Thingz – the life and lives

The last post which I made following my birthday was about things and my experiences with things, clutter, de-cluttering, etc. Around that time, I was wrapping up my fundraiser for SPARROW. For this fundraiser, I had sold some of the books from my collection and other things which I found I had no use for anymore. In the case of some things, I simply felt they needed to have a life beyond me and it was clear, by their mere presence, that somebody else could derive use, joy, meaning or something more through them.

Just when I wrapped up the SPARROW fundraiser, I got an email one day from Ekta Mittal of Maraa, inviting me to watch the preview of her film “Behind the Tin Sheets”. The movie documents the life of the migrant workers who have been involved with constructing the Bangalore Metro Rail system. Having researched some aspects of the metro project myself, mainly the disputes involved between different claimants and institutions, I was interested in the work that Ekta and her colleague Yashu were doing through this film. A week after, I read about the appeal for funds for completing the documentary, mainly the post-production work involving editing, sound design and tightening of any loose ends that may be. Their requirement was one lakh rupees. At that time, I decided to sell some more of my books which I had retrieved from my parents’ house a week before the appeal started circulating. Couple of people wrote in saying they could also give their things for sale if I could manage to sell them. I had raised about 6,000 rupees through the sales of my books and things for SPARROW. Through this experience, I felt encouraged to approach Ekta and Yashu with the idea of a garage sale, a sale where people would contribute things and we sell them to anyone and everyone. Ekta and Yashu felt excited about the idea and despite all of our apprehensions (and those of the things’ givers), a lot of things worked out for us and our garage sale happened on Saturday, 26th March.

Needless to say, it was a great success because not only did we raise about 32,000 rupees through sales and on-the-spot donations, there were lots of connections that were made through this one event which involved many known and unknown people coming together. In this blog post, I want to write about a few ‘things’ which include firstly, my own history with things and my relations with space through things which has gotten me to take up this personal project that I want to call ‘The Thingz Project”. And secondly, I wanted to talk about the process of working with people which is what this garage sale required and some interesting insights that have occurred to me in the process of working with Ekta, Yashu and some of the people who gave things for the project. Lastly, I want to summarize some of the experiences from the event day itself. I hope this post makes for interesting reading, just as some of the insights have been very, very interesting for me!

Part I – Of things, relationships and space: Space in terms of actual, physical space, has been an important aspect of my life. Ever since my first visits to Kashmir in 2002 which were preceded by a series of tensions and conflicts with my parents, the stuff that growing up involves, and my experiences with physical space in Srinagar, I have become a space-cialist. Perceptions about physical space shape our perceptions, imaginations and in turn our relationships with people, things, places and institutions, among others.

When I was in Srinagar in 2002, I was introduced to the writings of the French author Theodore Zeldin. His work, “An Intimate History of Humanity”, was an account of how human beings have sought freedom and then, through their habits, have given up on the same freedom that they have struggled for so intensely. I highly recommend this book to one and all. The last chapter of the book was a conclusion and summary of Zeldin’s excavations of this history of humanity – the search, grasp, giving up of freedoms and habits. In this last chapter, he wrote how just the fact of having a room entirely to oneself was one of the pathways to individual freedom. When I read that chapter, I thought Zeldin was speaking my mind (though now I would beg to differ) because I was then living with my parents in their 550 square feet apartment where my sister and I had tried to devise novel ways of creating private spaces for ourselves because we did not have a separate room. Given the high value of physical space in Bombay, my sister and I had learned to somehow maneuver, negotiate, struggle and put up confrontations for our own need for private, closed space where we could simply be ourselves without having to explain ourselves to anyone, the least of all our parents with who we were fighting our battles of emotional independence.

In this struggle for space and emotional independence which also involved struggles of coming up with our sense of self-identities and personalities, our relations with things were shaped. For my sister, things, particularly presents and gifts, gave her a great sense of comfort, warmth and most importantly a feeling of emotional and personal security. For me, things were a source of irritation because the more things that came into my parents’ house, the lesser the space we would have to ourselves. Though my mother, through her ingenuity, tried to put things in attics, on top of shelves and into whatever empty corners she could find, the very presence of these ‘things’ meant clutter for me.

My first visits to Kashmir around that time however changed my understanding of space because I saw for the first time how, despite large houses and rooms for individuals, everyone was pried upon unless the individual rebelled and shut himself or herself (mostly himself) off from their family. The shutting off itself involved violence and conflict, an additional layer of emotional trauma that had to be borne in an atmosphere of armed conflict and violence perpetrated as much by the Indian government, local police forces, national army as much as by any real or imagined enemy. If you did not manage to shut yourself off from family, you would be oppressed by tradition, strict gender roles and authorities in the university and work in the Kashmiri society then. My experiences with space in Kashmir and thereafter my research on spaces in Mumbai opened up my understanding of the complicated and intricate relationships that human beings and groups in society share with space.

When my sister and I began traveling for our work and studies and had lesser frequent stays at our parental home, our relations with things changed. For me, things brought happiness when they were exchanged as gifts/presents. I used buy a lot of books then which gave me intense happiness. I ended up, many times, having two copies of many same books which I would then find reason and season for giving to friends. Relations with friends were also deepened through these exchanges of things – the acts of giving and receiving. That, in turn, gave me different worlds which I could lean up on at various times for emotional support and succor.

Life has involved many journeys thereafter and one of the journeys brought me to Bangalore. When I first moved here in 2006 as a Ph.D. student, my sense of happiness stemmed from my feelings of independence and having my own space (and therefore control) where decisions would be made by me. I lived on my own for nearly 3 years in Bangalore before I moved in with my husband’s parents. In my first year in Bangalore, I enjoyed living with very few things and in fact, practically all the essential items I had in my first studio apartment were things that were given to me by friends for use – utensils, fridge, cupboard, bed, shelves, etc. I completely enjoyed this Spartan existence until the move to a second house. My then boyfriend, now husband, with his sense of perfection and need for perfect working conditions brought in furniture, books and equipment to work in the house, thereby compelling me to be tolerant of things and his ways of life. Until we moved house after marriage, I never realized the amount of things that had gotten accumulated in our two years of living in our second house.

My disdain for things and then the subsequent need for de-cluttering began early this year. The previous year ended on a note of the necessity for ‘emptying’ out negative emotions, resolving certain relationships and building on the emptiness and resolution of the strains in some of these immediate relations. As part of this process, it became natural for me to build a new relationship with my living space. I had to re-develop a relationship with the bedroom and living room space, with the cupboards and furniture in my in-laws’ house. This relationship involved emptying clutter. Partly, the emptying clutter process was also sparked by the implicit anxieties of finishing my doctoral thesis, hoping that by clearing things, I would be reaching the goal of finishing! I have thereafter begun on a mission of ‘clearing’, sometimes at the cost of irking my husband who wonders what things are leaving his life and existence.

The process of giving things – exchanges – has also led me to meet new people and to discover new relations. I sold my books to complete strangers when fundraising for SPARROW. Some of the complete strangers are now email pals. I cannot even recount here the things that have happened through the giving up of things. Essentially, I have now begun to develop a new meaning and relation with a 6,000 square feet house where I am currently living. From a time of living in dearth of space to a time of living in plenitude, the anxiety, happiness, disdainful and complicated relations with things continue …

Part II – Working with People: I must say outright that I have had no part in making the film “Behind the Tin Sheets” and that the garage sale fundraiser for the film has been driven by my ‘thingz’ project, my interest in recycling, my conviction in the need for archiving stories of groups whose lives and histories are brushed aside even before they come to any surface.

Another interesting experience that subtly influenced me to take initiative on this garage sale was my first visit to Bellandur and Marathalli in early 2008. My dearest friend, Mythri Prasad, has been researching the lives, sociality and politics of Bengali and North Indian migrant construction labourers in Trivandrum and Cochin since 2005. Her research led her to travel with some of the laborers to Bihar and Malda and live in their houses and experience their lives. In 2008, she visited Bangalore to research the lives of construction labourers working on construction projects in Bellandur and Marathalli. At that time, she was researching the Sunday market that the migrant labourers had developed in Cochin where they bought things, interacted with each other, became part of unions and had various kinds of social, economic and political exchanges through this Sunday market in Cochin.

We went to Bellandur and Marathalli then to see if there was any semblance of a Sunday market in these areas where things were sold and where spaces were formed through these markets for the labourers to interact with each other. We did find markets along the service roads in Bellandur and Marathalli. We spoke to a lot of hawkers who were vending things and we stood and observed the construction labourers who came with their children, wives and relatives to buy second hand clothes, radio transistors, electronic items, etc. It was fascinating how desire and need informed their purchases and longings for beautiful, coloured things. The entire fieldwork process with Mythri for a week gave me a very small sneak into the lives of the construction labourers and made me aware of how their lives were differently capacitated and incapacitated through the very acts of travel and journeying, with strange longings for permanence of home and temporariness of travel – the paradoxical conflict between belonging and freedom.

When I began developing the idea of the garage sale with Ekta and Yashu, I had to navigate through the initial tensions of the enthusiasm for an idea that I was pushing for and resources, mainly in terms of personal time and energy, that Ekta and Yashu had to pull off such an event. At that time, they were busily scouting for a good editor for their film. Add to that, Ekta is involved with zillions of things – street theater, community radio, public space, theater jams and many such commitments – in addition to being turned on by the idea of a garage sale. All three of us also had apprehensions about whether there would be enough people who would buy things at a sale. There was a point in time where Ekta said, “it does not matter even if we raise 1,500 rupees through this sale, but let us do it.” People came forward to give things. Some said they wanted to retain part of the sales for themselves and give some part of the sale proceeds to the film. We decided to be open to everyone and yet, because we were working on our personal time and resources, not to take on so much responsibility as would stress us. We therefore asked people to come and manage their own sales and keep accounts. Eventually, everyone just gave us things which we sold and the proceeds came to the film. Given how minor issues can become major sources of conflict, I felt it important (and I think Ekta and Yashu also felt similarly) to keep things very simple and keep our communications with everyone clear and straightforward. Media publicity invitations came in the process of working on making the sales happen. Ekta was clear she did not want too much publicity at this stage when the film was being completed because this would lead her to worry about the end product (whereas, rightly, she ought to be focusing on the process and creativity along with Yashu). For me, the idea was to publicize the sales and so, we sought support of friends who are avid twitter users, and who are connected with large scale mailing lists. All in all, in the process of organizing this sale, many connections happened and the film is also being produced through these interesting exchanges.

For me, the sense of responsibility and tension also stemmed from the fact that in a way, I was in charge and there were times when things and monetary sums were coming to me to pass on to Ekta and Yashu. It is in the process of organizing this one event where I have learnt two things: one, money is really about ideas – good ideas will bring resources. Secondly, being in charge involves a lot of responsibility and constant check and recheck on one’s self that being in charge is not reaching the head and manifesting as control. This constant struggle to keep controls lose was a worthwhile experience for me. People are likely to read ethics and morality into this issue. I would beg that you don’t. And I also beg that you read into a person’s background before you judge ethics and morals when it comes to being in positions of ‘in-charge(ness)’ and leadership. I can’t help but recount here one episode before I move into the third part of this post.

This episode took place in Johannesburg. I was visiting Jo’burg in 2009 as part of my comparative and collaborative research on water privatization with my colleague Boitumelo. Boitumelo had earlier researched on the court case that poor residents of a locality named Phiri, in the famous township of Jo’burg named Soweto, had filed in the court against privatization of water. During fieldwork, Tumi (as we refer to Boitumelo) took me to Phiri. It was indeed a very poor and deprived locality because it was situated on the fringes of Soweto. There was massive unemployment in Phiri and many members in the household were suffering from AIDS or some other serious disease.

Tumi took me to the house of Adri (name changed to protect identity) who was one of the persons who had initiated the court proceedings against the water utility of Jo’burg for privatizing water. Her appeal in the court was made on the grounds that there was no water available for Adri to bathe the dead body of her father to initiate and complete the funeral. Adri sobbed and had flames of anger in her eyes as she described how, the disconnection from water because she could not pay, led to her dead father’s body going unclean into the grave, a taboo according to certain African traditions.

Adri also explained later that she had led the campaign against privatization and traveled to other countries then to make a case of the Phiri residents for international solidarity. But subsequently, she withdrew because there were allegations of funds appropriation, accounting malpractices and issues of self-importance and self-promotion in the process of the campaign. Usually, it is easy to judge and say how people become corrupt in the process of leading such campaigns and we become disillusioned. But I remember Tumi and I speaking to Adri and asking her about her life. We found that she was unemployed, she suffered from AIDS and clinical depression, and she had a family of dependents including an unemployed brother and his wife and children. By describing Adri’s condition here, I don’t want to say that her acts of using some of the campaign fund money for herself are justified. But what we also need to think about is that when a person is leading and is giving in a lot of her time and energies, there is a sense of entitlement that one develops over the funds and resources that one manages. The extent to which the ‘corruption’, in terms of personal use of resources, harms others and the overall process is something we need to analyze from situation to situation before we jump to conclusions of corruption and malpractices. In some cases, these appropriations are very minor. In some cases, even when they are minor, they impact the flow of processes at that moment and the acts of ‘corruption’ are therefore marked as morally wrong and gravely incorrect then. At the end of the day, there is no hero and no villain – we are all in the game, differently positioned at different points in time, in different situations.

The Garage Sale: Phew! This is becoming a rather long blog post but I could not contain my enthusiasm to recount stories and tales from different parts of the world – personal worlds, social worlds, international words, bordered and free worlds!

We began setting up our show at 1:30 PM on 26th March. Lots of thanks to the owners of Variety Book House on Church Street who were not only generous with giving us space but were also very, very helpful in making arrangements for us and giving us change money for the initial part of the sales. As Ekta and Yashu were setting up the first batch of things, someone came and in and made purchases worth 250 rupees. When I got to Variety Book House, Ekta handed me the money saying ‘bauni (first sale) has been done!’ We were enthused.

Passers by came skeptically and hesitantly, peeping in to the ledges of the balcony space and wondering what was going on. Our wonder sales women Ekta (supported by the brass horn and loud calling) and Yashu (supported by her signature white rimmed goggles), later supported by our very own glamorous star Reena, and equally supported by Pratyush (whose auctioning will put Southeby’s art auctions to shame-shame puppy-shame) egged people to make sales. We were amazed how things were selling and how people came in with more things to sell from time to time as things were running out to their new owners and journeys. Our worry was that we would have lots of things to sell. We were proved wrong. Towards the end, we felt we did not have enough.

Things had traveled from everywhere – my vintage dress bought from the streets of East London sold by an East European migrant there found its rightful owner in wonder artist Pallavi. My Burmese migrant friends’ presents of woolen knitwear found another owner. Someone’s Spanish mirrors were picked by a beautiful woman. A stranger woman passing by bought a book for my friend Pooja’s wonder daughter Tanishqa, to our complete surprise. Ekta handed an Enid Blyton book to a girl whose mother was dragging her away from the sale but the girl’s desire for the book was so strong that Ekta did not have the heart to let her go without the book. People haggled at times, much to our irritation. Some haggling was both fun and affectionate.

Arati Choksi came in and bought our things and also thoughtfully bought us jamuns to help us continue the energy and sales. At one time, Aarti looked at a bracelet and wondered whether her daughter would wear it. But then she turned and said, “now my girl is 15. Until last year, I could dress her. From this year on, she is her own person!” I remembered my own mother then and the things she would buy from her desire to see me beautiful and dressed and things I would sometimes grudgingly accept, sometimes cheerfully wear on and sometimes put them away to find value in them years later!

There could be so much more to say, but I will end here. Things, however, will continue to generate and regenerate, give life, thereby becoming life-like and lively in the process …

Dedicated to:

Santhosh Padmanbhan whose understanding of people’s stories is so similar to mine, even though we come from different backgrounds and experiences

Ekta Mittal, Yashu MacMohan, Ram – for Behind the Tin Sheets, Maraa and for the experience of working together

Ayush Ranka and his pictures – the sheer process by which his photos were picked up by their rightful owners reinforced my faith in the circulation and exchange of things

Ajay Gupta, among everyone else, who helped us with logistics, hung around with us at the sale and chatted up with friends of friends. Amazing how meeting of peoples happen. Reinforces my belief in the saying “The most dangerous thing to do is to introduce people to each other!”

To everyone who gave us their things, their support, their resources and time – my postcard set of the stills from the film will always remind me of the amazing energies, synergies and miracles of this garage sale!

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About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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