Tag Archives: Pondicherry

Waiting for the Future

Call it what you will: an anecdotal and impressionist narrative, or a set of strung-together fieldnotes, collected over years of living and working with people across class lines (in my own home construction sites, in an NGO working in the space of education, in my locality with maids and workers and neighbors) suspended indefinitely in a life of participant observation. The following is a story of the ways in which the future frames us—in both senses of the word.

It is a week before the second spate of massive rains will flood Chennai city, causing the worst flooding the city has seen in 100 years. We are at Home Center on TTK Road in Alwarpet, one of the new home and lifestyle chains which feel much like a localized version of Bed, Bath, and Beyond—down to lighting and layout. We are with my parents and elderly uncle, who is fond of remarking on each instance he finds of facilities and services being “just like in a foreign country.” These days, there appear to be many such.

Back home in Pondicherry, a tiny little “modular kitchen” furnishing, appliance, and homeware showroom has recently opened up, directly across from a housing block, built thanks to the Integrated Housing and Slum Development project sanctioned under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) scheme. Neighborhoods like this one, off-center from the old heritage “white town,” are very mixed, with more expensive apartments and private homes tucked into unlikely nooks, adjoining slums, ‘low income’ government-built tenements, cow sheds, dhobi ghats (washing areas for laundry), and un-walled private plots by default used as open dumps. I’m walking past with a woman, Selvi, who works as a maid in a house nearby, and lives in the government quarters, as they’re known. We remark on the presence of the new kitchen store. “Do you think of going there to buy things?” I ask, somewhat disingenuously. She laughs. “Us? It’s only people like you who can go into shops like that.” I don’t bother to clarify that it’s not the kind of shop I would really think of visiting. Continue reading

An Anthropologist among Future Seekers

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

For a few years now, I’ve been working in the space of future imagining—seeking out trends and rationales by which to extrapolate them or use them as jumping-off points as provocations to business, taking inspiration from start-up tech’s drive to search out uncommon solutions to common problems, setting sights on far-off horizons, and generally learning to ask “what if” and wish “if I could..” with impunity.

At first, I found all this quite strange. Wasn’t it more important to be grounded in the present, and to tease out the histories that had produced our presents—and, at most, could produce our foreseeable futures? This is what I had trained myself to do all these years anyway, and what I seemed still to be training my students to do. Contextualizing, explaining cultural forms or dynamics, tracking the social lives of things—this was work much more rooted in the present, with a strong sense of the past that informed and birthed it, than in any future-oriented approach. Of course, such approaches weren’t by themselves anything new. In some form or other, they have been mainstays of disciplines like economics, finance, design and planning, or the environmental sciences, not to speak of political, literary, and religious imaginings—but, far as I could tell, not anthropology. We might have looked to such imaginings as great research material, but only insofar as it led us right back into the configurations of the present. I thought back to the responses of a good many of my colleagues to the Future Studies program we’d once had at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, the first of its kind at the time: the future isn’t here, so how on earth could you study it? (For that and other reasons, the program folded eventually and moved in a fashion to UH’s main campus under the charge of Peter Bishop. It exists still as a graduate program in “Foresight”).

Past-ness mattered and was core to the sort of analysis we routinely undertook. It was, it still is, as Appadurai has said, in the closing essay to a collection of already-published papers entitled The future as cultural fact, that “[i]n one way or another, anthropology remains preoccupied with the logic of reproduction, the force of custom, the dynamics of memory, the persistence of habitus, the glacial movement of the everyday, and the cunning of tradition in the social life of even the most modern movements and communities, such as those of scientists, refugees, migrants, evangelists, and movie icons” (285). Continue reading