25 June 2013


DumDum Station, 10kms north of Calcutta; 32° C

Last night spent at the platform with Durga and her fellow commuting sellers

Sweaty exhaustedness. Last train long left, the platforms fill up with the people who spend the night there. Street girls and boys, eyes vitreous like all glue sniffers’, making fun of everyone; porters smoking biri; emaciated old men and women, abandoned by their children. Three run-away boys playing with three pups. Durga has got rid of the left over saag – the taro leaves that grow wild in her village and sell well in the city – at a disposal area at the bottom of the station and refreshed herself at the public toilet. She has spreading her spring-green propylene sheet and a light kantha on the pavement, where we will sit and have dinner and later, sleep.

As she chats with us about her day, we wonder what is it that enables Durga to entertain us with anecdotes, reflections, stories of her life lying on the platform of a train station, putrid, crowded, filled with the squalor every big city of the world reunites at night? How comes we feel thus sheltered, or sheltered enough to share intimate memories, linger on personal considerations? In spite of all temporariness, there is an extent of habituality to this accommodation, an everyday practice mediated by ways of doing, or arts of place making [→ de Certeau 1984]*, that makes it possible for us to lie and narrate and remember, as were we in the verandah of a house. What “informality”!? The precondition for Durga’s faculty to inhabit DumDum Station’s platform, to introduce in it habits and make it a habitual space in spite of its strangeness, alienation, and inherent danger, is an inventiveness that has to do with imagination. A difficult statement – we’re entering a slippery terrain, as the wish to emphasise agency and creativity in deprived livelihoods can quickly decay into naive positivism; downplaying the material, economically-driven and politically-backed struggles on the ground in the name of e.g. “smart informality”, academia in fact risks to endorse the state of the arts against its own good intentions. On the other hand, we all know that considering only the economic and historical dependencies often results in deterministic views. So, while it would be false and irresponsible to expect a relationship of correspondence between personality and habituality – such that Brecht himself, a “paying guest”, was able to realise only in given circumstances – in an environment like DumDum Station’s platform, it would be equally false to negate that Durga and her fellow pavement sellers, dwelling on that platform at night, import in it some little extent of identity.

In the nights we shared with her, we witnessed how a place of despair can be turned into a space of conviviality, if people are allowed to bring their habits and needs in and, more importantly, if they unpack their stories, memories, fantasies. Calling that transformation of space a performance of/in “informality” is reductive, as much as speaking of an “appropriation” would be exaggerative. It’s imagination that is at work there, people’s power that cannot be trained, nor expropriated, but only shared and spread in form of stories.

* De Certeau, Michel (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life.