Questioning privilege: A book presents field accounts of scholars as they encounter a life of deprivation that is completely and achingly different from their lives
The Centre of Equity Studies, headed by activist Harsh Mander, has produced an outstanding body of work that expands public perspective about the marginalised communities of India. Dispossessed is yet another book to have come out of the Centre that has contributions by its researchers.
It has field accounts of city-based scholars, as they encounter a life of squalor and deprivation that is completely and achingly different from their lives. These reportages are also punctuated by the experiences of researchers, as they encounter situations that prompted them to question their privileges and choices. The book, at some instances, also takes the form of an internal dialogue that continues within the researcher an inner tussle that problematises the narrative.
Its first part chronicles the government response to starvation deaths that were reported in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar from 2005 to 2010. Writing about his visit to the areas a year later, researcher Ashwin Parulkar remembers the phone call he received in February 2013 that informed him about malnutrition-related deaths of 46 people since he had left the area. “I wondered how many of them were the children we saw playing in that circle or going out of the village to fetch firewood to sell in the market,” he writes in a poignant tone.
The second part, Engaging With Unequal India, has nine personalised essays on topics, including destitution in Rajasthan, lives of poor disabled women, persons living with locomotor disabilities and homeless people in Delhi.
One such account, Shared Spaces, reflects the researcher’s “individual and ideological questions”, as she, a resident of an upscale Delhi colony, interviews Muslim women in a cramped and unauthorised locality tucked in her backyard.
Her visits to the Muslim locality—which was diametrically opposite to her cultural and political milieu—and her interactions with underprivileged Muslim women, eventually, threw a series of unsettling questions before her and ensured that both the interviewer and interviewee came to share and confront similar existential questions.
The book, significant as it traverses a territory that mostly remains beyond the public gaze, is not without some irritants. At several instances, it requires editing. Many details add little to the narrative and could be done without. On some occasions, the researcher’s voice and the issues they are facing in their lives overshadow the people they are writing about. That’s precisely the challenge with personalised narratives about the dispossessed. A slight deviation and it becomes the story of the narrator. It, at best, shifts the focus of the narrative, and, at worst, dilutes it.
Consider this instance in a chapter on the lives of homeless people in Delhi: “Dr Pradeep, the most senior member of our team, is an energetic, intelligent and entertaining man. Despite working amongst the most deprived people in the country, he is always cheerful and never disturbed by the sight of blood, filth and destitution,” the researcher writes, as he goes on to elaborate similar attributes of other colleagues in subsequent paragraphs.
Could the narrator have done without explaining the qualities of his colleagues in a text that talks about the homeless? It’s for the researcher-narrator to introspect the impact of introducing such shifts in spaces that were meant to express the voices of the dispossessed.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla