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 makes it so that the political operatives have 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 so 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 of 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

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