Selfing the City: Single Women Migrants and Their Lives in Kolkata- Review

Name of book: Selfing the City: Single women migrants and their lives in Kolkata

Author: Ipshita Chanda

Published by: Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd

No. of pages: 333

Price: Rs.995/-

This book is about women. Thirty years ago the author decided that she could not be confined by life in a small town and came to Calcutta to make a life of her own. Sometime during 2004-2007, she decided to conduct a survey of other women who had embarked on a similar journey. In so doing she was able to map the way gender is experienced over time. In fact, hers was ‘the first wave of feminism.’ Today it seems that the rights gained from this movement have become so naturalized that most middle-class women do not realize these were struggled for. The age of respondents is 18-21 and 65-67 and through them, the author attempts to enter a world of concrete people and events situated in particular times and places. The women share the ‘outsider’ status so their narratives allow us to understand the negotiations between feminism as an ideology and practice, and the world where women lives are lived. The question therefore arises does the appropriated feminist rhetoric of equality and emancipation mean that women’s lives and their perceptions have benefited from feminist struggles.

The community studied comprises the women who have come alone to the city from outside, in order to take up opportunities in the public sphere that the city offers. Though cities are seen as bigger opportunities, the society within which these opportunities are located demands a lot of negotiation. “Selfing’ is the term used for that process and understanding this process through the women’s own words is the primary aim of the book.  The questionnaire was designed to encourage reflection and collect narrative. The written responses allowed respondents time and space to be alone – as one 28-year-old executive from Ranchi says ‘if everyone is as frank you may learn a lot. Do such surveys have any practical aim or are they empty academic exercise?

The number of women interviewed was 300, all except 4 were single for the duration. 230 filled in questionnaires, others have participated in group discussions, a handful have done both and another group of women were instrumental in circulating the survey sheets and conducting the discussion because they were single women from ‘outside’ living in the city and familiar with the networks through which other such women could be contacted and persuaded to respond in person or through the questionnaire. From the responses it can be inferred that the city is not uniformly giving rise to a similarity of feeling; rather it is an accumulation of several situational spaces relating to work, home, leisure etc.

The author sits easily with the theoretical as in ‘poetics of space’ which focuses especially on the personal, emotional response to buildings. It leads to consideration of such spatial types as the attic, the cellar, drawers etc. Bachelard has been known to urge architects to base their work on the experience it will engender rather than abstract rationales.

Judith Butler argues that gender identity is constructed through acts. She acknowledges a possibility that a person has the ability to performative acts that are sufficient to create another gender identity but restrictions also exist. The social expectations and taboos are in place to punish anyone who expresses acts that deviate from the assigned gender space. Due to the constraints the possibilities for expression of gender are basically confined within the historical conventions in existence. Although these performative acts appear as though they are personal choice they are deeply intertwined within the cultural rules and proscriptions which create a shared social structure. And whether the women who grow out of the sediment and seek styles of their own, like those in the study, by embarking on the adventure called city, manage to change these ‘social scripts’. The author refers to Lefebre, best known for pioneering the critique on everyday life, for introducing the concept of the right to the city and production of social space. Feminist intervention in the discipline of geography emphasize the interaction between gender and place which produce a ‘lived experience’ in space.

This book depends upon the narratives of the lives of single, middle-class women who have moved to a specific city from small towns, suburbs, villages. Work is central to the literature of migrancy and emerges as an important aspect of their lives but it is the process of self-construction in relation to the city that forms the main focus of this book. To be somewhere;  being is a spatial experience. A lot of respondents recalled being conscious of the fact that they had no one to fall back upon, a threatening and dreadful situation. But most of them also felt that this was therapeutic; it taught them the value of themselves as individuals. In response to the question ‘what has Kolkata given you that could not have got anywhere else? ‘It has given me myself to celebrate and calibrate in memory’.

Walking in the city is a form of appropriation and introduction. What is so special about this mundane activity of walking? It is learning the geography of the city and is the first step towards finding ones locus within it. Walking is seen here as an act that simultaneously provides the city and the citizen. Long walks with close friends are always entertaining and even profound. ‘I buy a lot of books from pavements, so browsing for books is another entertainment.’ The emphasis placed on voice and consequently the breaking of silence as an emancipatory process has long been central. An MNC executive’s first ‘public speaking’ experience is asking the bus conductor for her ticket, in front of so many strangers. We may further note that she too felt speaking up earlier would have earned her the respect due from friends and family members.

City life involves a greater degree of interdependence. Respondents identified friendship as crucial to the process of dwelling in an alien city. The author considers the nature of friendship in general. She quotes Georg Simmer ‘sociability is a playful form of socialization where the concrete motives, bound up with life’s goals fall away, making sociability an end in itself.’ Taken literally the friendships that women who come to the city from outside forge with one another cannot be classified as sociability. Nor are these what may be designated as ‘instrumental’, which have a particular goal in view and are limited by the goal.

All in all this is a fascinating book. When worldly occurrences in everyday life are underpinned with relevant theoretical aspects, we enter a myriad world of profound learning. I salute the author for bringing a rare subject to life in all its glory. It is a difficult book to read but the rewards are genuine and lasting.

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