Teaching a new generation in an information-rich world: SPA Diaries- Oct 31, 2012

Both my parents have been academicians through their careers, so observing the relationship between teachers and students and simply understanding the position of the teacher has been something I have inadvertently done all my life. My father always told me that I was born to be a teacher and yes, I do love teaching. Sadly, the status of teachers has declined in Indian society and education has become more a transaction than an enriching process. And so, it’s rather late that I have taken up what I perhaps should have done earlier!

My experience with advising students at SPA this semester has taught me a lot about a lot things- the psyche of the present day student, the role that faculty must assume in an information-rich world, the malaise that plagues our educational institutions and how, despite all obstacles, the show must go on! With the final seminar presentation done and done well, I can now write about what I felt through the journey, as a teacher and as an observer.

When I first started interacting with the students, I was struck by how bright and idealistic young people are. This is perhaps a usual first reaction to teaching and we got off to a positive note. A few weeks in, I found myself sympathetic to the student community, who are aware that their institutions gives them limited exposure and seek a more exciting, challenging experience.

I also observed distinct differences in student attitudes, but was glad to see that they still approached faculty with respect and a genuine expectation that they will derive value from our experience. I wrote a post before I actually started teaching about how things appeared the same but how attitudes had subtly changed, referring to the awareness of a new power among students and a sense of confidence (arrogance, intolerance) in their dealings with faculty and adverse situations. That post was critical and based on hearsay, but after having interactions all semester, I believe this empowerment is not a bad thing. I just wish there was a better process of managing and harnessing this sense of empowerment to challenge and encourage students, and address their needs better.

I feel like we need to accept that young people have different attitudes now, instead of forcing them into the mold of what we think students should be like. I also recognized, through these weeks, that backgrounds from which students come vary hugely. It is perhaps not possible to have a one size fits all approach to mentoring these knowledge seekers, whose motivations vary as much as their capacity to imbibe, contextualize and express themselves.

These differences come out starkly in the use of the English language. A bunch of erudite, suave kids confront you with part-intelligent and part-gimmicky questions and observations, some nearly mocking you, others genuinely inquisitive. Another bunch of sharp minds navigate this sea of ideas struggling to structure their thoughts because English is an alien language, because they are self-conscious about their means of expression, because material that they study appears alien to them and it is so much harder work to study it. The majority of the students seem to be somewhere in between. They have a basic grasp on the language and they put in a minimum effort into what they do, but need an extra leg-up to push their boundaries and really benefit from the education they are receiving.

Here is where the teacher comes in. With a glut of information available to them via the Internet, students are desperately seeking exposure to a new world view, to new ways of thinking. They are seeking assurance, but also direction. With my students, I was amazed by their instinctive sense of right and wrong, their strong convictions and passion for what they were researching. But equally surprised by how easily they lose heart and go astray. Perhaps distractions and caveats are an integral part of the journey of seeking knowledge. We were pretty clueless too at various points, and angry when our faculty did not think our angst was genuine!

What really surprised me though, and I wonder now why it did, was the motivation that came from having to share their work on a public forum. After seeing their ups and downs all semester, I was amazed at their confidence and their sharp sense of what would work and what wouldn’t. My students were addressing the rather complex idea of what the role of the architect can be in the low income housing market. They had received a rather negative response (their perception, not mine) from their peers and faculty during the first few weeks of their research. That invigorated them and warned them of prevailing attitudes. Besides putting in data to counter some of the criticism, they also invited a renowned architect-planner Mr SK Das to chair their seminar and Prof PSN Rao from SPA’s housing department as special guest. They surmised, and rightly so, that these experts could help them field questions that were too complex for their understanding. It was a smart move and it paid off. I am not implying they genuinely wanted these inputs. They did and they got excellent comments. External experts also were able to contextualize the content for the audience and offer directions for how students could think about their career and future.

I was also impressed by the natural confidence of students in being able to answer questions, accept gaps in their research, re-frame questions in the light of their work, etc. These were not qualities I had seen when we were working together through the semester and the dynamic of being up there on a public platform was very interesting to see! I also realized that the process was far more important than the end -product, though I do wish they go on to produce a paper that would be relevant to the community.

 

Venturing beyond the realm of what I know- Oct 7, 2012

Sometimes life simply overwhelms me. Interestingly, these are not the occasions when something momentous, fantastic or traumatic, have happened. That sense of life being larger and more complex than I am able to comprehend overcomes me without warning, swiftly and sharply. Caught unawares, I bumble around for a while. Reason some. Eventually, the feeling passes, but not after the collateral damage (mouth ulcers, kids screamed at, spat with the husband) has already happened.
At work though, the feeling of the insurmountable drives me to make more effort. The more nebulous and threatening the brief, the more I resort to the simplest of strategies. To use the powers of logical reasoning, the steps of problem solving, the confidence in my intelligence.
But what happens when you set out to do something you have never done before. And that something is an opportunity you have waited for, one you sense will change the shape of the future.
I am currently embarking on a research fellowship in which I know I will have to synthesise all the knowledge and skills I have, and some. At this point, I am struggling for clarity. How do I resist the urge to fit the vision and scope into the boundaries of my knowledge and skills? If I presume I can acquire the skills I need but do not currently have, would that be compromising my research? How do you ‘think big’? How do you imagine a future you haven’t seen?
I flit between feeling inadequate and knowing that the clarity will come. I know that, after years of anchoring in a safe harbour, I have taken myself out to sea and there will be rough weather to face. At some level, this is a test of discipline and survival as much as it is an exploration of my capability to find data, critically analyse and find solutions. But most of all, it is about letting go of self doubt, of soaring above the clouds and making the impossible possible.
To retain the passion and idealism that I feel even as I negotiate the harsh realities of urban planning and governance will be the mother of challenges. To evolve a template for an inclusive city seems like taking a crack at an unresolvable problem. To shed the skin of socialism I live in and approach the issue of migrant housing with a market-based solution that can be sold to government and private sector alike is a tall order indeed.
You would agree then, that this time round, the feeling of being overwhelmed is entirely understandable! While I go on with the rituals of my weekend (music class, family outing, errands and chores,doses of mainstream and eclectic entertainment), I carry inside me the excitement and fear of the huge distances I must travel and the leaps of faith I must make. The calm on the outside belies the tempest within.

From theory to action: Time to shake off the inertia? March 10, 2012

I admit I’m an armchair change maker. I perceive the problems I see around me, and because I have some training in the field of urban planning and because I can string an argument together, I find myself talking and writing about a whole bunch of urban problems. Of late, many readers have posted comments that ask me to consider taking actual steps towards addressing these.

To be honest, much as I like the idea of activism and much as I believe that community mobilization is the key to many of the positive changes we want to see, I do not really see myself in the shows of the activist. I have had a little experience working directly with communities on planning and housing projects, and while I enjoyed the process, I was not called upon to innovate or mobilize people in any way. As a designer, researcher or consultant, its easy to gather impressions and then carry your ideas and impressions outside of the community to put together your report. Essentially, I am comfortable behind the scenes, some sort of pseudo academic. Is this wrong? Or is it a legitimate role to play as well?

This blog has had no larger purpose, except to force myself to write everyday. But is there a logical next step. If so, what is it? Professional writer/blogger, academic research, a book? O is it some sort of method to seed community initiatives, consulting to communities and neighborhoods?

I do not know, and as of now, I am going to continue to focus on the writing. But I can feel the cogs turning inside my head. Let’s see what comes of it!

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