Saturday, July 08, 2006
In April, I was invited by the Norwegian magazine VerdensmagasinetX (The World Magazine X) to contribute an article for their 2 /2006 issue. That occasioned a reflection on my activist vocation.
In 1983, as a student in London, I felt a strong calling to return to my country, India, and devote myself to helping to improve the quality of life of the hundreds of millions of my fellow-citizens whose lives were mired in poverty, illiteracy, ill-health and indignity.
Though well educated, I felt completely ignorant about the real world I lived in. From London I could also see the rest of the world, the Third World, and my own country India. Why are people in my country poor? And how and why was the western world so affluent? What is this world? What happens? How? Why?
I wanted good answers to all such questions. I wanted to be able to see through all that was happening around me. I lived in an international students’ hostel in the heart of London, with students and visitors from all over the world. The city of London offered myriad resources and opportunities which simply overwhelmed me. I began to educate myself: an immense amount of study and reading, films, theatre, television, thinking, discussions, friendships ...
As an Indian living in London in the early 80s, I became radicalised, I became an “activist” by temperament, and an “intellectual” being. And most of all I yearned for “action”, to do something direct, concrete, in a specific place, with, for and on behalf of other people, and especially the poor.
I felt that with all the education and the privileges I had received, I would certainly be able to obtain the modest means I would need for my own sustenance. But what mattered more was the work, and doing this effectively. That too would require resources and money, and I thought about how that could be obtained. Implicitly, at this very beginning of my working life, I had once and for all discarded the concern with personal monetary earning, success and enrichment. My greed, my passion, was the successful overcoming of poverty and backwardness. I wanted to do this for myself, see it for myself, and nothing else. This was the most important thing to do in life as far as I could see, and this required all of one’s intelligence, vigour and purpose.
I returned to Calcutta in 1984, the same city I had grown up in, but now I was no longer my former self; I was a new person, with a new awareness, worldview, perception, sensitivities, concerns, interests. I learnt from a friend about an organisation called Unnayan which was involved in work that I might find of relevance, and so I went there to enquire.
At Unnayan, I met Jai Sen, an architect-planner, the founder and moving force of the organisation, who told me something about Unnayan’s work with the city’s labouring poor and with squatter and refugee communities. They were involved right then in a major initiative of organising squatter communities across Calcutta against forced evictions by the govt., and to seek meaningful solutions to their housing needs.
Thus began my association with Unnayan - something that was to define my life. I was initiated into an activist engagement with the lot of the wretched of the city of Calcutta, which continues even today. I am grateful to Jai Sen, for initiating me into social action for Calcutta’s labouring poor.
In 1990, I wrote an essay about the development of my thinking about human rights, from my student days and through working with squatters in Calcutta. This was published in the IFDA Dossier.