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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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It was a surprise walking into Khirkee, because I did not expect to find this world tucked away right across a fully functional mall, a goliath of capitalist exclusionism. Somebody once told me that Delhi tends to neatly invisibilize poverty, to simply erase the tangibility of those who inhabit its fringes, and that day I was made even more aware of the marginalized spaces occupied by people who perhaps access the city as outsiders.


It’s funny because ‘refugee’ presupposes ‘refuge’, yet I have hardly seen the two operate on causality.

I wonder what space means to people who don’t have a place to call home, a geopolitical fountainhead of their individual histories. In how many ways can a person be made into an outsider? How does the outsider form a body of memory?

I asked Swati if running a phone recharge shop is intimidating.

I didn’t say it, but what I really meant was is it intimidating to be a woman and place yourself in a situation where you are consumed just as much as the products you are selling?

I didn’t say it but she understood anyway.

”It is intimidating on the bad days… but being a woman in Delhi has made me develop an exterior I am comfortable with… But yeah, people are curious because a woman, obviously from privilege, has opened a phone shop… I make a lot of eye contact and smile; I want spaces to be occupied by women. My location next to the chai shop allows that potential for women to come and hang around.”

Is intimidation intrinsically linked to the experience of being a woman? Jenny Offill tells us that living in a city is like flinching constantly. In my years in this seemingly unending city whose demographic changes almost every half hour, I sometimes feel that being a woman too is a constant flinch, an eternal hesitation. I have to constantly ask myself if the space I am occupying is mine to occupy. The sticker on the office window says “women have no free time”; free time is, after all, a manifestation of the privilege to own space, to be able to stand ten extra minutes on the street side after your tea is over, to loiter, like Swati wanted. Like I want. To simply exist and not have to flinch.

There are perhaps ways to understand this city that I haven’t come to realize yet. I have always accessed this place as an outsider, one foot constantly outside the door. I’ve been asked more than once how I like Delhi, and the answer is more or less the same- I don’t like it, but it’s like a bad habit I can’t get rid of. And that may have everything to do with the one foot I left outside the door. Maybe I don’t want to like this place because of its pulsating heat and volume and hostility. But then I went to Chandni Chowk with Liza and Chi, and I’m pretty sure I looked just as enraptured as they did.

How can I then dislike what I obviously don’t fully know?

A resident recently asked me what I hoped to get out of my time at Khoj, and I said “nothing material”, because it sounded poetic. I don’t know what I came here for, I wasn’t looking for one particular thing or person or experience. Khoj happened to me just the way Delhi happened to me- by sheer force of incidence.

So now I stand somewhere around a group of people who made me privy to the materiality of the process of creating art, the ground work with all its technicalities and visceral engagements, the labour of the process itself.

Art is a process, a constant becoming.

It is labour, isn’t that why Andrew rocks a lungi?

It is labour because it is exhaustion in its most complete form- emotional, psychological and physical- a perpetual hypersensitivity, hyperawareness, and the inability to be otherwise. Because artists don’t have any free time either. It’s a privilege I will probably never be able to recompense in my capacity as a twenty year old in a masters program. But maybe some day.

Who knows?

I don’t.