I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it…. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.

Leo Tolstoy’s Diary, entry dated 29 February 1897

A class 11 sociology project

‘What ails the Adyar?’ was the title of the sociology project last year at The School, Chennai. The idea to use the river Adyar as an entry point for a group study on research methods came from environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has been collecting narratives of residents living along the banks of the river as part of the work of his collective called the Vettiver Koottamaippu or Vettiver Collective. We jointly decided that discovering and unpacking the layers of time written upon the Adyar river, listening to and observing the voices of those who live in its vicinity, would allow us to animate textbook concepts outside the classroom for our students. The river study project was a perfect opportunity for exposing students to the variety of data collection tools and research methods that could be deployed in a spatially defined micro-urban context.

The project’s aim was to problematize an urban ecological space that was both familiar and unfamiliar to students and to understand the complexity of perceptions, relations and standpoints or ‘web of life’ engendered along the river. The exercise began with a walk along the river with Nityanand to observe, question and analyze the river’s significance in the lives of the people who live along its course in economically and socially disparate neighborhoods. We were to experience the neighborhoods first through simple observation—of sight, smell and sound. The early morning trip was intended not only to help define the scope of the study but to also offer the students a taste of ‘field work’, in the sense of providing them an opportunity to connect complex theoretical concepts in sociology to everyday situations and contexts. It was decided to organize subsequent trips in smaller groups to have focused group discussions in select locations taken up for the study.

Focusing on select locations along the river meant that we were reimagining the river for ourselves from the point of view of the different voices we encountered along its course. In one sense we wanted to not only geographically map or locate the river in the dense urban context of Chennai city, but also historicize the Adyar using our specific engagement with it. According to Nityanand, “The river is not necessarily only where the water is …”, for its history is entangled with that of urban development and construction patterns. Through the apparently simple question ‘What ails the Adyar?’, our study sought to connect with its inhabitants and gain insights into the significance of the river in their daily life. A set of questions related to the river, both as a physical presence as well as a memory, guided our interaction with those living in the vicinity of the river.

  • What is the water body here? Where is it located?
  • Have you personally used the water body at any point? Do you know of anyone who has?
  • Do you remember this water body from the past? In what ways was it used?
  • How were its surroundings then? In what aspects was it different?
  • Can you recall how you felt then? What impressions of the river do you still hold?

Such a field-based, experiential approach gave us the opportunity to search for information that was not easily available in print or web-based literature and invited students to look for alternative, primary sources of data for the study. In sociological parlance we were using qualitative research methods to gain insights into our research question ‘What Ails the Adyar?’ Instead of looking for answers in a single expert study, we were seeking ways of humanizing the river through the voices we heard along its course. It is for this reason we thought it important to help students draw upon information about the river from film songs, personal memories, life histories of residents, photographs from family albums and the archives of the Theosophical Society, street signage and posters, newspaper reports, built structures as well as maps showing urban expansion in its vicinity since colonial times. Students needed support in asking questions as well as in understanding the deeper messages being communicated to us. The somewhat non-intrusive and objective question, ‘What ails the Adyar?’, we soon realized, opened some uncomfortable situations and guarded or incomplete responses.

Common perceptions of pollution, river hydrology and urban geography soon gave way to a Pandora’s box of questions about the built structures that were easily visible and those that were hidden from plain view; what was on this side of the river and what was on the other side; who were the ‘us’ and who were the ‘them’; who were presently living there, who had recently settled there and who had left; what was put in the river and what was taken out from it; who regarded the river with respect and who took it for granted.

Walking, seeing and listening along the river

We identified five locations that represented different categories of inhabitants along the river following the river walk with Nityanand. These included what are called fishing villages or kuppams, slum settlements and upscale apartment blocks, as well as institutions such as the Theosophical Society and the Madras Boat Club, that were built on the river during the colonial period.

We had prepared a set of questions in class for eliciting information, both verbal and visual, at the different sites we were to visit. The field trips, however, presented us with an array of lengthy and somewhat disconnected narratives, a bustling collage of people engaged in a variety of activities in small alleyways and vacant, seemingly uninhabited open spaces. It was confusing at first to identify and articulate what we were looking for. The scenes looked familiar and yet undistinguishable from the point of view of our central question pertaining to the river Adyar. We resorted to ‘unstructured observation’ by noting down whatever drew one’s attention and took photographs whenever possible. As we continued our research, we found our observations becoming sharper and conversations more pointed. The students were now expanding inwardly, searching for insights or staying with the responses for further reflection.

Each group was encouraged to classify the information collected from their respective field site along some key focal points—the settlement pattern of the neighbourhood and its landscape, environmental consciousness, caste and religion, livelihood, work practices and perceptions of the river. The introduction of these categories provided an internal structure to the study. It also encouraged students to fill in some information gaps through additional sources of information from photo-archives of the Theosophical Society and the Madras Boat Club, official and online maps both historic and contemporary, as well as the mind maps drawn from the walk along the river, online blog posts on the neighborhood written by Chennai city residents, post cards and visitor’s books from the Olcott Bungalow of the Theosophical Society and at the Madras Boat Club and photographs taken by the students themselves during the course of the study.

It was fascinating to see how the pursuit of a single question enabled entry and contact with different communities and opened so many layers of inquiry regarding their relationship with the Adyar. The river became the lens through which we could gain insights into the complex realities of daily life along the river and helped students construct different ‘points of view’. Excerpts from their field diaries offer a window into the kinds of observations, conversations and resources the students drew upon, while listening to the voices along the Adyar.

Urur Kuppam

Harshita Y Vaid and Harshini Arun

Urur Olcott Kuppam is an inland fishing settlement on the beach facing the Bay of Bengal. The people have been living in this fishing hamlet for more than three generations. “It’s our ancestral village,” a resident said. There were few people and few houses earlier. “If you looked west from Thazhangadu, you could see Rajaji Bhavan.” In the south-east of the Kuppam, there was a sand dune and a dense screwpine forest. Apparently, the tall palm trees and screwpine shrubs protected the shoreline and the fishing hamlets from rough waves.

As the river gets more and more polluted, fisherman have to go farther into the sea for their catch, as there are virtually no fish at the mouth of the river. Certain fishing practices used to bring the community together. Earlier, there were four big nets for a hundred families, which were common to all. Fishing was carried out in large groups of eighty and the harvest was shared. Now, the fishermen find it more profitable and practical to work for individuals and groups who own modern nets and fibre boats and can venture deeper into the sea.

The beach and the open spaces are littered with garbage. The residents of the kuppam complained of the absence of sewage and sanitation systems as well as shrinking common spaces. But despite these problems, the streets we walked through were swept clean in the morning and were adorned with kolam patterns made from rice flour in front of each door. The plants, potted in recovered plastic cans, were watered and the aroma of fried onions wafted from the windows.

Malligaipoo Nagar

Alagammai, Sneha R and Lepakshi A Jaideep

Malligaipoo Nagar, is a resettlement locality that dates to the early 1950s on the river, inhabited by people eking out a meagre income through informal urban services in Chennai. A land registration document that belonged to one of the residents was dated 4 February 1953. Malligaipoo Nagar, is on the inland bank of the Adyar. Its residents came from different parts of Tamil Nadu in search of work opportunities during the urban expansion of Madras in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The men mostly work as construction labour and the women are domestic workers. One person recalled that wages for this kind of work used to be one rupee to a rupee and a half per day, and resettlement neighbourhoods such as this used to be known for their construction skill—Adyar for masonry and Teynampet for tiling work. Now the work has been taken over by migrants from Kerala, Andhra and north India.

Residents remember a time when Madras was a city of criss-crossing canals. Passing boats from Pondicherry on the Buckingham Canal, after crossing Marakkanam, would stop at Malligaipoo Nagar. An elderly person recounted the childhood pleasures of getting some jaggery for free from the boat’s store filled with goods like palm sugar, plantain leaves, salt, logs and firewood.

People living near the banks of the river said that they were not affected by the December 2015 floods of Chennai because the height of the bank had been raised and a wall erected to prevent flooding. Few also said the river is an inconvenience. They would prefer that it is not there at all. Some even felt that others judge their social status by the area of residence. We noticed a prominently placed tap in the neighbourhood. It was provided after repeated petitioning from the inhabitants whose only source of drinking water until then had been the tap near the car park of the neighbouring Fortis Malar Hospital.

MRC Nagar

Sneha Sheejith and J Gayathri

MRC Nagar, a high-rise upper middle-class apartment building complex built in the early 2000s, is located on the northern bank of the Adyar river, which was once the southern boundary of Madras city till the year 1946. In what was essentially a salty lagoon, there were several islands, at least four in a map of 1798, the largest of them called Quibble Island.

The residents said that they do not face any issues with the river other than the smell of rotting fish and garbage that comes once in a while. The place was much quieter and there was no commercial activity until a school came up. One of the residents said, “We do not use the river directly for anything. We don’t know why it is so dirty.” Another resident remembered a playground where the apartment stands now. They said, they were doing their bit to keep the environment clean. They segregated waste and sent the kitchen waste to the compost pits in the neighbourhood. They were happy that their initiative had been recognized by the local authorities.

When we asked them about measures to save the Adyar, the residents said the issue was with the encroachment, of the many kuppams and slum re-settlements on the river. They were letting out their waste and sewage in the river, causing all the pollution. They do not have toilets at home and throw all the waste into the river. “Even throwing flowers for religious purposes must be avoided,” said another. The government should take the initiative to make the kuppam residents more aware.

A reputed newspaper, dated January 2011, reported a government plan to create a fifteen-acre park in Srinivasapuram (a fishing hamlet close to MRC Nagar). The fishermen opposed the relocation of their tenements. “The fishermen of Srinivasapuram also raised apprehension about amalgamating various kuppams that have differing traditional fishing rights and practices into a single housing project,” reported the daily.

Theosophical Society

B Kaushik Krishna and Tarini Srivastava

The Theosophical Society (TS), Adyar is the headquarters of an international organization where well-known Theosophists HS Olcott and Annie Besant, among others, established the present sprawling campus along the Adyar estuary in the late 1890s.

The wooded campus and buildings of the Theosophical Society has the river on the northern side and the sea to the east. The main office is built on the banks of the river and there is a small pathway leading from there to the riverbank. The supervisor of the gardens, when asked as to how the land is taken care of, said, “If you don’t disturb anything, it automatically gets conserved.” We understood from our conversations with the staff of the TS that the emphasis on trees, shrubs and the river, and nature in general, is inspired by the Theosophical idea that “there is life in everything, and one needs to respect all forms of life.”

Conserving nature and maintenance of buildings seem to have the same value for the residents and workers of the TS. They lamented that the river is now merely the receptable of the city’s drainage and cannot be called a river anymore. It posed a serious threat to health especially on account of the mosquitoes. The boundaries of the buildings of the TS had to be defined and the fences had to be walled and lined with bushes and scrub. At present the river can only be seen through the very small openings. Very few buildings have come up in the recent years. The simultaneous disgust and protectiveness with reference to the Adyar river seemed odd to us. Perhaps the present perceptions of the river are coloured by memories of what the river was in the past. They are memories, both of personal experience of the officials and stories that have been passed on. “Migratory birds such as flamingos would congregate on the mud flats,” recalled one of the officials. “One could play the coin game. Drop a coin in the water and dive in to collect it. I have spent many hours watching fishermen and the merchant boats from the islands.”

An old photograph from the TS archive captures the entire breadth of the river as a person sitting on the slope of the TS gardens gazes at the space where the river meets the sea. A poem from the magazine ‘The Theosophist’ immortalizes the Adyar as a symbol of solitude and contemplation more than a century ago:

To look one with skies that shines o’erhead! H
ow heaven and Earth this rare tranquility
Share like Twin sisters, one in Nature’s car!
And Adyar dreams that calm eternity
With her surrounding landscape like a star:
The night comes down: O Sunset! If it be,
Can the brilliant morning be waiting so far?

A.F. Khabardar (‘The Theosophist’, Vol 20, 1908)

Madras Boat Club

Pulari M Baskar and Sneha Suresh

The Madras Boat Club, located on the banks of the Adyar, was established in 1867 as a rowing club for colonial officers and the elite of Madras since the British period. It is approached from the upper-class residential colony named after the club near the Kotturpuram bridge. The neighbourhood is secluded and calm with very large independent bungalows. It has wide, well-kept roads (one does not see any trash) and a broad canopy of trees on either side.

Most of its members belong to higher-income groups and “wish to maintain their prestige,” said the manager. He continued, “We were under eighteen feet of water during the 2015 floods and suffered quite a loss. But that didn’t stop us from taking our boats out to help the people in the slums nearby. We revamped the club, bought a fleet of imported boats, helped clean up the Adyar and offered rowing experiences for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Sharing their civic and environmental concerns with us, the management of the club believe that government intervention is needed in order to clean the river. “I feel there should be strict measures to clean up the Adyar river. It’s high time we save the river and should stop encroachments,” said the captain of the club. The sports enthusiasts of Chennai who learn to row in the Adyar, however, are immune to the river’s decay. “We suffer from a kind of loss of vision when it comes to the Adyar. The love for sport is worth having to bear the smell. We have gotten used to it,” said one of the young rowers.

The Adyar river as a lens of inquiry

The question ‘What ails the Adyar?’ elicited a range of responses from different communities and interest groups. It was interesting to see that similar responses conveyed different meanings when placed in the different neighbourhood contexts. “Clearly, what ails the river, and more importantly what constitutes a healthy river and how to get there depends on who is answering these questions,” noted Nityanand. Therefore, one had to listen to the stories carefully and become aware of how the river inhabited the words that articulated its condition.

Words, like objects, tend to become so familiar that they only carry the meaning one is accustomed to knowing. We often fail to remember with clarity everyday activities, places or individuals we meet on a regular basis. In driving frequently on a busy road, for instance, our vision sometimes transforms objects around us into vague moving silhouettes, leaving out many details from our perception. Reiterating the Adyar question at every field visit brought to light many unexpected facets of the question for the students. It led us to listen to the people whose lives are entangled with the river in a variety of different ways. We were observing things as though we were seeing them for the first time, free from familiar terms of naming and knowing. We were engaging in what Viktor Shklovsky in his 1917 article on ‘Art as Technique’ observed about Tolstoy’s way of observing and thinking, “Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something he avoids the accepted names of its parts …”.

In the final presentation of their sociology project, the class 11 students raised a set of questions and observations which they shared before a larger gathering at the school. Some of them are worth listing here as they reflect a renewed awareness of the urban environment of which they are a part:

The garbage piles up in Urur Kuppam, whereas Besant Nagar always seems to wear a clean face; the restoration project focuses around the estuary, but what about the source? What is the meaning of the word ‘slum’? What are ‘common spaces’ and who has the right to decide how they are to be used? Why is it that some neighborhoods have basic civic amenities and some barely have any? What can we learn from inquiring into the names of streets, buildings, neighborhoods and localities in our city? High-rise apartments built along the banks of the river advertise a sea view to attract aspiring residents. Settlements of slums are almost always situated on low-lying marshlands or flood plains. Both are ecologically vulnerable locations.

The group study of the different neighborhoods along the Adyar river revealed to us the interconnectivity of vastly disparate urban locations. Each of the sites we had visited was socially and geographically distinct; yet each was linked to the river, and to one another, through it. We are left with the thought that research has many facets and many voices. So long as we keep people at the center of our inquiry, there will always be something more to be added. Hence, the potential lies in the questions that remain with us have not found it yet. This article makes no attempt to offer answers that I have not found. Instead, its goal is simply to raise some question and explore some of the possibilities. No option is perfect, but we each must choose something, and considering the options with clear eyes is a worthwhile endeavour.