Further afield.

After one month of research, my friend, Ricky, and I decided to take a week out to explore other places in south India.  Ricky is also studying international development at the University of Amsterdam but her research concerns the wellbeing of trawl fishermen in Palk Bay (south Tamil Nadu).  So, on Thursday night, in torrential rain, I boarded a night train from Chennai to Pudukottai to go and meet Ricky.  Indian trains are incredibly cheap and after I had eventually found my bunk the journey was smooth and watching the sunrise from the train window was beautiful of course.  From Pudukottai a bus finally brought me to Mimisal, a small village close to where Ricky is staying.

It was fantastic to see where Ricky is living and experience the differences between rural and urban India.  I immediately felt more at ease away from the noise and pollution of Chennai.  I know how you feel so much closer to the people around you when you stay in a small community.  However, many of the social norms which Ricky experiences in the village are restrictive and very conservative.  When I first arrived in India, I was surprised by all the social rules which I had to adjust to but for Ricky, even walking down the street without wearing a scarf provokes women to demand where her scarf is.  Tamil Nadu is often described as a particularly conservative state and at times it is difficult to respect all the cultural codes of conduct.  Of course we both feel that some parts of Indian culture are oppressive to women but as researchers we are not here to overtly challenge social norms but to study them.

After one night in the village, Ricky and I travelled to Madurai, a large temple town and supposedly the soul of Tamil Nadu.  I’m not sure that I discovered the soul but the temple was impressive and the Hindu rituals mystifying.  Incredibly, I also met two British friends of mine!   I knew that they were in India but never expected to casually bump into them.  India is not so vast after all…  From Madurai we took a bus up to the misty, cold Western Ghats.  It was an exhilarating journey in which, not far from our destination, the bus exploded soaking our bags with oily water.  A little shaken and one hour later, we eventually made it to Kodaikanal, a place of rain, hills, chocolate and not a lot else.  As someone from Yorkshire, I was very much at home.  We were lucky to find that three lovely guys, one Swiss and two Indians, were also staying in our hostel and so we spent the next few days together.  It was refreshing to hang out with friends and have fun just as we would if we were at home.  After Kodaikanal, we travelled west to the town of Pollachi to visit the Indira Gandhi tiger reserve for our last couple of days.  With our minds full of images from the jungle book, we were a little disappointed to only see deer, bison and monkeys.  We did encounter lots of elephants though, and while they were in a sanctuary instead of roaming free, I find them breath-taking all the same.

So, after a brilliant week exploring Tamil Nadu, I’m back in Chennai and trying to remember what I’m meant to be researching.  With only another 5 weeks left for research, I should probably get going.


Konjam Tamil theriyum

I’ve had so many good days recently!  It seems that whenever I leave the house I meet interesting people or discover something surprising about Indian culture.  Actually just being at home can be entertaining.  Sometimes my bedroom door silently opens and a hand holding an incense stick pokes through.  The incense stick waves about it the air and then silently disappears behind the door again.  This is a form of Hindu worship which one of my housemates does every day to cleanse the house.

Having spent many days in Kannagi Nagar now, I have met some incredible people.  One man who I met this week has led a whole campaign to demand justice for resettled tsunami survivors in Kannagi Nagar.  When they were resettled they were told that their new houses in Kannagi Nagar would be free but for the first three years they were made to pay rent until this man, one of the resettled people, initiated a petition.  The petition led to negotiations but when this did not solve the matter, he led a protest outside the cricket stadium in the centre of Chennai.  This led to another meeting with state government officials who then sent him to a central government human rights meeting in Delhi where it was finally agreed that the tsunami survivors would not have to pay rent.  He is a really inspiring man who, from a very humble background, has led inventive and sophisticated campaigns to get justice for people in Kannagi Nagar.

Monday was Indian Independence Day so my interpreter had the day off.  I had to prepare my survey though so I went to Kannagi Nagar anyway to see how far my few Tamil words would get me.  Actually, although I really appreciate my interpreter, I was amazed by how much more I could interact with people when I was alone.  As I walked around the site lots of people wanted to talk to me and one elderly lady even gave me banana.  I was very touched and also very pleased (my tummy was rumbling) and I wished I could remember ‘thank you’ in Tamil but I think she understood.  One girl approached me who actually speaks very good English and so I talked to her for a while. She invited me to her house for lunch and so I spent a long time talking to her and her parents as they offered me more and more food.  Hopefully I can employ her as my interpreter when my own current interpreter can no longer help me.  Being on my own really revealed to me how just a few words of Tamil make all the difference and how eager people are to offer me food, water and help me with anything.  My few Tamil phrases are met with screams of laughter and applause (more due to the comedy value than my excellent Tamil accent I suspect).

Anyway, so as well as gathering ever more data, I feel really lucky to be discovering Indian culture and doing my fieldwork with such generous and friendly people.


A little trip away

A lot has happened since my last blog post almost two weeks ago.  My list of contacts grows longer with every interview and more and more of the politics behind slum resettlement are being revealed.  It hasn’t been all work though.  Last week, my Dad came to Chennai for a few days so it was super to take some time off and travel down the coast together to a place called Mamallapuram (pronunciation takes some practice).  ‘Mam’ is quite a change from Chennai.  Not only is it a small village, there are Western tourists everywhere and restaurants serving Italian and Mexican food and even beer.  Why you would want pasta when you can have curry though, I don’t know.  ‘Mam’, although a beach town, really attracts the tourists for its stone carvings.  They’re quite incredible.  Temples and statues were carved straight out of the rock by the Pallava people in the 7th century. And, to my delight, the rock carvings are a playground for monkeys, though you need your Lonely Planet handy to fend them off…

Back in Chennai, it’s been a busy week of interviews.  I was really lucky to meet with a human rights organisation, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.  As it so happens, they spent several months last year doing a fact-finding report on Kannagi Nagar!  The final report accurately documents the living conditions in the resettlement site as well as the actions of different government bodies involved. It’s basically my thesis!  Well almost.  As well as citizens’ associations, I’ve also talked to some of the employees of the slum clearance board to hear their side of the story. Swallowing my preconceived ideas about the responsibilities of a government towards its people, I asked about the slum clearance board’s policy and planning procedures for slum resettlement.  It seems that the slum clearance board has little influence over decisions to evict and rehabilitate slum dwellers.  Instead, it dutifully implements the schemes which are devised higher up the state administration and in central government, supported by funding from the World Bank.  It’s difficult to find answers to questions like, ‘Who decides how large the houses for resettled people should be?’.  Such details seem to have been decided years ago somewhere in central government and really it’s all a matter of land availability, budget and how many people need to be resettled with no mention of rights.  On Tuesday, I saw some of the newest tenements being built in Kannagi Nagar and while they are certainly an improvement, to my mind, 32mis not really sufficient for two adults and three children.  Employees on the construction site were quick to point out that this is bigger than the average slum dwellers’ hut and so they will feel very comfortable here.  I’m not so sure.  Most people I speak to in Kannagi Nagar were far happier living in their former self-made houses.

India is definitely a surprising and entertaining county.  Sometimes very upsetting and depressing but other times beautiful, so colourful and thankfully full of people are who very willing to show me which bus I need, how to book a train ticket, where I can find curry leaves… and so my education continues.