Adivasis of Kerala: Citizens or Cannon fodder?

KAFILA - 10 years of a common journey

This is a guest post by JAISON COOPER

Notwithstanding the opposition of many Adivasi organizations and progressive forces, the government of Kerala appears bent on moving forward with its project of recruiting Adivasis as home guards, paying them Rs.500 per day, to take on the Maoist guerrillas allegedly active in the Western Ghats. It is obvious that the state government is not learning lessons from the Salwa Judum experience in Central India and is bent on making Adivasis scapegoats in its impending showdown with the Maoists.

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A Few Good Men: India’s hidden male feminists

Great article everyone should take a look at!

KAFILA - 10 years of a common journey

In The Good Men of India, New York Times contributor, Lavanya Sankaran, appears to have discovered a whole new way to generalize across class and gender:

the Common Indian Male, a category that deserves taxonomic recognition: committed, concerned, cautious; intellectually curious, linguistically witty; socially gregarious, endearingly awkward; quick to laugh, slow to anger

This Common Indian Male (CAM) is quite different from other Indian males you may have encountered, who are:

feral men, untethered from their distant villages, divorced from family and social structure, fighting poverty, exhausted, denied access to regular female companionship, adrift on powerful tides of alcohol and violent pornography, newly exposed to the smart young women of the cities, with their glistening jobs and clothes and casual independence — and not able to respond to any of it in a safe, civilized manner.

Fortunately, Ms Sankaran, spends little time with such impoverished men who wash up…

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Entry #23

Where should I begin? As I write this I am sitting in London’s Heathrow airport bored out of my mind. My flight isn’t for another sixteen hours. I haven’t posted anything here in some time. So, I have a lot to say. I need to finish telling you about my time in India and my trip to Dubai.

My last few weeks in Ahmedabad were hectic, hot and somewhat uneventful. They were also crucial for my research. During this time I met the architect of the Sabarmati Riverfront project and the Municipal Commissioner of Ahmedabad.  I had at least two meetings with each of them and gained new perspectives on the project and received some vital material. Otherwise the last few weeks in Ahmedabad were spent wrapping things up and brining some closure to my time abroad. I spent a considerable amount of time getting final interviews, gathering as much data as possible, taking pictures and journaling observations. I mentioned in a previous post my visit to Bombay. This came right in the middle of my last few weeks. While it was necessary to go in order to collect some things I left in Bhubaneswar, it was extremely hard to manage considering all the things I wanted to attend to back in Ahmedabad.

Eventually I returned to Ahmedabad after an exciting time in Bombay. I arranged my final interviews with local officials and collected all the maps, data and reports I needed. After this I only had two Sundays remaining to spend at the market. I spent the first Sunday making my rounds. Tarun came with me as my translator. I spoke with Amit, Satyam, Bharatbhai and others and gathered more insight on the license process and the reasons why vendors acted and thought the way they did.  Due to some other arrangements I was only able to spend a few hours at Gujari. The next week was stressful. After Aanal came to visit me in India and I spent the most amazing time in my life with her in Himachal, I was determined to visit her in Dubai before I went home. I spent that entire week making all the necessary arrangements. Eventually, with the generous help of friends and family (all of which wanted to see me go to Dubai to be with her and were willing to help), I purchased my tickets on Indigo Airlines. I had to go to the Indigo office located at the airport in order to book the tickets. I almost killed myself twice getting there and was nearly stopped by the police, twice, but was able to drive around them and avoid a fine. I booked the cheapest ticket I could find which was from New Delhi to Dubai. So then I had to somehow get to New Delhi before Tuesday. On Saturday I went to Kalupur Railway Station and booked an overnight train to New Delhi. It cost me about 1,500 rupees (a little less than $30)—much more than I expected to spend. I was looking for a cheap ticket in sleeper class but the tourist quota was only available in AC 3 tier. After navigating the Kalupur Reservation Office, I begrudgingly paid the fare and took my ticket.

Then Sunday came. It was my last day at the market so I spent it saying goodbyes and gathering last minute interviews. During my time talking to vendors it was apparent that there was a profound confusion in the market. Even well educated and politically engaged vendors had incomplete or wrong information regarding the Sabarmati Riverfront Development project and the future of the Gujari Bazaar. This always disturbed me during my fieldwork, but I made it a point not to intervene while I was conducting my research. However, on the last day I decided it was time to do so. Two vendors I met, Bharat and Monsur, had no idea where the new market was to be located and what it would look like. However, the new location is just 250-300 yards south of the existing market. So I took Monsur and Bharat over to the new marketplace in order to measure their reactions. During the walk, they were unsure where I was taking them and seemed rather skeptical of my intentions. Eventually we came across the new marketplace and both couldn’t believe where they were standing. Several times Monsur looked over to me and asked incredulously, “Is this it? Is this the new Gujari?” I simply replied, “yes?” Upon hearing my confirmation they simultaneously pulled out their cell phones and began taking pictures. Kneeling down, Bharat put his new Samsung Galaxy S3 to good use, snapping pictures from every conceivable angle. It was very intriguing how they approached thinking and imagining themselves in the new marketplace. They wanted to experience the construction zone that was to be the marketplace, as they would one day come to inhabit it. Monsur sat on the vendor stalls looking around and visually measuring out the space allotted to him. He assumed he would have the space from end to end (approximately 10’ x 8’). He was shocked when I told him that each vendor would have only half that space. His brain began to process…I could see him arranging his books across the stall. He was a prodigious manager and always found a way to vend at his accord. Unlike the other book vendors, Monsur’s stall was always haphazard with books strewn everywhere. Most of the time the books were still wrapped in bundles with plastic twine. However, despite this seeming chaos and clutter, Monsur seemed to know exactly where each book could be found. If anyone were looking for something in particular which he had he could direct him or her to it without hesitation.

After 20-30 minutes, Monsur and Bharat were anxious to get back to their stalls and gain from the next surge of customers after lunch. We gathered our things. Monsur and Bharat took some final pictures and we headed back to the market. Along the way, both Bharat and Monsur dodged my translators and spoke directly to me. In broken English they expressed that I had made them extremely happy and excited for showing them their new marketplace. I was proud of what I did, but I struggled to understand why this had energized and excited them. It was evident they were unaware of the new plans, at least in any detail. And in general they were confused by conflicting information and passing rumors of Gujari’s future. Perhaps this visit gave them a sense of security. Perhaps it dispelled some myths and grounded some hope. After we returned, they settled in behind their stalls. They were visibly excited, leaning over to tell others from where they had just returned.

By then it was getting late and I had to leave. I collected my things. I finally told Bharat and Monsur that this was my final day at Gujari. He was clearly disturbed to hear this. He shifted off his discomfort. He stood and gave me a big hug. His voice began to crack as he explained how much he would miss taking me for tea, seeing me on Sundays, eating lunch together at Gujari and leaving me alone to vend for them. He was emotional. It was a touching moment to reflect on the personal and research relationship I had developed with some vendors at Gujari. While this may have compromised “objectivity” I was willing to sacrifice such illusions for the confidence I established with my informants. Their willingness to share, emote, and gossip rendered to me a ground reality within Gujari that I would not have seen looking from above. I am fortunate for their unique voices and extraordinarily indebted to them for their openness! Thanks Gujari…

To Be Continued…

All Over

Well ladies and gentlemen (that is if anyone is still reading these things), my trip in India is all over. As I write this I am back at my writing desk in Westfield, Indiana. There are plenty of things to catch you up on since my last blog post. After I returned from Bombay I finished up my research, took a trip to Dubai to see Aanal, and on the way home, went to visit my good friend Walker in Washington D.C. I promise to tell you all about them in an upcoming blog post. It is almost done. I should post it in the next few days. Till then, all the best!

Bombay Serenade

I had an interesting experience in Bombay. I started a journey in Juhu Beach, one of the wealthiest areas in India, and ended it on a train, in sleeper class, bound for Ahmedabad. My first day had purpose. My second was aimless. I want to tell you about that second day. It is a rewarding experience to passively let society play out, either in your favor or misfortune.

I was only in Bombay for two days. Bibhu, a colleague from Bhubaneswar, recently returned from a trip in Europe and brought some things that I left in Bhubaneswar. We met to see each other, talk and exchange. That consumed my first day. But on my last day I went to Colaba, around the old colonial part of the city. I hadn’t booked a return ticket. So, my first order of business was the reservation office of Churchgate Station. Done. Next, I wanted to go to the Oxford University Press Bookstore. After navigating a few narrow streets I finally found it. Done. Next, I had to find some free wifi. Starbucks at the Taj Hotel: cup of coffee and wifi. Done.

After this it was getting close to my train’s departure time. I left Colaba on the local train to Andheri Station, then auto to Juhu Beach. I got back to my friend’s house, collected my things, had an auto called and left. I had less than an hour to get to Bandra Terminus. In Bombay traffic this is a more nerving experience than it sounds. I felt compressed. I couldn’t miss this train. I will admit I have a dream of arriving at the station just in the nick of time and forced to chase down my train—certainly a dream courtesy of Wes Anderson’s romantic India in The Darjeeling Limited. In any case, I made a deal with myself and fate that I would let whatever happens happen. I refused to tell my autowalla to hurry. I refused to command the moment to my will. I let it play out. In this journey my autowalla took back roads and shortcuts. I assume he tried to avoid the traffic, but in Bombay this is a fool’s errand.

Along the way I saw a boy swatting at rickshaws, he seemed were determined to knock his mother down, with an empty 7Up bottle that showed wear indicative of a recycled water bottle. I saw a sizeable delegation of off-duty security guards, still dressed in their authorial uniforms, congregating on top of pile of rubble, literally higher in social visibility than those on the street—either claiming space for individual defiance or gathering for the necessity of social interaction—and strangers passing through (like me). I couldn’t help but think of the Foucauldian subtleties of power in production and put to work in that situation…but who has the time to understand such things? I saw a young Muslim man dressed in a white kurta and tagiyah resting in the subway of Bandra Terminus. He stood next to two wooden crates, catching his breath and mopping the sweat from his forehead, before the long ascension to Platform 3 via ramp tiled in vanilla monotony.

I couldn’t help but think in experiences such as these that ‘society’ and our ‘image of the city’ is constructed in all its reality by our simultaneous reactions to it. I recall Herbert Muschamp’s impressions of Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, “We are workers, producing our own factory just by walking down the street…”. The city in its absolute and multiplicity is constructed in everyday interactions and our interpretations of them. The city is perhaps the epitome of a tense “multivocal serenade” (a phrase taken from Robert Orsi. He spoke in the context of urban religious performance and display). He expands that this serenade is comprised of ‘diverse ontologies’. I do not think it’s a stretch to add, ‘mythologies’, ‘imaginaries’, ‘perceptions of the past’, ‘political ideologies’, etc. The city is bathed in our image. We both construct it and  engendered by it. The city is perhaps humankind’s greatest artifact, and humanity: its perpetual lab rats…

There is a notion out there that a city is dominated by spaces of visibility (spaces to see and be seen) and anonymity (spaces where we can be lost in a crowd). In between there are spaces for habitation, sex, food, entertainment, remembrance of the past, etc. Categorizations always pose limitations. In my short experience in India, I have noticed that the border between spaces is more porous. Space for habitation, disposal of waste, sleeping, entertaining guests, transportation are thrown together in one multilayered theater of social negotiation and, at times, contest. As a social nomad, I love exploring these winding and elaborate theaters. This is perhaps the most salient reason I am attracted to studying the urbanization of India.