Delhi Slum Life & Self-Cultivation


A review of “I Have My Own Two Hands”: Re-Interpreting the Risks of Slum Life in Delhi and Cultivating the Self through Neighborhood, Citizenship, Kinship, and Health, by Claire Natalie Snell-Rood.

Claire Snell-Rood’s dissertation, an ethnographic study in a Delhi slum, focuses on women’s individuality and selfhood. Scholars in such sites often emphasize material survival, set against problems of poverty, conflict and illness. Snell-Rood’s project is more searching and difficult: to access women’s life-worlds, as they ground their sacrifices and efforts in a narrative of the self.

Snell-Rood accomplishes this by examining how a moral vocabulary of female personhood suffuses the banal interstices, and charged events, of locality, citizenship, kin relations and well-being. She initially came to her field site, a south Delhi slum, to study the nexus of sociality, spirituality and practice that coalesced around health and survival. This is a thriving area of study, across fields as disparate as medical anthropology, urban planning and public health. Yet too often, such work is suffused by tropes of desperation and alienation or, conversely, heroic survival and cunning entrepreneurship.

Wisely, soon after she arrives, Snell-Rood becomes attentive to how women represented their priorities. She frames this shift in attention as a shift in scholarly focus, as a movement from “wellbeing as survival” to “wellbeing as self” (p. 15). The first type of study focuses on how deficient access, security, information and quality lead to pernicious health effects. Snell-Rood deftly underlines the elisions of this approach. She notes that metaphysical, supernatural, practical and moral domains that are, in reality, intermingled, often become conceptually disaggregated.

Snell-Rood’s emphasis on “wellbeing as self,” in contrast, focuses on how slum women’s efforts to promote health are at the same time efforts to cultivate their selves. She anchors this discussion in a notion of the person that is both this-worldly and otherworldly. Building on ethnological debates on Indian personhood, Snell-Rood argues that the self is corporeally rooted and also dissolved in the afterlife. In other words, the self that is evoked here encompasses neighborly gossip, the soul’s future trajectory, and real-time familial demands.

The dissertation is structured around four dimensions of selfhood: neighborly interactions, citizenship and mobility, investment in the family, and maximizing wellness. Snell-Rood’s ethnography delves into the “urgent self” through rigorous attention to the minutia of women’s lives. She tracks how they collect water, save money, make food, move through the city, and strategize about slum demolition.

Throughout, Snell-Rood takes pains to present a complex picture of solidarity and dissension. The slum self is not coherently united vis-à-vis the rich, or the state; rather, competitive emulation, power brokerage, and whispered accusation abound. Moreover, women imperfectly balance their singular autonomy and esteem with incessant demands from relatives. Relational ties, egoistic desires, patriarchal demands, psychic resentment, and bodily cravings all figure into the matrix of the self.

Chapter 2, “Let the Dirtiness Go: Managing Relations with Neighbors to Protect the Self” (pp. 46-93), examines narrative accounts of sociality in the slum; Snell-Rood shows how people in a tenuous, transient urban milieu oscillate between trust and suspicion, conviviality and envy. She shows how important secrecy is to self-articulation, and how social bonds that could be stronger, are, to avoid entanglement, purposely weakened, thereby preserving one’s scarce resources (pp. 47-48). She also argues against prevailing interpretations of the masses, undifferentiated in sum and open-book in psyche. Snell-Rood shows that slum residents cultivate an interior self that dissembles, covets and play-acts, and is thus rendered impervious to the prying of others.

The following chapter, “‘Getting Ahead’ as Moral Citizenship in the Face of Demolition” (pp. 94-141), examines how slum residents, mostly migrants, imagine their mobility in terms of internal agency, rather than, as commonly presumed, forced desperation. Snell-Rood terms these aspirations a form of citizenship, whereby creative jockeying and earnest action is a precondition for belonging (pp. 96-97). Indeed, slum-dwellers’ drive to get ahead clashes with urgent political and ethical dilemmas, such as whether to organize against demolition, or make money via criminal methods.

Chapter 4, “‘You Should Live For Others:’ Sustaining Families, Sustaining Selves” (pp. 142-186), argues that women’s selves are inherently entangled with others, specifically their kin. Snell-Rood shows how these women are preoccupied with natal kin in far-flung rural villages, and resentful when husbands fail to give support (pp. 144-146). Fractured though these relations are, and ambivalent as the women feel, Snell-Rood emphasizes how striving towards better relations is an inherent component of their individuality.

The fifth and final ethnographic chapter, entitled “To Know the Field: Cultivating the Slum Environment” (pp. 187-225), examines how women, amidst severe constraints —  polluted land, limited water, scarce rations, waves of illness — try to maximize wellness. Snell-Rood does this through fine-grained description of how they make food, modify air and water supplies, and by engaging with wide-ranging and studies of holistic medicine on the subcontinent (pp. 223-225).

Claire Snell-Rood has written a reflective and understated ethnography that is nevertheless conceptually ambitious. She seeks a timely shift, away from a discussion of the poor that is over-determined by brute problems, by material facts, where the main human issue is of survival, and towards the more nebulous, but also more enduring locus of the self.

Ajay Gandhi
Department of Religious Diversity
Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity


One-year ethnographic work with ten women and their families living in an industrial slum in southeast Delhi, which “had immigrants from all over India and a small community of Nepalis, the majority [of whom] came from northern Indian states, particularly Uttar Pradesh” (p. 260)

Dissertation Information

University of Virginia. 2011. 281 pp. Primary Advisor: R.S. Khare.

Image: Political rally in Delhi, photograph by Claire Snell-Rood.

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