Book review: Unknown, overlooked corners of the city

Sunday, 4 April 2010 - 1:22am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Trickster City, a remarkable collection of sketches, vignettes, short stories, and testimonies, evokes an urban landscape not familiar to most “people like us” urbanites.

Trickster City: Writings From The Belly Of The Metropolis
Translated from the Hindi by Shveta Sarda

Penguin
326 pages
Rs499

Trickster City, a remarkable collection of sketches, vignettes, short stories, and testimonies, evokes an urban landscape not familiar to most “people like us” urbanites. It deserves to be read widely not only because it introduces us to hidden, unknown, or deliberately overlooked corners of our city, but also because the writers grapple with significant questions about identity, belonging, and community with restraint, compassion, optimism, and humour. In talking of urban redevelopment, city beautification, land reclamation, gentrification and rezoning —whether in Mumbai or Delhi, Cairo or Beijing — we forget (or choose to ignore) the cost in human terms. Trickster City reminds us that the underbelly of a city is also home to people of considerable energy, talent, and passion, determined to find their place in the sun.

The contributors to this anthology are young people in their twenties who live in neighbourhoods across the city that few English-speaking, upper-class Delhi residents have heard about, much less visited — LNJP colony in Central Delhi, Dakshinpuri in South Delhi, and Sawda-Ghevra, a new resettlement colony to the north of the city. The writers have been associated for different durations with the various Cybermohalla labs set up by Ankur Society and Sarai-CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies). Shveta Sarda, who has worked with Sarai-CSDS since 2001, has translated, with sensitivity and skill, the stories from the Hindi original, Bahurupiya Shehr (Trickster or Shape-Shifting City), published in 2006.

“Our grandparents lived in Delhi, so shall we,” say long-time residents claiming their right. But this right does not extend to all. When does an outsider become a part of the city? How long does it take before a newcomer is accepted as a resident who belongs? In examining these questions, the writers also came to discuss what would constitute writing about Delhi in 2005 at a time when there was euphoria over Delhi hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games. As talk of rebuilding Delhi as a word-class city was heard in some circles, one recalled that Yamuna Pushta (literally ‘behind Yamuna’), a cluster of settlements made by migrants to the city, had been demolished in the recent past.

Delhi has seen frequent demolitions of what are considered undesirable or illegal neighbourhoods — slums, squatter settlements, shantytowns, jhuggi jhonpri (JJ) colonies — driven by political and other imperatives. Houses are demolished and residents are evicted to wastelands at the outskirts of the city. For instance, Dakshinpuri emerged in the mid-1970s, during the Emergency years, when people were evicted from squatter settlements all over the city and some of them were “resettled” on plots of land here. More recently, Nangla Maanchi, the last remaining settlement on the banks of the Yamuna was demolished in an attempt to transform the riverfront into a Thames-like setting. Residents were relocated in the villages of Sawda and Ghevra, in the northwest of Delhi, without transport and civic facilities. As Sarda reminds us, “Demolition does not happen in one day. Demolition is a slow dismantling of a neighbourhood that has been built over decades, and the shadow it casts lingers for years afterwards.”

This lingering shadow of a neighbourhood that once was, of a home now razed, of a community lost forever, is the subject of many stories in Trickster City, chronicling how migrants struggle to survive in a cruel, arbitrary, and unpredictable world. They live precarious lives, under state scrutiny. They encounter the state apparatus — bureaucracy, officialdom, police, ration shop, school.

As they negotiate the city and deal with chaos and uncertainty, it is easy to hear only the voices of the dispossessed, powerless “underclass”. But Trickster City is much more than that. It’s a compassionate, sensitive, sometimes funny, often optimistic portrayal of the little incidents that make up our daily lives. The writers exhibit great storytelling talent, distilling in only a few pages a scene, an episode, a snatch of conversation, a question, to evoke the life and spirit of their neighbourhoods. Sarda notes that the stories are written for and by the “intimate stranger”, but “the stranger is not a threat, not at a distance, but as a self-image, a part of us, yet mysterious, unknown.” The writer, the reader, and the subject is this “unknown but known stranger who dwells inside us and confuses the boundaries of whether we are insiders or outsiders to this city.”

Trickster City is a welcome addition to the growing list of books on a city constantly in flux — shape-shifting, ever changing — but still recognizable to its citizens as home.

Malini Sood is a freelance editor and publishing consultant based in New Delhi




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