There were three rows of tin-roofed shacks, arranged irregularly but spaced apart. Small outlines of men, women and children were moving about. I stood for a while and watched them carry on their lives; it felt like observing a small society placed in a glass cage – an ethnographer’s dream, perhaps.
I was in the balcony of my sister’s apartment on the eighth floor of a high-rise building in Bangalore. In the distance, large campuses of high-tech companies dominated the view along with grey shapes of hollow structures under construction. Closer still, what initially appeared like empty, barren land revealed short columns of concrete sprouting from the ground. The city’s relentless push for growth was plainly visible.
But I was more interested in the patch of land next to the apartment. Here, one part was occupied by the basti – a colony inhabited by people working in the large building construction projects nearby. It had been setup recently – the tin roofs looked new – and was clearly a temporary arrangement: once the projects completed the shacks would be dismantled and moved elsewhere, next to yet another building under construction.
Yet, people down there seemed to have settled in a manner that gave little indication that their stay was provisional. Wires strung on bamboo poles brought electricity to the homes. A water tank had been constructed nearby, and this open tank served as the colony’s water source. Like animals in a jungle gravitating towards a water hole, people of the colony regularly walked the short distance to the tank.
A little away from the tank, a man sat washing his clothes.
The water from this spot flowed and collected in a stagnant pool a little away.
Near one of the shacks, a barber was at work.
In another open patch children were playing with mud. Next to them, a small girl was washing vessels while two others were writing on a slate.
In between the rows of shacks there was periodic activity. A man squatting on the ground was holding a plate and eating his morning meal, while a woman – probably his wife – sat nearby, tying her hair.
Behind, in another row, a man was hanging clothes on a line spanning the two rows.
Nearby, a lady poured water into an aluminum vessel.
Far away from the colony, at the edge of the empty plot, I saw a man squatting. There was a small pot of water next to him.
I stood there entranced, watching and photographing the people below. The view made me wonder if anyone had studied a small, closely-knit group of people from such a height. An ethnographer usually spends time living in the society she wishes to study, which enables her, through close observation of people and their interactions, to construct a detailed picture of how that society functions. From this height the intention would be different: she could, by looking at the “big picture” and capturing patterns or clusters of behavior, gather aspects that would not be immediately visible from within. For instance, the dynamics around the water tank seemed an interesting candidate for observation: who from which household came to collect water? How often, and at what times? What was the water used for? What would happen if the water supply was drastically reduced – how would the collection and usage behavior change?
If there were meaningful patterns here, they would lead to questions that could be answered by going into the colony and living there – so such observation from a height could serve as a precursor of a detailed study from within.
I had only a day in Bangalore, which left me less than half an hour to observe this microcosm after I discovered it in the morning. My sister couldn’t see the point in my excitement – she was tired of the construction happening all around and wished it would soon end. Perhaps, I thought, someone else in the apartment block had seen the basti and gotten excited enough to jot down the happenings down there. Someone who would discover early enough that she had a passion for anthropology, and would dedicate her first book to “the colony-dwellers who inspired me into the field of study of human cultures.”