Blog Monday, April 20, 2015 - 05:30
By Priyanka Dass Saharia In popular representations of the community in media discourses, the "voice" of the migrant woman from the North-east India is often silenced. The ethnic gendered subject being a passive recipient to urban experiences of violence and discrimination isn’t a given but a constructed idea through various discourses and each new event of violence just ends up in the reification of this construct – the mute, docile victim. Robert Sennet had famously said in his ethnographic work ‘Flesh and Stone’ (1994: 26) “... aspects of urban experience difference, complexity, strangeness – afford resistance to domination”. These words illustrate the complex ways in which ‘differences’ in the urban space needs to be reconceptualised as being relational, with the larger heterogeneity of the masses. This conclusion then fairly illustrates the manner in which fixed categories are often appropriated for sensationalised news-making in constructing the "north-eastern" as the pivotal target of all marginalisation. This is not to discount the experiences of exclusion that this community does encounter in the face of a ‘lived’ urban reality but a deeper look into their everyday also helps us to engage into the multiple ways in which they do negotiate with these patterns of exclusion with tactical counter-strategies aimed at integration into the urban whole. A useful point of departure from dominant paradigms of study would be substitute old modes of inquiry and thus old models. I propose a replacement of the positivist model of ‘economy’ to one of ‘ecology, and a simultaneously an incorporation of the notion of ‘intangibles’ into this understanding. The intangibles entail knowledge, organisation and management along with the standard markers of ‘capital’, namely land and labour. The idea of ‘ecology’ opens up to looking at the material as a part of the social rather than divorced from it – processes of interaction in relation to the larger environment as one acts on the other into a mutual transformation. The procedures of production, consumption and distribution are unpacked into these fluid processes of circulation. Through ethnographic documentation of narratives in the voice of these women, one can chart their lived realities in the urban space. Though the power of narratives lies in the voice explicating its own experiences, a functionalist approach to studying society always carries the danger of not locating the present in a larger framework of dominant political agendas that are often shaped by distinctive trajectories of social history. The planning of a city links itself to a larger question of conceptualisation of the parameters that mark the ‘urbane’ nature of a space. Theories on Space in Urban Studies need to be approached as ‘tools’ rather than ‘moulds’ to stuff field observations or compensate for the lack of it. The field data is best studied for its contingencies and complexities, where theories often fail. Racial profiling in the city become everyday living realities for these women and it becomes interesting when this ‘ethnicity’ repackages itself as ‘aesthetics’ and open up city spaces for these communities via supply of orientalised luxury services in upscale retail ventures. This space sells these ‘services’ making profits from the customers aspiring for a ‘world class’ consumer experience. Space becomes the medium through which these marginalised communities challenge, transform and negotiate their ‘differences’ and find their way into the city. Parallel, we see the ways in which national space is claimed by marginalised migrant communities. The community has to enact multiple identities which are complex and multi-layered. Parochialism and ethnic tensions from the frontier evokes scepticism in the migrant from the north-east which translates into a pan-northeast solidarity which is usually absent back home. This solidarity characterises the community whose boundaries stretch to communities from Ladakh, Nepal, Tibet or even Africa, capitalising on the “marginalisation” that all of them face as a collective thus giving a new thrust to the resistance and the economic inclusion through it. South Delhi restaurants have cashed in on this collective sense of solidarity to serve multiple cuisines under the umbrella of “from the hills” ranging from Thukpa[1], Dimsum[2], Masor Tenga[3] to Pork Chill (Nagaland). Hence it is interesting to see how they use this “cosmopolitanism” to challenge stereotypes and at the same time find a sense of solidarity. ‘Differences’ within the heterogeneous mass living in the city, needs to be unpack and not relegated into a framework that essentially entails a sense of antagonism or gets tied to a larger idea of alterity as a division. An urban space driven by a capitalist logic feeding a consumer aspiring for a ‘world-class’ experience; upscale retail sectors often encapsulate young women from Nagaland, Manipur into orientalised and often sexualised roles due to a perceived similarity between them and the ‘East Asian’ woman (again a generalisation). As social scientists, reflexivity is a virtue but the consumer feeding off the economy, or dare I say, ecology is measuring his pockets of utility. Contrary to popular argument which simplistically proposes or rather accuses the commoditisation of the woman’s body to feed a burgeoning capitalistic economy; the actual lived realities are more complex. The ideas of consent and choice are not neat categories of agency, force, power or even gender roles, and it wouldn’t be enough to attack it from the angle of the fertile conditions that make such choices inevitable. Narratives have shown these women to have a fair degree of autonomy when attributing the reasons of their movement to pursue their aspirations of the city. Ethnography needs to enhance its own modes of inquiry like narratives and semiotics to translate these realities into sociological discourses better. As a fact of conclusion, ‘resistance’ over ‘domination’ needs to be rethought as the dominant antagonistic narrative that configures differences in the urban city. I would propose a change of perspective with a change of terminology – Negotiating of Differences, where through excusive connections and disjunctive inclusions[4] (adopting the terminology from Achilles Mmembe, 2006), differences co-exist in them being selectively co-opted into a maze, albeit with contradictions, into the collage of the ‘global city’ dream. (The author is a student Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics.) [1] A Tibetan noodle soup [2] A Cantonese steamed or fried dumpling [3] A traditional Assamese curry of tamarind and fish [4] These manufactured spaces serve primarily two objectives; provides an opportunity for generation of an income for these “marginalised” community which is the bedrock for the inclusion into the city life, and on the other hand, by the “exclusive” nature of their services, the highly sexualised, orientalised roles they are made to play which essentially packages their ethnicity as an “exotica” is what consolidates the and fragments at the same time. It consolidates through realisation of aspirations of the women for money, and the “urban” city life being a “marginalised” community at the same time it fragments the idea of a “national identity” by segregation on lines of “ethnicity” and “race”.  

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