When do you become an insider in your city?

INCLUSIVE CITIES

A mural in Mission District, San Francisco, drawn specifically as part of protests by the city's communities. Pic: Jahnavi Jayanth

I have lived nearly all my life in Bangalore and growing up, I remember mentioning at least once a day, that I was proudly Bangalorean. When I was little, my mother and grandmother would haul our cousin bunch into an auto every Sunday to get to Jayanagar 4th Block and back. Those auto-rides filled with remnants of fruit-salad ice cream from Cool-Joint, toothpicks stolen from ShivSagar post lunch and their shopping bags taught me two very interesting things. One, for every auto that says yes to you, there are usually seven that would have said no before. Two, every auto uncle spoke at least five different languages.

Bangalore like any other metropolitan and cosmopolitan city in this country, while being a city of wildly fascinating diversity and potential enough to host this sort of diversity, will still demand you work unreasonably hard to find your place in its community. You may, of course, end up never being a true part of the community. You may never be accepted by all its members, because here’s an interesting question – what really is the Bangalore community?

I walked into a beauty salon last week, the kind with unrealistic and larger-than-life wall posters outside, of white people you don’t know or Aishwarya Rai during her early pageant days. Like perhaps quite a few other salons that you may have seen, this one had employees that were predominantly from the North East. The North East of India, yes.

There was an aunty seated in a rotating chair next to me, gabbing away in Hindi to the woman doing her eyebrows. Suddenly, she stopped short to say “Aap ko Hindi samajh mein aati hai? Nahi woh…aap jaise logon ko nahi aati hogi, na?” (Do you understand Hindi? Your kind of people may not, right?)

At least she wasn’t as bad as the uncle, who told his son to stay away from his Kenyan classmate at college. “Kallu hai, pata nahi kya-kya karta hoga!” (He’s black, we don’t know what (sinister) things he could be upto.)

Then again this man was definitely not as bad as the mob that assaulted a Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru, pulling her out of her car, setting it ablaze and stripping her naked. They were exacting revenge because a Sudanese man had allegedly run over a woman in the area. The policemen refused to help her by saying, “You all look alike, you should find that black man.”

Really?

So you see, being a resident of Bengaluru does not necessarily make one a Bengalurean. Which brings me to the question, “Who really counts as a part of any metropolitan city’s community – who counts as true Mumbaikars, Delhiites or Calcuttans and why does this matter?”

Echoes across the seas

This is the story of how another eclectic city, all the way across the world, made me ask myself these questions.

It took me all of three days to get used to the people of San Francisco.

The young prodigies clutching backpacks and headphones, filing out of towering tech offices in baggy shirts, on hoverboards. The slightly older employees, cigarette-puffing middle-aged men and women, in pressed suits and dresses, leather shoes and pointed heels. They continued to murmur into their phones or to one another, looking too busy for the world.

You and I both have heard legends of the mammoth Indian diaspora in the Bay Area. That is no myth, there were a surprising ton of us amongst those people.  

Then there were the homeless strangers in ragged clothes, talking to themselves or screaming at every fifth passerby on the road. I encountered them while they dragged cartloads of their belongings behind them, situated almost always in the filth of excreta, used syringes and empty pill capsules. I was told by some, most actually – to specifically not let their eyes meet mine.

However, a chance encounter and some smiles did turn into a conversation, which turned into many more. Those conversations revealed that a noticeable lot of these people had come here in search of opportunity, from Pittsburgh, from Philadelphia, from across the country and often, beyond. Reports such as this throw more light on their circumstances and the reasons behind this.

The haggard single mother out to buy groceries from the cheapest store possible, carrying one thumb-sucking baby on her tired waist, yelling incomprehensibly at her toddler in Spanish. The little boy, exploring a ball of dirt (that she hadn’t noticed) in his hands, much like the other people around them, wouldn’t pay much attention to her. This little family was one of those that have come from beyond the borders, and had somehow managed to make it just beyond being homeless.

The coffee-drinkers, salad-bowl-addicts and pastry connoisseurs all lined up in hipster cafe queues and tables. Their eyes perusing digital screens or leafing through books, barely moving beyond what was right in front of them. Faces of so many different colours (even hair ranged the rainbow spectrum, there was one person with rainbow hair too).  People from across the world, all boxed up in the same hustle-bustle, coffee-gulping city machine.

To a fascinated and eager external eye, these people were what made San Francisco, San Francisco. The pulsating city breathed through them, each of them being a part of the perfectly tossed salad-bowl that the city was, but to each other they merely existed, absorbing some space, a few corners here and there of their city.

Sometimes a smile is all it takes to start a conversation! In San Francisco. Pic: Jahnavi Jayanth.

Strange and alien as they were all to me, as I absorbed everything I could about them, a resemblance to namma ooru began looming. See, it took me all of three days to get used to those people and similarly, they were merely used to each other too. Just as I didn’t necessarily feel like I was a part of the San Francisco community despite my living there, they weren’t all necessarily desired citizens in the eyes of the rest of their community.

The rich, white golf-and-polo-playing man from Marina knew about the immigrant woman from Mission, he knew she lived in San Francisco, he acknowledged it. But he did not like it and he was going to do something about it. These San Franciscans weren’t one community, kept together by something other than just municipality boundaries. In fact, they were in subtle and dire senses – brewing contempt.

I struck up a conversation one day with a homeless black person in the library, after he helped me grab a book on the top-most shelf. “I ain’t choosing to be homeless,” he spluttered when our conversation had gotten deep enough, “there’s almost no way to escape though. Cause they ain’t gonna be giving a black guy, they think was doing drugs, any job.”

My face must’ve given it away, I don’t quite know what he saw – anxious empathy, utter puzzlement. He proceeded to explain it to me like it was the simplest thing in the world, “I don’t belong, do I now?”

Sounds familiar, yes?

Embracing the other

Can a person be truly Bangalorean or Delhiite, truly belong to a city according to you – if they speak differently, look differently or like different things from your stereotypical, run-of-the-mill Bangalorean and Delhiite, someone that you traditionally associate with any city?

Any metropolitan and cosmopolitan city of India today, mostly says no. Sure, they live here and we have to deal with it, maybe we don’t beat them up. Treat them as our own, though? No chance, machaan. Not happening, yaar.

Even though you were not one of the people in NCR that beat up the Nigerian man because you thought people from his country had committed committed cannibalistic acts to one of your own, you may have been someone standing silently in the crowd to the side. You may have been someone that read this news and mentally reprimanded them, but viewed the black man in your locality with suspicion or indifference.

You may have been someone upset at the news of a landlord in Bangalore beating up three students from the North East, but ask yourself this – were you upset by the violence or the injustice? Would you have been just as upset, if you had seen the aunty asking that woman in the parlour the racist question?

When people stay silent about the more subtle, less violent expressions of hatred against anybody that doesn’t belong in your city – you are unconsciously offering your support to the people from your city who would express the hatred more violently. You may be used to these different people habituating different parts of your city, but you didn’t pause to make them your people. And so the repercussions of making them the other blew out of proportion.

It took me all of three days to get used to San Franciscans. However, it took some planned revamping of the San Francisco community dynamics, for me and many others that were really, intrinsically a part of it to start feeling like they were.  

We are used to our cities, but what is it going to take for us to truly understand what it means to belong to them?

[Traipsing through seven cities across the world, the author trying to find home in them. And as she does so, she notices that amongst all their starkly different lanes, cuisines and homes, there are similar stories being told. Similar city pangs that bring citizens together, and potentially similar solutions that they may weave. Over the next few months, she will be writing about her experiences and discoveries here. This is the first of the series.]

About Jahnavi Jayanth 2 Articles
Jahnavi Jayanth is a globetrotting student and dancer, deeply passionate about social engineering and writing. She spends her days dancing, as she puts it, between her undergraduate degree and working in the social sector.

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