8 March 2010

Trickster City: Writing from the Belly of the Metropolis

What can a city mean for those whose homes are demolished at will? Young writers from Delhi's worker colonies produce an anthology unlike anything in Hindi literature. 

Trickster City: Writings from the Belly of the Metropolis
Translated by Shveta Sarda
Penguin Viking
326 pages, Rs 499 
A young man describes the art of skinning a hen. A man buys a refrigerator — and cuts his neighbour’s electricity cable. A 14-year-old makes up his mind to leave school and work as a courier delivery boy. A girl getting drenched in the rain steps reluctantly into a phone booth. The first thing one can say about Trickster City is that it contains voices that one has never heard before. Not in the existing world of Hindi literature, and certainly not in the world of English. For the 20 authors of Trickster City, a collection of writings on Delhi first published in Hindi as Bahurupiya Shehr (Rajkamal Prakashan, 2007), are all first-time writers, young men and women from working- class neighbourhoods across Delhi.

All under 30, they began to think seriously about writing on the city sometime in 2005, when the spectre of the Commonwealth Games first appeared on the horizon of Delhi’s future. They met under the aegis of the Cybermohalla labs set up by Ankur Society for Alternatives in Education and the Sarai Programme of the Centre for Developing Societies. These labs, “spaces for extended conversation, creative experimentation, mutual exchange and self-learning”, have had 400 young people pass through them since May 2001.

Some in the collective were closet writers before they encountered Cybermohalla. If Azra Tabassum, 26, filled diary after secret diary with the minutiae of her life at 14 (only to have them discovered and destroyed by an angry aunt), Jaanu Nagar, 24, remembers writing as having always been the stable counterpart to his ghummakkad (wandering) existence. Like with most young people, though, their initial writings were mostly about themselves. But as the group acquired a sense of collectivity, so did the scope and maturity of their writing. “We’d meet and discuss everything. And what we discussed we’d take back with us. Over the years, that questioning became fused with living itself,” says Azra, who lives in LNJP colony near Delhi Gate. The collaborative process was crucial to the texts they eventually produced. “One’s own experience of something is never enough,” says Suraj Rai, 22. “When the private is pushed outwards into the collective, it acquires a newness,” agrees Love Anand, 22. “When your perspective is forced to confront that of others, it is altered.”

Standing: Babli Rai, Love Anand, Neelofar, Lakhmi Chand Kohli. Sitting : Shamsher Singh, Jaanu Nagar
Photo: Anshika Varma
Far from what you might expect, then, the fragments that make up Trickster City are no simple autobiographical narratives, content to depict worlds familiar to themselves (and unfamiliar to us). They are pieces of carefully crafted prose, engagements with experience: their own and others’. These are writers who have grappled long and hard with the gap between life and narrative, and do not promise any objective ‘truth’. If Anand wants to escape the unreflective snappiness of news reports, Azra is keen that her writing be a product not simply of what happened but of “[her] struggle with what happened”.

The process of collective thinking and writing had been underway for some time when something did happen. Between March and August 2006, the neighbourhood of Nangla Maanchi, where several of the writers lived, was demolished under a High Court order. “Nangla did bring about a thehraav (pause) in our thought,” says Lakhmi Chand Kohli, 29. The deliberate destruction of a settlement of some 30,000 people placed upon those who lived in Nangla (as well as the rest who now visited it) a huge weight of witnessing. But this is a book that successfully steers clear of bathos, even when bearing testimony to an event as crushing, as dramatic, as the demolition of Nangla Maanchi. Lakhmi puts it well when he says, “Writing is a strange thing. It brings you nearer even as it creates distance.” The enormity of the experience was distilled in different ways. Those who lived in the resettlement colony of Dakshinpuri found in Nangla a way into their parents’ unspoken histories of displacement, while those who moved from Nangla to Sawda-Ghewra struggled with the creation of community, of place. These intellectual and emotional journeys combine with a mass of fragmentary detail — from the shapes of stoves in Nangla to the municipal markings indicating which houses would go under the next day — to create a text more moving than any all-encompassing narrative could have been.

Trickster City is the work of gifted writers, but it is also the product of a constant give and take — within the Cybermohalla labs, among the writers and, crucially, between the writers and their environments. How has their new status as published writers been greeted in their families, their neighbourhoods? “Our conversations are open to everyone,” stresses Babli Rai, 27, describing the wall magazines she helped create in LNJP Colony. “We try not to stand out as different, as adbhut.” For Lakhmi, writing cannot be about a solitary, personal vision: it must resonate in the spaces it grew out of. If Babli privately tutors local children, Anand is researching the media environment of Dakshinpuri, while Lakhmi and co-writer Rakesh Khairalia, 32, have set up a studio that acts as a gathering point for poets, cinephiles, singers and collectors. Lakhmi is exhilarated when he has Dakshinpuri readers tell him that they identify with his ‘Rasool Bhai’. He is convinced that his intellectual life is inseparable from the everyday business of living, of being part of a community of practitioners who may or may not wish to transform themselves into performers. “The intellectual/artistic world cannot, must not, cut itself off from the social. Each thrives on the other. And it is from the collision between them that creativity emerges,” he says — perhaps the greatest lesson of Trickster City.

Published in Tehelka, Vol 7, Issue 10, Dated March 13, 2010