Narrow lanes and deeper histories: Reflections from KG Halli
June 20 2022
Omkar Nadh Pattela
గల్లీ చిన్నది… గరీబోళ్ల కథ పెద్దది
(Galli Chinnadi… Gareebolla Katha Peddadhi)
వాళ్ళున్న ఇండ్లు… కిళ్ళీ కొట్ల కన్నా సిన్నగున్నవి
(Vaallunna Indlu… Killi Kotla Kanna Sinnagunnavi)
Indian cities are witnessing an increasing burden of non-communicable diseases and are posing significant health challenges particularly to the lower-income groups given the necessity to accommodate chronic care into their everyday lives. To understand this process of normalization of chronic care and the challenges thereof, as a part of the PEAK Urban Health project carried out at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), we undertook an ethnographic enquiry in Kadugondana Halli (KG Halli)-a low income settlement in India’s mega city Banagalore. Three months of fieldwork that lasted from January to March 2021 before the disruption due to the Covid second wave provided different perceptions of health from this neighborhood, that are shaped by a multitude of social factors. During this process, I also came across several instances and numerous conversations -sometimes not directly related to the object of enquiry- sometimes reinforcing my already established notions and at other times challenging some of my earlier assumptions. This ethnographic experience entailed negotiations with the everyday dominant discourse on some of the important social concerns, including accessibility to basic human needs, patriarchy and inequality revealing their not so neat operations which is often overlooked. What became clearer with every conversation was that the everyday manifestation of poverty, inequality and patriarchy is a complex process that is entwined with the everyday life.
While doing fieldwork, the lines of the Telugu poet Goreti Venkanna, which this piece started out with, reverberated in my head and resisted fading out for days after my fieldwork had apparently ended. Venkanna writes, “the lanes are narrow, but the story of the poor residing in this neighbourhood is deep [and] the homes of these people are tinier than a paan dhaabba1”. Every street I wandered and every home I visited for the next few months introduced me to people in this neighbourhood who had a story to tell me, and those stories were indeed profound. In what follows, I share some of these instances and several vignettes that reflect my subjective experience in trying to understand the place of KG Halli. These vignettes are short glimpses into the thoughts and conversations that constituted my fieldwork. They are written with a view to be fleeting scenes, notes from the field that become marginalia as I look for patterns, narratives, and the “big story” of health, poverty and inequality in the city of Bengaluru. These marginalia, I put forth, contain within them stories that sometimes go nowhere at all – an experience every ethnographer can, perhaps, relate to.
During the early days of field work, my colleague and I were wandering around the streets of KG Halli to get a hang of the neighbourhood. We asked people about what “being healthy” means to them as part of a study related to the impact of chronic conditions on the livelihoods of people residing in low income settlements. At around 11’o clock in the morning, I came across a man in his late fifties, accompanied by his drunk friend. They sat in front of what is called the Corporation Quarters, which was built by the local government as part of the Slum Development Program. I went and engaged with the drunk friend first- not because I knew he was drunk- and initiated a conversation in my not so fluent Kannada with this man, whose first language was Tamil. After generations of co-existence by culturally diverse groups, almost everyone in the neighbourhood speaks at least three different languages- Urdu, Tamil and Kannada.2
As the conversation unfolded, I realised that the other (sober) man spoke Telugu, my first language. When I engaged him, he started talking to me about his whereabouts, their migration story, about his family- his children, grandchildren-, his health condition and why he gave up smoking bidis3 after he vomited blood and how his family ended up residing in the Corporation Quarters as a part of the resettlement process that ensued after an evacuation exercise carried out by the local government in one of the elite localities of the Bangalore city. From that day on, every single day I went around KG Halli, I would see this man sitting in the same place, usually alone. A few times, I also saw him talking to himself. Every morning I passed by, I raised my hand to wish him a good day, and he raised his back. But, what I kept asking myself every time I saw him was a question that had little to do with public health. What I kept coming back to was: how does someone sit at the same place every day, all by himself?
We went to visit the primary health care centre in DJ Halli, another low-income neighbourhood adjoining KG Halli. On a footpath opposite the hospital, an aged man named Satya was selling some fruit. His customers are hospital patients and kids who attend the nearby public school. My colleague and I went to this man and started engaging him in conversation to understand what being healthy meant to him. First, we conversed with him about his whereabouts and life history. Satya told us he was a part of a local dance troop that performs the traditional art of “Keelu Gurra,” including on international stages like Paris. With the art form becoming obsolete, Satya became a fruit seller.
I noticed two events this day, while waiting for our other team members. I saw a young boy, probably 10 years old, riding an electric bike with a few other kids running behind him. In a month-and-a-half, I had never seen an electric bike here, and it surprised me. These bikes are generally only accessible in other (core) parts (Caldeira, 2016) of the city that have specific parking points. It was also surprising to notice how this kid was using this bike. He was riding it not using its technological features but rather by dragging his feet over the frictional force. A few other kids ran behind pushing him. Unable to withhold my curiosity, I went to this kid and asked him, where can I get something like this? The kid told me that “mera bhai ne diya” (my brother gave it to me). The bike was part of a “technology-driven mobility platform” firm avowedly guided by three principles- “accessibility, availability, affordability,” and was commonly hired. How did it appear in this neighbourhood? I do not know. But, seeing this young boy ride – or drag – this bike along complicated my understanding of what exactly accessibility, availability and affordability can mean.
As the kids played with the electric bike and I struggled to understand its presence in the neighbourhood, I noticed an old lady named Fatima come outside her home and sit quietly on a bunch of rocks to my left. I knew Fatima from when I visited her home for an interview a few days earlier. Fatima resides along with her elder daughter in a crowded room divided into a kitchen, bedroom and a washroom. Fatima, now 66 years old, was married at 11 but lost her husband 35 years ago. They had three children- one daughter and two sons. After the loss of her husband, Fatima raised her children doing menial jobs such as washing clothes and dishes in homes and, occasionally, at weddings. Five years ago, Fatima had been diagnosed with diabetes and hypertension when her “family doctor” from the “basti” whom she used to visit to get injections for her knee pain suggested she get tested for diabetes and hypertension from the nearby government hospital. Unable to push her body any further, Fatima stopped working, becoming dependent on her unmarried elder daughter, who returned from Saudi Arabia. Fatima was worried about her daughter’s marriage, and hopes that it takes place before her she passes away. Fatima also complained that both her sons whom she raised with her hard work as a single mother do not pay her enough attention. On this Friday, when I noticed Fatima walking out of her house and sitting quietly on a side, we went to greet her and inquire about her wellbeing. A few minutes later, I noticed a middle-aged man approach Fatima after completing his prayers from the nearby Masjid to offer her alms. Fatima received these alms, blessed this man and went back inside her home, leaving me with my thoughts about the bike.
We were going for follow-up interviews. On the way we met a young girl named Sara, who was probably around 10-11 years old. One of my colleagues asked Sara why she wasn’t at school that particular day. Sara responded saying that she had a fight in the school the previous day where some of her school friends were heckling the RCB (Royal Challengers Bangalore) team, a prominent cricket team in the Indian Premier League. Talking to Sara, I recalled the conversation we had with Ravi, Sara’s father, who was diagnosed with hypertension and is partially paralysed. That day as we spoke with Ravi inside his home, Sara was playing cricket with other kids in the neighbourhood. Sara’s mother was working, impelled by her husband’s health condition which left him unable to be the family’s bread winner. From our conversation with Ravi we learned he came from a family of barbers- traditionally, a caste occupation. After migrating to Bangalore from a village 60 kms away, Ravi started working at a men’s salon and was aspiring to start his own business one day. Ravi did start his own business along with a friend by borrowing an amount of five lakh rupees (nearly 6700 USD) with interest. Ravi said that a few years later, “I got deceived by my friend and I could no longer repay the loans”. Under such circumstances, Ravi had a stroke, and his left arm was paralysed. While undergoing treatment for his paralysis, Ravi was diagnosed with hypertension. With Ravi unable to earn anymore, his wife took the responsibility of the family and started working as a household help. Prior to this diagnosis, Ravi was the sole income earner of the family and his wife only did household chores. When asked Ravi, if he is okay with his wife earning, Ravi responded, “what other choice is left?”
Day 17 and 23
KG Halli introduced me to two single women Sheetal and Veena. Sheetal practices Islam and is married as a second wife and Veena belongs to Dalit community and had lost her husband a few years back. One pattern I noticed during my fieldwork was granddaughters growing up in their grandparents’ home, helping them with household chores. While Sheetal does not have any children, Veena had a similar living arrangement. Sheetal grew up in a family of nine children- three brothers and six sisters- and lost her father when she was two years old. The family migrated from the rural part of Tamil Nadu to Bangalore in search of a sustainable livelihood on the advice of one of her elder sister who was already living in Bangalore after her marriage when Sheetal was 4 years old. When Sheetal was 13 years old, she started working in a shoe factory to help her family economically. Recalling her initial days of working in the factory as a child, Sheetal says, “choti hai karke nahi liye unlog. Burkha daalke gayi. Baad liye.” [ They didn’t take me for work because I was a child. Then I wore a burkha and went and I was accepted]. At 24, Sheetal was married as a second wife to a family acquaintance who later went on to marry another woman without informing Sheetal. When Sheetal was asked how she felt when she knew it, she responded saying, “Pata chala toh…uski paalne ki himmat hai, kar liye. Main udhar se ki naara hogayi. Jao. Udhar hi raho bola”. [After I knew it…[I felt] he has the means to handle, so he did. I became angry after that and told him to go and stay with the other woman]. After this incident, a few years later, on the advice of a friend who previously worked in Saudi Arabia, and given the low earning potential here, Sheetal left to Saudi Arabia to work for a family as household help. Summing up her experience, Sheetal says, “payment milta hai par azaadi ((freedom) toh nahi milti na” [I earned better money but had no freedom]. When asked Sheetal what is the azaadi that she is referring to, she says, “Bahar nahi bhejte akele. Family ke saath hi aate jaate” [They didn’t send us outside alone. I could only go if the owner’s family took me along]. I wonder what actually changed in Sheetal’s life from her early childhood when she migrated to Bangalore. At one point in our conversation, when I asked Sheetal if she explored any Bangalore when they initially migrated here, she responded, “Humare ghar mein bahar sab nahi bhejte na. Ghar pe hi rehne ka. Humara ammi bhi nahi jaati thi bahar” [ In our homes, they didn’t send us outside. We had to stay inside the home itself. My mother also never used to go out.]
Veena’s story is similar. Her family also migrated from rural Tamil Nadu to Bangalore in search of livelihood and finally settled down in KG Halli. Neither Sheetal nor Veena had any kind of formal education, and both grew up in large families with more than nine children. Veena was the oldest of 14 children. Like Sheetal, who started working in a shoe factory at the age of 13, Veena began working when she was a child to support her family. Veena used to work along with her parents in what she calls “lakdi ki taal” (a wood store) along with taking care of her younger siblings. Describing their living condition while growing up, Veena says that their family of 14 people resided in a small “jhopdi” (hut) provided by their employer and in the store house made to protect the wood from rain “bachche log udhar sote the”[kids used to sleep there].
Sheetal and Veena also had similar weddings. While Sheetal was married after attaining the legal age, Veena was married when she was 14 years old to a man who was working in the same “lakdi ka taal”. Describing her wedding, Veena says, “Devasthan ko bulake gaye. Udhar taali bandheya. Woh peela dori bandhiya. Humareko woh shaadi karko bhi maloom nahi [They took me to a temple and performed the ritual. I did not even know that it was a wedding]. Soon after her she got married, Veena had three children in three consecutive years by the age of 17. Veena recalls that the doctor who conducted her delivery also performed a tubectomy expressing concern about her age. She adds, “woh doctor bhi mera saat diya”[That doctor also helped me]. Six years back, Veena lost her husband in an accident and a year later she was diagnosed with hypertension when she fell unconscious on her way back from work. She now resides with her granddaughter and daughter who returned to KG Halli after losing her husband in a quarrel in the village. Currently, Veena’s daughter takes care of the family economically by working as household help and her nine-year old daughter helps her grandmother with the household chores. Veena says that she is a little disappointed that her granddaughter does not take part in household chores as she expects, which causes her tension. She believes, “Ab sikhayenge nahi to yeh bachcha log ko unko zindagi mein kaisa? Mereko utna taqleef hua na usko nahi aana”. [If I don’t teach her now, how will she manage later in her life? She should not face the hardships that I had to].
Ethnographic engagement with KG Halli introduced me to the place and its people and stories that ran deeper than its narrow lanes and tiny homes. The vignettes discussed here inform that the everyday health experience of people is determined by a multitude of social factors. These narratives also negate any simplistic understanding of some of the important social concerns and the process of their reproduction. For instance, I really do not know why the old man sits in front of the Corporation Quarters every day religiously. Lack of decent housing facilities while may be a plausible reason, I wondered, what if there’s more? Similarly, the story of electric bike presented a form of “access” that is in sharp contrast to how Fatima was meeting some of her subsistence needs through religious solidarity, getting me think about the extent of social relevance of each of these different forms of “access”. Likewise, Sara’s school fight over cricket and her father’s ideas about women working outside the home seemed not exactly fitting into the often neat descriptions of patriarchy in the dominant discourse. The social reproduction of intergenerational inequality in Sheetal’s life, her unattained “Azaadi” and Veena’s concern for her grand-daughter makes me wonder, what sustains this reproduction and what does it take to break it?
All names used are changed to maintain the anonymity of the participants.
Sincere thanks to all the respondents from KG Halli who warmly welcomed me to their homes and shared their stories. Thanks to Gautam Bhan for reading this and suggesting improvements. Thanks also to my colleagues Meera, Nilanjaan, Sonam and Vignesh. This work was completed with support from the PEAK Urban programme, funded by UKRI’s Global Challenge Research Fund, Grant Ref: ES/P011055/1.
Bhojani, U., Thriveni, B., Devadasan, R., Munegowda, C., Devadasan, N., Kolsteren, P., & Criel, B. (2012). Out-of-pocket healthcare payments on chronic conditions impoverish urban poor in Bangalore, India. BMC Public Health, 12(990), 1-13.
Caldeira, T. P. (2016). Peripheral urbanization: Autoconstruction, transversal logics, and politics in cities of the global south. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 35(1), 3-20.
 Paan dhabbas are typical Indian street outlets that sell tobacco products.
 The demography of KG Halli resembles spatial segregation in Bangalore city. The neighbourhood is 60% Muslim and has many lower caste groups, including migrants from the nearby state of Tamil Nadu (Bhojani et al, 2012).
 Cheap tobacco product.
Dr. Omkar Nadh Pattela is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) Bangalore, India. His doctoral research is recently out as a book titled ‘Medical biotechnology innovation in India: A critical analysis’ from Routledge.
Twitter handle: omkarpattela