Thursday, April 30, 2009

Each day when I enter the locality of Dakshinpuri, the women seated in front of their houses wave to me, ask in greeting, “Hope all is well today?” I reply with a smile.

The houses are narrow two- or three-storey buildings with small windows and doors. Wrested from minimal space, balconies and staircases angle into the lanes. Courtyards spill into the lanes as well. This is where most of the women spend their time, sitting on cots that they push back when motor vehicles force their way through.

These residents rarely leave their lanes other than for household-related tasks, such as buying vegetables in the nearby Friday market. Occasionally they go shopping with the men of their families. The cots drawn together in the lane are their primary social space. In the early morning, a few women might go together for a walk in the scrubby green belt close by, disregarding the park which is right across from where they live.

I first encounter Anu’s mother, who sits on her small front step, waiting for the water or for her grandchild to return from the first shift at school.

Yashoda waves to me. As usual she is seated on the cot in front of her house, busy with some domestic task or the other, knitting, or chatting with her neighbours. Sometimes she just sprawls lazily, observing the lane. She says this is the only place where she can spend her free time.

Anita runs her own small shop which, however, does not seem to draw any customers. She occupies herself with domestic tasks while she waits for someone to stop by for a chat.

Chitrasathi is an energetic woman I often see in pink sneakers, walking rapidly to some destination; she stops along the way for a few minutes to speak to her neighbours on their cots.

Kamlesh, Anita, Krishna, Sita, Yasoda, Chitrasathi and Vidya, all residents of Dakshinpuri for at least the past twelve years, are the most visible in this block. Sometimes they argue fiercely over small issues, but they always support each other in times of crisis, and celebrate festivals together.

Initially when the Bal Club and I tried to intervene in locality issues, the residents opposed and obstructed us. Things changed when these women began to participate in our park-related activities. They clarified that even though the park is used by almost everyone as a place to dump garbage, it is also regularly used in other ways.

For instance, Yashoda says that during summer she spends hours in the park at night when there is a power cut, despite kinowing that all kinds of filth has been thrown there. There is literally no other open space in the locality. She also says that during festivals, mud from the park is dug up and used in the rituals. The residents visualise a green and healthy space that they should keep clean, but somehow they are not able to break the pattern of current usage – ‘nuisance’ and garbage dumping.

They are keen to join our discussion, and spend the evening in dialogue with us about how to re-design the park so it can be used in the most generous collective manner possible.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An encounter

An Evening Event was collectively produced by the young members of the Ankur Bal Club, local residents of Dakshinpuri, and a artist/media practitioner (myself), at the site of the municipal park. This project developed through the generation and compilation of narratives linked to and embedded in the locality of Dakshinpuri and the park, with participants describing their relationship to the site and to shared spaces within it.

People were passionate in their articulation of both past and present experiences. They also lamented certain losses and erosions and erasures, as well as celebrated certain transformations of common spaces within the park.
However, it is not as if our interventions were easily accepted, received, assimilated or understood by local residents. Our efforts to initiate regular dialogue with people faced many obstacles, which became a theme for the insightful narratives of the youngsters we worked with.

In very general and literal terms, it is difficult to categorise which spaces are shared/collective, and which are personal. There are multiple claimants, each staking out an area within the garbage-strewn zones of the park.

Our first significant encounter was the resistance from a local resident to our intervening in the shared space of a large banyan tree that is central to the park. The dense shade cast by thick foliage and dense aerial roots clustering like pillars from canopy to ground offer relief from the scorching sun; the tree seems to protect the park like a mascot and sentinel. In actual fact, the tree did have a self-appointed custodian: a 90-year-old woman who everyone knows as “Amma” in the neighbourhood of Dakshinpuri’s J Block.

Amma strolled in the park with a stick in one hand, the other hand on her waist to support her bent torso. Her face was deeply wrinkled and etched with fatigue, and her eyes were perpetually anxious. As migrants, she and her husband had planted the tiny sapling in Dakshinpuri and nurtured it as if it was their own child. By the time it was full grown, Amma had lost her husband. She considered the tree her own property, and vigilantly opposed people she considered to be intruders in the park.

Park-users of all ages find her opposition and hostility impossible to confront; most do not even sit under the tree. We were no exception. The moment she observed us in the park she became very anxious; she stared at us till we were unnerved. Sometimes she walked up to us and requested us not to sit under the banyan; she began sweeping the spot with a broom, pushing the dust and grit towards us and thus forcing us to leave.

We returned to that site persistently, however, and decided to make it a central node in the practice of organising sessions of dialogue with the local residents. To facilitate this, we made a swing from a small plank and were preparing to hang the swing by ropes from a branch of the banyan tree when Amma came rushing towards us, shouting and waving her stick. Dodging her assault with difficulty, we tried to explain that the tree was not her private property and that she could not prevent us from putting up the swing. Her response was stubborn and aggressive as ever – she simply could not understand how it was that ‘her’ tree was actually not within ‘her’ jurisdiction, and that she thereby had no authority over it or over whoever wished to utilise what it offered as a public space.

One morning we found that the rope supporting the plank had been cut. Disappointed, I asked the youngsters working with me to attach the swing to fresh ropes and hang it from another branch. One this was done, the swing was in use all day, by children as well as by some of the women who joined our dialogue session. Amma prowled nearby, brandishing her stick, restless and sullen. I requested her cordially, and then forcefully, to not interfere in our work. She was furious, and warned us to not sit under the tree. Later she forced her family members to cut the ropes again. This took place a few times, and each time we confronted her, there was little support for us from her neighbours.

Eventually, seeing that we were not going to succumb to her threats, Amma compelled her son to try and cut down the tree at night. Weeping and shouting, she urged him on till he managed to hack off one of the branches. Meanwhile, she simultaneously began raising a commotion and calling on everyone in the neighbourhood to save the tree from her son’s brutality. Annoyed by her aggression and contradictory behaviour, the neighbours called the police. Her son was taken to the police station and the municipality fined him Rs. 4000 for illegal chopping of a tree and damage to government property. This sum was a considerable amount for a struggling, working-class family.

Upon arrival at the park the next morning, we learnt what had happened. Like the neighbours who described the incident to us, we too then fell into silence, unable to sufficiently unravel the complicated strands of the logic of property, community, entitlements and claims with regard to the inherent ambivalences, privileges and demands of shared/collective space.