Victoria House /
White Town

2006 - 07
Choudhuri House /
Grey Town
2006 - 07
Adarsh Nagar /
Black House



B & W = GREY?
By Paula Sengupta

Rahul Srivastava
2005 - 2007


by archana hande 2006 - 2007



The first time I heard the word as an admonishment was when Mrs. Cooper used it to shoo us off the compound wall at the Mazagaon railway colony. She would tell us to stop squatting and to go home, into the club or play in the compound, but by no means sit on the wall. All five of us, between eight and ten years, would obediently jump off our mildewed perch and rush to the next place that was not home, nor the club and neither the compound wall. Often it was the staircase next to the lift or the niche behind the gate into the colony. There was no space more enchanted then these little in-between worlds for us to exchange stories, indulge in collective daydreaming, or plan the next attack on Mr. and Mrs. Cooper.   

Initially I didn’t like the word. I had always heard it being used to describe the posture we used to shit ‘Indian-style’ and I would look puzzled at Mrs. Cooper whenever she abused us with it. Nevertheless, very soon, we were using it to describe our meetings. So when and where do we squat next? In between games and homework, it was a genuine moment of relaxation. However, it was both, a special moment as well as a sacred space. The squat-worthy space was intuitively chosen. It was rarely used for any specific purpose, expect perhaps as a route or a pathway. You would know it was squat-worthy the moment you stepped into its haloed protection. It was public property and we knew how to transform it into our – not private– but personal zone. It became ours for those moments in the best spirit of sharing possible.

It was not long before I began seeing how squatting was something that surrounded me all the time. My lending library was a small shop below the staircase of an old colonial building across the street. The dhobhi ironed clothes in a temporary workspace made by connecting the back walls of the buildings in the colony.

I soon understood that there exists a massive world of ownership in between the limited dichotomy of private and public property. Those were big words in the political imagination of those times. And in a subjective sense, the liminal world in between them was symbolized by the act of squatting. It exposed the binary as a shallow one – one that created an even more monstrous mechanical hybrid – the mixed economy – that plagued our lives like an illness. On the side, it also produced degraded and opulent habitats that mirrored this divide, convincing the city that this was the only way to be.

Yet, the city could never - out of necessity and need - suppress the practice of squatting at all. In fact that is what which made the city so human in the first place. It allowed people to make its million spaces their own in a billion different ways.

This creative world of making spaces yours, without owning them, is essentially what squatting is all about.

It has many mythologies. Its energy has been celebrated or derided in the romance and struggles of nomadism. Travelers, adventurers, gypsies and indigenous people on the move, were always viewed suspiciously by settled agrarian societies who used the term just like Mrs. Cooper. Of course, they had to be reminded in turn by the forest dwellers that they - the settled agriculturists - had been the first to squat on rich forests to start with. This irony continued all through history. Colonialism – in this cosmology – was and remains the biggest squatting moment of all time. It was big-time squatting. 

The term got a new lease of political life with Marxism. When private property was seen to be the starting point of an oppressive history, squatters became natural heroes. Yet – when squatters made they own state – some say they missed the point. They forgot about the pleasures of squatting as they started carving out specific squatting spaces – like the home, the club or the compound to play in.
You even had to have special permits to squat.

Unfortunately, life was never hunky-dory for squatters in ‘Privatepropertyland’ either. Mrs. Cooper always stood with her cane at the door. If you really wanted to squat it had to be in specifically designated squatting spaces, usually shopping malls.

Naturally people rebelled all the time. They couldn’t help it. They had to find that staircase or hidden niche where they could connect with each other. They had to make pubs and discos hysterical spaces that reflected their inner turmoil.

And when the laws of private property continued its story of  oppression - squatting reinvented itself as political struggle.

Slumdwellers, shackdwellers, the homeless, the indigenous, nomads and landless peasants have emerged today, as a huge global force of resistance. However, their struggles are so tough, that they – understandably - don’t have the time or the inclination to celebrate the poetics of squatting. The political ideal today and yesterday, is and has always been to escape from the memory of squatting. For centuries, nomads have always been forced to settle down by controlling their movement – by making them live inside the compound wall, not on it.

When we – especially in a world of diminishing resources - are faced with unused spaces, we instinctively know that it is unethical and wasteful not to use them. Yet, laws of property are sometimes so irrational that they justify crimes - like such mammoth waste - all the time. Just take a look at the amount of speculative real estate that drives the city’s economy.

In the eyes of the homeless, abandoned space is orphaned space. It is not about stealing the place - it is about infusing it with life. Like when a thin crevice of organic matter between stonewalls of a concrete structure becomes enough invitation for a wayward tree to grow roots.    

A colonial building may have been designed in a particular form – for use by people in specific ways – but the colonized have squatted on it in even more unexpectedly peculiar styles. A shrine may squat below a staircase opposite a lift. A whole village may squat on its roof – injecting dead space with life it could never have imagined possible on its rigidly designed structure. 

Today, thanks to digital technology, you can make your own squatting spaces, from blogs to virtual double lives, you can create multiple copies of everything and then release yourself in a collective daydream to squat on people’s imaginations on a scale that has been hitherto unknown to humankind.
This digital touch propels us to keep exploring the aesthetics of squatting in newer ways. It reminds us of how deep our instincts are. It allows us to be mischievous.

When family photographs find themselves being sold in flea markets, a wayward artist slyly appropriates the family history. When a colonial house taunts you with its ornate beauty, she possesses it with a skillful digital sleight of hand.

She also reminds you that squatting is deliciously dark. That there is a thin line between squatting and possessing and the thrill is in never dissolving the boundaries.

Rahul Srivastava

Rahul Srivastava is an independent researcher in urban anthropology and writes fiction for young readers. He is based in Goa. He is also affiliated with PUKAR, Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research, Mumbai.