In Praise of Incoherence

In urban studies, in the name of ‘writing local histories’, ‘asserting identity and social existence’, ‘getting rights and entitlements’, ‘mobilizing resistances’ and more generally ‘mapping’, there seems to be an increasing obsession to voyeuristically engage with practices that exist in the crevices of formality and legality. The nature of this engagement is extremely dangerous to the practices as, firstly, it exposes them and, secondly, makes their mechanics legible to all kinds of scrutiny, putting them further at risk of erasure.For example, studies that engage with street-food enterprises typically record spaces, actors and transactions that form the enterprises and establish clear and coherent relationships between them. Through exposing the mechanics of making and vending food on the street they also make arguments about exploitation of labour, harassment by authorities etc. Unintentionally, such recording does another thing – it exposes many aspects of the enterprises that characterize them as ‘informal / illegal’ – the manner of sourcing and storing water, disposing waste, cooking and storing cooked food, mobilizing gas cylinders for cooking, cleaning vessels and cutlery, etc. These recordings could easily be read as a compromise in cleanliness, safety and health issues. The readings would then force an intervention that would either promote removing of the enterprises or formalizing them. If formality is sought, then cleanliness and safety standards will be followed and new infrastructure will have to be created. The enterprises will then become unviable for the vendors there, as cost of production will increase, leading to an erasure of those enterprises. A harmless work of urban studies (which must have sought to uplift the lives of people), will end up facilitating their removal.

The contention here is that the problem comes into existence specifically because the language of urban studies either directly coincides with the languages used for scrutiny or could be easily appropriated by the systems of scrutiny – and this is the language of coherence. Often, this language is based on techno-legal frameworks that establish clear relationships through empirical evidences, statistical reasoning, scientific rationality and legal logic. Most urban studies discussions today get moderated by the judiciary, which is considered to be an ombudsman for universal justice. And so most works end up emulating the techno-legal language for satisfying some unknown desire for legal validity. Many works have ended up becoming annexure to public interest litigations, affidavits, policy notes and other techno-legal documents. It is as if legal/juridical acceptance has become the sole validity for these works.

On the other hand, urban studies works that do not necessarily conform to the techno-legal frameworks – documentary films, blogs, websites, social-art projects, etc – do not overtly allow a direct appropriation by the systems of scrutiny. However, voyeuristic obsession continues and the language of coherence remains operative. Perhaps even at a higher intensity. These works are driven by the urge of being put in the public realm. The act of making records persists – records that will uncover the hidden, expose the truth, be archived and circulated and be put together to make arguments.

There seems to be some fascination to create such records using ‘real’ material from the ‘ground’. The desire and the act of seeking ‘legibility’ in the language of these works propel their language towards coherence.

Being coherent is not only a problem, it is also difficult – almost impossible.

I recently reviewed an edited volume on mapping urban violence in Latin American cities. Most authors included in the book exposed actors, networks, spaces and interactions to sketch an environment of violence. They established links between forces of globalization, migration, informalisation, illegality and slum creation that results in a context of violence and ‘exclusion’ in these cities. And as if almost by default, what got highlighted was the fragility of governance. This will probably be a clear direction to a policy maker to focus on tightening the systems of governance.

But another thing happened in the book. For a person not familiar with the Latin American context, its cities came across as dark, disturbed and anarchic, its people without morals and ethics – obviously a limited and problematic understanding.

While the language of coherence was able to build a clear story about the failure of governance, it also built up an extremely problematic story alongside. A story that does not want to be true even though it is championed as one.

Urban contexts get shaped in complex ways. They are influenced by multiple and complicated things that sometimes seem absurd and therefore interesting to an urban studies observer. The authors of the volume seemed enamoured by scenes of crime, which may otherwise be commonplace. Once enamoured, they sought to find reasons and solutions for them, and in doing so sketched a clear and transparent story, completely missing out the intriguing opacity of living.

Languages of coherence seem incapable of being able to conceptualize cities. How can it be possible to be coherent and claim to see things clearly, except by being blind to them?

To uncover the hidden, to make clear the connections, to tell the truth – when engagement moves beyond this obsession, innumerable possibilities to talk about the urban realm open out. This provides for a different engagement. In their inability to devise interventions, engagements can become far more generous. In many ways, these engagements become part of the very material of urban life itself. Crucially, such engagements do not allow appropriation, as their languages are too mature for the systems of scrutiny. Incoherence then does not remain simply a manner of engagement; it becomes a politic.

I met Raghav after several years. He showed me his old photo albums. This was one of the things he would do to start talking about old times. The conversation that followed was biographical. He spoke about how he came to Mumbai as a runaway kid and worked in a restaurant, how he got beaten up by a group of bus drivers, how he saved a rich man from ten goons trying to kill him, how he chopped off the leg of a man who had killed his friend. While all his stories were engrossing, two left me intrigued.The first was about his dead friends.  While showing me the albums, he kept pointing at his friends who had been killed. Some were stabbed, some strangled, some shot, either by the police or by other gangs. He spoke about them casually, with his wife and children around. For me, conditioned into morals and ethics of another world, this conversation was awkward. But for him, and probably for the people he knew, it was routine.

Raghav came to Mumbai as a child in the late 1970s and worked at his uncle’s restaurant at Ganga Building near Mazgaon. At night he would sleep on the tables in the restaurant. His uncle had come to Mumbai in the mid sixties and had managed to establish a restaurant in the industrial area of Mumbai. While some migrants got into blue or white collared jobs, most started working in the city’s massive unorganized industries and enterprises, largely as labour, but also sometimes as owners and managers. The migrants who found place to work and sleep assisted their relatives and friends to come to Mumbai. The desperation of finding work and a place to sleep shaped them . It did not matter to them if they had to bribe a policeman or a municipal official to occupy a pavement to set up their business and earn a living. As his business required making and maintaining networks, Raghav’s uncle would oblige several important people from the police, municipality and even from the underworld. The underworld then largely smuggled gold, electronics and cocaine. The uncle’s restaurant was often used to store (hide) the smuggled goods. Because of this network, the uncle had also developed a significant social status, one that reflected in his image and mannerisms. He had become a sort of a local leader, a Robinhoodish character who commanded respect not only due to his dadagiri (bullish attitude), but also his generous organizational capacities. He would organize local festivals, give free food during festival days, sort out neighbourhood problems with his contacts in the government department, manage chitfunds (a kind of local microfinance), provide money for people in his native place to build houses, organize elaborate ritualistic ceremonies in his village, etc. The uncle was not only a hero for Raghav, but also for the entire community from which they hailed.

The uncle died in the early 1980s and the restaurant shut down. Raghav started working in an automobile workshop that belonged to another relative, but wasn’t happy repairing cars. The image of his uncle in his mind was powerful and Raghav aspired to be like him. He had made friends with petty workers of the underworld while working at the restaurant and decided to get in touch with them for better prospects. Things worked out and soon Raghav was transporting illegally manufactured alcohol to several restaurants in the city. He slowly went up the ladder to become a key member in one of the gangs. He had not only managed to gather for himself status similar to that of his uncle, but actually went much beyond. People from his community would call him to resolve disputes of various kinds, especially disputes requiring muscle power. Younger people from the community aspired to be like Raghav and came to Mumbai. The morals and ethics of this community, like several others, got shaped differently. They were influenced by the desperation for work and the search for a place to sleep, as also by the image of the achievers.

Now, after all those years, Raghav spoke about each of his friends from the underworld with fondness. He told many of their stories with ease, including those of their murders as if it was one of the things to talk about like one speaks about a wedding or the birth of a child.

The second story that made me uneasy was when Raghav discussed how he found his family’s Naaga (Snake God). Raghav hailed from the Tulunadu region in the South of India. Native communities of Tulunadu worshiped ghosts, devils and snakes with elaborate rituals.  People of Tulunadu believe that every family has a unique Naaga.  After a series of sudden deaths in Raghav’s family, his elders advised him that maybe the family’s Naaga is not happy. Raghav’s family was fairly urban and lived in the small town of Mangalore. Raghav had lived in Mumbai most of his life. Though he was familiar with the concept, he didn’t know about his family’s Naaga. After the elders’ advise, he asked his relatives if any of them knew about the family Naaga. Nobody did. He approached many godmen and tantriks (priests performing occult rituals). One of them gave him a convincing explanation. He said that Raghav’s family had split some hundred years ago and his part of the family had migrated to Mangalore. It was around this time that his family had stopped worshipping the Naaga. The tantrik also gave him the exact location of his family house in the north eastern part of the region. By this time Raghav had mobilized the entire industry that worked with gods, devils and snakes. He lost no time in finding the remote location of his ancestral house and the stone image of the Naaga there. As the image was in ruins, it had to be restored. Raghav decided to build a small shrine for the Naaga. He spent generously on elaborate rituals. This generosity was spoken about by everyone in the community. His family, relatives and his friends believed that this was truly the best thing that he could have done for society.  They knew he was a gangster, but this did not matter to them. His maternal uncle was a policeman. For members of the community, Raghav had risen higher than his uncle in social status. He had managed to find their god and make him happy.

This piece is an excerpt from “Chronicling Urban Violence – Need for Nuances”, a review I wrote of the book “Megacities – The Politics of Urban Exclusion and Violence in the Global South”, edited by Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt, published by Zed Books, London/New York, 2009. It was written in September 2010, but never published as the editors of the urban studies journal which commissioned the review found it difficult to make a connection between the review and the book.