The Power of Place

http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/327/cache/street-kolkata_32764_990x742.jpg

Street Scene, Kolkata
Source: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/327/cache/street-kolkata_32764_990x742.jpg

There are cities that you visit. Shining lights, framed portraits, manicured parks, picture-perfect moments. And then there are cities that you feel. The dust between your toes, the hazy, thick heat that envelops your body, those looks – some of joy, others of despair. To walk the streets of Kolkata is to feel. It is to register the way in which the extremes play out in the daily lives of the strangers that surround you – the begging child and the extended hand, the young student from Presidency College rushing to the library, the corporate Tata executive passing through security barriers, and the tourist, that perpetual outsider, looking in and observing the daily celebration of human existence with all the good and bad that that existence entails.

To walk the streets of Kolkata is to also appreciate the relevance and importance of place – those physical spaces imbued with history, memory, and meaning. To inhabit a place is to move beyond the crushing sea of humans, the honking horns of Park Street, the rickshaw wallahs jostling for space on the road, and those historic buildings wilting in the heat, tragic reminders of how nothing is immune from the rain, the wind, and the ticking hands of the clock. For Somini Sengupta, Kolkata as a place represents both the parochial and the modern. She writes, “India’s first global city, it is littered with the remains of many worlds: the rickshaws that the Chinese brought; an Armenian cemetery; dollops of jazz left by Americans in the war years.” (Note: In 2001, Calcutta was renamed Kolkata to match the Bengali pronunciation of the city name).

In my opinion, one of the best examples of this “littering” is the South Park Street Cemetery. In use from 1757 to 1840, the cemetery is the resting place for hundreds of British men and women who took up the colonial mission of the British Empire (serving in occupations as diverse as jail-keeping to school teaching to coopering). Venture off the central path and push past the jungle cover to discover the grand rotundas, soaring pyramids, and sober plaques. Rub your hands along the cold stone facades and read the names and descriptions of these people of a bygone era. There’s the large white pyramid in the center that belongs to Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society and one the foremost scholars of ancient India. There’s also Grave 363, containing only the following epitaph – “A Virtuous Mother (died 1825).” These markers offer us a glimpse into the colonial past of Kolkata. They also prompt us to extend our analysis and consider the ways in which individuals stake their claim to a particular space and attempt to make it their “own.”

Through an internship with the Calcutta Research Group, I’ll be taking up elements of this analysis as I explore the content and character of the claims (to housing, to water, to education, to citizenship) made by refugees and the displaced on the spaces of the city. The first part of this exploration will be historical – I hope to carry out an archival study of the lived experiences of refugees who settled in and around Calcutta following the events of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence (when East Pakistan seceded to become independent Bangladesh). Throughout the conflict, over 10 million people crossed the border into India, with the majority settling in and around the city of Calcutta (Bandyopadhyay 2000 37). To appreciate the sheer magnitude of this movement, consider that 12 million refugees were uprooted in Europe in the wake of the Second World War (35). While scholars have documented the state’s administrative response to this influx, very little has been written about the lived experiences of the refugees in the camp setting. The second part will be contemporary – I plan on analyzing the current urban design policies governed by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority and asking what space (if any) is afforded to the displaced and the refugee.

Even though I haven’t yet formulated my theses or generated working hypotheses, my general hunch is that place matters when we think about the claims made on the city. That hunch might seem quite basic and obvious but I think the exciting and worthwhile intellectual pursuit lies in interrogating what it is about city space that makes it distinct and relevant as we think through if and how the displaced and the refugee claim rights to the space of the city. The ‘distinct’ and ‘relevant’, I believe, emerge from both the content and the approach. In terms of content, there is a renewed focus in the academic literature on cities, particularly the cities of the Global South, and what cities have to say about the larger nation-states in which these cities are located. According to Sassen, “After the long historical phase that saw the ascendance of the national state and the scaling of key economic dynamics at the national level, the city is once again today a scale for strategic economic and political dynamics” (2005 357). Consider one possible application. By situating the lived experiences of the refugee within the urban context of Kolkata, we should be able to better understand the crises of Indian national membership while rethinking the notion of the ultimate claim itself, that claim being citizenship (Holston and Appadurai 1996 202). In terms of approach, there is a push to move beyond the famous midnight hours of 14-15 August 1947 (India’s moment of Independence) and embrace both a postcolonial methodology and an integrated analysis (instead of divorcing India from the regional dynamics, attention needs to be paid to the plurality of voices from the region).

Even though the city represents just one strategic type of place, it is one that I think offers a powerful conceptual framework to work through these questions of recognition and entitlement, culture and identity, inclusion and exclusion. The Calcutta of 1971 and the Kolkata of 2014 thus challenge us to respond to the key question posed by Sassen – “Whose city is it?” (1996 206).

References:
Bandyopadhyay in Bose “Refugees in West Bengal” Calcutta Research Group 2000, 32.
Holston and Appadurai “Cities and Citizenship” Public Culture 1996, 187-204.
Sassen “Whose City Is It?” Public Culture 1996, 205-223.
Sassen “The Future of Urban Sociology” Sociology 2005, 343.
Sengupta “A Walk in Calcutta” New York Times April 29, 2009.

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