Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Musings in the Mall

Where we congregate significantly reveals how we look at communities, I feel. What kind of spaces do we congregate in? Who has access to those spaces? Who uses those spaces? What kind of physical ambience do these spaces have? How does it interact with the larger external spaces and community? … and so on.

These many questions and ruminations went through my mind, as I sat in the local “mall” and “relaxed” and “chilled” with a cup of coffee, while my children played interactive, audio-visuals games in a designated area – either on the larger screens or on the ubiquitous mobiles. I sat alone. As I buried myself in my coffee and magazine that was so kindly laid out, with stray pieces of conversations floating from around, I felt my isolation completely. Felt suffocated. Somehow the table-space – my table-space – the space around my table felt plastic, inelastic and had the capacity to remove all connections from the rest of the world. Perhaps if I had a couple of friends sitting with me I might not have felt it so sharply. But I didn’t think my connection to couple of my friends could have compensated for the loss of the larger web of sense of connection.

Strangely enough, I had never felt this intensity of isolation in rural areas… where communal spaces are defined entirely differently. Not knowing the language, or coming from a significantly different background and socio-economic frame, did not render my connections to the larger world null and void. Whether I sat under the “rachhabanda” – that platform around the magnificiently spreading tree, or sat on a rock at the pond or river where people bathed and washed their clothes, or even hung-out on the benches of the chai-ki-dukaan, or the courtyards of individual houses, it did not matter. The spaces somehow inevitably stretched out to include other spaces around. Even though people around me did not speak to me, I didn’t feel disjointed or unconnected. If not the people, then there was always the breeze, the sun, the leaves, the birds and animals, the joyfully shrieking and playing children, the happy chaos of tinny, blaring music… that connected me to the world.

Had I grown old? Or was I a misfit in an alien society? Yet I dressed similarly as others, spoke the same language, and shopped and needed similar “things”. I was of the same socio-economic background… similar lifestyle. So what was wrong?

It was the Space. It is then one understood the importance and impact of the psychology of space… and how it is designed. How it inevitably creates or eliminates connections and relationships.

Public Space – that fragile, much needed space that fosters and maintains the sense of community - is a very important element that has fallen to the sacrificial guillotine of development and growth. It is the first that gets sacrificed to the increasing density and needs of infrastructure and internal structures. Parks, play grounds, public walk ways, ponds, lakes, beaches, etc. have all fallen to the juggernaut of growth. Today we find public space to be a luxury available only to very few in the luxury of malls and shopping complexes. Places that are clearly “closed”, its ambience and internal atmosphere regulated, unexposed to external/ natural elements – safe, controlled and exclusive. Even open spaces with trees that breathe in the Earth are only available in controlled, manicured environments.

More significantly, it is the children’s spaces that the first to shrink and go. Play grounds, and parks are fast becoming things of past. Similarly women too lose their congregational spaces early on. More and more communal congregations are expected to happen in “closed” spaces – the new fad being the “community centre” where meetings happen, events held, functions and celebrations hosted. It also doubles as the “hang-out” inevitably only for men.

To me, how we design, maintain and manage our public space is very much reflective of the psyche of the society. The Public Space is a representation of how society has changed in the last few decades. Privatisation of the larger Public Space such that it is molded and converted into a private Public Space, controlled and exclusive, expensive and inaccessible to the larger part of humanity, is symbolic of Us today.

I finished my coffee, picked up my “things”, called out to my children and plunged into the chaos of the road outside… into the footpaths that had become public spaces to the remainder of the humanity out there.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

meaning of "development work"

It all came together today... as i woke up with the thought in my head... of what a farmer earns in the field producing grains and the farmer (who works in the cubicle farm) earns in producing corporate consumer/service products. The disparity in monetary earnings is amazing, of course... but what is amazingly similar is the choices made by each...

Yes, development is about personal choice... and socio-economic situations are outcomes of collective personal choices.

What made the penny drop was when my eyes fell on the jowar I had bought. Jowar - that hardy millet that survives adverse conditions, erratic rainfall, requiring very little farm inputs, and above all having superb nutritional value.... and i asked myself, as i had asked umpteen number of times, why isn't the farmer growing things like jowar than opting out for killer cash crops? sure, the decision is market/subsidy driven.... but what stops him/her from also growing the stuff enough for personal use so that s/he doesn't get catapulted into starvation conditions? Nothings stops him/her... and these decisions do not require 'awareness' etc. It is a personal decision, and a personal choice - perhaps influence-able at a certain level by external factors - but beyond that - no.

How often have we encountered the frustration at the grassroots of 'people' opting for more unsustainable choices... inspite of our constant dirge of information and 'awareness' building processes? Sure, one does manage to influence a little bit here and there... but somewhere, somehow most people, irrespective of where they are on the socio-economic-political ladder, do opt out for a monetary bottom line. In contrast, one does come across enough number of people opting for more sustainable choices... sustainable being defined as those options that can ensure the longevity of happiness and maintenance of balance through a choices of food, clothing, shelter, livelihoods, where and how one will spend and expend one's resources, what social 'rules' will one choose to impose and follow... and so on. Development, thus, defined as optimization of choices that go towards building personal happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment, definitely then is a personal choice.

Yet how does one view and reconcile the larger, external conditions - imposed by the juggernauts of conglomerations and tie-ups between decision-makers and power-brokers. Sure one would say it all depends on who we choose to put at the helm... and that person's/organisation's psychological and emotional structural strengths and weakness... which again brings us back to what we have chosen. Sure, I personally didn't choose to put the thugs at the helm... it was after all a collective choice... but it was a collection of personal choices... we inevitably pay for each other's choices too. Whether i like it or not, whether i believe in it or not, whether i personally choose it or not... i have to pay for my brother's (and sister’s) choices too.... just as much as somebody else pays for my choices.

The only thing I can, perhaps, do under the circumstances, then, is to be aware of what I choose and why I choose... and hope to make considered choices that can maximise my 'happiness' while minimizing the larger damage.

I conclude, for now, with a few thoughts:

1. that perhaps development-work could mean to be an effort to influence choices of the community such that we move - individually and collectively – more and more to the centre of the fulcrum…

2. that development-work is about being at the stern working with the rudder than being at the bow at the wheel…

3. an acceptance of “what-is” as an outcome of personal choice does not mean an end to work towards influencing balance…

4. that though one feels deep sadness, one cannot just cry in futile angst at inequity and injustice – but one has to engage, in whatever way one can, in whatever niche one finds, in influencing the balance…

5. and most importantly it cannot be left only to a few sectors to “do” development-work… but that everyone can engage in “development-work” one way or another…

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What do I care for Change...

All I care for now is to live
To find the place from where
The next meal for my children
Will come; All I care is for the
Few pots of water that I have to
Walk miles for; through burning lands
To slake the family’s raging thirst;
All I care for is those pieces of coal
Live coals on my heart
For they are hard-earned; Earned
By my eight year old daughter
After playing hanky-panky with
That aging, soul-less engine-driver

No… I no longer care
For your politics and causes
I have been to enough rallies
And protests, waiting endlessly
Mind, heart and spirit numb
Under the ruthless, blazing sun
All to no avail; for I still struggle
Just as my grandmother did
And before that hers.
Nothing has changed one bit…
What then do I care for Change.

I no longer care for the system
That has bled us and fed off
Our dying bodies; stripped off us
The lands of our forefathers
And parceled and sold them off
Chunk by chunk into the hands
Of new Big thieves; so much so
Now we don’t even know who they are
At least the old Landlords threw us
Pieces of chewed up bones now and then
But these new corporate thieves
Live, if at all they are human,
In far-away lands; never to be seen
Only felt in the marrow of our bones.

No… I no longer care.
All I care for now is to live
And be left alone to our fate.
I will take my chances
With the Fates;
It can't be worse than
Waiting for Change...