Ananya Roy, City Requiem: Calcutta – Gender and the Politics of Poverty

Over the past 30 years, numerous forces have conspired to drive millions of people to cities across the developing world. The increased migration of peoples to Third World cities has resulted in the creation of slums, shanty towns, and squatter settlements. However, debate over the reasons for and the meaning of such developments emerged in the 1960s and 70s but seem particularly relevant today. With this in mind, Ananya Roy’s City Requiem Calcutta : Gender and the Politics of Poverty explores the gendered subjectivities of “distress migration” on female migrant workers through ethnography, public records, and and anthropological observation. Roy employs a gender analytic along with a highly theoretical approach that utilizes Antonio Gramsci, Micheal Foucault, and Habermas through Fraser’s “counterpublics”. City Requiem ‘s gendered analytic documents numerous themes regarding the landless migrants of Calcutta’s outskirts including the “feminization of work”, the negotiability of “informality”, the “double gendering” of settlement life, and the irony of Bengali communism.

As opportunities in the countryside remain desperate, increasing numbers of the poor migrate to the cities. With this new “distress migration” comes the proliferation of slums and squatter settlements. Despite the marginality ascribed to both forms of shelters, slum dwellers hold a slightly more secure position in a stratified South Asian society, “An obvious case is the difference between Calcutta’s slums and squatter settlements, the former with regularized rights to land, and the latter with tenuous and revocable claims to residence.” Roy notes the negotiability of the unmapped Calcutta landscape. This allows both the state and political parities to operate through a “negotiability”, that ensures the existence of squatter settlements to serve state/party interests. The state benefits from the accessible labor while the party utilizes the squatter presence for “political mobilization.” The shifting around of squatters to various areas around Calcutta illustrates this power dynamic, “the colonies represent a distinctive form of informal subdivisions, founded on the basis of quasi legal land rights where the party itself acts as developer, with unique negotiability vis-à-vis the state for infrastructure, and thus with the later possibility of both party and state capitalizing on the upgraded settlement through evictions of the poor.” Roy attempts to melt the urban rural divide noting that in her field work she discovered the interconnectedness of squatter settlements and the wider region, “each of my fieldwork sites was a node, an intersection of practices and exchanges that stretched across multiple institutional and physical spaces.” Access to land depended the negotiations of domestic lives. Political sponsorships and local politics generally reflected a masculinized discourse, harnessed often by unemployed men to justify their activities (for many “political work” revolves around drinking, smoking and playing cards.) In contrast, women found themselves subject to work from domestic service to foraging for firewood. Of course, this excludes what many characterize as their “second shift” which involves caring for children, maintaining some sense of family structure. Roy finds that the female networks of support often whither in the face of economic political realities of squatter settlements, though masculinized political systems fared only marginally better. Yet Roy acknowledges, “in urban areas, the negotiation of both de jure and de facto land rights remains a … male and masculinist enterprise.” Referring to this as “double gendering” , notes “that [it] inextricably links the feminization of livliehood to the masculinization of politics. By the masculinist idiom of political mobilization – one that valorizes male unemployment and feminizes women’s wage earning roles.” Ultimately, such formations maintain a “persistent poverty” that “must be understood as the knotting of family and regime, a congealing of gender and class hierarchies.”

If gender reveals power dynamics and the hegemonic structures individuals negotiate daily, Roy’s interaction with the commuter women accomplishes this task well. As mentioned, the “feminization of livliehood” emerges as a significant theme. Moreover, the bodies of women become stand in for nation. As Laura Briggs in Reproducing Empire or Amy Kaplan in The Anarchy of Empire illustrates, the discourse of motherhood creates space for women politically and socially, however, Roy also suggests that it might actually domesticate issues of “community involvement and development.”

The presence of commuter women on Bengal’s trains serves as a disruption of the gender and class hierarchies. The disruption of such hierarchies, “It is a wholly new and contingent positionality, different from the household, workplace, and political community. In fact, it is impossible to speak of even a community/commonality on these restless trains. The disruptions that occur at this moment of surplus, in the “presence of strangers” point to the unanticipated ways in which citizen’s construct cities, and possibly new meanings of citizenship.” Roy pushes further arguing that “the commuter women come to occupy the bourgeois spaces of normalized public, and they do so with a sense of entitlement and belonging.. ” Much like late nineteenth and early twentieth century American “factory girls”, commuter women endure repeated questioning of their sexual character and practices. Roy situates such women as parallels to the figures of African American women in earlier decades. Thus, their work and presence serves as a political act, though masculine discourses frequently attempt to dispute such inferences. In this way, “by emphasizing how the depoliticization of women’s work occurs on a daily basis through the dynamics of masuclinist patronage, my research shows that such domestications are negotiated through lived practices rather than imposed through the structures of reforms and agendas.” Here, Roy attempts to provide agency to commuter women’s plight such as their appropriation of trains for free transport refusing to pay. Similarly, Roy reveals ways in which despite their unequal circumstances, that squatters and migrants see their limited participation in “urban informality” as their place in an urban electorate whereas their previous existence in rural areas displayed a perceived lack of such agency.” One might suggest that this aspect of Roy’s work connects to U.S. historian and sociologists’ work on American public housing, most notably Sudhir Venkatesh who explored similar ideas of agency, unlikely support networks and regulations, and the feminization of poverty in American Project. Additionally, City Requiem illustrates spatial themes that Peter Marcuse and others have engaged in Globalizing Cities, Cities and Third World Development, and Of States and Cities, most notably the idea of historical contingency especially for former colonial metropolises.

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