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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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Khirkee Extension exists as the post-script to the urban village of Khirkee today, absorbing hordes of rural-urban migrants as well as international immigrants, just as the village took in refugees of the Partition sixty years ago. Against the backdrop of fading art on crumbling walls, migrant male workers dominate the street that Khoj is located on. At the same time, this public space is also contested and shared by young students, art visitors to Khoj or Gati, and several immigrants from Congo, Nigeria, Nepal, Somalia and Afghanistan, amongst others. Retail outlets along this street range from a barber’s hole in the wall to a tea-seller under a staircase to a typical chemist shop. The ubiquitous urban fixture, the phone shop is as prevalent as the kirana stores, and I can count as many as six of them just within the 50 metres walk from Khoj to the next lane further inside Khirkee Extension.

Apart from regular recharges, it is at these shops that most workers get their daily digital dose through songs, video clips and movies downloaded onto their memory cards. Their mobile phones provide them their daily source of entertainment, offering them a getaway from the cramped rooms that they have to share. The phone shopkeeper acts as the curator of media content in the community, providing the latest films and songs personalized for each customer. It is this digital hub that I have adopted as my medium to engage with the community, emulating the role of their media curator. My support system has been the existing network of the phone recharge guys who have been teaching me their trade over the last few weeks, convinced now that I may be strange but not a threat to their business – after learning that my shop will not sell what are called ‘sexy films’ or ‘blue films’. Moreover, being the first woman phone recharge shopkeeper in the area might just attract more women customers, with very few women in the community frequenting these shops today due to various societal reasons.

I’m sharing an electrician’s shop to run my phone shop, with him out most of the time for repairs within people’s houses. I’m amazed at the ease with which it is possible to set up a retail outlet in our cities, given the informal nature of our urban spaces and their mechanisms. The demand for phone recharges and media downloads is so high, that within minutes of setting up my shop on the first day, I started getting customers. Easier payment technologies such as flexi, Android apps, e-pins and net banking provide a profitable market for recharge retailers. The business of media downloads makes it even more lucrative to set up a phone recharge shop, requiring only the minimum infrastructure of a computer and an internet connection. Several of these local entrepreneurs can also be found offering other services from repairing phones or selling groceries to train ticket bookings and money transfer. With a simple poster announcing that ‘movies and songs are available here’ in Hindi, English and French, and an Airtel or Vodafone plans pinup, I began to exist as a shop as soon as the first customer walked in. The transience of the street struck me. It did not matter that I was not there a moment back and may not be there tomorrow. Much like several other shops that have opened and shut down over the last few months here. Much like the various residents of Khirkee who moved in and have left, and who are moving in and will leave. The Extension takes them all in just as it often pushes them out.

Moreover, being the first woman phone recharge shopkeeper in the area might just attract more women customers, with very few women in the community frequenting these shops today due to various societal reasons.

The view from within my tiny shop is my window into Khirkee – characters moving across a stage set of the urban street. There is a steady stream of people going either way or up and down their houses, sellers of several wares, cycles, bikes and sometimes even huge trucks carrying construction debris, their windows like glassy monster eyes peering into my phone shop. I have set up a barter system at my shop. I provide what my customer wants to listen to or watch in exchange for what’s on his memory card. By collecting this content on my hard drive, I am creating a digital library of what the community is listening to or watching – from the latest Bollywood films to ‘Madrasi’ films dubbed in Hindi, from Bhojpuri and Bangla songs to ‘bewafa’ and ‘bhakti’ songs. Already this library has created an exchange between different memory cards, as I pass on the English songs from a college youth to a Bihari laborer, which typically might be limited to smaller social circles through Bluetooth and more recently, apps such as SHAREit.

What I am interested in next is a cultural mash-up through different media – Bhojpuri with hip-hop music, Nollywood movies with Bollywood films. Apart from the Bihari migrants, other customers from different backgrounds and nationalities have started trickling in – for recharges and inquiries ranging from what this PM endorsed Jio is all about to how to block ATM cards. While I am learning about what they like to watch and listen to, I am also trying to understand how to share that with the library wherein the entire community co-creates its own media content, to be able to eventually play it. Apart from the media exchange, for me, the shop is also a space for conversations over the counter, for an exchange of stories. I sit in the shop as a collector of stories, ready to pickle them into jars, stories of here and stories of home. With each day that I wipe the memory cards clean to add new content, I hear and learn of the memories that remained, that have been carried and those that will always stay.

Written by Swati Janu – Artist at Residency ‘Coriolis Effect: Migration and Memory’