The settlements in Thubarahalli are a right turn away from the Varthur Main Road. The tarred road recedes, leaving behind the shiny complexes. Uneven muddy roads appear, lined with large apartment buildings and scattered sign boards for some International school.
Behind these looming apartment buildings are tiny sprawling tin houses, built on cracked unviable land. On 9th December, after several uneasy wrong turns past confusing nameless buildings, we finally make it to the meet-up point aka Charita Greenwood Apartments.
While we were zooming past HAL road, my friend said that there’s going to be a cleanup drive. The Whatsapp forward read that there was going to be a march (Being Bangaloreans and citizens of this country it becomes our primary responsibility to stand with the poor)
Later, I’m not sure what to feel about this message. This tag ‘the poor’ does not seem right. Maybe in economic terms it’s a fact, but it does not even begin to describe the people I see there.
Near the tiny Thubarahalli tin houses, we wait around for a few minutes, unsure of what we’re waiting for. I take a picture and immediately feel strange for doing so. An actual camera feels more legit than a flimsy phone, J says then.
A few minutes later, a man with white hair and dark glasses loudly announces the need for Thubarahalli slums to be clean, how the BBMP is threatening to evict residents here in the name of “development”. He reiterates what Rahul Prasad–one of the volunteers–had mentioned earlier. Despite having Indian passports and Aadhar cards, the residents were accused of being Bangladeshi immigrants. Furthermore, they were accused of drug-peddling and contributing to pollution by burning garbage.
The first “Aap akeli nahi haai.”(You are not alone) of the day is said then. Each syllable is emphasised slowly, in a way only politicians and activists seem to have perfected, with the last word stretching and lingering long after that.
Anjalika is quiet. She has no qualms picking up all sorts of garbage with her bare, tiny hands. From what seems to be parts of an old tractor to the tiniest silver bits of chewing gum wrappers, she misses nothing. Anajalika had shown up when she noticed us picking up garbage. Other children spring up and down chattering, asking us to come to their area.
At some point with barely functional broken Hindi, I ask Anjalika, “Aap age kitna?” She smiles, her small brown eyes amused. I wonder if she’s around six or seven or older.
In the clearing between a few houses, there’s a sparse amount of volunteers. Slight disgust is visible on few of their faces as they look for plastic to help them pick up the garbage. Sweat dots everybody’s foreheads and heavy dust coats practically anything that enters the settlements. For a second I wonder if everyone else also feels the same burning jeans feeling, like it’s going to melt off my leg with my entire self soon to follow, leaving behind a Wicked Witch of the West kind of gloopy mess.
However unlike the rest of us, Anajalika works unbothered and undeterred.
A woman with a large red bindi, yells furiously at the one man staring unblinkingly from his fancy balcony. “Oi, this is your garbage, come down here and pick it up” Another man comes out and they both stare. She continues telling them how the residents could get evicted because of their apartment garbage.
Later, S tells me that she’s Geetha Menon from Stree Jagruti Samiti. I begin to notice her everywhere, mostly by her tell-tale voice. She’s there at the Dignity March and at our college auditorium in the front rows at the screening of Anand Patwardhan’s ‘Reason.’
I wonder if this is the protest circuit S talks about.
“Ladai karna hamara hak hai, hum bahar hai, free hai, azad hai.” (We have the right to fight we’re outside, we’re free, we’re liberated) Menon says during the speeches in the settlements. Hers is a speech I can’t help but listen to. I zone out as several people say similar things of standing in solidarity. However, she is the first and only person to address the women in the settlements.
In a loud throaty voice, she glances at the women in the crowd–only the women– looking past the men.”Hum log gulaam nahi hai.”(We are not slaves)
“Darna bahut aasan hai, lekin dar ke bagar jeena bahut mushkil hai.” (It’s very easy to feel scared, but without fear it’s difficult to live)
The women hum loudly in agreement.
There are several speeches by other politicians, activists, volunteers and college students. The residents don’t talk apart from a “haaa” of agreement. I want to ask the people who live there what they think of all of this. I want them to just say something, anything.
“Anjalika, we’ll go over there?”
She smiles at B and I, but continues gathering old cassette tapes and empty torn biscuit packets. With immense strength she unearths plastic buried deep below, most probably from waste dumped there years ago. Everybody else has abandoned their sacks and dumped the collected garbage in a shallow pit in the corner, moving on to another area.
But Anjalika is not done.
Swiftly, she squats here and there, everywhere. There’s rubble and dust, but there are no plastic covers when she’s done. Carefully, she surveys the clearing around us. With another slight smile, she deems it satisfactory and responds.
“This is getting very political.” B mutters, his face pinched in slight discomfort as we walk back to the dusty roads for the march.
There’s Comrade Clifton, another Comrade Gowda and some other Comrade Srinivas lurking through the event. They’re set apart from the crowd with glowing white shirts. Someone mutters something about parties wanting to get votes back in West Bengal and Assam during the elections. “There’s always some agenda. There always is.”
A New Indian Express reporter pops up during the short-lived march. She asks for our opinions when she hears we’re students. I’m immediately suspicious. Despite studying the exact same thing for three years, I can’t shake the slimy feeling and wonder how she’s going to represent the whole thing. She makes the whole thing feel even more oddly political. I wonder how I’m even going to attempt to write about this.
Townhall protests are very different, standing on the stone steps, holding plaque cards and screaming slogans. The several Nyaya bekus and Ladenge Jeetenges are interspersed with unblinking frosty silences, with policemen hovering in the background. This is almost a world apart.
“This is not political political, a different kind of political.” A had said once. “I don’t know, Townhall is more urban, privileged, more hope?” he adds unsure how to put it.
“Can protests function without the political? Does one need parties? It gives them the voice at least, so can the agenda and the work be kept separate?’ S and I wonder after the event.
As B talks to the reporter and Anjalika steadily ignores her, S calls out our names. They’re going to do speeches. A didi offers us some water and all the volunteers drink. Anjalika refuses.
We walk towards another empty space, leaving half cleaned one behind. I ask Anjalika if she wants to come for the speeches. She giggles and moves past other people, disappearing into a row of houses. She doesn’t look back when she leaves. I wonder briefly if children know exactly how to respond to protests, whether they can sense when things are no longer what they started out to be. I watch her walk past a Karnataka flag, deftly avoiding it. I decide she’s a boss.
When I leave, I also look at the flag fluttering proudly in the wind, right above where houses used to be. It triumphantly faces the rest of Whitefield, refusing to gaze down at the decimated mess below. J mutters how in the middle of the night residents were kicked out and now their houses no longer exist. Their power supply was also stopped, despite them paying for it.
Later, Comrade Clifton tells the reporter about how several cops stormed the area a few days ago after the houses were knocked down. “Imagine what these kids will think, they must be so scared” he says, to see so many big men crowding the place they live in.
But really Anjalika doesn’t seem fazed by anything, though. My hands will shake for a few hours after Thubarahalli but Anjalika, I wonder. I can’t imagine her being anything but tough and mildly amused. And of course, stonily determined.
“Didi aap itni dukhi hai?”
“Nahi Didi, uh sun.”
A woman in a pink nightdress asks me this, as I sit in a kutti kadai. She almost scoldingly asks me to drink water.
This didi lives in the last stretch of the settlement, apparently built right on a dump yard. This is the “third slum area and the poorest one” someone had said. Walking past the cracked earth, and across a little stream of sewage water. Afeef from Alternative Law Forum and another volunteer, Roopika mention the need for documentation there.
The residents are asked to come sign their papers, all of these going to the court to prove that they are citizens of India. Some of the very few women on the list come in long nightdresses to sign their papers. Most men have gone for work that day, others in banians hover around. As their names are called out, I realise the residents are mostly Muslim.
The heat is immense in the last settlement, I’m dizzy and nauseous, sipping the warm water from my bottle. In the kadai, there’s a tiny old 90’s retro type T.V resting in a corner somewhere. Most of the brands from the shop are unrecognizable apart from the yellow and blue fevi stick packets hovering above, next to obscure sounding chips packets.
Three children are playing next to me. The oldest child, a little girl is tearing away at an alphabet book and distributing the pages to the other two. D for Duck lies somewhere below their feet when they’re done. Giggles surround us and the littlest one, keeps glancing at me and smiles slightly. Their smiles are very different from Anjalika’s but oddly enough have her similar amused cheekiness.
Another Didi comes along and both attempt to start a conversation with me. I understand what they say but I don’t know enough Hindi to respond properly. Instead, it’s a scattered unsure mix of Kannada, Hindi and English. They ask me what’s happening and I try to explain that they need to sign their Identification documents for the court petition. They hum.
“Um. Hindi sorry, pata nahi, Kannada?”
I revisit this moment later cringing at how horribly unfamiliar I am with Hindi. To even begin to understand, I need to know the language.
When it’s time to leave, the didi in the shop gives me a blinding smile in goodbye and reassuringly tells me not to be so dukh.
On the way back to the first settlement, I think about how most people with power and privilege don’t understand or even want to. I don’t understand too much either, but I want to try.
As we’re walking, S holds onto a very overwhelmed J. Perhaps there’s still hope in the world and I want to smile.
We eat lunch in the only school set up in the settlements. The organisers get biryani from the nearest place, about two kilometers away. A little boy stands outside the school and asks for biryani but nobody notices him.
The little nameless school is dark and musty. It’s made of cement, the floor is covered in blue polythene sheets. Maybe it is not just a question of helping people keep their space, it’s a matter of space itself and an effort to make that space habitable.
Later I tell Amma about the protest when she asks why I look like a parangika-podlanga. (pumpkin-bitter gourd) I begin by telling her, it didn’t feel like we were even in Bangalore or Whitefield, at least one I hadn’t seen before. She asks me how the government schools are. I tell her I can’t imagine children in there at all. Then, I can’t get myself to say more.
She says, one step at a time. Don’t be so overwhelmed by each step.
There are two images in my mind that linger long after the protest. The small form of Anjalika disappearing in the crowd, her short hair unruffled. Another is the long Karnataka flag, fluttering up above the settlements uncaringly.
As we leave, I look for Anjalika. I’m not sure what I’ll say when I see her. Two other little girls, call out to us with loud shouts of “Madam!” and wave laughingly. Next time, I decide I shall ask them what they think of what’s happening. In a messy world, they seem to know how to cut through the bullshit.
In an interview, Anand Patwardhan had talked about a burn. Do it only when it burns if you don’t. And goddamn, it burns.
Next time I’ll be prepared and not on the verge of gloop but, I’ll learn Hindi and Kannada properly. To listen, learn to ask and to know. I don’t end up seeing Anjalika before we leave but next time if I ever see her, I’ll smile. But for now, I’ll learn Hindi and I’ll write till I know how else to deal with the burn.
So as Anjalika says, Chalo.
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