This morning, someone from the group asked me about my Ph.D. thesis and what the topic of my thesis was. I mentioned that I was working on property markets and how particular kinds of property markets have emerged since 1980s. This person then said how did I choose this topic and I mentioned that besides my interesting family background which inspired me to work on this theme, I had also worked a little with squatters and slum dwellers and that I passionately felt for their issues concerning space. I am not working on the issue of housing or secure land tenure, both of which are highly contentious topics. I also have very strong arguments against particular notions and policies about housing, secure tenure and property titling because as much as we would like to believe that these benefit the poor, the fact of the matter remains that very few groups among the poor (poverty being a mobile and fluid condition) actually gain from such policies and programmes.
What mainly struck me when I mentioned about my thesis is that I actually said that I am passionate about what I was doing and how it means so much to me. I did not start this thesis with the sole intention of having a career post-thesis. The reason why my thesis is so important to me, now when I think about it, is because space and relationships are fundamental to life and living. What matters most in our lives is space – space in the physical sense of the term, space as something that develops/unfolds through our relationships with people and institutions around us, space as that very real notion that exists in our minds and which fairly directly influences the ways in which we react, the relationships that we construct and the battles that we decide to fight. Let me try and explain this with two examples.
First: Last evening, a guest came over for dinner. I was awed by the saree which this lady guest had worn. As we discussed her saree, she mentioned that she has a tailor in Siddhapura slum who stitches the blouses she adorns with her sarees. She explained that at one time, her tailor remarked to her:
Tailor: ‘madam, how come you stitch so many blouses but you rarely wear sarees?’
Lady (to me): When I go to Siddhapura slum these days, I don’t take my car. Earlier when I had a driver, he would drive me into Siddhapura. But these days, I have to walk inside the slum. It is so dirty and all kinds of people are there. In the presence of all these peoples, how can I wear a saree and show off my waistline???
This lady spoke with utter disgust and contempt about Siddhapura slum. What interested me was the fact that she believed strongly that the people in Siddhapura are dirty, rowdy and that they would eye her waistline. Essentially, she felt uncomfortable, afraid and fearful in a territory which she believed was strange, inhabited by people who did not have the social etiquette which is the dominant trait of people of her socio-economic ilk, and that this place, which she referred to as a slum, is a haven of dirt, rowdyism and lust. It is this belief in the mind which has been reinforced by the media and by civic groups who mark slum dwellers as thieves draining away taxpayer money that reinforce the feelings of discomfort and disdain. This discomfort then translates into unease when we continue to believe what has been passed down to us without bothering to so much check whether the particular area in question, Siddhapura slum, is actually a den of vice or many other things in addition to the perceived vices and evils. These perceptions, stereotypes and beliefs shape our understandings of spaces. These understandings, in turn, lead us to react/respond to particular spaces, like the slum in question, and accordingly, when people like this woman walk into a slum, their notions of personal space (i.e. the space surrounding the body) and the physical environment actually produce feelings of vulnerability, fear, anxiety and distrust. Thereafter, the physical space shrinks or expands for us depending on how we feel in certain spaces – secure, insecure, free, unfree, liberated, fettered, etc, etc.
Second: I used to travel to Kashmir for some time, about five to six years ago. I loved being in Srinagar because coming from a city like Bombay, Srinagar had these beautiful mountains which you could see from anywhere and everywhere and they created this enormous sense of expansiveness. People’s houses were huge, so much unlike Bombay where space has been a premium whether it be in terms of the size of the houses people live in or the local trains in which people travel. These realities of physical space, both in Srinagar and Bombay, influence the way in which inhabitants of these cities (as well as those outside) relate to people and the relationships that they (and us) construct with people around and institutions.
In Srinagar, while the houses were large, the enormous presence of the armed forces on the roads and nooks and crannies had produced a certain kind of family system where you usually had one authority figure in the family who resembled in nature and behaviour exactly like the authoritarian soldier of the Indian army. This authority figure was as much like the Indian state which dominates over Kashmiris and tries to control them. Therefore, even though you had these large houses, the presence of one or two authority figures inside the house coupled with the way in which different generations viewed and surveilled individual persons in public spaces, restaurants, family gatherings, houses, etc would shrink the space for a young person in Kashmir. This produced an enormous amount of trauma and turmoil for people of my (then) age in Srinagar. Large physical space, but shrunk so rapidly by the Indian state, by family systems that resembled the structure and nature of the Indian state, the older generations, elder siblings, relatives, priests, religionists, etc.
The spaces around us are pretty much shaped by us as much as we are all part of them. This remains true even in the case of squatters and slum dwellers for who space has more meanings than one. They occupy space – land in cities – in various complex ways which are still not understood and grasped thoroughly. This occupancy status leads us and policy makers to mark them in particular negative ways. And these, along with many related practices and issues, shape the ways in which we exist/conflict with squatter and slum dwellers groups in our cities. Their presence also influences our experiences of the city and of certain areas in the city, leading us to then agitate/lobby for opening up/closing down/barricading/limiting various other spaces in the city.
When I spontaneously mentioned that I am passionate about my thesis, I actually reinforced this belief to myself which in turn changes my perspective and emotional status about my thesis writing. I guess the reason why my thesis matters so much to me is because it is an opportunity for me to reflect on my beliefs, prejudices, world views and stereotypes and to change my way of thinking. I would be rather hypocritical if I were to say that I am liberated from all notions of property ownership. When it comes to matters of property and my family, I am rather careful about my own interests. But what remains interesting and essential are my encounters with various people during my thesis research and the insights that each one of these encounters presents to me. I meet people spanning various points in various and similar continuums – simple, sharp, traumatized, struggling, wily, cunning, apprehensive, harassed, etc. And each of these persons invites me into their lives in various ways. Sometimes they talk. Sometimes their conditions and surroundings speak volumes to me. I use their toilets to relieve myself. I err on norms and etiquettes. I have to answer questions about my gender, my religion, my identity and my class. Some of these questions are uncomfortable. Some of them are familiar. And sometimes, I just play by the rules instead of being confrontational. I walk into all kinds of spaces and situations, often with fear, anxiety and sometimes with confidence. Being in their lives, even if it is momentary, makes me realize that I am made of the same flesh, grime and dirt which appears disdainful in squatter settlements and slums. It is this realization and acceptance that makes research both meaningful and productive.
Often, at the end of meetings and interviews, I have hugged the hardy women I have spoken to, both out of gratitude and out of sheer respect for their gumption. Grime, sweat, graft, cunning, trauma – this is all we are each made up of. Some of us have more access to fragrant soaps, unlimited water supply, clean toilets which then makes us of another ilk and also masks our grime, dust and sweat. Some of us have sparse/uncertain access to these basic amenities. Eventually, what meanings we make of our lives and of the lives of those around us is what perspective is all about and that is what shapes perceptions, attitudes and beliefs. I am here to develop a perspective through my thesis and it is my firm belief that a different perspective brings a lot of change.
This morning I ran 2.25k. I sweated profusely because I ran too fast. I know that some people in the running group bring change of tees to get rid of the sweatiness feeling after the run. Some others say, ‘don’t hug me now, I am sweaty sweaty!’ When I sweated today, I realized how that sweat is also part of my essence. That sweat is what keeps me rooted. That sweat is what keeps me earthed. That sweat is me. How does it matter if people want to stay away just because I perspire? Too bad for them!
To another end and to another beginning, in sweat, earthiness and toil …