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On the borderlands of university/city: Spatial stories of student housing in India

On the borderlands of university/city: Spatial stories of student housing in India

by Chan Arun-Pina

Chan Arun-Pina (they/them)

There is a shocking dearth of work within the current geographies of sexualities and the emerging trans geographies literature at the spatial scale of urban housing, with a particularly normative gap yet to be filled attending to transient housing such as urban rental housing (i.e., non-ownership based), and institutional housing (i.e., often gender-dichotomous). Simultaneously, with rapid urbanization, contemporary Indian megacities confront an ongoing double crisis in education and housing sectors. Located on the “borderlands" (Anzaldúa, 1987) of the university and the city, in my doctoral study, “Critical Geographies of Non-normative Homes: Student Housing in New Delhi and Mumbai, India”, I attend to everyday experiences of discrimination and precarity in securing housing and making homes as encountered by queer/trans identifying university students.

As part of MITACS RTA 2020, I conducted “spatial stories” (de Certeau, 1980) with twenty-eight (28) university students who have completed/in progress at least one degree from Delhi University (DU), New Delhi and/or Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai between 2010-2020.

For Michel de Certeau, engaging spatial stories is a way to mentally organize and understand spaces to represent both personal and culturally rooted accounts. I utilize my trans-disciplinary training in architecture, visual art and human geography in deriving creative research methods for both, research fieldwork as well as research analysis. In my doctoral fieldwork I take on Stender’s (2017) question, “how to interview a house” on a research field, rather than simply interviewing people living in the house. I consider what socio-spatial configurations, physical locations and psychogeographic distances (from familial homes and affiliated university campuses) do the homes of gender and sexuality non-normative university students possess, and, with what re-imaginary possibilities?

Re-imagining the university/city boundary. Old campus, TISS University, Mumbai. Source: Author

The question of both on/off-campus student housing is invariably intertwined with that of higher education institutions, thus, tracing “academic pathways” alongside students’ “housing biographies” has been one of the primary objectives throughout the fieldwork. To fully comprehend the on/off campus environment, a combination of virtual walkthrough of student homes/rooms and university campus was undertaken with each student participant. Since all participants were either telling their accounts in retrospect or from (pandemic-related) distance, mental maps and photo-elicitation archives were employed to traverse through their layered spatial experience: built, lived as well as felt/imagined (Arun-Pina, in-review).

In response to the on-campus students’ Queer Collective’s activism since 2016 to voice the spatial needs of trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) students on campus, in September 2018, the TISS university administration allocated one of the wings of an existing women's PhD hostel as what has since come to be widely known as “India’s first gender-neutral hostel” (GNH). Following effectively last two years of occupation of the GNH, what does the success side of a gender/trans-inclusive space look like? Through my fieldwork, I engaged with 13 members of the QC as well as residents of the GNH to learn of their vision for and lived experiences of the gender-neutral hostel. Subsequently, I perform a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of the gender-neutral hostel to pose spatial questions yet to be considered in queer/trans student activism. Currently, I am in the process of analyzing student testimonies through making graphic poems representing the un/heard and in/visible dimensions of student housing.

Currently, I am in the process of analyzing student testimonies through making graphic poems representing the un/heard and in/visible dimensions of student housing.

Tent-Pool is a graphic poem illustrating sustained and ingrained, yet dynamic spatial memories re-lived through a student’s housing biography. Source: Author

Chan Arun-Pina (they/them) is currently a doctoral candidate in Geography at the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change at York University and a professionally trained architect and visual artist. They were an urban fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore in 2016-17. In the last ten years, across disciplines, their research/artwork is a meditation on notions of domesticity as conflated with cis-heteronormativity in/of familial homes, and its residues in the design and administration of institutional and urban rental housing. They have presented at conferences and exhibited their artwork across cities in India, Canada and the US deliberating questions of mis/gendering in post-secondary institutions, challenging cis-heteronormative domesticities, and re-imagining visual optics and spatiality of gender and sexual expressions in the urban through autoethnography.