Real India: Walking the Slum Side of Bangalore

Click to listen in on Chris’s slum tour with Brindge Adige. (54 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

BANGALORE — Brinda Adige, a self-starting social activist, in yellow sari, is our guide to the slum side of Bangalore and the virtual canyon between the public squalor and private affluence that are both hallmarks of the New India.

We’re in Lakshman Rau Nagar, one of several Bangalore slum districts that sprouted in the shrubbery alongside the info-tech boom two decades ago. Starting from a bridge over a vast open cesspool of human wastes, Brinda is making our path through what feel like opposites: tight-knit anarchy, foul stenches, brilliant rainbows of paint and fabric, acres of rubble next to dense clusters of shanties next to hand-crafted houses being rewired and gaudily repainted and redecorated, as we pass, by the artisan-squatters who live here.

Perhaps 10,000 families of high-tech service workers call this home: barbers, maids, drivers, baby-tenders, security guards, prostitutes, boot-leggers of all kinds, with of course their aged parents and dependent kids who are everywhere on the street, among the dead rats and live goats. The social atmosphere feels relaxed and, to the extent we visitors are noticed at all, welcoming. Most people seem absorbed in their individual projects, house-painting, baby-nursing, cookery or bicycle repair. Here as elsewhere you notice that in India stark borders of wealth and social class are crossed without fear, as they wouldn’t be in America or perhaps most societies. We are greeted with “what is your name?” but never “what are you doing here?”

Brinda Adige, daughter of an Air Force officer and wife of a businessman, entered Lakshman Rau Nagar two years ago with the traditional Indian mat of “panchayat,” or local justice, when nobody else would address a flagrant case of wife-beating. More than a score of witnesses turned out to confirm the charge and enforce a separation. Many added, on their own, “But all our husbands beat us.” Brinda stayed on to open “the Office” as a permanent sort of clubhouse in the slum.

I think when I came here in the beginning, they thought I might have lost my way. Now they understand that I am no-nonsense. They also know that I am not afraid of anybody, whether it is the police or the local gangsters, or anybody who claims to be very powerful… When you ask me where’s the power, it’s the people, but they are not yet awakened. They are not yet informed, but they are ready. There is a silent revolution happening, and I’m happy to be part of it…

They call the Office the place where, if you have a problem, it will get sorted out. There will be a solution that we can find for it… but you have to be responsible for it… It’s only when the women come here that they realize that the question, the answer, the problem, the solution lies within them… If you put up with nonsense, you get nonsense all the time. If you put up with somebody subjugating you, well, then you continue to be subjugated…

We talk about everything under the sun… Why did you fall in love? What do you think about marrying? Why do you continue? What do you mean by being faithful? What do you decide when your husband is not faithful? Why did you vote for a certain politician? … The whole issue here is we learn from other people. You have something, she has something, she has shaped something… You cannot just come with a problem… You will take a vow to be part of the solution. So if you can do that, then you are part officially of this group.

Brinda Adige with Chris Lydon in the slum district ‘Lakshman Rau Nagar’ in Bangalore, July 2010.

“First I hit.  And if he still has his senses, then we talk.”

This is Kamakshi speaking, in front of a gleaming stand of fresh vegetables in front of her house in the Bangalore slum. She’s another of the local characters we won’t forget — not least because she embodies a sort of puzzle.

Among the immutable rules of Indian life seem to be that no public authority will take much responsibility for basic services — schools, utilities, safety, healthcare — for slum dwellers; and more narrowly that police will not concern themselves with what looks like strictly domestic violence. This, as Brinda Adige recounts, is where Kamakshi has found her role as the first and sometimes last guarantor of a woman’s right not to be abused — of a wife’s right not to be beaten. A recent example: There is a man who is beating up the lady of the house every day, and everybody knows it.  One day, he hits the woman hard, with an onion to the face. Kamakshi tells him: next time you go to the police, but first, you deal with me.  So she beats him up, and tells him to sit all day in disgrace in front of her vegetables. And he does.  ”Let’s call it substantive justice,” Brinda summed up our visit with Kamakshi. “She is not afraid of anyone.    Kamakshi goes to get justice.  She doesn’t leave till justice is done.”

Visitors like us can’t easily judge whether Kamakshi embodies vitality and hard-core decency in the outward disarray of an impoverished community.  Or is Kamakshi’s story really about the disarray itself and spectacular public neglect all around her?

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  • Brinda Adige seems to romanticize in some sense the idea of “Panchayat” system. What is clear from this Podcast and my own experience in India as a Citizen is that, these forms of “elders’ justice” is merely feudalism by another name. It is harmful to the foundation of individuality and the rule of law which any Democracy worth half its existing Constitution ought to enshrine.

    Kamakshi’s Tamil was charming though.

  • Another fascinating show in this series, bravo Chris!

    Thanks for keeping the anti-Thomas Friedman version of Bangalore squarely in you sites as well as demonstrating the precarious nature of the arguments put forth by the advocates of neo-liberal globalization (such as Stewart Brand in his recent book) who argue for moving peasants and poor folk from their native villages into the slums of the teeming cities of under-developed Southern lands to service the “nouveau riche” of globalization, while their indigenous lands are conveniently confiscated by multi-national corporations and mining interests.

    One central strand from the theme you are riffing on in India is the growing economic disparity of the two Indias, in light of its founding democratic ideals.

    In a recent lecture at University of Rhode Island (utube) Professor Dipesh Chakravarty frames the schisms of the “new India” in terms of a conflict between a civilizational view of India held by its founders versus the globalized modernity of neo-liberal markets.

    Its a view he traces back to Rabindranath Tagore in his Crisis and Civilization and a view much shared by its founders Nehru, Gandhi et al.. namely, foremost for a civilization is that it provids its disenfranchised with the tools that allows their grievances to be heard. It was essentially a valorization of equality by the founders that continues to be reflected in the progressive labor laws of the country. These are the very labor laws that modernity’s neo-liberal global markets seek to undo, in extracting the greatest possible surplus value from labor and suiting the value system of globalized markets that exacerbates exponentially the existing inequality in the country/world.

    In the case of exploited tribal populations, peasants, backward castes slum dwellers the invisible men and women of India, the loss of a view of civilization in a Tagorean sense can only further their distress, and result in an unending insurgency of the dispossessed

    Rich..

  • Another fascinating show in this series, bravo Chris!

    Thanks for keeping the anti-Thomas Friedman version of Bangalore squarely in you sites as well as demonstrating the precarious nature of the arguments put forth by the advocates of neo-liberal globalization (such as Stewart Brand in his recent book) who argue for moving peasants and poor folk from their native villages into the slums of the teeming cities of under-developed Southern lands to service the “nouveau riche” of globalization, while their indigenous lands are conveniently confiscated by multi-national corporations and mining interests.

    One central strand from the theme you are riffing on in India is the growing economic disparity of the two Indias, in light of its founding democratic ideals.

    In a recent lecture at University of Rhode Island (utube) Dipesh Chakravarty frames the schisms of the “new India” in terms of a conflict between a civilizational view of India held by its founders versus the globalized modernity of neo-liberal markets.

    Its a view he traces back to Rabindranath Tagore in his Crisis and Civilization and a view much shared by its founders Nehru, Gandhi et al.. namely, foremost for a civilization was that it provided its disenfranchised with the tools for their grievances to be heard. It was essentially a valorization of equality by the founders that continues to be reflected in the progressive labor laws of the country. These are the very labor laws that modernity’s neo-liberal global markets seek to undo, in extracting the greatest possible surplus value from labor which suits the value system of globalized markets that exacerbate exponentially the existing inequality in the country.

    In the case of exploited tribal populations, peasants, backward castes slum dwellers the invisible men and women of India, the loss of a view of civilization in a Tagorean sense can only further their distress, and result in an unending insurgency of the dispossessed

  • Potter

    Brinda Adige is a gem! It was wonderful to listen to her especially since speaks well; But more that that she has a wonderful perspective and she knows the way through. As she said- it started with her upbringing- her models at home. But it’s who she is also. Change, enlightenment, (real) happiness, the solving of person problems, building strength as a person, she shows, must start with what is inside each person, bringing the full person out, clearing the “roadblocks”. To effect change- personal growth- she welcomes and values the women, gives them confidence, each, drawing them out. They do look happy in the picture.

    At the end the women are grateful that a man has taken the time to listen and ask questions- which is to say something about the men in their lives, and it’s touching.

  • Ethan Lee

    I have been listening to your podcast as homework for my AS Level Geography, and it is fascinating how they live, with some parts shocking me. For example when one of the ladies in that community group saying that the hospitals ask for brides. That is just unacceptable for a place of medicine which is meant to help people, to keep the strong and healthy.
    Thank you.