Thursday, 23 February 2012

SHANTIES AND THE CITY


The sprouting of slums is concomitant with the development of small and big cities. The slums are appalling and they stand as a sore thumb on the seemingly beautiful, developed landscape of our cities: the glass and sparkling steel against a clear blue sky. We extrapolate the degree of development and progress from the height of the skyscrapers and other markers of wealth and prosperity are the basis for our claims of a progressive and happy nation. But in all of these eulogistic discourses of how India is progressing, we overlook (or give superficial attention to) the millions of poor in the rural hinterlands and the slums of the city.
            Delia Maria Knaebel, the Pune-based researcher and activist who has some roots in Goa, is the author of a self-published book – a novel to be precise – set in Chavanagar, a slum in Pune. Delia personally handed me a copy of her book when I met her a few months ago in Pune and also confided in me that the book was primarily published to help other social workers and NGOs working to alleviate the problems of the slum dwellers, particularly the issues concerning women. In the foreword of her novel Delia says, “This novel depicts what it was in the India of 80s and 90s for a woman living in an urban slum. This is told through the story of Lata, a woman who faces multiple oppressions; poverty, handicap, caste, colour prejudice and discrimination, both domestic and in the working (sic) place. There are thousands of such women in the country whose stories are similar but have not been written.”
            Many of the women of Chavanagar work as domestic help in middle-class flats/bungalows where the mistresses are very exploitative and unyielding. “In many ways the middle classes were more communal minded than the poor, though many labeled them backward as (sic) narrow-minded,” Delia informs when she talks about the encounters of slum women with middle class women. Along with the main characters – Lata and Tara – this novel also tries to weave the stories of other women whose lives cross paths with the central characters.
There is a genuine concern that Delia has for the slum dwelling women and certainly, her voice is valuable. However, this is Delia’s first book and that too self-published and hence in the writing and presentation this book does reflect a certain rawness.
           Though it is claimed that Lata is the protagonist of the novel, her role is just marginal in the novel. Lata, the protagonist and her sympathetic middle-class friend, Tara themselves flit in and out of the book. Tara and Lata take an active part in an NGO working for the slum-dwelling women but we are not told anything about Tara’s background and the reasons that move her to sympathy for the slum dwelling women. In trying to pack as many stories of slum women in the book, the central plot and the flow of narration is lost.
However, if one considers just the story of Lata in isolation, then Delia has done a very good job of crafting this character for there is nothing amiss in her prose. Delia had great scope to develop her characters in greater detail so that the finer subtleties and nuances of what it means to be a low caste slum dweller (and particularly a woman) would be clearer and would also act as a terse political statement against elitist mentalities. Though the point that Delia tries to make is a very valid one and most welcome in terms of the politics of gender, caste and class one cannot help but notice that this point tends to be lost in the pages of the book.
Delia prefers to identify her slum dwelling women as “working class women”. In India, more than our class we are stratified in caste which has a direct bearing on whether we are going to enjoy better life chances or not. My disagreement here is that if a woman is financially and sexually exploited, it is not just because of her position as a woman but a large measure of her oppression would/could result from her caste position. The same happens when the slum-dwelling, low-caste women encounter middle-class women who belong to a particular caste (arguably upper) and who bicker and bargain for every paisa and benefit that the domestic help from the slum ask from their employers.
         The reason why caste needs to be included in the discourse of such subalterns as Delia’s slum-dwelling women who are trapped in a world of poverty, abusive and drunken husbands and exploitative in-laws along with class is because caste is not theorized enough. Bharat Patankar writing for Kafila.org (Caste and Exploitation in Indian History translated by Gail Omvedt) says, “Class has beentheorized extensively in terms of exploitation; to some extent gender also, butnot caste. Exploitation as (sic)women in various forms has also been a reality for thousands of years; thisalso is not through ‘class’. This reality from throughout the world gives ablow to the idea that exploitation can only be class exploitation.”
Rather than a novel Delia could have presented her stories as an anthology of short-stories celebrating the resolute spirit of women oppressed due to financial, sexual and caste exploitation. And before I end, I would like to reiterate something that I have said in the past elsewhere. It is not easy to self-publish a book. My heart and thoughts go out to people like Delia who are engaged in such enterprises. 

The River Weeps: Life and Sexuality in a City Slum by Delia Maria Knaebel (Pune: Self Published), 2011; pp. 153, Rs. 99 [ISBN: 978-81-8465-344-1]
e-mail: shalom2000@rediffmail.com

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: February 24, 2012)

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