Posted by: Aman Sethi | May 4, 2010

The Oblique Strategies of Trickster City

It’s midnight: An aspiring model cooks up a batch of Fem Bleaching Cream; an actor rehearses his dialogues to the sounds of manic laughter, “Oh tell them all it is I who is God,”; a fourteen year old feigns sleep as his father looks on, wondering what has prompted his son to abandon his studies and look for work; a woman throws her abusive husband to the floor and whips him with his belt.
In the morning, a young man will awaken at the crack of dawn and walk down to the slaughterhouse; an empty street shall bear witness to a middle aged woman’s defiant declaration, “I will work. I don’t care what you think! I don’t care what the world thinks.” The muezzin will call the faithful to prayer.  A bulldozer will plow through the heart of this twenty five year old settlement: clearing space for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, altering these lives forever.
In February 2006, the residents of Nangla Maanchi, a working class settlement of migrants in Delhi, were confronted by a signboard: “This land is the property of the government. It should be vacated.” By August that year, Nangla was bulldozed to make way for an “athlete’s village” to house this year’s Commonwealth Games.
Despite Mumbai’s well mythologized image as a migrant Mecca, census data illustrates that Delhi receives more inter-state migrants than any other city in the country, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of population: An astonishing 40% of Delhi’s population may be classified as migrants by place of birth.
While it is hard to maintain a sense of proportion in a city of 17million spread out over nearly 1500 square kilometers, a remarkable book by 20 young authors offers a compelling insight into the informal settlements where two thirds of Delhi resides. Trickster City (Penguin Viking 2010), the English translation of the Hindi Behrupiya Sheher (RajKamal Books 2007), is an assemblage of reportage, fiction and biography informed by the experience of the authors watching their settlements grow, flourish and crumble before their eyes.
The stories of migrant settlements like Nangla Maanchi constitute a crucial chapter in the growth of post-partition Delhi. In 1947, the character of the city was irrevocably altered when its largely Muslim elite left for Pakistan, leaving behind a void that was filled by predominantly Hindu refugees from what became Pakistani Punjab and East Bengal.  Frenetic construction for the 1983 Asian Games facilitated a second wave of migration in the early 1980s as workers from across the country streamed in to work as construction labour and in the factories and services sector set up to cater to Delhi’s emergent middle class.
Gradually settlements sprung up across the city, each populated by specific communities: Sanjay Colony on the Delhi’s outskirts was set up by the Ouds, a tribe that historically dug wells and canals and, with the tech boom, started laying fibre optic cable; Kalakar colony was inhabited by street magicians, animal trainers, child acrobats and puppeteers; Ekta Vihar became the nerve centre for Delhi’s wedding musicians. A group of elephant trainers and their wards took up residence along the banks of the River Yamuna.
But as Delhi makes the transition from a display case crammed with pre-independence curios and post-eighties oddities to a glittering 21 century metropolis, the city has been shaken by violent demolition drives; the most recent of which claimed Nangla Maanchi as a victim.
“It takes many years for a place to become a settlement,” writes Suraj Rai in Spreading in the Air as he describes the destruction, “but a settlement is barren in merely two days…People are watching houses being pulled down. Each time dust rises when a house falls, they don’t turn away. They seem to be trying to take it all in. They had plastered the walls and roofs of their houses with their memories. Today those memories have turned into dust and are spreading out in the air.”
There are few accurate estimates of the mass displacement caused by the 2010 Commonwealth Games; but at least one study by the Hazard Centre, a Delhi-based NGO, suggests that 27,000 families were displaced from the banks of the Yamuna river to make space for this year’s Games; in the past decade, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi relocated almost 52,000 households and demolished even more. Assuming a conservative four people per household, the scale of displacement is staggering.
Precise, moving, often humourous, the pieces in Trickster City describe a lived reality that runs counter to dominant narratives of poverty and displacement scripted by the largely middle class Indian media.  Ridden with elite anxieties, media narratives on working class settlements describe a life so wretched that demolition comes almost as a relief to their readers and provides much needed legitimacy to euphemistically termed “urban renewal projects.”
“When people passed by the road they would say, ‘It’s so smelly here. People sit naked on the road, and shit on the footpath.’ They would file complaints…There has been so much investigation into how we live, so much said about how we ought to live,” writes Lakhmi Chand Kholi in What is the City? “This place is not written down as Nangla Maanchi, but as a place where people are living on poisonous fly ash deposits, people who need to be saved.”
In It was heard… Jaanu Nagar offers a different description of the very same site:
“What was this land like when we came here?/ It was ashen./It was infertile…We gave everything we earned in the last twenty to twenty five years to make a dwelling out of it./ Not just our earnings, we have put in the labour of our bodies to make this place.”
By shunning hysteria, outrage, and sympathy, Trickster City seeks out emotive registers that are harder to define and decode and describes the life under the threat of eviction in all its complexity and nuance.
In the companion pieces Daily Hurts/ Daily Acceptances Kulwinder Kaur and Rakesh Khairalia strive for the precise pitch at where the friction of everyday interaction is just offset by the humanity of these encounters: Khairalia’s internal musings offering an antidote to Kaur’s hard-edged facticity.
“It has been heard that on the hillock near the jungle, fountains of water have appeared. But in every neighbourhood, people sit clenching their parched throats.  Investigations have revealed that the water-pipe had burst,” writes Kaur.
“Do we pay attention to how, all around us, people are nourished by different kinds of relationships? Water sparkles when it sprays forth like a fountain, as it tries to reach out and touch the sky,” responds Khairalia elsewhere in the text.
Trickster City is an important book as it documents, in some detail, the death of a certain kind of activism and resistance – a politics of public demonstrations, mass rallies and legal notices.  Land, housing and private ownership have a rich legal history in post-Independence India, where the State has wide powers to appropriate private land and resources for what it deems as the greater public good.
One of the earliest judicial rulings on the matter of informal settlements was delivered in 1985 in the case of Olga Tellis versus the Bombay Municipal Corporation wherein the Supreme Court drew a link between livelihood and housing rights and held that that the right to livelihood was an integral part of the right to life as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Justice Chandrachud held that evicting a particular group of petitioners residing on government land would lead to “deprivation of their livelihood and consequently to the deprivation of life.”
This definition was used to ensure that pavement-dwellers evicted from government land were rehabilitated elsewhere.  Subsequently, a number of eviction cases were brought before the courts – such as Chameli Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh, and in the case of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, Appellant vs Nawab Khan Gulab Khan And Others the courts tacked on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to rule that everyone had the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family.
In 2000 however, this “rights-based” activism hit a dead end when in the case of Almitra H. Patel versus The Union of India, Justice B.N. Kirpal of the Supreme Court observed that Delhi’s lsums had increased in “geometric proportion” and surmised that “the promise of free land, at the taxpayers cost, in place of a jhuggi [hut], is a proposal which attracts more land-grabbers…rewarding an encroacher on public land with a free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket”.
Further, for many – such as in the case of Nangla Maanchi – rehabilitation was not a solution. As any real estate broker will explain, the three most important things in real estate are “location, location and location.”  V.P. Singh, the now deceased former Prime Minister of India once explained in an interview, “The problem of slums is an not issue of housing, it is an issue of employment.” Working class settlements crop up in areas where work or the means to commute to work is available and manageable.

Some of those who lost their homes in Nangla were re-settled in 18 sq metre plots in an area called Sawda Ghevra on the outskirts of Delhi. In the text Bus Number 949, Jaanu Nagar traverses the distance between Nangla Maanchi and Ghevra, spelling out the vast gulf that lies between settlement and resettlement, “Delhi Sachivalaya, Rajghat, Delhi Gate, Zakir Hussein College, Ajmeri Gate, Anand Parwat…Peera Garhi Chowk, it travelled passed Nangloi; and in an hour and a half it turned towards Sawda Ghevra.”

“The kilometers don’t feel as if they have been traversed, on reaching Ghevra. Instead, they seem to keep rolling on in the spread of Ghevra.” notes Lakmi Chand Kohli elsewhere in the book.

So what then is the answer to a problem such as this? How does one respond in a situation where the State turns on its own people and the courts indicate their reluctance to step in?

By refusing to let the destruction of a settlement signal the destruction of a community.  “This year Ravana will be brought from Nangla and will be slain in J.J. Colony Sawda-Ghevra’s B Block,” writes Jaanu Nagar, describing the Hindu festival in which the lord Ram Chandra slays the demon Ravana. “Long live Ram Chandra! Long live the dwellers of Nangla Maachi! Repeat after me with love, long live the dwellers of Sawda-Ghevra!”

Trickster City’s greatest strength is its refusal to adopt the question-answer, problem-solution format beloved to activists and development workers. The writers engage with the State and its institutions as one would a wealthy, yet cantankerous, old aunt: someone who could conceivably be a source of support and assistance, and occasionally is.  But most of the time, she frustrates one’s endeavors, disrupts the best laid plans and shall, in all likelihood, outlive us all.

This is a longer version of a review of Trickster City that was originally written for The National. Read the original here:


  1. comprehensive and precise review. I’d grab the book soon. hope there are also some details about displacements during Akshardham temple construction at Yamuna bank.

    • I just read your comment, and was wondering if you eventually got any resources on the Yamuna Displacements. I would imagine Akshardham being a private project, government would have very less involvement with acquisition if at all. I don’t know much about this, but I’m most curious to know more. I’d love to discuss more, if you are interested.

    • Yes! As a matter of fact I did – thank you for the reminder – its called “Swept off the map” by Gautam Bhan in association with Jagori and is published by Yoda books – If you are based in Delhi, you could pick up the book at their bookstore – Yodakin in Hauz khaz village.

      Akshardam was an interesting case as I think they just went ahead with the construction and presented the court with a fait accompli – which is also what happened in the case of the vasant vihar malls (i think) – you could go back and look at the press coverage at the time – which of course comes in several flavours.

      Tehelka also did a wonderful piece on the Judge (now retired) who gave the judgement on the malls – again, I cant quite place his name – but his sons were major real estate developers with stakes in a number of projects (i think including the malls). am travelling at present, but I may be able to dig out the references for you in the next week or so.

  2. Trickster focuses a great deal on the lived experience of settlement and displacement. For more data driven information, I would suggest a book published by Yoda Books and Jagori – I think its called “swept away” – will try and get you the precise reference.

    I recommend you buy both :)

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