Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

Public conversations teach us a lot, but can they push us out of gridlocks to act towards co-imagined futures? Musings post an RWA consultation #BoloGurgaon

“..if we still have the luxury of acting as if the system is legitimate, the system will hoist us with our own petard of legitimacy. This is not a counsel of despair, only an analytic judgement, that the crisis will have to be projected as deep, systemic and wide-ranging, before resistance finds a focal point.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s closing paragraph in his column this morning found resonance with my musings earlier today as I read and shared widely this hard hitting piece by Hussein Indorewala on the real estate-ification of our cities. Hussein’s piece lays bare the processes and outcomes of a development paradigm premised on unlocking land value for the benefit of a privileged few as opposed to an understanding of land as a collective good. Even as I read, I wondered how an intelligent reader could reconcile the criticism being leveled at the state, at private interests and at the ‘system’ itself with his own personal aspirations and choices, for a better and more stable life, with its trappings of acquiring homes, occupying improved offices and accessing modern amenities and services. What terms of reference does a mall goer, a corporate executive, a home owner have to interpret Hussein’s writing?

Other disparate events in my life, chiefly my engagement with the #BoloGurgaon campaign, have also been urging me to think deeper about why those of us who do engage with the key debates of our times, feel utterly paralysed by the world around us? Why do we accept the status quo? And why, even when we do act in one area, we are unable to resolve the conflict that arises with our being complicit in acts of exploitation when we assume other identities.

One obvious example is the allegations against elites who campaign for ‘green’ causes: How can elites who are already at the forefront of consuming products like real estate, automobiles, clothes, travel and exotic food that are the worst culprits in carbon emissions, also be leading the Fridays for Future protests and come out in numbers to save forests? How genuine is the solidarity being built between adivasi forest dwellers in Mumbai and elite campaigners for saving the Aarey forest? In an age of anti-elite politics, these campaigners appear as duplicitous to many, even though individuals them have indeed taken enormous strides forward in not only checking their own personal consumption but in exhibiting leadership in sustainable practices in organizations and communities they work and live in. We have seen similar debates in Gurgaon too with the Save Aravalli campaign, which has been enormously successfully in keeping conservation alive as a kay public issue in the city.

Another example could be the struggle to accord dignified working terms to working class individuals we know – domestic help, driver, construction worker – while urging our colleagues and children to negotiate for better wages and working conditions, even as we broadly recognize and stand for the values of freedom, dignity and equality.

To put it bluntly, how do we change the system when we are inside of it, and especially when we are beneficiaries of it? Dr Mehta is hopeful when he dreams of a moment when we will accept that the crisis is “deep, systemic and wide-ranging”. I have less hope. Because these are words we are already using to justify our own positions, to offer excuses to ourselves.

In a recently held meeting with Resident Welfare Association representatives as part of the #BoloGurgaon campaign, this conflict was clear as day. Like in the meeting with street vendors and e-riksha operators, there were rallying calls for unity and consolidation, in order for RWAs to amplify their political voice; a voice they would use to demand services that they should be entitled to as tax paying citizens of Gurgaon city. Equally apparent was their frustration and lack of faith in the ‘system’. The lack of accountability of bureaucrats and the self-interest of politicians were brought up repeatedly as the reasons why the system is dysfunctional. There was little faith in representative democracy and local governments but they hoped that amplifying their voice as a community would elicit response from a system that they admitted was better off centralized (less doors to knock, if door knocking is what one needed to do!). The paradox in this was also not lost on anyone in the room!

What does “deep, systemic and wide-ranging crisis” mean to those who see the system from particular vantage points? To me, the articulation of despondency we heard from RWAs, in which amplified noise was their most coherent strategy for change, is already a recognition of such a crisis. However, there is no imagination yet of how a changed order might look. What will replace the ‘system’? Will that also not be a system of some kind, with its power centres and prescribed channels of access? Who will guarantee that this new creature will be kinder and more efficient that the beast we encounter today?

The vehement response against our proposals on strengthening local government in the Citizen’s Charter tells us that people are not yet ready to back a new system, even when it is designed to put more power into their hands. One part of this resistance is likely coming from the unacknowledged ways in which centralized power provides access to the elite. Another strain of this is the abhorrence that the elite feel for dealing with the everyday rot in municipal systems, rot that the poor face in visceral ways everyday but we as wealthier citizens have been able to shield ourselves from in some measure. To me, conversations might be more useful if we aim to forge unlikely partnerships, is RWA reps would listen to street vendors and vice versa. If we truly acknowledge that crisis is here, we would be moving out of our comfort zones and talking, walking, raising our voices together. That is the future I would imagine, not a solution, but a new terms of engagement at the very least.

Street vendors, e-riksha operators ask: Do you really care about us? #BoloGurgaon

Gurgaon, the city that has been my home for over 15 years, is infamous for the stark contrast between its gleaming office buildings and crumbling infrastructure. It is a city that exploded its seams in a little more than a decade (coinciding with the time I have lived here) through the land accumulation and development by private sector real estate companies working in close cahoots with politicians to ensure conducive regulation and laissez-faire governance. A city that attracted well-educated globe trotters and young BPO workers from mid-town India, but also poorly educated rural migrants from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal to work informal sector jobs in manufacturing, construction, transport, security and domestic work. While the city’s ‘planned’ development trajectory has sprouted numerous gated communities that house the former, the latter occupy the crevices of the city as renters in urban villages and unauthorised colonies. With State assembly elections looming ahead, some of us are asking uncomfortable questions, aiming to provoke thought about the real problems Gurgaon’s residents face. And by doing so, articulating a Citizen’s Charter of demands for candidates for the MLA seats from Gurgaon and Badshahpur.

Today’s blog post draws on conversations at a joint meeting of two collectives representing street vendors and e-rickshaw operators in Gurgaon, held on 29th September; it asks: What are the daily struggles and aspirations of Gurgaon’s urban poor? How can a Citizen Charter best articulate these?

Now, street vendors and e-riksha drivers are not natural collaborators; in fact, they are engaged in an everyday tussle over space in the city, as they jostle for spots at the edges of roads. A lack of space to earn their livelihoods is the key issue they brought forward. Not just space, they talked about a lack of services that are vital for them, like clearance of waste bins and dhalaos and the availability of drinking water and public toilets at their places of work. Far from a litany of complaints, these men and women proposed solutions: the creation of e-riksha stands, the implementation of the Street Vendors Act, and road designs with lanes for high speed and low speed vehicles, for cyclists, pedestrians, e-rikshas and for vendors too! In another conversation, e-riksha drivers proposed a redesign of the public transport system by enhancing and recognizing their role in providing sustainable and affordable last mile connectivity for buses and the Metro. Not educated? Many of their suggestions sounded more intelligent than the expert opinions we hear in conferences and seminars!

Everyday experiences of violence and harassment were common to both groups, as well as the experience of systemic corruption in which the agents of local politicians, police personnel and the local government bureaucracy constantly demanded bribes from them in return for temporary reprieves from harassment. The harassment was not only for ‘illegal’ activity or illegal occupation of space however; many vendors complained that they were being accused of dirtying the streets when in fact the municipal workers and contractors deliberately did not clear refuse from their vending areas.

Fiery youth leaders, men and women, spoke at the meet about the need to organize and resist this constant oppression but giving up a day’s work to protest was also clearly a struggle for many. I was struck by the broader narrative of business being very slow. Some in the group were, till recently, factory workers and supervisors and had recently been laid off! It was apparent to me that the numbers of those in the informal sector was rising everyday, but there were no plans to accommodate their livelihoods or create new opportunities for the poor, many of whom were migrants who had been in Gurgaon for varying lengths of time. Even as minor wins were reported from protests within the city, there were volunteers being lined up for a larger agitation at Delhi the next morning!

The meeting helped us add specific demands about the needs of informal sector workers in Gurgaon. We demand spaces for them to pursue their livelihood, and an enabling ecosystem that, instead of oppressing them, integrates them into supply chains for goods and services. However, the detailed stories about corruption drive home to me a key point: Gurgaon’s economy is in trouble, and rent seeking is the one sure means to earn money. The city, like others across the country, is a stage on which a macabre and elaborate dance is being staged; a dance in which those with relative power relentlessly prey on the powerless to capture rents, not just at the cost of lower incomes but also of the health and well being of residents. Rupturing this cycle should be the citizen’s overarching and clear demand!

Back to my ramblings…

Its been a busy few years since I decided to switch careers and become a full-time researcher, and blogging has fallen by the wayside. It didn’t stop suddenly. It petered away, as I adapted my writing style to academic papers, policy briefs and newspaper op-eds. Writing became an act of deliberation and incredible effort, and sitting in front of my laptop shooting the breeze on my blog seemed frivolous in comparison. But I have deeply missed that habit of spontaneous writing . I have also realized it was my way of arguing with myself, in a semi-public space. These arguments and conversations with myself have helped me vent, clear cobwebs, and articulate difficult positions. They have helped me describe and communicate my feelings and my experiences. And when some people have found these valuable, I have felt useful too.

These small instances of validation, even censure, shaped my thinking deeply and I have made the mistake of undervaluing this. The past few weeks, I have made more than one attempt to restart my blog, but found myself feeling like a rookie. Do I have something interesting to say? Am I in the mood to write? Creeping self-doubt, questions that should never have mattered, hung in the air and I paid heed, switching windows to something else that I regarded more ‘useful’, more important.

But this morning during a rather tough yoga class, as my muscles protested and I struggled to breathe, something amazing happened. Images of all the places I have traveled to in the past few years began to flood my mind’s eye. Not the landmarks, but the obscure places. A fountain in Paris, a tram stop in Amsterdam, a grubby street full of graffiti in Cuenca and the azure blue skies of Leh with white wispy clouds. I was passively watching these, with a sense of calm and of immense gratitude. I had stumbled on the calm that has eluded me for several months now. As I completed my class, I resolved to re-instate habits that make me happy. Starting with this blog.

I resolve to care less about what others will think when they read this and to write nevertheless. I resolve to persevere at it, reinstating it to the habit it used to be. There is so much I want to say everyday. Social media, which replaced my blog in the venting department, is not the space for rumination and rambling. It is a click-through space. This is my space and my comfort zone, and here I shall remain and ramble….

The poor bore the costs of achieving demonetisation’s purported objectives: Was it worth it?

It has been a war of words since the release of the Reserve Bank of India’s annual report 2017-18, which stated that 99.3% of the demonetised currency was returned. While critics of the government’s note ban move have felt vindicated, the Finance Minister has defended demonetisation by claiming that it has fulfilled its ‘larger objective’ of making India a tax compliant society. It is worth remembering that the government’s narrative around the objectives of demonetisation has been changing over time. It started with the Prime Minister’s dramatic note ban announcement on 8th November 2018, which was widely termed as a ‘surgical strike’ on black money. Then it changed to a narrative of cashlessness and digitalisation and finally, the current justification of tax compliance.

At each step, there has been an emphasis on morality, and the message sent out by the government and amplified by the press and social media has been clear: those who comply are ‘good citizens’ and others are enemies of India. Given the credibility and popularity that PM Modi enjoyed in 2016 – and given that he was the face of demonetisation – this kind of messaging created real pressures on people to comply with the government’s efforts.

For a large number of poor households in India, however, compliance came at high costs. It wasn’t just the snaking lines to deposit cash at the bank, or the ruptures in cash-dependent supply chains that took away jobs and made food prices soar. For a population that earned barely enough to subsist, digitalisation and tax compliance were objectives that had little resonance with their daily lives. The tax base in India is very small, and income inequality is a glaring reality. Data from the India Human Development Survey II (2011-12) shows us that 90.4% Indian households earn less than Rs 250,000 per year, which means that individuals in these households earn too little to be liable to pay income tax. The situation is only slightly better in cities, with 73.8% households in metro cities and 84.2% in non-metro cities remaining out of the tax ambit because they earn too little (the five years between this survey and demonetisation is unlikely to have much altered this situation). This essentially means that the poor – most of them marginal farmers, agricultural labour and non-farm casual workers – who do not pay taxes anyway, took the hardest hit post-demonetisation in order to facilitate increased direct tax collection to the tune of 18% in FY 17-18. There is no argument about the benefits of increased tax collection, but does the end always justify the means?

Many have wondered why so much suffering did not provoke backlash against the government. One answer lies in the government’s strategic use of nationalistic narratives in which the role of the good citizen is constantly invoked. In our fieldwork in urban neighbourhoods across Delhi NCR, we observe that people recalibrated their responses to fit in with the idea of the good citizen. For example, in the immediate aftermath of demonetisation, the poor saw themselves as hardworking, ordinary citizens who suffered due to the corruption of other, richer people. At the same time, a petty landlord in an urban village in East Delhi told us he was ambivalent about collecting rent by cheque instead of cash and wondered if the government was going to come after people like him even as he defiantly told us he filed his tax returns annually. The moral narrative also created fissures within communities, encouraging those with a foothold in the formal economy to pass judgement on poorer households who were unable to cope without cash. As late as June 2017, we met a Dalit tailor in Gurgaon who invoked demonetisation to explain why he had paid money he could ill afford to a tout in order to get a PAN card made and file taxes.

Fig 1: An overwhelming proportion of households in India, rural and urban, earn too little to pay income tax (Source: IHDS II (2011-12); Graph credit: Shamindra Nath Roy)

Fig 2: Primary bread earners in these poor households are mostly farmers and farm-based labour, non-farm casual workers and entrepreneurs in the unorganised sector. These occupations were the most impacted by the cash shortage post demonetisation. (Source: IHDS II (2011-12); Graph credit: Shamindra Nath Roy)

These are but glimpses of the kind of disruptions that demonetisation caused, adding fuel to fires that had already been set by rising inequality and the inability of the Indian democratic project to fulfil the dreams of a growing number of semi-educated but aspirational young people. Instead of arguing about the success or failure of demonetisation, it might be a good time to put our ears to the ground and re-examine the experience of poverty in India. We must take heed and try to understand the ways in which the poor seek to be included in the larger public discourse, often to their own detriment, and the ways in which they continue to remain voiceless and often vilified.

The original piece was published on the website of the Centre for Policy Research:

What’s going on with the kaawadiyas? Some insights from conversations with Haryanvi young men

I know of a young man, about 18, who lives in a village near Sohna in Haryana. This bright young man, Ahir (Yadav) by caste, studied reasonably well until high school and then inexplicably dropped out. He began demanding money from his parents, flitting in and out of employment and every now and then turning hostile, even inflicting violence on his own family members. Last weekend, he turned up at home after many days of living away with relatives, and made demands for money to join his friends for the kaawad yatra (a pilgrimage to bring the waters of the Ganges river from Haridwar back home, held in the holy month of Saawan during the rainy season). The demand was in essence a tantrum. All his friends were going and he wanted to go too. The family, who had no extra money to finance the travel and the paraphernalia that goes with being a yatri (they get new clothes and gifts when they return etc), refused flatly. The young man sulked a bit, then left home again.

I read this anecdote in several different ways, and I will try in this post to offer some insights from my interactions I have had with young Haryanvi (usually Yadav) men over the last few years. My attempt is to nuance the conversation around the kaawad yatra, which is being perceived by one side as a right to religious practice deserving of state protection, and as a form of hooliganism and toxic masculinity by the other. Like many other things, in reality it is a cocktail mix of social, economic and religious realities and perception, spiced by the politics of communalism and hatred.

My protagonist’s story is one of growing up and coming of age in an environment of (what he likely perceives as) multiple deprivations: the disadvantages of poor quality schooling and the lack of skills that would land him urban jobs, the lack of quality employment in or near his village, the absence of cash that would buy him good clothes and a smart phone and therefore some respectability and popularity, the expectation of his family that he brings in a steady income and ultimately, their refusal to indulge him when he demands money for a leisure activity.

The yatra as permissible leisure……

Many young men I have spoken to in Gurgaon district have told me that they see the kaawad yatra as a form of leisure. The garb of religion helps them justify to their families not just the expenses, but also the possible loss of income by their absence from work. They articulate the yatra by using words and phrases like azadi (freedom), gaanv aur parivar ka garv (pride for the village and family) yaaron doston ke saath masti (fun with friends). Of course, they also articulate the religious significance of the yatra, but in terms of what it brings to the family in terms of status in the community. “Pitaji khush ho jaayenge, bhai ko bola tha jaane ko par wo nahi jaa paaya to mein jaaonga (My father will be happy. He had asked my brother to go, but he could not, so I am going)”, narrated the young man who delivers pooja flowers in our building block.

….against the backdrop of the controlling, patriarchal household

Most of these young men I spoke to have very little autonomy. They are expected to contribute labour and income to the household kitty, while remaining subservient to fathers and uncles who have a tight fist on money and resources. This is true even of those who are married, and early marriage is common. Additionally, they are caught amidst conflicts between their wives and mothers, and the battle between individual desire and household diktat is never-ending. Agricultural activity and land holdings have dwindled significantly and with it, the logic of land inheritance that upheld the deep patriarchy in this region, should perhaps be called into question. Yet, ironically, patriarchal rules tighten their noose not just around women, as expressed in several misogynist practices (like female infanticide, male child preference, dowry, restrictions on dressing and mobility, etc) but also on young men, who are expected to exhibit masculine behaviour while being totally controlled by older male members. Only those who excel academically and break through into private sector formal sector employment and others who get into government jobs make it out of this predicament, somewhat.

The yatra as higher purpose…

These are deeply religious people and religion shapes the celebration of festivals; rituals around birth, death and marriage; fasting on certain days especially by women, all of course marked by patriarchal logic and rules. Increasingly, they are also involved in ‘social’ activities in the name of religion and the protection of family honour, especially the honour of women. So they would be vigilant about inter-caste and inter-religious liaisons in the community. Not surprisingly, cow protection, previously a passive principle of life in the Yadav belt, is now more like a crusade, especially in the Mewat belt where accusations of cow-smuggling have been routinely leveled against Muslims as a way to stir Hindu, and specifically Yadav, passions.

I read the kaawad yatra as part of this crusade-like social practice, serving a purpose higher than the religious one. The possibility of organized funding fueling the scaling up of kawad activities is very real. The people I spoke to told me about money collection drives in their village communities and large contributions by “bade aadmi” (powerful individuals). They spoke about the yatra like one would talk about a sports contest between village teams, and evoked the pride of the community. They took Hindu pride very much for granted, as something obvious; they made no reference to any form of ‘other’.

….and who will deny them that?

The outrage being expressed by urban folks raises questions of law and order. Why are kaawad yatris getting state protection even when they break the law? Who is responsible when they create public nuisance and who will compensate for destruction of public property?

But it is clear enough that in today’s times, law and order are subservient to majoritarian interests. The state and its law enforcement agencies are far more afraid of a public riot that will break out if a kaawadiya gets hurt; in comparison, the predicament of a non- yatri is not a real problem, for that is hardly likely to bring people to the streets.

Being angry about public nuisance is entirely justifiable, but the solutions are not going to come easy. Be prepared in the coming times for many more such tableau. See them for what they are: loud, unapologetic claims to public space and attention by an under-employed, under-appreciated and infantilized youth that are being fed toxic doses of religion and masculinity.

A family trek in Ladakh: 4 days of wilderness, solitude and bonding

“Out of your comfort zone”

These were the words that stood out for me when Rikzin briefed us an evening before our trek. We were to walk about 45 kms over 4 days, cross a pass at 15000 ft (4570m) above mean sea level climbing up from 11,800 ft (3200m) and we were to descend all of those 3,500 ft in a single day! But none of these numbers featured in that briefing we got on. We were, instead, taken through the mechanics, the process. What we would carry into our bag packs: water, packed lunch, sun screen, cap, etc and sandals for river crossings. What the campsite would be like: tents, sleeping bags, kitchen amenities, how we would shit… The only numbers we got, and we held on to these closely, was how many hours we would walk: 3-4 hours on day 1, 5-6 hours on days 2 and 3, and maybe 7+ hours on day 4 on the descent. We listened in rapt attention, especially the kids (aged 14, 14, 11, and 10). I remember thinking this was going to be a challenge. I remember feeling a flutter of excitement in my belly! In all of my 42 years on this planet, I had never gone camping and slept in a tent before and I felt every bit as excited as I had been on my first airplane ride or my first roller coaster experience!

What followed simply blew my mind. This had been the most physically arduous and mentally challenging experience of my life. And yet, at the end of each day, I felt a sense of calm as if I was destined to achieve. No matter how much I struggled while walking, I had not an iota of self doubt left at the end of each day’s journey. I discovered that the mountains and the unique sense of solitude and peace that nature offers, is empowering and transformative in a way that modern ‘world travel’, with its kaleidoscope of sensory experiences, cannot be.

Day 1: Stepping over stones, learning to breathe

We drove to Stok village in two slightly beat-up Maruti Suzuki Omnis. Right off the bat, the kids decided to be their own gang, riding in one car while the adults were assigned to the other. At the starting point of our trek, the sight of the 20-odd mountain horses being loaded with stuff, was a bit of a shock. I hadn’t realized what a massive logistical exercise it is, taking a group of city folks into the mountains! The sun beat down quite harshly on us that day and we sat around a joked, waiting for permits to be issued and the loading to finish. Suhani and Aadyaa, our youngest duo, put up an impromptu performance of a rap number they had been composing the past couple of days while we drove all the way to Pangong Tso Lake and back. Srijaa and Udai, the older kids, obliged and we have a few funky posed pre-trek shots from these moments.

We had a late start, mostly because our travel companions showed up late at the starting point, and it was very hot as we walked up along the Stok river past village homes and quaint home stays. The older kids set a robust pace, while we took our own time, enjoying the gradual fading away of human habitat and taking in the spectacular beauty before us. The walk involved stepping over large stones alongside gurgling water and though the climb was gentle, it was taxing on the ankles and knees. My pace dropped as we walked and the younger kids went ahead of us, accompanied by Govindji who was the man in charge on this trek. After two hours of walking, I started to struggle in earnest and it took effort to keep the breath steady and handle the harsh sun and dehydration. Yet, almost before we knew it, we hit the campsite at Changma and saw that much of it was already set up! The children had already reached and were busy with popcorn. Soon they were at the river, splashing about in the water and playing with Wilde, the dog from Stok village who had accompanied us all the way here. We also walked over and introduced ourselves to other campers nearby and befriended Adrian, a South African teacher who was traveling with schoolchildren from Jakarta. A long discussion on trekking in the Himalayas and the experience of working with local communities ensued. In a separate chat, Govindji lamented the lack of government infrastructure for trekkers.

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Ladakh’s green valleys strike a sharp contrast in its brown landscape and we enjoyed the experience of walking out of one into the brown-ness beyond

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The flora alongside the river and the path that cut through the topsy turvy stones

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Heading into the gorge

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One step before the other!

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Doggedness is all you need here…and when you are literally being encouraged by a dog friend, it’s a new kind of fun!

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Pen and ink sketch of the campsite.Wherever I could, I doodled and sketched, and maintained a diary through the trek. Those entries have helped me immensely in reconstructing the trek for this post.

 

The campsites were made as comfortable as possible by the organizing team at Ladakh Sarai. The first to be set up were kitchen and dining tents, then two toilet tents that essentially offered some privacy and the option of a metal seat over a hole in the ground! A special mention for the excellent quality of food and the thoughtful preparations made by Chef Norbu, whose talent at cooking with minimal resources was surpassed only by his dazzling smile and affection.

After a good meal (mutton, dal, rice, vegetables, and an exotic chocolate-based dessert! wow!) and some time spent by the bonfire, we prepared for the night and zipped ourselves into the tents. The kids decided to sleep in one tent and seemed quite comfortable and cozy inside but for me, the first night was an adventure that involved grappling with a sleeping bag, fighting off claustrophobia and the fear of having to go out into the cold and pee!

Day 2: Walking over ice, gaining confidence

Even so, the next morning dawned bright and fresh, but not super early. We got ready quickly, breakfasted and packed to leave. The children were sent out onto the trail 30 minutes before us. Govindji had briefed them well and all four of them were to walk in line with the older ones forming the edges and the younger ones in the centre. He took them to where the trail began and sent them off and that enduring image of them setting out on their own, excited and confident an thick-as-thieves, is imprinted in my mind as one of the best memories of the trip.

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Govindji got back and packed us off too, then moved on to the arduous job of winding up the camp and sending the horses onto the next campsite. The four of us- Rahul, Rishi, Shubha and me- walked to the trailhead and stood there gaping at the sheer climb ahead of us. Believe me, it was a path fit for mountain goats, but we braved that first climb by channeling all our learning from Day 1, pacing ourselves out much better, breathing evenly and most importantly, by discarding the idea of failure. After going over the first pass, we rejoined the path alongside the Stok river and from then on the climb was more steady, more scenic. We found ourselves in a narrow gorge, the jagged form of the mountain seemed to towers over us and almost close in on us, framing a patch of bright blue sky.

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Small victories, great joys!

After maybe 90 minutes of walking, we spotted the children ahead, bright colourful dots arranged in a neat row at the edge of a sheet of glacial ice! The ice beckoned us and though the kids were gone by the time we got there, our energies were revived by the excitement of walking over ice. Shortly afterward, we reached a river crossing and found the kids waiting for us there, eating their packed lunch. From this point, those intending to scale Stok Kangri took one path towards base camp, while we took another path that climbed higher and higher on the edge of a mountain that overlooked the frozen parts of the river, many hundred feet below.

This bit of the trek was difficult too, demanding a sure footing and strong sense of balance. At one point, we were climbing up on all fours. Once again, the children did remarkably well and I was definitely the straggler. But by this time, I didn’t care. I was starting to get the hang of this.

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We reached an extremely windy campsite. Everything was threatening to fly away and the team was struggling to set it up. Our kids had been smart and ensconced themselves inside the cozy and warm kitchen tent, where they helped out by peeling onion and garlic and cutting vegetables in industrial quantities. Learning from Day 1, we all ate the delectable pulao that cook rustled and then hung around the dining tent and wherever else we could find respite from the winds. The kids huddled inside their tent from where sounds of talking, giggling and eventually singing emerged!

[The children’s] chirpy voices, sometimes in conversation and other times in song, served as a fitful background score for a brief rest. Rahul napped while I read some, but the tent was too warm and eventually we have found refuge in the dining tent, sheltered from the howling wind which is literally sweeping our things away!

Diary entry, 16 June, 2018

The afternoon was considerably brightened by the surprise arrival of Rikzin, who had caught up with us and would be with us for the remaining part of the trek. The other bright spot was the baby marmot that emerged from his subterranean home from time to time to peer at us in frank curiosity. Out there on the hillside opposite us, the camp staff helped me train my binoculars on a marmot pair cavorting around and sunning themselves.

By sunset, the exhaustion of the day and the substantially higher altitude had begun to take a toll. The cure for crankiness, headaches and general despondency was apparently hot and peppery garlic soup, which Govindji gently urged the children to drink. Dinner was early and delicious, this time with chicken, dal and vegetables followed by a friend banana and cream dessert!

We had walked a lot more, gained considerable in elevation and I had not rested in the afternoon; so the night was spent negotiating a slightly better relationship with my sleeping bag and sleeping a little bit better. And also losing the fear of visiting the toilet in pitch darkness!

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The starkness of this campsite was beautiful, but also harsh

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Kitchen elves!

Day 3: Scaling Matho-La, accepting solitude

We woke up to a teen birthday (Srijaa’s) and the day started with wishes and hugs, and bonhomie over tea and breakfast! Aadyaa decided to walk with us instead of going ahead with the children. She had been a bit more affected by the altitude and the cold. Rikzin set the older kids off on a brisk pace and we went back along the partially frozen river. This was a day of spectacular views, mostly uncaptured on camera because of the arduousness of the climb. As we pushed toward the Matho La Pass, oxygen levels dropped and it became harder to walk.

It was a morning in which I found myself retreating into myself. The solitary and silent walk set off a train of introspection that had me thinking deeply about my goals in life, and the meaning and impact of ambition on myself and my loved ones. I found that while Rahul and my dearest friends were in plain sight, some ahead and some behind me, what really mattered was my own dogged determination to plant one foot before the other. I also felt a lot of my anxiety about my PhD leaving me. Working full time and pursuing a PhD program has meant that I am constantly worrying about not doing enough, being distracted and falling behind. But out there on the stark mountainside, I realized the only thing that mattered was to keep moving ahead. I felt light in mind, even as my trudge became slower and heavier, my breathing more laboured.

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Colours and texture that are imprinted in my soul

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An unending shifting landscape of texture and form

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Getting closer!

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Undeterred

Reaching Matho La pass was not just an endorsement of our endurance. We were treated with an enchanting view of the snow peaked mountains on the horizon and between us and that range of peaks lay a green valley dotted with flowers and all manner of plants, with the grazing dzo scattered here and there! The entire group was enchanted and relaxed. We sat in clusters snacking and chatting. We laughed and hugged. We clicked pictures and we strolled and ambled till we reached our campsite, the prettiest one yet.

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thumb_IMG_8576_1024thumb_IMG_8574_1024thumb_IMG_8573_1024In the camp, a leisurely afternoon was spent ambling by the river (and some us actually managed to dip in those icy waters), reading, playing cards and story cubes (a story building game) and working on puzzles. The camp took time to set up as the horses reached late, offering us an opportunity to enjoy the grassy glade we found ourselves in, the prettiest campsite of all!

Rahul and me waited it out sitting on a rock and watching, as the crew set ip camp. Particularly interesting was the mind who minded the horses.. His rugged and wind-worn features and his slight build seemed typical of most ‘horse men’ we encountered in Ladakh. He whistled and hummed as he wound up the saddled and other paraphernalia, occasionally changing tone to call out the horses who were grazing nearby. There were certain sounds to send them away and calls to calm them down, and maybe others that we could not understand.

Diary entry, 17th June

The highlight of the evening was the feast to celebrate Srijaa’s birthday. Norbu’s phenomenal talent was unveiled to us as he awed us with a carrot cake with chocolate topping, mutton momos, pizzas with a do-your-own-topping option, noodles and chilli paneer, all on a regular LPG gas stove! How we ate that night! And how we appreciated the heat from the bonfire, made of dzo dung, before we settled into our tents for the coldest night of all.

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Sleeping at 14000 ft (4270m) was an interesting experience and I dealt with my tent issues by simply spending an hour in the middle of the night reading on my Kindle while Rahul snored, instead of pestering him about my sleeplessness and discomfort as I had done the last two nights!

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Day 4: Enjoying the bounties of nature, testing my endurance

We walked over 18km on this last day of the trek. My shoes came apart and I did about a third of that in sandals, which meant hurting ankles and extreme exhaustion. We woke up to snow flurries at 14000 ft and came down to the sweltering sun of the valley. We crossed the river a dozen times, and our water bottle (its name was Vinod, yes we named our water bottles!) tried very hard to sacrifice itself to the river but we were adamant on saving it.

We experienced the largest diversity of flora in our time in Ladakh on this last day, the widest array of landscapes too. One time, we walked on a sliver of the mountain, with a steep fall away on either side. The feeling was spectacular but we worried intensely about our vertiginous companion, and spent some tense moments which fortunately ended in a short burst of relieved tears.

We saw pashmina sheep stuffed into a pen high on the mountains and met shepherds who were carrying back firewood supplies on donkey backs. Another time, we met nomads walking from Leh to Zanskar with enough words of Hindi and English on them to have a conversation!

Overall the descent was easier on our lungs but harder on knees and ankles, but we felt like we had to take in the sights and enjoy each part of the journey. Both Udai and Aadyaa walked with us and I remember the day as a kaleidoscope of images, conversations. The last several kilometres when extreme fatigue had set in, I was amazed at watching Aadyaa. All of ten, she walked alone, choreographing a dance number in her head, oblivious of her rhythmic gait, arm movements and expressions!

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Countless river crossings

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Udai contemplates the flowing water

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A moment of repose

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Traveling long distances for basic supplies is only one part of the hard life that Ladakhis lead

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A classic Ladakhi scene

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The river bed and the sky

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Yes the JCB is in Ladakh too, here its helping lay a water pipeline to Matho village

As the monastery of Thiksey came into view in the distance, signalling the end of the 4-day trek, I found myself wishing intensely that this would never end, even as my feet screamed at me to stop immediately. At Matho village where we ended the trek, I felt happy and numb at the same time and all I could think of was a hot shower and a bed!

Back at the hotel, reunited with the others in the group, we conceded that the real stars of the trip had been the following: 1- The kids, who didn’t whine even once and banded together through thick and thin; 2- Govindji, whose advice and gentle persuasion tided us over many rough patches; and 3- Norbu, without whom we would not have had the kind of wholesome and soul satisfying nourishment we had through these four awesome days. Finally, a word on Rikzin’s enthusiasm, thoroughness and sheer passion for Ladakh and its outdoor treasures. To him goes the credit for preparing the kids (and us) mentally, putting the ambitious trek together and making sure the city slickers made it through just fine!

Solace and solitude in Stockholm

It is a strange feeling indeed when you spend the morning reading Murakami, alone in a hotel room in a country far far away. Fortunately for me, the sun was shining bright, revealing Stockholm’s warmer tone and texture. I tried to picture the same scenes in the steely barely-there Nordic winter light. And I knew what I was seeing wasn’t quite right, but guesswork about something I have yet to experience. A die-hard optimist and travel lover, I imbued a romanticism to that wintry scene that locals may find naive, going by the enthusiasm with which folks claimed gardens and public spaces across the city, soaking in the sun in a state of trance!

I have hardly ever felt the kind of loneliness the narrator talks of in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. When I have, it has sent me into a deep, dark place. I am always surrounded by people and with many I interact with I form real, and at times deep, connections. When I travel, I carry some people with me, inside. My family and select friends, I imagine sometimes, ‘see’ the world through me. In my head, I speak to them. So-and-so would have loved this, someone else would have found this funny, the kids would have never left this place, etc etc. Yet, I revel in being alone. I feel free to not have to make adjustments for anyone else, to be able to take off on a whim, or to simply not leave the hotel room to write! I see things differently when I travel alone, I think, I heal and rest. I re-calibrate. And when I return home, I hope, I connect even deeper.

Last Saturday, walking around Stockholm rejuvenated me after a long flight. I didn’t need food, or rest. The textures, the light and shadow, the colours and the architecture was fuel enough. I wandered aimlessly with camera in hand. I didn’t know where I was going and I found myself walking past the St Jacob’s Kyrka, the Royal Gardens, cross the water past the Palace. I walked until I ended up in Riddarholmen, a small island that houses a medieval church and many beautiful palaces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A veritable feast of architectural styles- Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque with hints of Baroque. The altitude here allows for many vistas that look onto the water, offering spectacular view of Stockholm. I sat for a while next to an old lady on a bench. She wrote in her diary and I stared out onto the water, shared moments without exchanging a glance or acknowledging of each other, but yet a hint of awareness of sharing the space with another.

Eventually I was sucked into the ‘tourist trap’ (I am borrowing a friend’s phrase here) of Gamla Stan. The crowds struck and the usual paraphernalia of inner city tourism in Europe: endless souvenir shops, quaint ‘historic’ eateries with international brands sneaked in to make folks comfy (go figure!), boutiques and art galleries and cafes spilling into the streets in an unabashed celebration of summer’s unique consumerism. Amidst the hyperactivity, I found solace in beautiful doors, unexpected silences in side streets and ‘secret’ courtyards.

 

 

Oped: Gurgaon Must Resist the Communal Narrative for the Sake of Its Economy

Diversity has been the bedrock of Gurgaon’s economic success, and the incendiary atmosphere created by those who are trying to disrupt namaz will prove to be detrimental to its growth.

Originally carried by The Wire, please read here

While the newly-formed Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti’s attempts to violently disrupt and diminish congregational Friday namaz in Gurgaon may be temporarily on hold for Ramzan, khaap and religious leaders across faiths from Gurgaon’s villages have sent out a clear message that they will resist those disrupting harmony in the city.

Through a press conference on May 15 in which they announced a multi-faith mahapanchayat on the 27th of the month, they made the pitch that religious divisions have no place in a modern city that attracts investors, entrepreneurs and workers from India and abroad, and where citizens have found ways to co-exist peacefully.

Certainly, Gurgaon’s ability to embrace a diverse range of residents plays a big part in making it an economic success and the global brand it is today. Gurgaon has grown exponentially since 2000. Its current estimated population of over 8.7 lakh (as per Census 2011) comprises local villagers, high-skilled migrants working in its globally competitive corporate sector and low-skilled rural migrants who work in the informal services sector, the latter severely undercounted in official estimates.

It bears repeating that Gurgaon’s development model was driven by land consolidation and development by private developers, with public infrastructure and planning playing catch-up. This has resulted in a highly-segregated city of elite gated communities built on erstwhile agricultural lands, while the village settlements have adapted and transformed to provide affordable housing, and space for low-end manufacturing and back-end service functions.

In this scenario, the villagers’ call for harmony and tolerance is significantly motivated by the interdependence between them, in their avatar as landlords, and the migrant renters. In the rapid transition of this landscape from rural to urban, villagers have played a key role, one that goes largely unacknowledged.

In the words of Mahinder Yadav, who I interviewed in Nathupur village adjacent to DLF Cybercity as part of my field research in 2013, “Pehle kheti thi, phir hamaari jameen biki aur ye tower ban gaye. Phir kirayedaar aaye. Ab inse hi hamaara gujara hai (First we were farmers, then we sold them and these buildings came up. Then the renters came. Now we make our living mainly from them).”

Clearly, the incendiary atmosphere created by those who are trying to disrupt namaz in the city is detrimental to the core business of rental housing and other services targeted towards migrants that economically sustains these village communities today. If the city’s communal climate were to chase migrants away, this would directly and significantly impact incomes of the village communities in Gurgaon.

Of course, landlord-tenant relations in villages are characterised by an unequal power dynamic. While migrant renters see the landlord (makaan maalik) as both exploitative and benevolent, enforcing restrictions while also offering certain forms of protection, the landlord sees the renter (kirayedaar) as good (read submissive), but in need of management and control. In this scenario of ‘care and control’, landlords have generally been tolerant of migrants’ religious and cultural practices. I have found Nepali Dussehras and Bihari Chhat poojas being celebrated in some villages and, in the same vein spaces for Jumma namaz have always been peacefully negotiated.

As needs grew, those seeking space for namaz – residents of the city as well as commuters from Delhi and beyond – have worked with local communities, private land and building owners and local police stations to find open grounds, parks, strips of pavement and green belts to pray each Friday. Every now and then, these places move to prevent traffic congestions or if the namaz clashes with another use. Considering that Muslims offering the Jumma namaz in the city’s open spaces has been a familiar sight for nearly a decade, it is perhaps worth questioning why, all of a sudden, they are ruffling feathers now.

Moreover, several commentators have already made the point about there being no opposition to the same spaces being used by other (non-Muslim) groups for congregational activities.

Much of the ire of the namaz disruptors seems to be directed against the Muslim migrants from West Bengal, with tropes like Bangladeshi and Rohingya being used to target them. This is doubly unfortunate because these people are generally documented migrants – it is near impossible to work in the city today without identity papers – at the lowest rung of the ladder, discriminated by language and concentrated in the most menial jobs: women in domestic help, and men in housekeeping, waste collection and cycle rickshaw driving.

In the affluent homes across Gurgaon where these Bengali women work, there is a stunned silence on the namaz issue as households struggle to reconcile the myriad bigoted anti-Muslim tropes – Bangladeshi, Rohingya, terrorists, perpetrators of ‘love jihad– being bandied about with their dependence on this large pool of affordable labour for cleaning, cooking and childcare work.

Gurgaon’s attraction has been its miraculous construction as a mosaic of communities including migrants of many hues – language, religion, class, region and nationality – despite its spatial segregation. This precious diversity, created through negotiation and inter-dependence, is the bedrock of its economic success. The village leaders have instinctively recognised this and taken a stand against the disruptive forces that seek to communalise the city and squander away its key competitive advantage. Gurgaon’s affluent residents must join them.

Mukta Naik is Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. She works on issues related to migration, urbanisation and housing.

How many ways are there to hate women in India? Of Incel, rape culture and a point of no return

Incel. I hadn’t heard the word before it began doing the rounds of the media in context of the van that ran amok in Toronto killing 10 and injuring 13 people, many women. There is a real possibility that the women who died did not just happen to be there. This could be a misogynistic act by someone who identified with Incels- Involuntary Celibates, by someone who hated women as a result of facing sexual rejection from them. This horrifies me! Just how many types of misogyny are women at the receiving end of?

We have plenty of the Incel-types in India too. Women are commonly victims of acid attacks, gang rapes, molestation and even murder because they rejected a man who was pursuing her. Many times there might have been no promises made at all, but rather the man is provoked by feelings of jealousy, possessiveness and inadequacy that may or may not have anything to do with the words or actions of the women who are objects of their desire-turned-ire.

And then there is the misogyny that comes with feeling threatened, or the fear of being threatened in the future. I call this the fear of equality. Those thousands of misogynistic jokes floating around the Internet that characterize women as nags, freeloaders, killjoys and even plain stupid (yes, you should not be forwarding those) are just a way to reassure men of their superior place in society. When men who claim to stand for gender parity share these jokes, I ask if they could find ways to end situations that generate these stereotypes. Would they simply let their wives/girlfriends/sister/daughter work or study out of town, let her have normal relationships with other men, let her go out with her friends without judgement. This is usually met with cynicism, silence or worse, total hatred and counter-aggression. Ironically the safety argument is regularly deployed to keep women boxed in. Dress codes for girls not boys, restrictive hostel timings, victim shaming, all of this has to do with the core insecurity that men have about women becoming their equals. Well, here’s news for you, we already are and if you let us partner with you, we could together make this world a much better place!

We must remind ourselves, though that while the increasing assertion of women sharpens this form of misogyny, such attitudes towards women are deeply embedded in patriarchal societies like ours, which see women as vaginas and wombs whose primary purpose is to bear and raise children. Therefore women are not seen as natural participants in the public sphere, as working professionals, as politicians and activists; only care-giving roles outside of the home (teacher, doctor, anganwadi worker) are easily accepted. This form of misogyny exerts itself through the control of women’s bodies: where they go, what they do, who do they interact with. Male control of movement and reproductive functions are paramount. Hence, the lost honor of rape victims is usually the focus of discussion, deterring reporting even by parents and kin, rather than the need to counsel and support her to lead a normal life in the future. Neither are men committing sexual crimes counseled to rethink deeply misogynistic notions as well as the embedded ideas of masculinity that lead to normalization of misogynistic behaviour.

The third kind of misogyny is simply heartbreaking. This is not a misogyny of neglect and disregard stemming from a conviction that women simply don’t matter. Rising female foeticides and male preference, especially in places with rising prosperity testify to this, leading to the theses of the ‘missing’ or ‘unwanted’ girl children. In the now infamous Kathua rape case, an 8-yr old girl was used as pawn in a rivalry between communities, because as a girl she was considered unimportant, dispensable.

What strikes fear into my heart is this. Back in the pre-Internet era, we could conveniently segregate people into opposing categories, like traditional vs modern, ignorant vs informed, uneducated vs educated; but now, the Internet is an indiscriminate medium to spread ideas. Like Incel in North America, misogyny in India is also spreading online and we seem powerless to stop it. Online rape threats and abusive language against female online profiles are the order of the day. My petition against online sexual abuse has over 14,000 signatures, with many sharing their personal stories of abuse, shame, anger, fear and helplessness.

I used to imagine these men, and some women too, lead some sort of schizophrenic lives. That many of them have seemingly normal relationships and then transform into Hyde-like vile virtual creatures. But the Toronto story reminded me that I might be wrong. Many folks do not lead what we consider ‘normal’ lives. Millions of men across India are experiencing sexual frustration, incompatibility in their relationships, family conflict. Many are possibly members of social groupings that celebrate aggressive misogynistic masculinity. Many see misogyny enacted daily and as Madhumita Pandey’s study of convicted rapists shows, may have no idea of the wrong attached to their actions. Add to that alcoholism and substance abuse, mental illness……and the simple fact that everyone is talking and no one is listening anymore!!

So where do we begin to change this narrative? Now that our immediate outrage in India has been quelled  by an ill-advised ordinance to send rapists of minors to death row, we must talk about more long-term solutions. There is no getting around it. We need to start these difficult conversations in our homes, schools, offices. We need to stand up against misogyny, online and in person, and practice the equality we seek. Recently, I visited an exhibition in my children’s’ school where a group of 11-yr olds enacted a startlingly mature skit on gender equality. The tiny details in the skit – the husband reading the newspaper while the wife sat next to him waiting her turn, the girl child sweeping the floor before she and her brother slept every night – touched me. The message they left with us was powerful. Girls are making choices and achieving success despite facing several odds. What if those odds are removed? What an amazing world ours would be!

Diversity in Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’: Observations about a place of affordability & entrepreneurship

The PhD “flex” room in the Institute of Housing Studies, Erasmus University in Rotterdam is as good a place as any to reflect on the Xiaobei, or Little Africa, a settlement in Guangzhou we visited last month. Why? Because many of the students at IHS, in the Masters and PhD programs, are from African countries and the question of China in Africa is foremost on their minds. While here, I heard Rachel Keeton, PhD candidate at TU Delft, speak about her research on the planning of New Towns in Africa. In her narrative, the Chinese footprint on the creation of new urban spaces in Africa is formidable. Next to me, a PhD colleague worries about the influence of China on the planning and governance of transit systems in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa.

In Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD), we saw the other side. African entrepreneurs have been coming to China for decades, trading, running small businesses, moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and China in what Gordon Mathews and his co-authors have called “low-end globalization” in their book The World in Guangzhou. The epicentre of their activities is the PRD, which has been a trading hotspot for thousands of years and has arguably the most open outlook in all of China. The Dengfeng/Xiaobei locality in Guangzhou, I had heard from colleagues and friends, was the place to experience this phenomenon and so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring its alleys and streets.

The African presence in the neighbourhood is unmistakable with traders from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola living here. Yet we noticed that many of the shops on the mainstreet were owned and operated by those with Chinese ethnicity. A number of the shops at the edge of settlement were selling readymade garments and cheap electronics, perhaps the sort of counterfeit or low-cost items that the Africans have been known to trade in. However, as we ventured further inside, the majority of the stores seemed to cater to the daily needs of this bustling neighborhood. We saw grocery stores, outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables, chemist shops, restaurants and food outlets, hair dressers, and tailoring shops. The area had an international feel to it. I could see Turkish bakeries, French baguettes and Asian spices in grocery stores, and African and Indian clothes in the garment stores. The large number of food outlets with halal signs and Arabic signage indicated a sizeable Islamic population and indeed, Dengfeng is just as Middle Eastern today as it is African, with residents from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Iran. In fact, we learned that many Chinese Muslim families also chose to live here.

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Among the Africans, we could see many single men and some couples, even a few families with young children. I understand that most of the Africans come on short-term visas and do not stay for very long; yet there are many instances of African and Chinese inter-marriages. I’m not certain about the citizenship of those Africans who marry Chinese women and seek to integrate, but the struggle of Chinese society to accept children of mixed parentage, particularly African-Chinese kids in Guangzhou, has been a subject of some discussion in the media. Overstaying visas used to be rather common, but I believe a crackdown since 2012 has scared away the more transient traders and those who remain definitely face discrimination.

Overall, the African presence was not as dominant as I had expected.  Rather, we found a thriving multi-ethnic entrepreneurial space with plenty of affordable rental housing. In fact, the Chinese researcher who guided us through pointed out two buildings where he had rented before, as a student. To me, the visit raised questions about the particular characteristics of places that permit, indeed invite, diversity. Places that are “arrival cities“, as Saunders puts it in his eponymous book, for immigrants from across and within national boundaries. What are the processes, ranging from the use of social networks to the negotiation of rent agreements, that make these places what they are? As article after article, including this one, offer visually and anecdotally rich material as evidence that diversity is indeed something to celebrate and praise, I suspect more detailed investigations of the processes that create diversity might offer a more balanced and perhaps less flattering perspective.

References:

  1. https://africansinchina.net/: Robert Castillo’s blog has a veritable treasure of facts and observations about the community. He is a lecturer at the Hong Kong University’s African Studies Programme
  2. http://permanentwalkabout.com/blog/2016/7/5/little-xiaobei-chinas-africa-town
  3. https://qz.com/1081203/china-in-africa-guangzhou-is-a-global-city-for-african-entrepreneurs/
  4. https://www.thenational.ae/world/asia/young-arabs-get-down-to-business-in-china-1.404155

 

 

 

 

 

 

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