Will someone please tell me why am I writing this foreword? Usually the more distinguished, better-established writers, get to write them. Whereas my sole claim to writing is that several times in the past I have thought of writing books, and have sometimes gotten as far as writing their prefaces! You could say, therefore, to an extent I am a practiced—perhaps even an inveterate—preface writer. It was in early 2001, when I thought I was coming down with a fit of book writing, that Gita had magnanimously lent me her laptop to help me through the crisis. Sadly, once again, no book emerged despite the prefatory exertions. But, we are still an explanation short here, I think. I couldn’t be writing a foreword to this book just because I could never write a book to my prefaces…
Before talking about either Gita or myself, I would like to tell you why I have chosen ‘Keep ’em scratching’ as the title of this foreword. Why, in cheering Gita on to do something she does with such consummate skill, use a verb which most often denotes an action that is too uncouth to even talk about? I have borrowed the verb from the biography of another woman from another age and another country, but with the same admirable spunk. Some may think she fought against greater odds. But I would not underestimate what Gita is up against. You can judge for yourself.
In 1799, a slave named Isabelle was born in New York. After being freed in 1827, she chose the name by which she has been remembered long after her death—Sojourner Truth. Truth was a preacher, an abolitionist and an activist for the rights of both blacks and women. Although she couldn’t read, she could quote the Bible word for word, and was a powerful speaker. An imposing six feet tall, with a profound faith in God’s love and a deep rich voice, she stirred audiences around the country until her death in 1883.1 Sojourner’s fame and stature as an abolitionist and feminist with wit and wisdom had spread across the countryside. Even her opponents had to respect her.
Once a heckler in an Ohio town shouted out that the constitution didn’t say a word against slavery. ‘Are you against the constitution, old woman?’ asked the heckler.
‘Well, children,’ Sojourner began in her usual way, ‘I talks to God and God talks to me. This morning I was walking out and I climbed over a fence. I saw the wheat holdin’ up its head, lookin’ so big. I goes up and take hold of it. Would you believe it, there was no wheat there! I says, “God, what’s the matter with this wheat?” And He says to me, “Sojourner, there’s a little weevil in it.”’
‘What’s that got to do with the constitution?’ the heckler yelled back.
Sojourner held up her hand to let him know she wasn’t finished. ‘I hears talk about the constitution and the rights of man. I comes up and takes hold of this constitution. It looks mighty big. And I feels for my rights. But they not there. Then I says, “God, what ails this constitution?” And you know what he says to me? God says, “Sojourner, there’s a little weevil in it.”’
This was something the Ohio farmers of 1852 could understand, because their wheat crop had been ruined by a tiny beetle called a weevil.
On another occasion a man asked, ‘Do you think your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say? Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.’ Sojourner laughed. ‘Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratchin.’
Now Gita is not six feet tall. She is not a preacher, but a professional planner. Not only can she read, she even makes her own multimedia documents, and writes especially well. And what’s more, for an English-educated elitist writer in India—she writes with enviable fluency in two languages. Her Bible and her constitution is the master plan. And she has found a little weevil there. She may not be a celebrity—in fact I suspect she would consider becoming a ‘Page Three regular’ a fate worse than death. And she is very much alive. But I am sure, after having known her for some time, that like Sojourner Truth, she will never let up. She will keep ’em scratchin’. So, I say, keep ’em scratching, Gita!
A dozen years ago, my family and I had moved house and begun living in Vasant Kunj, a residential neighbourhood in South Delhi. A close friend who taught at the School of Planning and Architecture had often mentioned that a former student of his, Gita, also happened to live in the same colony. Every time he mentioned his student, I noticed my friend always spoke in that tone teachers reserve for the les enfant terrible among their pupils—a tone composed of equal parts of pride and awe, with a tinge of fear and concern. She was something of a gadfly and a crusader, I gathered, someone who enjoyed challenges (taking pangas as we say in local lingo). Despite my mild curiosity however, I never actually met her at the time. I was curious, I don’t mind admitting, because I suspected what my friend had shrewdly guessed, that were she and I to meet, we would hit it off well. He knew me for a long time, and well enough, I think. I had just moved to Delhi after having chucked a good job, because the price that apparently had to be paid for economic security and academic advancement had seemed a bit steep to me at the time. He must surely also have known that sometimes I am a little less fascinated by the beaten path, than I might be for taking the occasional panga myself.
It was years before I actually met Gita. Years during which much happened, as often happens with years. Soon, however, Gita and I began to talk intermittently—mostly on the phone—for long periods of time and became good friends. Then in early 2001 she gave me a manuscript to read. The catch (though I couldn’t see it at the time) was that I would have to say what I thought about it. As I told Gita after I had read her typescript, given the choice, I would have perhaps preferred a kick in the groin.
Now don’t get me wrong. Reading the book was and is a pleasure, as I am sure you will find out for yourself before long. I really, really, enjoyed Gita’s style. As a long-standing admirer of the power of parables to make points, it reminded me of when I had first read about Hialy, who, ‘accused of “using a sword to sever a thread”, had said: “Shall I rather use honey to drown a camel?”’2
It was responding to the book, which, as you might already have noticed in my case at any rate, was causing problems. Now it certainly wasn’t because the book was about something that did not concern me. Of the four categories of people—going by her dedication—for whom Gita haswritten the book, I think I belong to at least three. The only category to which I know I do not belong is that of ‘the big people, the people who fabricate the stories’. The ‘Lord of Contemporary Urban Development’ has never seen it fit to invite me to any special meetings of ‘senior officials, representatives of friendly political parties, NGOs and donors’. (Must be because I have nothing to donate, or be friendly or officious about I suppose.) And alas, not being of the Big People, it is not in my power to write endings, happier, or otherwise. So, forewords it will have to be.
Of the other three categories, I know I belong to the first—the Little People who are in the majority in the city. However poor, small, weak and fragmented, we are among the citizens of India. I am also sure I am among the ‘others who wonder about what is happening and think it is not their doing’, but who can still ‘see that it is their tragedy’. And finally, I think I do fancy myself—from time to time at any rate—as some sort of a ‘whistle-blower’, someone who has tried in the past to raise a feeble pen against some intolerable state of affairs. I did ‘understand what was happening’, but not why, and I felt ‘helpless and lonely’. My whistle had currently fallen silent, even if I had ‘not thrown it away in despair’. So the book was obviously of great concern to me as a poor, helpless urban citizen caught in a tragedy, with or without the inevitable feeling of loneliness and despair, irrespective of whether I was a whistle-blower (aspiring, active, or retired) or not. The question however is not whether the book is enjoyable reading, or whether it is about something of concern to me or not. The question is, what does one do after reading it.
Here is a professional planner with impeccable credentials, who has chosen to opt out of The System that seemed to her ‘to be hurtling at breakneck speed on the path to sustaining rather than solving the problems of cities in general and slums in particular’. If she is proud of her professional credentials, she is even more justifiably proud of the fact that she has not become one of those forever alien, globalized, jet-setting, outside experts of popular standards. Like Fidel Castro, who pointed out the need—in view of the history of global economic development—to have a transitive verb ‘to underdevelop’, Gita too would like to go into the transitive aspects of slumming. Intransitive slumming—visiting slums, as for study—she has clearly done enough of. Now, through her one year chronicle of events in the life of some slums and slum saviours, she would like to describe for us some dimensions of how the Big People, the powers that be, go about slumming our cities, transitively and merrily.
Gita is not like the devout at the Wailing Wall, who pray with folded hands, facing only one wall. She prays with both her hands, not by folding them meekly, but by trying to push back two walls at the same time, so to speak. Her praying thus may look rather more like parrying—with pen, video camera and banner. She holds them all with a sure touch and handles them equally deftly, even if they are sometimes shaken in rude encounters with the real world outside her door. With one hand she would like to depict and document, pushing back further our understanding of the contemporary reality of the urban world in India. With the other, she would like to engage with that world, and change it to become a better place. In the throes of this even-handed contest—between interpreting on the one hand and changing the urban world on the other—she is intimately familiar with the rough and tumble of the public arena. Her research, advocacy, public action and media coverage is largely focussed on the immediate real world around her, at her doorstep. And if she is familiar with the heat and dust and scents of the parks, markets and slums of this real world, she is also a familiar figure there. She has faced the naked power of the state (or rather of the forces that have hijacked it) near her doorstep, because she has combined her global vision with determined local action in her own neighbourhood. She has been pushed around and threatened by goons of elected representatives as well as by public servants.
How perilously close to bitterness, frustration and supercilious cynicism her experiences have left her, is something that the vitriol that drips from her pen will tell you and for you to decide. ‘Perhaps all that people like me can hope to do in these maddening times is chronicle them’, she says. To her credit, she has done precisely that in this book, without pulling any punches. She leaves us in no doubt that our boat is leaking, and that our captain is lying. She has also admitted that though it could be her bias, she is convinced that what this state of affairs needs is not virtuous charity and kindness; it might be too late for that sort of thing already. She has challenged an injustice and is willing to fight it ‘with vicious intolerance’. And she challenges all of us when she asks us at the end: ‘What are we waiting for? A bloody revolution?’
So what are we waiting for? Definitely for this bloody foreword to end I suspect, so that you can begin grappling with the real book, the ending of which is in your hands. Read on, and find an answer. For silence is notand should not be an option.
As for me, I am always game to hold up the other end of the banner, perhaps chip in with the odd stroke of the old pen, when it comes to fighting neighbourhood battles for upholding what is right by the law. I can help with odd jobs, perhaps even take the wheel if necessary. But just because I am older and grayer, don’t look to me for ‘The Bhagwat, Gita’! I cannot show the way, because I myself am unsure of how you can keep your sanity and use it too, having perhaps been caught short on both counts! Kenneth Keniston had published two studies of my cohorts when my generation was studying at university during the 1960s. They were called The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society and Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth. Well, some of us survived all these years by alternating between those two roles—without however being too sure of either having kept, or used, what we had always known was our sanity—even after we were no longer young. Perhaps some of us eventually even became too used to flipping channels!
Be that as it may, the reality of today’s—and tomorrow’s—ugly megalopolis cannot unfortunately be switched off though. There is no other channel. So, keep ’em scratching, Gita, till we can all decide what we should be doing and can do.
Kashyap Mankodi. New Delhi, ecember 2001