An anthropologist returns home – in the monsoons, and to everyday violences

“Is it just me, or are there far too many people here now?” I ask, as I return home after frantically attempting to get a new SIM card from the market.

My mother disagrees. Her explanation is simpler: returning from the First World has obviously changed my perceptions of people-to-space ratios.

But there are far more people back in Badlapur, my rapidly-urbanising-and-populating suburban hometown, which 60 kilometres from Mumbai. My brother concurs. He experiences the swell in people every morning as he commutes to his college through the (in)famous Mumbai suburban trains – known colloquially as ‘local trains.’ And not to mention the spate of new housing projects, described as ‘integrated townships,’ that dot the once-green landscape.

It is also the monsoon season – although I am yet to experience any rains, and it is mid-July already. Mumbai was already flooded thrice in June due to heavy rainfall. And today, it did so again.

Most people who have done field research in Mumbai might agree that the monsoons are probably not the best time to do so. Travelling anywhere is, to put it mildly, a pain since public transport – i.e., Mumbai’s local trains – grindingly comes to a halt.

But, I confess, I am overreacting: I have learned to make peace with the monsoons in Mumbai during my five years of commuting to the city when I was in university.

After all, last year I was doing research in Dharavi at precisely this time, between July and September.

***

A few words about Dharavi, first. Situated smack-in-the-centre of Mumbai, Dharavi is an amalgamation of slum settlements, communitarian areas (wadis), and several small-scale industries and businesses, both traditional and modern – pottery, leather tanning, metal-works, and manufacturing. Dharavi evolved from a settlement of Kolis – the indigenous fishing community in colonial Bombay – to a working class settlement in the 1940s and 1950s, with the migration of groups from all across India (primarily the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and later from Uttar Pradesh).

Since the 1980s – and 1990s, after ‘globalization’ – Dharavi has witnessed efforts to redevelop it into a swanky township, replete with golf courses and glass-and-metal buildings. Of course, when you ask people in Dharavi about redevelopment, they say with certitude that it won’t happen: largely because of protests against displacement (after all, swanky urban spaces cannot house former slum residents); but mostly, because it’s far too complex and expensive. Life and work in Dharavi goes on.

***

Between June and September of 2014, I was working with an NGO that is based out of one of the municipal hospitals in Dharavi, and works primarily on issues of domestic and gender-based violence. My project involved working with their front-line staff – including community organizers and voluntary workers – to elucidate a front-line worker ‘model’ of intervention and advocacy. Now, I return to Dharavi to work with the NGO and its front-line staff for my master’s thesis research on gender and violence. A part of thesis is following up the threads I’d left out last time; another is to ask new questions on the relationship between violence, change and intimacy that many front-line workers themselves have experienced.

It’s been a week since I started fieldwork, and today I’m at home (because of heavy rains obviously – which explains me finally writing this blogpost).

For a fleeting moment, I am tempted to pretentiously refer to my forays into Dharavi’s narrow by-lanes, or gallis, as “returning home.” But I know that to be false, naïve, and romantic. I have no stakes in the everyday struggles of Dharavi’s residents – usually seen as their struggles against redevelopment and land acquisition.

But these everyday struggles also include negotiating more pervasive and banal forms of violence, including and especially domestic violence and violence against women.

One of the NGO's posters seen across Dharavi.
One of the NGO’s posters seen across Dharavi.

Last year, on my first day on field, I heard a case where a front-line worker was very nearly physically assaulted by goondas for trying to stop them from harassing women and girls in the area; and they had patronage from some local policemen. Then, there was another where a woman suffered 90% burn injuries, allegedly due to a “cylinder explosion” – a common euphemism for burning cases. She had filed a report against her husband earlier for domestic abuse, but was persuaded by her family to withdraw the complaint. Her 10 year-old son witnessed the event, but the police refused to treat him as a witness; and her husband was out on bail, as well (my colleagues informed me this time that he was finally convicted).

On my first day on field this year, as we were waiting for a women’s group meeting to begin in the Kali Bharni area north-east of Dharavi, another community organiser was speaking to a woman whose 5 year-old son was murdered by an acquaintance last year right before Eid. The case is ongoing today, where the accused man is now claiming to be below 18 years of age (thus, being exempt from being tried as an adult – also a contentious legal issue in India at the moment). Other women in the meeting spoke of how workers in the karkhana, or workshops, tend to bathe out in the alleys every morning, restricting the access these women and girls have to the common toilets in the area.

These instances of everyday violence – or, what anthropologist Arthur Kleinman calls, the violences of everyday life – are undeniably as much a part of Dharavi, as are the struggles its residents are involved in resisting redevelopment. And even that is more contentious and fragmented than what popular writings on Dharavi often portray – a ‘precarious stability,’ according to Liza Weinstein.

As I see it, my intervention rests on a rejection of the romanticizing narratives about Dharavi’s resistance/recalcitrance, and of treating the violences of everyday life as exceptional and feeding into conservative and middle-class perceptions of slum life.

The realities of Dharavi are irreducibly complex, nuanced, and during my time here (as well as writing about it) I hope to do justice to these complexities, even as I try to underscore the violences of everyday life. This is both, an anthropological and ethical commitment – especially since I somehow attempt to make my work ‘relevant’ and ‘useful’ to my colleagues and collaborators in the NGO (which is a topic for another blogpost).

***

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