Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Deaf on the Lifeline of Mumbai

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Deaf on the Lifeline of Mumbai

Article excerpt

Ajay and I walk quickly to Mulund train station. Masses of people are walking fast toward the enormous gate, all keeping the same steady pace. On both sides of the road are small shops and street vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Men in suits and women in smart colorful sarL· or salwar kameez, all wearing sandah to wade through the fresh rain puddles, surround us. Here and there are groups of children in school uniforms. Arriving at the train station we see beggars, shoeshine boys, stray dogs, and homeless people mixing with these working people from different castes, classes, and religions. We walk to the right platform and head for the signboard that says "Reserved for Handicapped," where we will wait for the train, (field notes, May 2007)

AN ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH STUDY that I conducted in Mumbai reveals that Deaf people tend to travel in specific train compartments that are reserved for people with disabilities.1,2 This article explores the reasons they do so and sheds light on several sociocultural consequences of this practice.

Lefebvre (1991), in his well-known work, The Production of Space, criticizes anthropologists for having largely ignored the "concrete reality" of "spatial practices" and argues that everyday life deserves much deeper analysis. It is through these everyday "spatial practices" by real people living real lives that space is produced, used, performed, appropriated, and mastered. People use spaces in different ways to do a variety of things (working, relaxing, talking, learning, etc.), and their spatial practices exhibit continuity and some degree of cohesion. These practices are empirically observable and are neither determined by urban or ecological systems nor adapted to economic or political systems. In spatial practices the reproduction of social relations is predominant. "Social practice," however, is not the same as spatial practice, inasmuch as "spatial practice consists in a projection onto a (spatial) field of all aspects, elements and moments of social practice" (ibid., 8).

Lefebvre's criticism that traditional research ignores spatial practices also seems to hold true for a large part of the research on Deaf realities. Such studies have often been presented as if life for Deaf people is a kind of dual reality consisting of a problematic life with access problems within the hearing world on the one hand and accessible communication and interaction within the Deaf community on the other (see, for example, Padden and Humphries 1988; Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996; Mindess 2006; Ladd 2003). Such studies have provided a deeper understanding of the dynamics in these communities. Nevertheless, little attention has been paid to the everyday creative and strategic ways in which Deaf people navigate through variable (often urban) realities and the social contacts they experience in doing so.

Linked to Lefebvre's call for research into "spatial practices" and the social interactions that take place in them are questions about how Deaf people move through their daily life environments, for example, in this multhingual and multicultural non- Western city that is Mumbai, the busiest and most densely populated city in India. How do Deaf people use their capacities and creativeness to cope with and communicate in their encounters with different hearing people in various locations, and how, when, and where do they create "Deaf spaces" in their city? My interest in this arose when two Deaf Mumbaikers took me in tow after an international youth conference for deaf people in Kolhapur (West India) in 2006. Their movements and interactions in the city fascinated me, and the idea for the research I describe in this article started to take shape.

While my research was initially aimed at investigating the spatial practices of Mumbai Deaf people in general, it proved to be of interest to focus on one specific strand of spatial practices: those that involved the main means of commuting in Mumbai, namely, the suburban trains. …

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