Shijie Lu's Blog

What Do You See?

kaccha house: Pravin-Gupta Nagar

Wikipedia: “In social sciences, subjectivity (the property of being a subject) is an effect of relations of power. Similar social configurations create similar perceptions, experiences and interpretations of the world.”

To someone from the developed world, a visit to an Indian city can be depressing and unenjoyable. The heat is ovenlike, traffic is crazy, streets reek of garbage and animal feces, and living conditions are lamentable. Empty stares with locals as one passes by often make it worse, as you realize how foreign and incomprehensible the Other might be. Perhaps, like me, you know how it is to leave feeling sweaty, confused, foreign, and thinking “how do people live like this?”, only to leave with no answers.

In my first day in the slums, I am the guest of Saath, an NGO that has been working in the slums of Ahmedabad for 20 years. Their founder, Rajendra Joshi, otherwise known affectionately across Ahmedabad as Raju-bai (bai is Hindi for “brother”), began his work by experiencing and observing the lives of Ahmedabad’s slum-dwellers on a personal level. From there, he began to understand the systemic factors that were afflicting them, and founded Saath on the basis of Integrated Slum Development, which would “put the slum residents at the center of development and provide them with opportunities to actualize their full and true potentials.”

The day began in semi-awkward fashion, as most cross-cultural meetings normally are: at my initial meeting with community leaders, I alternate between apologizing for my ignorance of Gujarati and trying to discern my translator’s take on what is being discussed. I find myself thinking of the film, Lost in Translation, and simultaneously become very conscious of the fact that I do not want to become one of those people, whom critics of development aid lambast for their top-down, air-lifted solutions to poverty. As the meeting concludes, I ask my translator to apologize again for my linguistic inability and express that I will need everyone’s patience and kindness during my time here. The translation is met with some laughs and sympathetic nods from the group, but I leave wondering how much of it got through.

As we depart for our tour of Pravin-Gupta Nagar, I instinctively note the disagreeable smells and trash in the streets, and find myself thinking “how do people live here?”. Yet, my guides Lipi-Ben and Kokaliya-Ben explain that 20 years ago, things were much worse. They explain that so much of what they have today -piped water, legal electricity, private bathrooms and sanitation-, things we take for granted, only exist thanks to the efforts of Saath in working with the community and local government.

my guides for the day: Yaqoob Bhai, Lipi Ben and Kokaliya Ben

happy faces in Pravin-Gupta Nagar

Later, at Sankalit Nagar, I sit down for an hour to speak with a group of 10 ladies who are pre-school tutors in the local bulca, or schoolhouse. One of the trainee tutors, it turns out, is a 9th grade drop out. Their patience and willingness to answer my poorly formed questions about upgrading their houses impresses me, and as they run me through the numbers to explain why they can ill-afford to repair roofs for the monsoon season, I find myself at a strange loss for words.

One of the tutors, it turns out, has to spend 2000 rupees (around 25%?) of her monthly salary on drugs for her husband, who has been suffering from drug-resistant tuberculosis for years now. She would like to upgrade her tiny house so that the two existing nuclear families in her tiny house can have more space, but she also has to save money for her children’s education. Immediately, Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power comes to mind, as I witness first hand how poverty, disease, inadequate shelter and a lack of education can keep people down.

As I leave the group, the most senior lady in their midst thanks me for my time, and kindly says that she feels as though “her new house is being built as she answers my questions”. I can only apologize, laugh in somewhat abashed fashion, and wish that it was as simple as that. (she is in light blue, featured below)

the pre-school tutors who spoke with me about housing upgrades.

I saw something different today. My first day in the slums of Pravin-Gupta Nagar and Sankalit Nagar was marked by hospitality, patience, and most importantly, some understanding of the lives of people who are just as human as I am, but just less rich in some ways. I am thankful for today’s visit, because it allowed me to change my subjectivity slightly, to see the hope and positive outlooks that slum-dwellers can possess in the face of considerable adversity. So, the next time something seems a certain way to you, consider stopping to ask the locals how they view things. You might be surprised.

I know that I will never be rich if I stay in this line of work, and that I would be shirking obligations to do so, but I also know that I feel a greater sense of belief and purpose working in these slums than I ever did in consulting last summer. Simply put, I actually care about what I am doing, because things are so tangible. I see that if I can just contribute in some small way and get things right with my work, that might mean better shelter for some of my new friends who shared their hope with me today.

What do you see?


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