Rambling with Rukka: A Moving Memoir by Rukmini Srinivas and Lakshmi Srinivas

Rukmini Srinivas and Lakshmi Srinivas
09 Jul 2024 8 min read  Share

“On my repeat visits to the slums, I was invited inside the dwellings of the slum dwellers. And each time I entered, I would be simply stunned at what I saw. I had to reframe my impressions and assumptions of the interior of a house in a slum.”

Co-authored by mother and daughter Rukmini and Lakshmi Srinivas, Rambling with Rukka: A Moving Memoir is a glimpse into the personal and professional history of  geographer, television chef and author Rukmini Srinivas. She is also wife of the late M N Srinivas, India’s most distinguished sociologist and social anthropologist, whom  she refers to in the book as Chamu, as he was known to friends and family in his hometown of Mysuru.

Told through anecdotes and experiences in places as far apart as Bengaluru and Boston, the book travels from Rukmini’s childhood in pre-Independence India in the 1930s to the present day. The book is as much about cooking and kitchen gardens as it is about urban planning and anthropology, academia and research.

Rukmini, who taught at university and then in Bengaluru schools, was also a field researcher for the first Bangalore City Survey. As a result of the fieldwork, she got to know Bengaluru first-hand, long before it became India’s tech-capital. The authors write of her driving her 1950s vintage Fiat along the length and breadth of the city and its outskirts, “stopping every now and then to admire the purple jacaranda in full bloom, scarlet gulmohar and pink-blossomed rain trees, with their canopies spreading across the street”. 

Besides collecting information on the city’s development and radial growth from the land records office and the Bangalore Development Authority, earlier known as the City Improvement Trust Board (CITB) of Bengaluru, Rukmini also visited slums across the city. Her anecdotes from that period of her life describe a young new city’s growing pains and its deep emotional connections to a still-rural hinterland.  

Lakshmi Srinivas is a sociologist and anthropologist, and a teacher at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Lakshmi’s first monograph, House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience, based on fieldwork in Bengaluru, is the first in-depth ethnography of cinema-going in India.  


I am thinking of the Siddapura slum adjoining the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in South Bangalore, the slum that supplies the neighbouring upper middle-class households of the localities of Jayanagar and Wilson Gardens with their domestic maids, gardeners, home watchmen, municipal street cleaners and other supporting help; of the Pottery Town slum in North Bangalore, from where the residents of the neighbouring Williams Town, Benson Town, Richards Town, as also those of Jayamahal, source not only their vegetable vendors, carpenters and household help but also the clay pots for their well-maintained gardens and mud images of Ganesha for Ganesha Chaturthi celebrated every year. When I moved to live in Benson Town and visited Pottery Town more frequently for introducing my senior class students to the basic elements of fieldwork, the Ganesha idol-making had reached gigantic proportions witnessing ever-larger mud Ganeshas ordered by institutions and temples.

The dhobi ghat slum in Ulsoor, adjoining the precincts of Indira Nagar and Mahatma Gandhi Road near the Gurudwara, was another focal point. I was introduced to this locality by one of its illustrious residents, Shri Byrappa, a building contractor for the well-known and prestigious architecture firm, Chandavarkar and Thacker. Bearded and impressive, Byrappa was an active member of the slum community. I got to know him well over a period of two years and he remained a friend. He and I spent many hours sitting on the cement platform around the temple in the slum, discussing the haphazard growth of the city. He introduced me to his friends in other squatter settlements and slums and willy-nilly facilitated my research. I ultimately conducted a detailed study of three slums: the Murphy Town slum, bordering the connecting road between Ulsoor and the newly developed extension of Indira Nagar; the Pottery Town slum settlement along the Bore Bank Road, running parallel to the railway tracks through Benson Town; and the Siddapura slum settlement between the localities of Wilson Garden and Jayanagar 1st Block and adjoining the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens.

The Bangalore City Survey, which lasted for over two years, led to the publication of the Bangalore City Survey monograph, initiated and supported by the Indian Council for Social Science Research.

When our family moved to Benson Cross Road, my husband and I familiarized ourselves with the neighbourhood during our evening walks. That is how we stumbled upon the Pottery Town settlement. When I mentioned my discovery of Pottery Town to my new neighbour, she exclaimed, ‘Oh! That dirty place with young louts from the slums!’ To me, neither did it seem dirty (anyway, not more so than other neighbourhoods I have visited) nor did I encounter young men whom I would call ‘louts’.

In fact, the slum study I did for the Bangalore City Survey was eye-opening for me. Contrary to my earlier impression and expectation of a higgledy-piggledy assembly of hutments and kutcha houses crammed together, with no space to expand, I found there was some organic structure in the development. I was able to continue with my exploration of this type of settlement which I began when working on the Bangalore City Survey.

Chamu and I walked through long, narrow but well-swept streets with semi-detached single-storey modest houses. A signboard read, ‘Drive Slow’. It is true that there was no proper arrangement for surface drainage and I jumped over improvised bridges of brick and granite stepping stones, trying to navigate the streets that had pools of stagnant water. Though it was part of the city, the atmosphere was very rural. Ducks and chickens strutted about freely. There were small one-room tenements and single-storey houses along narrow streets and lanes, some unpaved. The houses fronted onto the street and there were little patches of marigold plants or a flowering jasmine creeper in a tiny space. We stopped to admire the sight.

Goats and cows tethered to moringa trees growing on the roadside also lent a ‘rural’ air. Very often, there would be a sheaf of moringa leaves tied low on a tree trunk for the goats to chew on. As I stopped in the middle of the road to avoid the scurrying fowl, an elderly sun-tanned woman emerged from a doorway with sheaves of leaves which she shoved before the goats. She recognized Chamu and me as strangers to the area and asked if we were lost. ‘No. We are admiring this street,’ I replied. She invited us into her home, took us through the long narrow dwelling to a backyard garden. You would never have thought such a beautiful and fragrant space existed behind the huts. There were several sweet-smelling jasmine plants, a couple of tulsi shrubs and a few bright-orange marigold bushes. Three moringa trees, tall and laden with drumsticks, as the long pods were called, caught my eye. She said immediately, ‘Whenever you need flowers for your pooja, or moringa leaves and drumsticks for cooking, come over and help yourself.’ What generosity! And that too to complete strangers, I thought and said so to Chamu. I had not cooked drumstick leaves in years after leaving our home on Cavalry Lane in Delhi, where I had grown six trees in our back garden.

From that day on, the woman, whose name I learnt was Vanaja, would stop me with a gift of a handful of drumstick stems with luscious, fresh green leaves and half a dozen fresh drumsticks. She was thrilled when I gave her a few Easter lily bulbs from my garden. Her highly developed sense of reciprocity goaded her into gifting me with omum (carom seeds) plants and from then on, we were on a plant-exchange relationship. One day she visited me in my home on Benson Cross Road, and a few days later, she arrived with three of her grandchildren to show them our backyard jackfruit tree laden with fruits. She did not return home empty-handed.

As I learnt from Vanaja, moringa could be propagated by cuttings as also with seeds. I planted a moringa sapling in our garden at Benson Cross, as far away from the house as possible, for it was well known that the trees attract a particular type of hairy caterpillar.

On my repeat visits to the slums, I was invited inside the dwellings of the slum dwellers. And each time I entered, I would be simply stunned at what I saw. I had to reframe my impressions and assumptions of the interior of a house in a slum. I was welcomed into neat, clean, well-organized spaces, some with front hallway, where I was invited to sit. The seating area led to a small kitchen space that was the hub of the house. The kitchens had wooden shelves on which gleaming pots and pans of burnished brass and copper were  neatly arranged. A couple of skillets hung from hooks on the wall, and all the food was cooked on a woodfire stove. Beyond the makeshift cotton curtain was the family bedroom. Bedding rolls were neatly stacked against the wall and a reed mat was spread on the floor. In one house, a baby’s hammock cradle was slung from the ceiling. In a couple others, I was surprised to find a calendar with an image of Jesus Christ next to which was a framed picture of a Hindu goddess. In one Christian household, I learnt that the daughter-in-law of the house was Hindu.

(Excerpted with permission from Rambling with Rukka: A Moving Memoir by Rukmini Srinivas and Lakshmi Srinivas, published by Rupa.)    

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