Jeremy Seabrook talks to Caspar Melville about life in Muslim communities in the slums of Kolkata, and paints a powerful and shocking picture of people who have suffered centuries of expropriation, loss, driven migration and involuntary separations and now find themselves at the wrong end of globalisation. The conversation draws on the study by Jeremy Seabrook and Imram Ahmed Siddiqui, People Without History (Pluto Press)
Caspar started by asking Jeremy to describe the Kolkata slums.
Jeremy Seabrook: The first thing you notice in the poorest part of Topsia is the canal – which is the channel for waste water. So the first thing you notice is the smell. The smell of decaying garbage and sewage. It is overwhelming. The second is the way houses have been constructed out of industrial debris, old bamboo, wood, boxes, and old bags of fertiliser and phosphate, all kinds of stuff. It is a very improvised looking place. It is very stony, the houses are very close together. There is just about room to trundle a cart from which people are selling mouldy bananas, specked oranges, the very poor quality goods that are on sale for the people who live here. This is perhaps one of the worst places in Kolkata. It is very crowded, very densely populated.
As you walk in the thoroughfare, you see many people who are addicted to drugs. It is a major outlet for opium, ganga, heroin. People are seriously addicted. You only have to open one of the curtains in front of the huts and you can see 6,7 or 8 men who are stoned out of their minds. It is all done in the daylight, in full view of the officials – the police, the local authority, the local communist party (though of course they have just been defeated in the elections, but it won’t make any difference to these people).
The huts have very sparse interiors – maybe an old tin chair, a trunk, a string with changes of clothing across the room, a bed roll. Sometimes a huge wooden bed fills the whole room, on which the whole family sleeps.
And what strikes you is that everybody is working. They are sitting on the threshold, women especially, and they are cutting away the rubber from sandals moulded in local factories. Or they are making and selling snacks in the streets. Everybody is doing something, even young children.
The slum areas of Kolkata have changed considerably over the 10-15 years I have been going there. Topsia in Kolkata is an archaic form of dwelling – made of industrial rubbish. At one time all slums were like this, but now people have got a bit better off, and they are making their houses out of tin, metal or rough brick. Or they are renting rooms in roughly made and illegally built brick-built slums – they are illegal and could be demolished at any time. So although it apparently looks as though the worst of the slums are being eliminated – poverty has been stacked up inside high rise dwellings. Inside they are just as crowded, insanitary, dark, fetid and unpleasant as the things they replaced, but they are no longer so visible to the visitor from outside, who thinks ‘oh they are buildings, they must be OK’.
Two things are happening with the urban poor. Firstly they are being stacked up vertically. And secondly, compression. They are being squeezed into a smaller and smaller area of the city’s base. As the middle class expands, so new areas are taken over for development. You get all these building sites with artists impressions of places called ‘Mayfair Towers’ or ‘Berkley Villas’,they’re idealised views of what these places will be. They are rising up in slum areas but whoever moves in won’t want the eyesore of the poor people living close. So you can see that the next lot are ripe for eviction.
There is a constant process of movement and change. Slums are not static. They are in a ferment of economic activity and also of social upheaval. People are removed either shoved out to the far periphery or put into rented high rise.
Caspar Melville: Tell us about people you met, give us an idea of what it’s like to live there.
JS We met 2 boys who were begging, one who was about 20 and his friend about 13. They were singing. The 13year old was accompanying the song with two stones, to make a rhythm, he had a beautiful voice, singing devotional songs. His companion had only one leg and one arm. He’d been caught stealing on a bus and had been so severly beaten by passengers when he was caught, that his wound became infected and he lost a leg and an arm. That is a story you hear – about untreated wounds.
CM You go into a factory, and it is Dickenisan.
JS Dickens springs to life there, in all the cities, in south east Asia. Factories are overcrowded, hot and humid. People work very long hours, pay is very poor. The only difference is that people have the smile of Bengal – they don’t present an aspect of misery, like in Dickens accounts of East London. The silver smile of Bengal is famous but one shouldn’t take it at its face value as it conceals centuries of expropriation, loss, driven migration, involuntary separations. It is deceptive. But it is a startling contrast to the generally miserable faces of the people you might see on the tube in London.
CM The Dickens connection doesn’t stop there. You met someone who was caught up in a Jarndice v Jarndice legal case.
JS There was a muslim guy, appointed to the food inspectorate, inspecting restaurants in Kolkata. He was appointed something like 27 years ago, and between appointment and actually starting his job 25 years elapsed without any explanation whatever – partly, of course, because he was a muslim, and partly because powerful interests wanted to get hold of the small property he owned. He was going from pillar to post looking for some kind of redress, and eventually he met a muslim MP at an electoral gathering who finally got him instated into his post one month before he was due to retire. The last I heard he was struggling to get a pension for those years in which he was officially employed but never did any work.
CM The subtitle of your book is India’s Muslim Ghettos. Your book seems to argue that the position of Muslims is getting worse rather than better.
JS It seems to me that there is an increasing communalisation of poverty in Kolkata. These slums where we were working are 90-95% muslim. There are a few Christians, and some low cast Hindus, but these slums are overwhelmingly Muslim. Muslims are concentrated in these areas where a large proportion of people are recycling rubbish from the consumer society which has now hit India in a big way. You can see the recycling and salvaging of everything, and the only thing that is wasted is the people and their energies and their bodies.
These poor muslim communities are seen by many people as the places where extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism are concealed, and nothing could be further from the truth.
CM There is no evidence of that?
JS Minimal evidence. There are some anti-social elements, there are people who deal drugs, petty criminals. But even if you go to the police stations they are somnulant, inactive places where nothing much happens. Certainly you feel safer walking in the slums of Kolkata than you do in the streets of some parts of London late at night.
CM So there are no rabble rousing imams trying to recruit the poor into islamist groups?
JS Not in the slightest. Very poor people are too busy surviving to worry too much about eternity. They are so caught up in the business of the here and now, that their immortal souls need to be put on hold. In many ways you could say that the majority of people are only nominally muslim, but they serve for the mainstream society as a kind of toxic dump for all the hatreds and prejudices that exist in all societies. I think they have a double role, not only do they recycle waste in toxic dumps but they themselves are the human toxic dumps for the hatred and intolerance of others.
CM The poverty in India can seem overwhelming. Throughout the book I could feel your anger, and your desire to do something, to respond to the human suffering you encounter.
JS What is happening in India is that a huge middle class has evolved, so the image of India has changed in the world. Instead of the outstretched hand of the supplicant and the begging bowl it is now the consumer industry and the fleshy excesses of Bollywood that have become the dominant view, and eclipsed the poor. It hasn’t made them go away, but it makes them less conspicuous in the global iconography. Even if you see something like Slumdog Millionaire it doesn’t deal with the real lives of people in those places (and, of course, the story is always that they are lifted out of poverty).
The urban population of India is now about 300m and will increase rapidly over the next 20-30 years, so urban poverty rather than rural poverty is going to be the story of the future.
The poverty is overwhelming. But you can go through India and not see it at all, because it has been increasingly marginalised by the process of people being pushed out of sight. They are increasingly invisiblised. Part of the global project is to render the poor invisible. The idea is that, “Well – we’ve been there. We in the West have been through it. Now they will go through it and emerge into the sunny uplands of universal consumerism as we have”. It seems a stage of development. But that begs all sorts of questions as to whether the earth can bear everybody in India and China living as we do.
But just on the question of responding to human suffering and need – you help a few people selectively, but you can’t do anything about it. And these days you can’t effectively even write about it, represent it, to people in power, because they don’t want to know because the corporate ideology which has gripped India as well as the rest of the world has eliminated the poor from its landscapes.
We are living through a global pretence. For example, what are these Millennium Goals (that are going to be missed anyway)? They are about the dwindling rump of the global poor and yet these people are the major players in the world, they are a majority in the world still. Just because they have been landscaped into invisibility doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
In that way they serve as a great danger. The people in Topsia, Tangra and Tiljala in Kolkata themselves are not going to rise up. They are not going to create acts of terror, plant the bombs. But there will be those who observe the sufferings of people they see as their fellow muslims, and like all revolutionaries will invoke them as their ghost army of supporters for any atrocities they care to commit. So I think in dealing with the whole story of terror, while you leave neglected populations to wallow in indifference and misery, you are indirectly feeding the people who ‘are against us’, as George Bush said.
CM Are you angry with the failed promise of the left? What they haven’t done?
JS Yes, and with what they couldn’t do. The left was in power for one third of a century in West Bengal and in the initial stages they did some useful agrarian reform. Their constituency was fundamentally in the rural areas. But they destroyed the already decaying industries of Kolkata that were partly the remnants of the Raj, impoverishing it even further. Then they did an about-turn and started to reintroduce the IT sector and tried to induce people to come to the reindustrialised Kolkata that they had laid waste. They had some limited success but in the process of reindustrialising, their great mistake was to offer land to industrial houses – some were foreign companies, for example, Indonesian, and some Indian – for example, they gave Tata a site. They just cleared off the workers on the land, the labourers and the peasants. So the very constituency that supported them became victims of their own ideological desperation. They’d been elected, fairly, for the last third of a century, but that moment has now come to an end. It remained an archaic enclave, because they weren’t really Left for the last 15, 20 years. So what you see is the exhaustion of leftism and its electoral quietus in West Bengal at this time. They won’t come back.
CM This isn’t just about India, how does this book fit your larger concerns?
JS The old industrial working class in Britain initially struggled for a secure sufficiency. And instead they got consumerism, which is not the same thing. And that model, so successful in the Western heartlands, is being replicated globally. It seems to me to be an unsatisfactory, unsustainable and untenable alternative to security and sufficiency.
The word ‘enough’ has been expunged from the vocabulary of globalism because nobody knows what it means any more. Everybody feels poor. Even Bill Gates, the Duke of Westminster as well as the labourer and the worker – everybody feels poor. What could be a better uniting element in the world. Everybody is joined together in the project to get richer. It has no limits, it has no ending and it has no objective. You ask societies that have gone through this – what are they for? what purpose do they serve? But we are now asking questions about how happy we are….perhaps that is a sign that there are voices out there asking questions about the function and purpose of society.
We in Britain dismantled the function of making useful things for daily use. Now they are too trivial for us, so we farm out the making of them to Jakarta or Mumbai or Dhaka. Our identity comes from having destroyed what was palpably, materially a useful function and we are still looking for it. If you look for it in finance, or in the entertainment industry, it is not of the same order as things that are demonstrably useful to human survival. So partly we have outsourced our lives. There is a quote from Oscar Wilde – ‘Living? Our servants can do that for us’. That is a debased aristocratic model that most people in the West regard as their birthright. The people who fetch and carry for us no longer live behind the sooty laurels of the old Victorian city, they live in places like Kolkata, Sao Paulo and Mexico city.
We have a relationship with these people, whether we choose to regard it or not. There were many people in 19th-century Britain who denied that they had any relationship or responsibility for the poverty of the ‘dissolute’ and the ‘idlers’. There are echoes in talk of the undeserving poor and welfare cheats that we hear today in the UK, where we have only a minority of poor people.
We have had much success in minoritising our poor and outsourcing poverty.
- Jeremy Seabrook is a researcher and writer. He is the author of The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight from Tyranny 1933 – 2008, Consuming Cultures: Globalization and Local Lives, Travels in the Skin Trade and Cities.
- Imran Ahmed Siddiqui is a writer and journalist. He works at the Telegraph newspaper in Kolkata.
People without History reflects in its title and some of its contents the work of Eric Wolf – Europe and the People without History