Yesterday I accompanied Janam (the group that I’m researching) into the resettlement colony of Seemapuri. Essentially, it is a slum. It wasn’t the kind of slum that Mike Davis talks about in Planet of Slums. Davis’ book drowned me in an endless stream of statistics and attempted personalizations, which left me with the feeling that the world is drowning in shit. Seemapuri did not drown me in shit, but it did leave me with a fat dollop of bird poop square on the top of the head… both literally and figuratively.
Seemapuri was created about 30 years ago when Delhi was being built up. It was a way to get the very very poor out of the heart of the city so that office buildings and residential neighborhoods could be built for those with means. The people who used to live in Delhi were resettled to Seemapuri. Seema means “limit” in Hindi. The area has gentrified slowly since then, but that doesn’t mean it has a Cafe Coffee Day and a McDonald’s (the equivalent to a Starbucks here). It means that the houses they live in are made of concrete and brick, not pvc piping and tarps. A lot of people who were originally given land there sold off the land and moved. Well, “moved” is a nice way of putting it. I asked Mala (one of the leaders of Janam) if they’d gone farther out, beyond the limit. She said that no, they’d gone back into the heart of the city, to the streets.
Janam is a theater group that is dedicated to creating art that reflects the reality of “the people”. They started out in 1973 with the mission of “taking theater to the people”. Their politics are essentially left-wing and most of their plays are about the labor struggle and workers rights. The event yesterday was organized with several other cultural organizations to bring a culture to “the people” that wasn’t what they see on TV. That reflected the needs and reality of the people of Seemapuri, instead of instilling them with ideas that success is being white and wealthy.
We were going to march through the area and stop at several locations to give performances and speeches. I found myself holding a sign with words written in Hindi. I asked Kometa (a Janam member) what it said and she accredited it to Mahmoud Darwish. It translated to “Beware my hunger, beware my anger”. I felt slightly uncomfortable bearing the sign as I am neither hungry nor angry. We marched unperturbed to the first location but when I pulled out my camera to take pictures I was beset upon by an eager inundation of children. I took their photos for a while and then sat out-of-the-way in a place where I thought I’d not cause any problems. No sooner had I taken a seat then the children crowded around me. As I was sitting I felt like I was drowning in the crowd. Mala grabbed me and made me sit behind the microphone among the people that were going to perform so that I wouldn’t cause a distraction from the performances. I felt pretty bad but with the exception of the young men trying to capture me on their cell phones I did not cause any further disruption.
As began our march to the second spot I was relieved of sign holding duties and started to walk around and take pictures. I made my way to the front of the parade, wanting to get all the colorful signs but it was about thirty seconds before I had so many children around me that I couldn’t move. One held out her hand for me to shake, I did and immediately there was another, and another. There were so many hands I couldn’t shake them all. I looked up and realized I was stopping the parade from continuing because there were so many children around me. One of the Janam members appeared and there was so sort of mild argument among the organizers that I didn’t understand. After that I was given to Kometa as her charge. Any sort of positive indication that I gave to the children was an invitation for overwhelming attention but I didn’t want to be mean, so Kometa had to play bad cop while I smiled subtly and stared straight ahead. At the second performance the little girls gathered behind me, tapping me on the shoulder, touching my hair and necklace.
As part of my research I came across an article (“Mirrors of Value”) comparing the representations of women presented by the “Fair and Lovely” ad campaign to the representations of women in Janam’s plays. They article argued that in the ad campaign they are promoting an association between being white and being successful. I felt kind of strange because my presence at the cultural rally was certainly doing that. Janam’s plays provide an alternative representation of women. The women in Janam’s plays are working women, who don’t have time to worry about whether they are fair or not. The article argued that both representations did not deal adequately with the complexity of the situation. If Janam is interested in creating art that reflects the reality of the people, the reality seemed to me to be that they very much did believe that being white was being successful. Sadly, by being there I was only reinforcing that.
As we left Seemapuri I felt a moist dollop on my head. I reached up to investigate and retrieved a hand smeared in birth poo. Kometa brushed the rest off of my head and I wiped my hand on my jeans. Going into a slum isn’t like drowning in shit, living there might be, but just briefly seeing the lives that “the people” live is like having a dollop of bird poo land right on the top of your head. The sensation is shocking, you’re not quite sure what it is, and then you find out and think “Of course… Of course, that is what it feels like”. But then you can wipe it off on your jeans and dream about taking a shower later.
Later that day, after an amazing sarod concert by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, I found myself at Gymkhanna in the very same jeans. I dragged some friends to a “good play” to make sure they didn’t think all theater was as bad as the play we’d seen the night before. After they took me to the actually good sarod concert at their prestigious high school. One of my friend’s parents belong to this Gymkhana place so for dinner afterward we ended up at one of the oldest and most prestigious clubs in Delhi. We had to go in through the back entrance because we weren’t wearing collars and dress shoes. Thankfully my dark jeans hid the bird poop stains.
It was strange to go from what was basically the slums, to the playground of millionaires in the same day. By the end of the day, the last traces of the shit that made such an impact on my head had crumbled away and I no longer felt the need to reach up and see if it was gone. Perhaps some is still ingrained in my jeans.