City Requiem, Calcutta
Gender and the
Politics of Poverty

Ananya Roy
(University of Minnesota Press)

Ms Roy teaches urban studies in California, but returned to West Bengal a few years ago to study poverty, gender, and land-use...

...Which sounds like a bore and would be a bore in anyone else's hands. Ms. Roy is the exception because,

  • She knows her stuff;
  • She speaks the language (Calcutta is where she grew up);
  • She is doing the real nitty-gritty, in the squatter shacks, on the train station platforms --- interviewing the women who are trying to support their families;
  • She knows how to write --- her style is impeccable; and, most of all,
  • She cares.
Roy thus becomes a part of the dust and dirt and steamy heat, dressed in "deliberately shabby clothes ... sweaty hair pulled tightly back," squatting like the women she is interviewing, "avoiding the filthy platform." The working women of Calcutta are the primary wage-earners of the squatter villages --- leaving their children behind each day, traveling to cleaning jobs that are devalued by all.

In Calcutta, security for the poor in the form of land ownership or housing is in continual flux, stirred up by political conflict between the parties. This insecurity is assured by there being no clear title to the lands (the most recent plat map was drawn in 1910 by the British raj). This ambivalence gives the political operatives the ultimate power: the affluent gain the disputed squatter lands to build condos and the very poor get dispossessed.

The author titles Calcutta a "requiem" for a city that no longer exists, that may never have existed. "There is a nostalgia for the old Calcutta," she tells us, "the city as spectacle" --- wide streets, the infrastructure that was English Colonial rule. This romantic attachment for a past is used as excuse to tear down squatter housing, displace street merchants, chase the poor from lands that they thought they might someday own. Roy gives this continuing insecurity a perceptive label: volatility as stasis.

§     §     §

Trying to sum up City Requiem: Calcutta is about as easy as coming up with an adequate precis of The Brothers Karamazov or a Dickens novel. On one level this is an attempt by a serious student of poverty, land-use, and gender to explore all three in terms of a city that has become the universal symbol for foulness and poverty.

But City Requiem, Calcutta is far richer than some graduate-student's thesis on Indian urban life. Roy's citations not only come to us from major works on urban use, planning, feminism and the sociology of the poor, but from such unlikely sources as Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Kurosawa, Joyce, Eliot, Mozart, Márquez, Baudelaire, Sartre:

    Chetla was a miserable place. The shanties were tightly sandwiched between a putrid canal and a busy road. Within the settlement, amidst the maze of walkways, often only a few feet wide, it was hard to tell whether it was day or night. The only open space was a concrete platform along the canal, where bloated bodies of dead animals frequently washed ashore. Vultures circled overhead while the settlement's children played amidst the rotting carcasses. During my first few visits to Chetla, I had to muster up every strength in my body to stop myself from throwing up. It was a nausea that was as Sartrean as it was physical: an unbearable sense of my existence.

In reporting her interviews, Roy emerges as a character --- a powerful, engaging one --- in her own study. Amidst the formal citations of "rural-urban linkages," "enabling the poor," "distress migration," "the rural landless," and "poverty as negotiated access," we get a picture of an author in search of her many characters.

Roy refers to her family in America that lives in "an old, middle-class and small house [with] a car that was a cranky Ambassador." But one day she is introduced by a busybody politician to the very people she is interviewing, and they are told that she is "a visitor from America, the richest country in the world, a country on whose aid the entire world survives."

    Mukherjee then turned to me and asked, "How much is a maid's salary in America?" I stuttered to explain that there weren't that many maids in the United States and that I definitely did not employ one.

"By this time, I was mortified," she tells us.

    Suddenly I felt as if I had betrayed them, as if I had lied ... My subjects had assumed that I came from a middle-class Calcutta family, and I had left it at that. Ethnographies are always performances ... and I had always been conscious of my own performance strategies. But I now felt that I had deceived my subjects.

"Here it was," she concludes: "the burden of my class position suffocating me with existential weight."

It is this willingness of the author to expose herself that makes this book so winning. This is not some dry technocrat from an American university making a dry study of the very poor in Calcutta. She is there in the midst of the dust and the stink, giving the reader a worthy study of the soul of poverty... not some facile narrative with charts and figures but a you-are-there experience.

In the process, she is able to sort through all the clichés that we have been handed over the years about India, Calcutta and the very very poor. She does this by calling up tangential issues: land-use, political reality, the vagaries of squatting, the invisibility of the workers, the patriarchy of the political process, and what she calls "unmapping."

She is sure, very sure, of her discipline. She knows her stuff, is not buffaloed by the homilies and the usual sociological platitudes about the poor. At the same time, she is ambivalent enough about her rôle in Calcutta and in this study that the book ends up with four different conclusions.

Each conclusion is appropriate; each a masterful summing up of a masterful study. The very existence of the four of them points to the ambiguity of not only her project (how does one dare to define the poor?), but the ambiguities of the very lives she is trying so faithfully to explore.

--- R. G. Wise
Go to a reading from this book.

Franz Kafka
Richard Stokes,

It's beyond me why an author would have the hero of his tale turn into a beetle when he could just as well transform him into a poodle, a cuddly kitten, or at worst, a butterfly. But, then again, there's no accounting for taste, is there?

After he becomes a bug (one paragraph --- no scientific explanation offered) Gregor Samsa is forced by the author to spend the next ten pages of "Metamorphosis" trying to get out of bed. He spends the subsequent ten pages thinking of how he is going to get to work in his new bug-body.

Since he's a salesman, his extraordinary appearance might have an adverse effect on his monthly sales figures. Here he is a six-foot beetle with 24 tiny legs, trying to sell time-life insurance to some poor sucker there in 1920s Vienna.

Finally, when he figures out that he's a bug, Gregor insists on crawling across the ceiling and sleeping under the bed. He also refuses to eat anything besides rotten fruit, aged vegetables, and putrid meat-pies. His good Austrian family is, as you would expect, grossed out by all this.

They try to keep him hidden in the bedroom so he won't be scaring the wits out of the paying boarders --- but no --- at night naughty Gregor has to sneak into the living-room to listen to his sister playing the violin. A beetle infatuated not with the Beatles but with Bach.

Naturally, his appearance causes a hubbub. The boarders flee, his Mum almost has heart-failure, his father throws an apple at him, and his sister drops her violin.

Fortunately, there is one sensible character here: the family maid. She pokes Gregor with her broom-handle and informs him, as if he didn't already know, that he is nothing but a common dung-beetle, and should mind his manners. He takes this as an insult, goes into a regular sulk, refuses to eat his putrescent meat-pie, and up and dies.

Maid sweeps him out with the garbage, Mum and Dad and Sister head out of town on a trolley where sister blooms, metamorphoses into the butterfly he should have become. The family is content, at last, to be done with this wall-crawling scamp.

They say that Kafka is a "seminal" writer, whatever that means. If "Metamorphosis" is any sample, his chances of getting on the USA Today "Top Best Seller List" are about as good as me winning the Miss America contest or the finals in the Savannah Open. Fiction about someone turning into a dung-beetle may appeal to the Stephen King regulars, but for my money give me The Lovely Bones any day of the week.

--- Leslie J. Wurner

Waiting for
An Angel

Helon Habila
Lomba is arts editor at The Dial, a weekly newspaper in Nigeria. When he applies for a job, his editor says, "Have you ever thought of writing on politics?"

    "I'm not very political."

    "You can't escape it. In this country the very air we breathe is politics."

So he writes on arts, but, at one point, finds himself covering a rally. In Nigeria, at that time, anyone attending a rally --- as reporter, participant, or on-looker --- was considered dangerous to the state. Lomba gets arrested and sent to prison.

The themes that ride through these seven tales are the themes of modern-day Nigerian politics: violence, plunder, state-sponsored murder, and the hopeless poverty and voicelessness of those who live under the continuing series of military coups.

The first story, entitled "Lomba," tells of the reporter's two years in jail. He has just been fingered for keeping paper and pencil in his cell --- all highly illegal. But Muftau, the chief warder, has a plan. He stumbles over the poems that Lomba has written and decides that he will use this writing to win the heart of his lady-love, Janice.

Thus, Lomba finds himself in the funny position of composing love-lyrics for the sweetheart of the man who has beaten him, stomped on him with his boots, and thrown him into solitary for the simple act of writing.

Janice is a lover of the poems of Sappho, and to capture her attention, Lomba repeatedly inserts into the love-poems the lines: "save my soul, a prisoner..." She demands that Muftau allow her to meet with him. She wants to know why he sent her an S.O.S.

When they meet, he tells her that he knew that he might die in prison: he watched a fellow prisoner being carried away, "Just like that."

    I saw myself being taken out like that, my lifeless arms dangling, brushing the ground...My body would end up in some anonymous mortuary, and later in an unmarked grave, and no one would know. No one would care. I am a political detainee; if I died I am just one antagonist less. That was when I wrote the S.O.S. It was a message in a bottle, thrown without much hope into the sea.

The story ends ambiguously. The author hints that Lomba may have died in another prison, or, because he was a "survivor," may have been freed during one of the many coups that swept Nigeria in the following years.

Habila's writing is not without art. One is certainly captured by the desperateness of everyone living in a vicious military state: the students (one of Lomba's friends goes mad and is murdered by the police;) his family (his aunt turns to alcohol after losing her husband during one of the on-going wars); the neighbors (a young thief is caught by Lomba's neighbors, soaked in gasoline, set afire). It is a harsh world, but there are elements of comedy --- there have to be --- for us to keep on going without burnout.

A man named Brother is eating soup and fights with the waitress in his aunt's restaurant. She dumps the bowl on his head:

    Brother had an incredulous smile on his lips as he raised both hands and touched his lips. The gooey, mucilaginous okra soup trickled in slow motion down his face --- eyes, ears, nose, moustache, beard --- before disappearing into his shirt collar...

    Nobody said anything. The men turned away from his gaze. The oily red soup covered his head like a martyr's halo.

In another story, young Kela is being questioned by two men from State Intelligence. They are trying to capture his teacher, who has fled. They want to know where he has gone.

Kela tells them he has gone to America. "Did he tell you that?" they ask. "No," he says, "I am only guessing."

    "But Kela, don't you think America is a bit to far to go to? There is a whole ocean to cross before one reaches there." They laughed.

    I shook my head patiently. "No. It is not an ocean, it's just a tiny river. All you have to do is imagine it. Wait, I am coming." I dashed to my room. I came back with my Pathfinder's Atlas and spread it open before them. They were amused and a little intrigued by my earnestness. I pointed. "See, this is Africa, this is Nigeria, and here is Lagos." I drew a line. "Across is America. If we could magically shrink up the ocean and reduce it to a little river, then all we'd need to get to the American shore is a tiny bridge. A walking distance, really."

    They laughed and stood up to go.

    "But think about it," I said. "All we need is a little imagination to discover that things are not as fixed or as impossible as we believe."

--- Howard Mfunde

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