Precarity against Heroic Virility: Ramkumar Chetankranti’s Veerta Par Vichlit

On October 2, 2017 by admin

Veerta Par Vichlit, cover

 

Prasanta Chakravarty

 

“पावर में एक कमी थी, तन्हाई से डरती थी”

~ आर. चेतनक्रांति

(There was but one lack in power, despondency terrified it)

~ R. Chetankranti

 

“Who will say, and in which language, the distance between two bodies?”

~Fernand Deligny

 

Contemporary forms of statelessness, homelessness and destitution under unequal political conditions mean encountering new ways of social-existential vulnerability in daily living. The concept of political precariousness—sometimes called precarity— especially in contemporary settings, involves instability, lack of livelihood protection, insecurity and social or economic vulnerability or some combination of these factors. The pervasiveness of precarity is coterminous to the rise of the powerful fascist forces which have spawned across the world, forces which are able to sell the claim that they will be able to address and mitigate such economic and political inequality with greater efficacy than the previous regimes. Their violent and masculinist ways are supposed to take whole nations into a new era of civilizational self-realization. Given such heroic and grandiose right-wing claims, what kind of realities are we actually witnessing at the ground level in a country like India, especially in the urban and semi-urban centres, where labour is radically being informalized and all forms of collective bargaining thwarted? Who are the teeming multitudes in our towns and cities now? What kind of conditions are they arriving from and what are their expectations and ideas of success in a virile, developing nation? What new biological life-forms and relations might develop in the midst of such precarious social existence?

On the other hand, to be precarious also denotes an ontological condition. It constitutes a primary form of reciprocal vulnerability to and with our closest interlocutors—lovers and comrades, childhood friends and colleagues—relations from which we cannot will away without ceasing to be creatures of feeling and responsibility. Relational forms of precariousness—ineradicable fruits of human dependency— in fact, may well be the precursor to physical and social precarity or at least may be radically intertwined with the latter.

Ramkumar Chetankranti’s long awaited second collection of poems—Veerta Par Vichlit, manages to do something quite incredible: collectively the poems are able to connect and combine our  intimate dilemmas and existential vulnerability with a radical critique of the political, conspiratorial and grandiloquent configurations of right-wing masculinity. The latter, by means of intensifying new ways of social disquiet (instead of mitigating), hasten and nurture a kind of pallid and suffused social pathos all around us. This social pathos and anguish, in turn, play back into the hesitations of our inmost relations. This is where poetry can address our current social and material existence. In other words, Chetankranti’s poetic sensibility underscores the scars and bruises of our heightened, harried living —a kind of living that runs the risk of being assessed by history as a colossal endeavour in human hubris and futility.

 

The Boys of Seelampur Have Turned Patriotic

There is this mould. The boys of Seelampur (virtually a human scrapyard teeming with life) used to be hungry and unemployed in the days of yore. Disgruntled: with home, family, society and country. There was no blueprint for life. So, they would yawn and take to All India Radio, with nary a clue about whom or what the radio was babbling. School text-books seemed alien and distant. Teachers harrying. The studious ones, dazzling like fire-crackers in the mohalla, would be the boys’ target in every game they played. Education was high idealism—at best a means to bag a government job, a feat that the boys would not dream of ordinarily. Education, if any, was a default mechanism. Evenings would be spent watching feature films at the neighbour’s. And a huge door of fantasy would beckon—which they would bolt and unbolt for years.  And then:
फिर वह अंततः जब खुला

और नब्बे का दशक

मुहावरा बनने से पहले

चार सौ साल पुरानी

एक मस्जिद की  धूल

हवाओं को सौंप कर

खिड़कियां खोलने में जुटा

वे अपने अंधेरों से

ऊब चुके थे

 

फिर रोशनी हुई

सब तरफ़ उजाला

सब साफ़ दिखने लगा

यह भी की जिन स्वार्थों को बल्लियों पर टांगकर

दुर्लभ कर दिया गया था

सबके लिए प्राप्य थे

जिन्हे धर्मग्रन्थ त्याज्य कहा करते थे

वे भी

 

And then, when that door finally opened

The Nineties

Before it turned into an idiom

Got engaged in

Unbolting its windows

After broadcasting

The dust particles

Of a four hundred years old mosque

To the winds

 

The boys got bored

With their darkness

 

And then there was light

Every direction beamed

Everything was limpid

Those desires which were

Tied and nailed to the rafters

And made rare

Were available to everyone

Even the ones

Prohibited in the Scriptures

 

It was the magic carpet moment for the boys of Seelampur. The horizon felt closer. The soul would unchain itself and the spine, once again, appeared upright. Every new day triumphantly announced that money was not such a bad thing after all. Love was not a sin. Nor was masturbation. Truth was beckoning. And truth was not scary.

But the boys still felt ungendered and the mobile phone was not sufficient a toy to impart a sense of power.  They wanted a sip of the nectar of virile masculinity that runs the world. In anger and retribution they left many a judge and minister, doctor and engineer rotting in the manholes.

वीर्य और रक्त की बाल्टियां कन्धों पर टाँगे

वे रात रात भर घूमते

कामनाओं की तस्वीरें बनाते

बसों, रेलों, पेशाबघरों में

और पूलों के निचे

लिख लिख छोड़ते रहे अपने सन्देश

जिनका कोई जवाब उन तक नहीं पंहुचा

Dangling buckets of semen and blood over their shoulders
Night after night they would patrol
Sketching landscapes of desire
On buses, trains, pissing stations
Scribbling down their message underneath flyovers
The reply to which they never ever received

 

The older language of sacrifice made no sense anymore. Power and machismo ruled. Motorcycles: the answer!  (“On motorcycles, up the road, they come:/Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys ,/Until the distance throws them forth, their hum/Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.”) All dreams, every colour, was the colour of power. For once, their bodies and souls could be exhibited, bared to the world. That was the lure. Their loyalty and single-mindedness could be displayed. That feeling was heady. There was a sense of recognition in the air for the boys. All doubts evaporated. And so it was money and virility, enveloped and gift- wrapped within a daring, balloon-like nation. This would absorb all sorrows and precarity. Did that actually happen or not could be the question—a question that the anthology asks. But it was clear that in this manner the boys of Seelampur turned into men. Or they thought so. The only mantra now was to maim and destroy whoever would let the magic door shut on them again:

 

और इस मन्त्र को जपते हुए बैठ गए

एक आँख बंद कर समाधि में

और दूसरी आँख खोलकर

तैयारी में

 

And chanting this mantra they settled down

One eye—shut in samadhi

The other, open

In getting primed

 

A Forlorn Commitment

This is the backdrop, so to say, on which is mounted poem after poem. On which is mounted also a forlorn commitment to a nation whose fate is hanging in  balance. The readings of the precarious situation of our times come first from trying to patiently and intuitively understand the multitude, diagnosing its innards and then powerfully rejecting the populist rage and anger that is brewing in the air. All misplaced notions of veerta ought to be rejected, not because rage against the earlier ruling class itself is unfounded, but since the populist rage, which does have a context, is unable to fathom something larger: that precarity is a generalized state of existence. A life built on any radical idea of security is brutish, retributive and petty. The populist rage is not being creaturely, not being poetic enough. Instead, the channels have been exploitative. One more time in history people’s hopes and sorrows are being negotiated over a faux wager. Most significantly, the patriotic boys of Seelampur fail to realize that they were never unique in their dark, alienated existence—within and in public. They are unable to appreciate that they are engaged in shadow boxing with themselves. For this realization to dawn, they do not need intelligence. All they need is to summon unadorned empathy—a sense of the equitability that precarity breeds as a human condition. As of now, that kind of sensibility is missing among the people of this nation.

Hence, the poet’s ironical retort to the terror unleashed by the patriotic brigade: all right, he says—you have been able to scare us with your bandanas, bugles and war-cries. Suppose you kill us all. All right, we vacate the place for you all. Fine. Thereafter? History would be ‘corrected.’ The Constitution altered.  Office goers and trains and vendors would begin to arrive on time. All counterfeit banknotes recovered. Anthems resonate.  Fine. Then? Shall we now scald ourselves? Who constitutes the ‘we’ in this resurgent nation? And what about the rest of the universe? As you dream of mobility, are you being sufficiently attentive to your own world, which is actually our collective world, the world of the abject, and the nether side of heroism?

जिनके ह्रदय में ताप है, वे सब?

जिनके लिए दिल भी दुखाना पाप है, वे सब?

मस्तिष्क जिनका है विकल, वे सब?

जो चाहते है और उजले आज-कल, वे सब?

 

जो सोचते हर गली पहुंचे धरा के छोर तक, वे भी ?

जिनके लिए भाई-बहन है शेर-बिल्ली-मोर तक, वे भी?

जो चाहते हैं हाथ हर ख़ुद उठ के पहुंचे कौर तक, वे भी ?

जो एक रोटी श्याम को खा कुलबुलायें भोर तक, वे भी?

 

The warm-hearted, what about them?
Those who count breaking hearts to be a sin, them?
Those whose minds are unhinged, them?
Those who wish to glow today, them?

Those who want every lane to traipse till the edge of this world, them too?
Those who rate tigers-cats-peacocks as brethren, them too?
Those who want their own hands to pick up morsels, them too?
Those having a single evening’s roti, wriggling till dawn, them too?

 

This is a remarkable gallery, one that emphatically blurs all distinction between social and ontological precariousness by reminding the populist-valiant brigade of a large number of excluded population who are simply engaged in a far more naïve and basic existence. How does Chetankranti mark this other group of actors? The first set of people exudes warmth in their daily transaction, a rare commodity. They have still not frosted their souls. This is followed by another set of sensitive underdogs who have an almost religious sense of respecting the demands and deeds of their loved ones. Breaking hearts would be akin to committing a grievous sin to this class of people. The third group comprises those who are inbound, aberrant and unhinged, oblivious to even their own state of precariousness. And finally, a set of people who harbor no bile against anyone, but simply wish to partake in happiness. So, this pack of four comprises an affective lot, for whom happiness is not a material and utilitarian concern at all. They work by another set of variables which cannot be easily calibrated and therefore they are possibly the most vulnerable in personal relationships and public transactions. What would the patriotic brigade do with this lot who comes from the same fraternity from which the boys come from, the same polity that we call India?

In the following stanza we have people who want their mohalla and alleyways to dazzle or those who reserve a deep love for other animal creatures by keeping away from petty human desires. And then there is the truly abject lot: those who may not have the means to earn two square meals, but who would still want to toil and earn those same scraps. The precarious in our towns and cities are toiling every moment for a toehold, engaging in hard labour, merely to survive. They have neither the time nor the inclination to play the game of valiance. Have the champions of lustre considered these extreme groups of precariats—honest, hard working people who have no bargaining power whatsoever? Is this oblivion a thought out, mercenary act on the part of the hard nationalists or have they truly trained themselves to be oblivious to the layers of darkness that beset our galis and mohallas?

The poems operate by constantly trying to test the new structures and indices of robust development vis a vis the question of aspiration: of the migrant, the charlatan, the itinerant in the city. Readers hover around the mindscapes and life-worlds of minor professionals and hopeful urban settlers: mechanics, repairmen, small craftsmen, drifters, school teachers, police constables, cobblers. Even more than hunger, correct decision making capacity will make or mar a career in the city for the precariat. Decision making is a fearful prospect. The precariat does not and cannot make schemes for his life. He is part of schemes—like chairs and rifles and money. The poet is relentlessly preoccupied with the one who is left out and left behind:

 

वे सामान्यतः असफल, अगोचर और द्वन्दग्रस्त

न उनका कोई अंग असमर्थ है

न उन्होंने सपने कम देखे, न इरादों से कोई परहेज़ किया

फिर भी वह रह गए

जैसे छाछ रह जाती है

और देखिए, उन्हें कोई शिकायत भी नहीं

 

Usually unsuccessful, invisible and tentative

With perfectly able bodies, they have never compromised with their resolve

Yet they languish

Like buttermilk languishes

And look, they don’t even complain

 

The volatility of the city sharply comes to the fore; the many rhythms in which there are wild oscillations between the opening and closing of opportunities.  The migrants may have achieved some small successes in the underground economies of counterfeit goods, varied service provisions and provisional jobs. The complex politics of New India has led to the building of a slow resentment among local communities against local elites, who are still seen to siphoning off precious resources, whereas the elites see these migrants as contributing to “crime” in the cities. The terrible riots against immigrants (the kind that recently happened in the NCR region, for instance) show the limits of a politics of sympathy.

The city itself is an actor. The youth has to follow up on the tactics of survival. And survival depends on improvisation within new networks of relations and among new acquaintances because there are no kinship ties to fall back upon. The poet calls this अपना रास्ता साफ़ करना होता है. Still, amidst defiance, fear and resentment, some people are left out. The precarious soul, as Chetankranti has powerfully delineated, sometimes wake up at night with a start, and stays awake for a long time. The night’s angel tells him about the progress that the world is making, the big strides: about machines, robots, computers and space-crafts. The angel also narrates tales of big dreams, big thinking and resolute action. But the precarious chooses none.  He only chooses fear: which sits over his heart like God and churns his soul like a dasher.

The anthology is not propped up against modernity. In fact, this makes Chetankranti a poet apart from many fresh hands who are aesthetically competent but are reluctant to take the leap that a modern, analytical mindset demands. Not Chetankranti. We see a characteristic reflective and tortuous mindset in love and loss that constitutes much of the modern sensibility. In fact, he is scathing of the conservative feudal masculinist structures of the traditional world which are preventing an entire nation from a certain release into fructifying the transformative dreams that ought to free rather than bind us into old centralizations in newer garbs.

One of the powerful iterations comes from a realization that in this post-factual world ideas are not helping win the day.  Ideas are being trumped by rhetoric and hence precarity is augmenting at the subterranean level, like gathering moss, to which no one is paying any heed.  One cannot anymore proclaim that this kingdom or that prophet is lacking in ideas. That kind of large claim has been made ridiculous.  Ideas have been relativized to such an extent that the most horrifying idea too has plenty of buyers. Pure transaction has replaced ideas. The only idea in the fray is the business of winning. Ideas are only spawning more fruitless ideas. Ideas are not winning things anymore.

This book lays bare these rhythms of syncopation and suspension: a certain ethics of rough ground, to quote Wittgenstein. The provisional and truncated character of life, the impossibility of accumulation, and the shrinking of the milieu in which people operate is what Chetankranti silently records: destitution in times of Smart Cities! In a different context, elaborating on precarity, Hayder Al-Mohammad has sociologically shown “how privileging of everyday life as in itself a form of moral being-together comes in the wake of the complete destruction of Basra in Iraq.” Ethics of being-together that is quite different from the dominant paradigms of self-cultivation or obligation. Carlos Forment’s account of the “incredibly complex transactions within one of the largest “informal” markets in Argentina shows a form of plebeian politics that seeks to deal with vulnerability not through any standing languages of civil or economic rights but through a different kind of market ethics.”

We do not see any such redemptive solidarity among the truly abject in poetry or social formations right now in the Indian context. Beings are scattered and more fragmented than ever as anger seethes.

This syncopation will have an acute affect in forming and sundering personal bonds. It is this deep and intimate attention of the private that we must now turn our eyes to, for the private is but seemingly so. We are all bound inextricably in and through our collective vulnerable selves.

 chetankranti

Neutral Allocations of Opacity

Forms of life communicate through a sensory-experiential contact which takes place in a void of representation that is also a care for something  inappropriable. Your constant gardening and care for another being is simultaneously an endeavour in opacity.   The deepest forms of contact participate in an ontology of non-relation and use. The gap of non-relation is at the heart of intimacy in which life itself is inappropriable and inseparable from its form—a life that actively preserves its sense of not knowing, a kind of willing suspension of knowledge of our interlocutors. This marks the generative limit of relational mystery.

एक दिन मुझे ख़ामोश हो जाना था

और एक दिन मैं हो गया

एक दिन मुझे हर उम्मीद से दूर हो जाना था

और एक दिन मैं हो गया

और यह भी पहले से तय था

कि एक दिन मैंने कहना छोड़ दिया कि मैं सही हूँ

One day I was supposed to turn silent
And one day I did
One day I was supposed to get away from every hope

And one day I did
And it was also already decided

That one day I stopped saying that I am right

 

Opacity is intimacy: use-of-oneself with another being whom one cannot appropriate. In solitude we encounter this inappropriate zone of non-consciousness most vividly. The sharing of this opacity is love. With the inappropriable we have no agency. It ‘was supposed to be’ and ‘was also already decided.’ All voluble protestations will come to naught, one day. The absolute zero point of intimacy is claiming nothing upon another being on whom only you have the most fundamental and starkest claim—of intimacy. But you stop claiming direction and simply refrain from pronouncing what you think is right. You let go cognition and judgment. Like a paper boat. The conversation is now bereft of claims that arise out of our consciousness. We are together and very close, but between us there is not an articulation or a relation that unites us. Two beings face to face, in deepest sorrow, wading through a zone of non-articulation. Opacity shall always precede. We are together and very close, but between us there is not an articulation or a relation that unites us.

In this state of opaque intimacy, the body’s ways know no tiredness, sleep or hope. Is this freedom a reverse form of happiness? What do people do when they are happy?
लोग भला सुख में क्या करते हैं !

तुम तो वहां हो इतने सारे ख़ुश लोगों के बीच में

तुम सब, मसलन इतवार के छुट्टी में क्या करते हो

गोल घेरे में बैठकर गाते हो?

Pray, what do people do in happiness? This question can only be replied to with a kind of ironical poignancy. What is it to be in the company of happy people? Sundays are for happy people. So, the intimate one, away from opacity, is with happy people on a laid-back Sunday. And do they all sing in unison, forming a perfectly happy circle? Is this how happiness comes to being—through the ritual of collective and shared singing? The jocular irony of the question is only countered by the poignancy of the situation—for we are forever aware of the radical opacity that occludes it.

And sorrow? It strengthens one to neutrality if confronted squarely. Accepting vulnerability does.

 

और दुःख…

जब हम उसे मंजूर कर लेते है

भागते नहीं, न इधर जाते, न उधर

वहीं के वहीं खड़े रह जाते हैं

और वह एक सीधी बंधी धार में

तुम्हारे सर के ऊपर गिरता है

फिर कन्धों पर, कमर पर, जांघो पर, पिंडलियों पर होता हुआ

धरती में सामने लगता है

और तुम उसके साथ साथ

अपने एक एक अंग को दुबारा जानते हो

 

And sorrow…

When we accept it

And stop running, neither hither nor thither

Stand fixed right there

And sorrow in her steady straight trickle

Pours over your head

Then over your shoulders, waist and thighs, and passing over your calves

It enters the earth

And you, along with it

Come to know each part of your torso once again

 

Precariousness and anonymousness is a general human condition. It is also foremost a pulsating sensation. We are all corporeally vulnerable. The final sections of Veerta Par Vichlit therefore take us intimately through this new bodily ontology. Sorrow, like molten lava, pours over our heads and passes through each part of our body until it earths us back into dust and grime. Into the earth: which is where we all dwell. Sorrow, most of all, reminds us afresh, introduces and plugs us back into our bodies. Chetankranti makes us encounter our precariousness, vulnerability, injurability, interdependency, exposure, bodily persistence, desire, work, and the claims of language and social belonging all at the same time.

One way to relate the opacity of personal vulnerability and the private distraction that it engenders with the nature of public encounters is to consider the ways in which Judith Butler brings forth the doings and undoings of our precarious living. In Giving an Account of Oneself and Precarious Life, Butler begins from the premise that singularity is constituted in and through our exposure to others. Therefore, the vulnerabilities that attend each body are simultaneously unique and anonymous—unique to the degree that no single body is vulnerable in exactly the same way as any another, general and anonymous to the degree that vulnerability and exposure condition and constitute the emergence of every singular body. Butler never argues for any normative ethics. She is particularly reluctant to invoke non-violence. This comes from a very fundamental mindfulness that vulnerability may inspire care, love, and generosity but it may equally engender abuse, intimidation, and violence. As vulnerable bodies, we are always available to both care and injury, and are similarly capable of offering care to, or inflicting injury on others. This ambiguity is a permanent and constitutive feature of corporeal vulnerability.

This sense of evenness paradoxically gives us the power to court vulnerability; the will to silently stand by the precarious of the world in a relationship of ontological camaraderie.

तुम मुझे दुःख के पास बिठा जाती हो

और फिर मुझे तुम्हारे आने का ख़याल ही नहीं रहता

You let me roost with sorrow

And then I lose all sense of your arrival

Such is the violence of opacity that it places us ontologically at sorrow’s custody. Care and injury cohabit simultaneously, so that the question of attachment gets refracted into the condition of being in a kind of perennial precariousness—which is what radical sorrow is. There is no sense of arrival whatsoever in such a frame of radical distraction. And from distraction one generates a reverse sense of violence leading to a realignment of the self, if not fragmentation.

 

और फिर मैंने तुमसे घृणा करने के औज़ार ढूंढ़ने शुरू किए

मैं उस रस्ते पर बैठा रहा देर तक जिससे तुम्हे आना था

पर यह तुम्हारा इंतज़ार नहीं था

मैं अपने ही लौटने की राह देख रहा था

And then I began to look for the hatred-tools for you
I waited a long time on that road through which you would return
But that was not in your longing

I was looking for my own return

 

It is the reversal of the gaze upon oneself in the most violent moment of vulnerability. Buffeted by precariousness, it is a constant attempt to turn oneself experienced into adulthood. But vulnerability within oneself does not allow that kind of luxury. We take decisions and break them too; everything is an evaded hum of fragmentary thoughts. Consequently, distracted vulnerability is always an existential contradiction: an intelligent yet incomprehensible whisper. Clarity vies with languor. On one hand this:

 

कहीं जब निर्माण की जगह नहीं रहती

विध्वंस अपनी बारी मांगने आता है

प्रेम जब झुंझलाकर तुम्हारे दरवाज़े से लौटता है

पृथ्वी पर कहीं एक बन्दुक बनती है

जब तुम पूरी नींद सो रही होती हो

कहीं कोई जागता है, और एक निर्णय पर पहुँचता है.

 

When there is no place left for constructing

Demolition comes claiming its share

When love, in chagrin, returns from your door

Somewhere a gun is being assembled in this world

When you are fast asleep

Someone somewhere awakes, and comes to a decision

 

There is no heroic effort, no veerta that is gritty enough to take on this foredoomed striving for an ever-elusive adulthood.  This idea of resolve is filled with an almost childlike hope for a detached commitment which is not to be. But then vulnerability returns by interrogating norms of masculinity, and thereby affirming a basic and equitable creatureliness among beings. This is one of the major motifs of the collection. So, the obverse of adulthood is the embracing of pubescent breakdown:

 

तुमको रोते हुए मर्द अच्छे नहीं लगते

पर यह तो कहो

कि प्यार तुमसे करेगा और रोने के लिए आदमी कहाँ जाएगा

 

You say that you don’t like wailing men

But do tell me this

Loving you where will a man go to cry?

 

This idea of creaturely equity in the face of marauding social forces as well as personal anguish is a generalized condition of living. The more we sense the general precarity of our daily existence the more we are constitutively obligated to record and mark such a predicament. None is exempt. There cannot be any differential allocation of grievability. We apprehend a precarious life with a less abusive realization of precarity. Butler perceptively reminds us of this primordial equity: “It cannot be that the other is destructible while I am not, nor vice versa. It can only be that life, as precarious life, is a generalized condition, and that under certain political conditions it becomes radically exacerbated and radically disavowed.”

Anonymity unifies the buffeted.

There is a singular sense of unsentimental reckoning and assessment of failure and abjectness in these poems, placed sharply in the context of our current political times that makes the anthology a unique one. It is also an occasion for acute self reflection for the poet, who, instead of being solipsistic and coterie bound, considers himself an intergral part of his turbulent times:

 

कुछ तो है जो मुझे तरक़्क़ी से बाज रखता है

कुछ तो है जो मुझे ऐन उस वख़्त संकोच से भर देता है

जब मेरे पास अत्याचार का अवसर होता है

और अन्याय के सब हथियार मुझे दे दिए गए होते है

कुछ तो होगा मेरे ख़ून में

कि मुझे बिल्ली का एक बच्चा रोक लेता है वख़्त पर निकलने से

 

There must be something that keeps me away from success

There must be something which, in the nick of time, fills me with hesitation

When I have the liberty to be brutal

And every tool for injustice is handed over to me.

There must be something in my blood

That every time a kitten stops me from departing on time.

__________________

[ I am grateful to Asad Zaidi for his feedback and editorial suggestions.]

 

 

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