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Slum Jagatthu: A magazine from the streets

Deepa Bhasthi | Updated on February 14, 2020 Published on February 13, 2020

Ear to ground: Balamma K and Isaac Arul Selva, co-founders of Slum Jagatthu, at the magazine’s office in Bengaluru; the January 2020 issue. Images: Deepa Bhasthi   -  images: deepa bhasthi

A Kannada magazine produced by slum-dwellers for slum-dwellers is devoted to recording the undocumented history of the subaltern

A two-decade-old Kannada magazine created for and by subalterns did not even have a room to call its office until a year and a half ago. The staff of seven would borrow a few computers to type out their notes and construct each month’s issue of Slum Jagatthu, which means ‘slum world’. Today, they do have an office, even if it’s just a room and a half above a garments shop, off the main roadway through Koramangala village in east Bengaluru.

This one-of-a-kind 20-page magazine is entirely the handiwork of slum-dwellers. It has regular columns, features, photographs, interviews and news analyses on issues affecting slum-dwellers, its core readership. The section Namm Keri Pattanavaythu (Our locality is a township now) documents instances of gentrification and how they have made slum residents alien in their own neighbourhoods. Namm Jeevna Namge (Our life is ours) and Jeevna Nadedaithe (Life goes on) are two regular features that carry personal stories of triumph and struggle of slum-dwellers, with the former focusing particularly on older residents. The news featured ranges from forced evictions in the city to government policies, new schemes and facilities available to slum residents.

Looking ahead: The January 2020 issue of the magazine   -  DEEPA BHASTHI

 

In a testament to the passion, dedication and even doggedness of its editorial team, the magazine continues to exist despite the lack of any institutional or government support.

The afternoon I met its editor and co-founder Isaac Arul Selva, the whole team was in office. It was one of the four or five days each month that they gather together to write for, edit, design, publish and post the monthly issue to a small base of subscribers all over Karnataka. Of the seven-member founding team, only Selva and Balamma K — both activists — remain; the rest are newer recruits of varying ages, experience and background. What’s common to them, however, is that they are all social activists working with residents in urban slums on different issues. And most of them, too, live in slums.

They report, write, edit and take photographs, as they shift roles and responsibilities among themselves.

Apart from a desktop computer and copies of the magazine, the tiny office also packs a small library, where BR Ambedkar and Narayana Guru are among the names that occupy pride of place, besides titles on journalism and media practices. The library also finds use among young people from slums who attend the media workshops that Slum Jagatthu periodically conducts.

We sat on plastic chairs in an adjacent room, as Selva rewound to the birth of the magazine in 2000. “The slum my family was living in was relocated to Koramangala in 1975; we did not have water supply or toilets,” he said. It was finally in 1999, at the end of a long struggle, that the slum was provided with basic amenities. This success prompted Selva and his fellow activists to reach out to other needy settlements like their own. “There were two reasons [for starting Slum Jagatthu]. People had no information about where to go, what to access [to get civic amenities]. Secondly, there was no communication tool for people like us. So we started the magazine. For the first issue, I spent ₹168 from my own pocket for registration.”

He requested a local press to print that month’s issue, promising to pay for it the following month. The magazine continued to function in this manner for nearly 10 years.

Financial difficulties led to a brief hiatus from 2012 to 2014. “What we started in 2000 failed in 2012. We took all those experiences and restarted as an experiment. More than the loss or profit we might make from the magazine, [we felt] there is a history of workers in Bengaluru that needs to be documented,” said Selva. Pointing out society’s persistent failure to record stories from the subaltern, he gave the example of the history of the erstwhile princely state of Mysore that was written at a time when there was no electricity in the kingdom.

“Where is the history of the man who filled oil in the street lamps and lit them every day? Where is the history of the people who carried away the shit from the palace every morning? It is important how you build, write and document that history. We started with the aim of doing that work. Our histories have been erased and we felt it was our responsibility to document it.”

Crucially, Slum Jagatthu also gives information and “ideological clarity” to organisations working in slums. Its circulation, which had touched 2,500 copies before it was temporarily halted, now stands at a modest 500, mostly going to leaders in slum organisations, NGOs such as Hasiru Dala that work with slum-dwellers, besides public libraries in district centres.

Asked about the funding, Selva responded with a wry smile. “No one gives funds or grants to such publications. What we don’t get as revenue, we put in ourselves. We don’t aim to make money from this, but the effort we put here, that should help construct history,” he said.

Producing an issue costs about ₹4,000 a month, apart from the man hours put in. Priced at ₹10 per issue, the magazine is also available free on slumjagatthu.wordpress.com.

Most of the stories are written in the first person, in the sociolect and/or dialect of the speaker. Selva explained why. “There is no one Kannada. There is Kannada-gam, many Kannadas. The honesty to write down the words exactly as they are spoken seemed important to us. What you say, what words you use, what language you speak in, that must be printed — not a polished version. We don’t ‘polish’ people’s language.”

In promoting local tongues, informing, educating and empowering slum-dwellers, and in recording histories that are ignored by the mainstream, Slum Jagatthu provides a vital living space for subaltern studies.

Deepa Bhasthi is a Bengaluru-based writer

Published on February 13, 2020
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