Monday, March 4, 2013
At Roxy’s home in Ghatlodia, Ahmedabad
I admit I am doing a terrible job keeping you up to date about my goings on. I need to tell you about several things—first, my last days in Bhubaneswar; second, my time in New Delhi; and third my return to Ahmedabad.
I am very busy and since there is a lot to catch you up on I will have to be brief. My last week in Bhubaneswar was very eventful. Nihal arranged a small trip to the site of the Kalinga War, Konark, and Puri. All of which are in Orissa.
First, the site of the Kalinga War. A long time ago there was a republic named Kalinga. Some say it accommodated a more robust democracy than Athens. As with most democracies, its process was cumbersome and slow, thus susceptible to the quick maneuvers of a tyrant who could move his armies on his will alone. Thus, Kalinga was attacked by Ashoka, the tyrant-king of the great Mauryan Empire. Some say that the Kalinga War was the largest war in India (save for that of the Mahabharata). It was fought alongside the Daya River. Ashoka’s thirst for power was insatiable. In the end Kalinga and its armies were defeated. It was said that the Daya River was soaked in blood and ran red long after the battle. Some accounts say over 200,000 people were killed in the fighting.
After the battle, however, Ashoka walked the fields and was so horrified by what he saw something inside him changed. He decided to dedicate his life in pursuit of non-violence. He adopted Buddhism, perhaps a way to atone for his deeds, but more importantly to impress on his kingdom the importance of non-violence in human affairs. This was certainly a major turning point in the history of Buddhism, but also the story of India and the world. Ashoka inscribed several edicts in stone across his empire. This one (see picture below), located at the battlefield, is considered the first treatise on human and animal rights in recorded history. This rock edict in particular is the only completely intact edict of its kind remaining.
Second, our trip to Konark. Located close to the site of the Kalinga War is the erotic temple of Konark. It is a temple dedicated to sex, sexuality and sexual expression. It took 12,000 artisans 12 years to carve the walls of Konark. The temple has been extremely damaged. First, by invaders who were so offended by the erotic imagery they set about smashing them to pieces. Second, by a tsunami that dislodged several of the higher carvings, sending them crashing into the lower ones, effectively sandblasting much of the surface. Third, by time.
Third, our trip to Puri. Puri is a city located along the sea. It is a popular destination for teenagers (especially from Bhubaneswar) and tourists alike who come here for the beaches and warm Bay of Bengal. We only stayed in Puri for a few hours, not long enough for anything to happen. But apparently long enough for my shoes to be stolen. At the heart of Puri is the famous Jagannath Temple (where the English word Juggernaut comes from…long story). Non-Hindus are not allowed in Jagannath temple but we figured we would try to get in anyway. Whenever you enter a Hindu temple you must remove your shoes. I removed my shoes and placed them outside the gates. I walked in and made it all the way to the doors before a guard stopped me. He asked where I was from. I said, “America”. He replied, “Are you Hindu”. I said, “of course”. He didn’t believe me, obviously, laughed and made me leave. When I walked out I looked around for my shoes but they were gone, nowhere to be found. From the time I took off my shoes, entered the gate, got stopped by the guard and came back outside, I suspect 30-45 seconds had past. Still my shoes were gone.
I was told this is good luck. It means that all your sins are taken away with your shoes. I suspect someone just told me this to make me feel better, but lets hope there some silver lining here.
Shortly after this trip through Orissa we had to leave for Delhi. My stint in New Delhi was largely uneventful. I am not a fan of New Delhi. Although, we stayed in the old city, which has far more character than any other part of the city I’ve seen. Our first day there was the only officially programed day. We spent a full day at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) at a seminar. Our schedule went from 10:30 in the morning to 5 in the evening. The CapAsia project in Bhubaneswar was actually a collaborative project with third year students from SPA. They conducted a conventional master-planning project and the CapAsia students did more ethnographic investigations. The idea of the seminar was to find ways to merge these two planning perspectives. Needless to say a large group of confused students (myself included) did little to advance this direction, but if inculcating critical thought about planning’s conventional approaches may be taken as a measure of success, then the seminar was largely productive. Nihal asked me to present my on-going thesis research. I was extremely unprepared to do so, but I did anyway. I didn’t do as good of a job as I could have. But afterward an assistant professor from Alhosn University in Abu Dhabi who happened to sit in on the seminar extended an invitation to present my post-fieldwork research at his university: a promising lead!
After the seminar the students were free to roam New Delhi for three full days. Some of us spent the time going to the tourist sites: Lotus Temple, Jamma Masjid (Mosque), Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, and India Gate. Some went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I decided not to go because its expensive, consumes a whole day and I’ve already seen it. Then I broke off from the CapAsia group and it was off to Ahmedabad…
I am so happy to say: I finally arrived in Ahmedabad. Today is my second full day here. I arrived on March 2nd around 10:15pm. Roxy was unable to meet me at the airport so he sent Ankur (another community leader we worked with in Chharanagar) to pick me up. It is always a great feeling to have someone you know welcome you. I haven’t seen him in two years, but that didn’t matter. Ankur brought his motorcycle, so after carefully positioning my 45lbs bag on the front of the bike, on top of the gas tank, we left the airport. Our trip around the north side of Ahmedabad felt like a magical mystery tour. It was so disorienting. This city has changed so much since the two years I’ve been away. Eventually, we made it to Roxy’s home on the western outskirts of Ahmedabad in an area called Ghatlodia. I finally met Roxy’s son Tarun and daughter Kranti. There are also two young girls, Rita and Pria, from Maninagar (another Chhara community in Ahmedabad) staying with Roxy. Roxy and Kalpna (his wife) came a few moments later. Kalpna has been preforming in a play about the life of Kasturba (Gandhi’s wife). I gave Roxy a huge hug and for the rest of the night we stayed up and talked, catching up and mapping out my time here in Ahmedabad. Of course, as per the usual of Indian hospitality and Roxy’s generosity, food was prepared immediately. We ate a healthy serving of chapatti, rice, and dal.
The next day Roxy had several plans for me. We woke early (in India, early is about 8:00am. Most people don’t go into work until 10:00am). Aneesh (a community leader from Chharanagar) was chosen to receive an award at a ceremony hosted by a radio station here called RED FM. This award was for people making a difference in their communities. Aneesh has, for several years, been hosting a music program at the Chharanagar Library. But since they never had access to formal instruments, Aneesh brought together empty plastic jugs and tin cans. Aneesh and the kids were the last recipients of the award and they preformed. It was incredible. To see the platform given to Aneesh, Chharas, and Chharanagar, if even for an instant, I was really touched, in fact I almost cried.
After this I was Roxy’s guest of honor at Kalpana’s performance as Kasturba. She was flawless! The play was so powerful. Although the entire play was in Gujarati (of which I know very little) there was no translation required. The end of the play (Kasturba’s death) is so powerful, not only was everyone emotional and teary eyed, but there was pin drop silence for several minutes until a roar of applause. I gave only a standing ovation to Kasturba, or as I call her now…Ma (mother).
For the next several mornings I could not pick up a paper without seeing an article about Kalpana’s performance. One edition of the DNA (Daily News and Analysis) devoted an entire page to Kasturba and Kalpana. It was beautiful and described the similarities of Kasturba and Kalpana (its eerie…nevertheless two enormously strong women). It has been an incredible experience to see all of this played out before me. It’s awkward now to have her cook breakfast for me in the morning!
Anyway that’s all I have for now. I will say a bit more about my research thus far. I have spent my first week in Ahmedabad productively. I set aside this week to get comfortable, meet/reconnect with scholars, writers, activists, and students, as well as catch up on some reading. It has been well spent. I’ve met some very interesting people. This has gone a long way in opening up a research/resource network for me. I am still struggling to find a collaborator/research assistant/translator. I’m willing to pay someone. I’ve had several offers and suggestions, but it’s been hard to find the “right” person. Someone that is not only qualified but that I’m willing to work with and share ideas. My thesis research focuses on the life-journeys of vendors at the “Sunday Market” – a 600-year old craft market that traces its history to the founding on the city in 1411 AD. This market is under serious threat from the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project (SRFDP). My work aims to understand how and in what ways these vendors secure a space for work and livelihoods for their families amid the market’s uncertain future. It also interrogates the role of planners and policy makers in the reproduction of “the city” by demonstrating the “abstract space” of planners is creating unnecessary burdens on the “lived space” of ordinary people. Furthermore, it brings into question the appropriation of “Heritage” by planners and politicians in Ahmedabad as it seeks the status of a “World Heritage City” from UNESCO.
As I write this it is Saturday, March 9th (I know its taken me a long time to finish this post). My first official day of fieldwork is tomorrow. I’ve arranged an impromptu interpreter—Tarun Gagdaker, Roxy’s son.
I’ve also been writing a lot lately. I’m preparing a paper for a Faculty/Student Symposium at Ball State University (due April 3rd). From this paper I am preparing an abstract (due April 1st) and, eventually, a paper (due October 17th) that I will submit to the South Asian Studies Conference in Madison, WI. Both papers will be from my thesis fieldwork. The theme of the Madison Conference this year is “work”. Thus my thesis aim is relevant and I’m really excited. However this is the largest collection of scholars on South Asia, so I’m not going to get my hopes up because my paper could easily get rejected.
Other than this I have been reading a lot of M.K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. This is, after all, his city. His ashram is just down the street from the site of my fieldwork. And whenever I need to get away I go to the ashram, sit by the river and either read, write or reflect. Inevitably my thinking always comes back to Gandhi somehow, perhaps it has more to do with the place, but Gandhi’s thoughts are so universal they have a way of providing insight no matter what you’re studying.
Anyway, that’s all for now. More later…