[Reader-list] Problematizing Definitions

zainab at xtdnet.nl zainab at xtdnet.nl
Fri Dec 16 11:21:09 IST 2005

There are some of these days when I think about ‘definitions’ and I am

15th December 2005

I have suddenly discovered the camera and am making pictures everywhere I
go (these days).

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking past the Grant Road Bridge, making my
way to Lamington Road. Grant Road Bridge is the home to many pavement
dwellers and drug addicts. At one point, I saw a child screaming and
crying, drawing everyone’s attention. The legs of this little boy were
tied. He may have been about three years old. Next to him was his little
sibling. She was a new born infant, deep in slumber, inside a pen. For a
moment, I was shaken by the wailing of the little boy. For a moment, I was
moved by the cruelty of the act of tying his feet. But when I brought out
my camera, I decided not to moralize the picture, but to show one more
aspect of street life in one part of the city. I did not have the courage
to make the picture from forward. So I decided to go back and make the
picture. I photographed. A little commotion ensued. A woman came running
and she came up close to me saying, ‘No photos’, ‘No pictures’. I was
frightened. I decided to show her the picture I had made and delete it in
front of her eyes to reassure her. She grabbed me by my arm and pushed me
away, ‘go away from here’.
My guess was that the woman was mildly mentally deranged. She was very
aggressive when she pushed me. I began to wonder why the child’s legs were
tied. My only guess is that maybe its mother did not want it to wander
around the road in her absence; so this was a good way to keep the child
put – basically safety of the child.
The lady who pushed me may have been the mother. And again I guessed –
perhaps she did not want me to make the picture, thinking that if I were a
social worker type, I would take away her children thinking that she is a
cruel mother and put them in foster care – I am only guessing here!
What interested me about the experience was the definition of rights – are
rights truly universal? In the context of lifestyles and cultures, do
rights take on relative meanings? For instance, in the case of this child,
there may have been perfectly legitimate reasons for tying his legs in the
context of their lifestyle and culture – does the rights’ framework then
do unintended violence to such people and cultures? Does it give power of
definitions (in the Foucaultian sense) to certain groups to intervene on
behalf of the greater good (greater good questionable in this case)?

10th December 2005

My classmate in the photography class is discussing a project idea. His
project is to photograph garbage. He has been an NRI (Non-Resident Indian)
and was irked by the sight of garbage when he came to India. He wonders
how people can be so insensitive to something which is so evident. He
wants to project garbage in a way that will make people want to do
something about it.

I had an interesting experience this morning. I was walking by the bridge
on Byculla when I saw a rag picker picking up an orange fruit from the
trash lying on the road. It was his breakfast. He ate hungrily and was
reasonably satisfied as the pleasure of the fruit drew to an end.

I wondered about garbage that evening. What is trash to me is food to
someone else; trash irks me because I want a clean city, yet, that trash
is food for someone else. Who defines dirty? Who defines clean? Are we
Foucaultian here again in our everyday lives and practices?

While re-picturing the rag picker picking fruit from the trash heap, I
wondered, what are the points of negotiation between one group’s ideal of
a clean city and another group’s city which exists through trash? (Perhaps
trash is what makes up their city 

8th December 2005

Visiting Imambada has become a regular jaunt. I sit in Khushali Tea Café,
a Muslim Irani Tea Joint to understand the notion of public space. This
evening, as I was wading my way through the crowded and busy street of
Imambada, I wondered about locality and lifestyles.

A city is an agglomeration of different lifestyles, each emerging from
local histories. In the process of creating the global city (Shanghai,
Singapore, Hong Kong, King Kong!), we are either wiping away locality or
are commodifying (read culture-izing) it through alluding to its ‘unique
culture’, making it yet another Moroccan Birdcage as Jonathan Raban spoke
in his book ‘Soft City’.

While wading through sweat and dust and grime (and experience), I was
disturbed by the definition of public space and the image/s which the term
‘public space’ evokes. Maybe public space is what is clean, well
maintained, a park, a garden, an open space, etc. In my worldview,
Khushali Tea Café is a public space, one which is interesting and yet has
problems of its own. One of the problems with Khushali is that it is a
male centric public space. Imambada is a Muslim neighbourhood; women
rarely come to Khushali on their own (and in this respect, my position as
a researcher in the café is disturbing to me and to the store owner as I
am constantly being watched ‘as a single, lone woman’). If women come to
Khushali, then they are largely accompaniments (read appendage) to the
men. Yet, Khushali is a critical space where locality is produced and
reproduced. It is a gathering space, a meeting space. Tea costs Rs. 3 (and
I bet it is the most fantastic and simple tea you would have ever had! Try
with salt and lemon and the definition of tea will change 
). The store
owner, who is the tea maker and the space creator, has no pretensions
about his existence – drink your tea if you like; don’t drink tea; sit if
you please without wanting to drink; do what you like! – and then he
grumbles about having to wake up early and customers pouring till late at
night – I have a 12 hour job, he grumbles, I have to wake up in the
morning to run the water pump and I am functioning ever since then! Do I
have a life? – and he goes on grumbling and making tea!

Public space huh? Whose the public? What is public? Where is the space?
What is the space? Why is the space? 

Definitions huh?

I am bothered 

Zainab Bawa

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