On fragile ground

Trickster City is a compilation of writing by 20 young men and women who live in informal migrant settlements in Delhi. These writers, almost all in their twenties, met in 2005 through the Cybermohalla labs, a hub for creative and cultural exploration in such settlements. The outcome was the Hindi book, Bahurupiya Shehr, later translated into English as Trickster City.

It is an official planning goal in India to have people move from rural to urban areas. But efforts to provide economical housing in cities are insufficient and many migrants end up living in informal settlements, some of which can grow to house lakhs of people. The legal position of such settlements is precarious with many considered to be encroaching the city’s land.

The upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi has occasioned the razing of several such colonies for infrastructure or beautification projects. (The mission statement of the Games’s organising committee includes: ‘Project Delhi as a global destination’ and ‘Project India as an economic power’. Recent media reports say that the eyesores that remain are to be hidden behind large bamboo curtains.) Trickster City offers a sensitive and vibrant picture of lives led on such fragile land.

Much Indian fiction about the so-called underclass is well-intended, but tends to be unconvincing in its specifics. Characters who are defined by their rage or a general broad-spectrum pathos feel like personifications of the author’s sentiments rather than people. Non-fiction on the subject tends to be indignant and shrill or dry and shot-through with statistics. It’s been said that we read because we cannot possibly know enough people. It is perhaps for the first time that the people of Trickster City have been rendered knowable in this sense.
A line from one of its authors’ bio reads: “In the past he has worked in a public phone booth, a milk depot, a chemist’s shop, as a data collector for different companies, and has also worked in factories.” Such voices are rarely heard, and they offer unique perspectives as they tell their stories through vignettes, introspections, essays, and short stories.

The writing in Trickster City springs from a complete immersion in its world. In one of the stories, a boy on the roof is urgently summoned from below. Narrated by a writer after diligent research, there might be a description of how the bannister-less stairs begin abruptly from a rectangular gap in the roof’s corner, a few well-observed details such as the gap’s perimeter being studded by the bent ends of rods from the roof’s structure. The boy might descend quickly down the steep steps, slightly hunched from the low entrance, taking care to hold his weight back as protection against a headlong fall. Trickster City evokes all of this effortlessly and almost brazenly: “Skipping two to three steps at a time, Rahul went down the stairs like a camel.”

Sharp observations
Such organic and sharply observed details frequently provide wormholes to the larger world of the writers. A page from an old diary feels like “a wet currency note that has been dried on a hot surface,” a mini-story all by itself. A list of the dishes at a fancy wedding reception ends with: “An entire table just for glasses of water.” Some of us might have picked a glass up from just such a table, but never thought of it as an entire table.

The following piece of virtuoso writing does not say a word about policemen, but ends up saying reams by describing the effect of a few policemen walking down a lane: “Young men retreated into their houses. Men covered their card games with bedsheets. Autorickshaw drivers moved their three-wheelers to the side. Everything abated.” All this is not to imply that the book works only at the level of detail. There are stories here that Chekov would have been happy to write.
Some of the book’s most powerful and revelatory writing is in the sections describing a colony’s eviction and resettlement: the air of dread in the days leading up to the eviction; the almost surreal experience of demolition; the all-important need to prove one’s existence through documents; the starting afresh on a desolate tract of land. These are narrated with humour, anger, irony, and empathy but never self-pity.

Reactions of people during the demolition are often surprising. “We got our house painted just three months back,” says one woman. Another tells her husband, “Good riddance! Now let’s go to my mother’s.” The demolishers finish their work on a lane: “Their heavy hammers on their shoulders, their brows sweating, they walked away, talking among themselves and saying, ‘This is just such an awful job’.” The leaving behind of posters on walls yields an insight: “I think there are two kinds of objects in a home — those that fulfill our needs and those that express our desires. When we leave our homes, we leave behind our desires and take along with us those things that fulfill some necessity.”

The title captures the shape-shifting property of a city where large settlements can be uprooted and resettled. It also hints at the roguish resilience and agility of spirit demanded of its people. It describes a world in which “each person has made himself up in tiny fragments, so that he doesn’t break, so he can push himself from one place to the other, piece by piece, and not crack up because of a jolt.”
The translation by Shveta Sarda has been done with sensitivity and grace. One of her achievements lies in creating a vocabulary that does not distance the reader, and allows the writers’ milieu to be evoked without pity or condescension. Trickster City is a necessary and important book, remarkable in every way. We must be grateful that it exists.

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