who belongs in the Indian City? – an experiment in defining indian urbanity by conner singh vanderbeek

An essay by Conner Singh Vanderbeek as part of the series Urban Body : Entrapments & Releases, to celebrate 70 years of independence.

This project is supported by Irish Home Fragrances & Converge Mobile store.

Who Belongs in the Indian City?

An Experiment in Defining Indian Urbanity

by Conner Singh Vanderbeek

Mumbai’s jagged patchwork of slum, skyscraper, slum, skyscraper from the air. Photo by the author.

“India, the new myth—a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.” –Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

Land in Mumbai’s opulent Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and see the city’s stunning incongruities. As countless skyscrapers sink into the clouds like unruly tendrils, passengers are immediately confronted with a stark contrast: slums that line the perimeter of the tarmac, always threatening to spill over the walls but kept in check by armed guard outposts punctuating the airport grounds every few meters. Perfectly manicured airport grounds against settlements of people who may never formally enter an airport. Passengers are then removed from the sightline of brick shanties with tin and tarp roofs and led to an impressive, winding airport passageway of murals and mosaics with styles hailing from throughout India’s regions and their imagined histories: a meticulously curated India they are meant to see. It is unclear at which junction one is welcomed to urban India – from the sky, the jet taxi, these hallways, the long customs queue, or from the warm blast of tadka-scented air and car horns that embrace passengers upon leaving the airport. Or perhaps it is the intense stratification inherent in all of the above.

The city is a plural space, a confounding confluence of myriad class and identity markers: money, language, ethnicity, religion, and so on. Speaking literally, the city is an amalgamation of buildings, rich and poor, that sit on contested land. The contestation of this land shows how buzzwords like “safety” and “development” are mobilized to displace the poor and redefine who is afforded citizenship in cities. Second, the city is an interconnected hub that lies at the center of multiple webs of capital; regional, national, and global migration; governmental and non-governmental organizations; and so on. Finally, the city is a fabricated ideal – an illusion of prosperity, forward thinking, and upward mobility crafted by governments, tourism agencies, and mass culture, in contrast with actual life on the ground. These points are by no means mutually exclusive; rather, they are interdependent and point to a conception of the “world-class city” as not a singular place, but a fluid, constantly shifting process with as rapidly shifting definitions.

  1. Land and the people atop it

“When you have city eyes you cannot see the invisible people, the men with elephantiasis of the balls and the beggars in boxcars don’t impinge on you, and the concrete sections of the future drainpipes don’t look like dormitories.” –Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

Slums occupy prime real estate: airport land, hotel and stadium construction sites, and plots that developers itch to break. Indian cities are paradoxically characterized by these slums and the parallel desire to legally wipe them off the face of the earth. On August 3, 2017, The Economic Times published “Meet the man who is fighting to make your airports safe” – a generous title for a slideshow of images that revealed how 39-year-old Keralan lawyer Yeshwanth Shenoy led a PIL that “single-handedly brought India’s aviation regulator to pass an unprecedented demolition order on hundreds of illegal building around Mumbai airport.” The order will lead to the demolition of 437 such illegal buildings, displacing those inhabitants and their livelihoods. And yet, the article is framed so that the moral implications of this demolition are not raised until the seventh of eight images. Rather, the safety of the passengers is held in higher esteem than the urban poor whose buildings have the audacity to aspire toward a plane’s flight path, because the existence of these airport perimeter slums, as they are framed, threatens the safety of all who fly.

This story joins the lengthening lineage of cases of city vs. slum, law vs. illegal settlements. Pushta, the Delhi slum that grew along the banks of the Yamuna when Delhi was manicured for the Commonwealth Games in 1982, was leveled in 2004, joining the 51,461 homes that had been demolished between 1990 and 2013 (Bhan, 128). In 2006, eight bulldozers razed the 1,500 homes in northwest Delhi’s Banuwal Nagar (Baviskar, 2). Annawadi, the Mumbai airport slum Katherine Boo followed in her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, was demolished because the land was owned by airport authorities who wanted foreigners’ first glimpse of India to be more carefully curated. Even Mumbai’s infamous Dharavi slum, home to between 7 and 10 lakh people crammed in just 525 acres and a thriving hip-hop scene, is not safe from this interminable post-liberalization march forward. In February of 2015, Carlin Carr reported for The Guardian that plans to redevelop Dharavi seldom consider its residents; rather, developers see the land beneath the slum dwellers as rife for a future economic hub of Mumbai – demolish first, consider later. Resettlement for these displaced poor is often mentioned in passing, but never fully materializes. As Amita Baviskar writes, “Liminal lands that the urban poor could live on have now been incorporated into the profit economy… Utopia and dystopia merge to propose a future where the poor have no place in the city” (3). “Development,” put bluntly, is a flexible word.

James Holston and Arjun Appadurai divide urban citizenship into two categories: formal and substantive (1996: 190). Formal citizenship includes the rights to vote and open a bank account, though it includes obligations like jury duty, taxes, and military service. Substantive citizenship is the right to quality of life: food, water, employment, shelter, clean air, Internet access, education, and so forth – amenities that are increasingly pay-to-play. The urban poor challenge cities and states by pushing their definitions of citizenship and to what the city-dweller is ethically afforded, thus leading governmental bodies to develop schemes of inclusion (like public housing) or to put on what Salman Rushdie calls “city eyes” – the blinders one adorns to cover the destitution constantly surrounding them in urban India (81). To avoid the guilt of being unable to provide for all – or perhaps to shirk the responsibility of such – developers and licensing authorities change the definition of citizenship, thus allowing their vision of cities-for-city-eyes to reign supreme.

And yet, the notion of citizenship is one developed in a Western intellectual history, particularly one that professes secularity and universalities too reductive to work in India. Such paradigms simply do not mesh with a land in which two people occupying the same Shaivite-trident-and-swastik-adorned auto-rickshaw may speak totally different languages and belong to opposite perspectives on religion and superstition. Indian secularity is the saturation of belief in the public sphere, rather than the determined invisibility of external faith to which the West supposedly aspires. As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes,

“Concepts such as citizenship, the state, civil society, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law, the individual, distinctions between public and private, the idea of the subject, democracy, popular sovereignty, social justice, scientific rationality, and so on bear the burden of European thought and history” (160).

These are undoubtedly beautiful ideas that have been written time and time again in the Indian Constitution, but the problem of such universalist language is that it only works when there is a universal. For a document written in English by Western-educated elite, how does one go about translating the constitution to the kaleidoscopic languages, worldviews, and disparate subjectivities of India? When one’s societal position is broadcast by their mere tongue, how might we learn to listen to those who do not speak in the dominant voice?

The political language of elision underpins Ritajyoti Banyopadhyay’s exploration of how street vendors and pavement dwellers in Calcutta are included or erased as a category in governance. To be recognized as citizens, Banyopadhyay argues that these groups must work within the dialects and dialectics of existing governmental power structures, prove their entrepreneurial use to the city, and create a paper trail that legitimizes their existence (2011: 312); otherwise, they will only ever represent an eyesore to city authorities. He echoes Appadurai’s “Deep Democracy” (2006), in which Appadurai shows how the urban poor mobilize a “politics of visibility” (36) that institutionalizes them locally between NGOs and governmental bodies, and internationally as nodes in a network of global poor: “globalization from below” (23). In other words, the poor must constantly prove their worth (economic in particular) to society at large – according to the whims of those in power – so that they may claim a precarious stake to a small box of land. They and the city that looks down upon them share a common goal: to make poverty invisible — be it through the eradication of poverty or of the poor themselves. If there are more profitable and aesthetically pleasing ways to use the land on which the poor squat, then they had best gather their scant belongings to move somewhere else.

  1. Networks and the outward glance

“Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near the ocean is well off. But the river brings darkness to India—the black river.” –Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

In September of 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched Make in India, a scheme devoted to developing partnerships between the Indian government and transnational corporate and monetary bodies. This plan will stimulate urban India by showing companies that it is cheaper to invest and produce in India than in other countries. This includes Coca-Cola, which, years before Make in India, was able to tap groundwater in a village near Jaipur for 14 paise per 1000 liters – an incredible cut from the late 1990s rates of Rs. 21 per 1000 liters in the US, Rs. 76/1000 in Canada, or Rs. 90/1000 in the UK (Aiyer 2007: 642). Plachimada, a village in Kerala, found its groundwater tapped out in the early 2000s by Coke’s harvest of up to 1.5 million liters a day. The village panchayats had authorized this corporate harvesting, as it brought quicker money than agriculture (643). Returning to Modi’s plan, the cornerstone of Make in India is the Automotive Mission Plan 2016-26, which aims to massively upscale the production of cars, three-wheelers, tractors, and automotive parts in India by 2026. This scheme is drafted without significant regard for the massive traffic jams and clouds of smog that choke urban India as a result of this increased automotive production, or the classes of people for whom these products are financially beyond reach. It is these cases of deregulation and privatization that characterize India’s post-1991 liberalization economy (641); the economy focuses intensely on exploiting the vulnerable (Adiga’s “India of Darkness”) for profit in urban markets: cheap labor, cheap resources, cheap morality, for the benefit of those with purchasing power (“India of Light”).

The city is a confluence of networks. In the above cases, this entails transnational corporations tapping local resources to provide products for urban populations, or urban poor mobilizing and learning from the impoverished in other metropoles around the world. Another such network is the Indian middle class, a rising population characterized by lifestyles and patterns of consumption made possible by technology and globalization. As Meredith McGuire writes, “‘Middle classness’ is always as much a project or claim as an empirical, socioeconomic category” (2011: 119). It includes Internet access, having a car (and maybe a driver and household help as well), fluency in English, and a performativity that models Western modes of cosmopolitanism – in McGuire’s scholarship, how to properly interact with the immaculate shopping malls that prove India’s modernity to itself. McGuire, again: “Their normative values seem to concern the ethics of consumerism rather than morality. They are not the cultivators of a national social order, but of what to wear and where to buy it” (120).

Indeed, these are all cases of how to move India upward according to a societal roadmap that is not moral but monetary: how to eradicate poverty through economic engagement, how to enter the global middle class, and how to follow the economic models of production set by so-called developed nations. You may speak Hindi with your rickshaw driver in Delhi or Mumbai, but you had best know English and wear brand-name clothing if you are looking to move up the tower block. Slavoj Žižek calls this the “paradox of colonization” (1997: 44), in which capitalism globally standardizes what people desire, then subjects everyone to that order. We are all coaxed into buying that which everyone else aspires to buy (i.e. how Calcutta is plastered with posters of Deepika Padukone taking a selfie on an Oppo smartphone), thus framing upward mobility as the accumulation of things, products, goods over the amelioration of circumstances. “The colonizing power,” Žižek writes, “is no longer a Nation-State but directly the global company” (44) – the slums along New Alipore Railway Station in Calcutta are fully equipped with satellite dishes, and the rickshaw drivers of New Delhi have recently upgraded to smartphones, courtesy of Samsung, Oppo, and Jio Reliance. Regardless of the size of their televisions or the actual balance in their phones, the poor are absorbed into a system that tells them purchasing power trumps political power.

And yet, to globalize is not to emulate the standard-setter, at least on the ground. Maruti Suzuki makes India no more Japanese than Coca-Cola makes India American. No matter how integrated the urban poor become, Biharis, Bengalis, and Muslims will be chased out of Delhi (Baviskar: 3), and Tamils, Gujaratis, and Muslims out of Mumbai. Dilip Gaonkar (2001) explains how modernity and Westernization form a culture that is adapted to the contexts in which it lands, so that Indian modernity, for example, looks fundamentally different from American modernity:

“The proposition that societal modernization, once activated, moves inexorably toward establishing a certain type of mental outlook (scientific rationalism, pragmatic instrumentalism, secularism) and a certain type of institutional order (popular government, bureaucratic administration, market-driven industrial economy) irrespective of the culture and politics of a given place is simply not true” (16).

Modernization does not replace belief, piety, or the festivals that close out each year when the heat of summer finally breaks. It does not liberate the poor from poverty, the homeless from invisibility, or Muslims from state-sanctioned violence. It enters from above and slowly trickles down, interpreted differently at each level, caste, class, echelon of society. It is the Hindu-Marathi nationalism that supercharges the Shiv Sena to persecute linguistic and religious others, the speeches Modi delivers to the international community in Hindi to assert (VHP/RSS/BJP-led) India’s arrival on the world stage. Modernization both formalizes the economy and explodes the informal economy that runs parallel. It is as much the NRI film like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham that says, “Yes, we can make it outside India and still be Indian,” as it makes an unfathomably diverse nation wonder if there’s any single such thing as Indian. And the city is the epicenter of this deluge, revealing its networks at every step down: corporations and their patchwork empires, big banks to the IMF (Oza 2001: 1071), the Jio-Airtel 4G explosion to the Internet, the countless diasporas of Punjabis, Gujaratis, Tamils, Bengalis and their nodes in international urban centers, the poor and what Mumbai slums learn from Cape Town or Rio. The Indian city is at the center of the world, yet its inhabitants constantly look outward to see how they should be living.

And that is urban India: confluences upon confluences.

  1. Mirages

“2008… was a fine time to be a garbage trader, not that that was the term passersby used for Abdul. Some called him garbage, and left him at that.” –Katerine Boo, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

We must return to the question of who belongs in the Indian city, as the poor are finding their lives increasingly devalued. As we observe the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, we are faced with the reality that Modi’s India is vastly different from the visions Nehru and Gandhi espoused. The secular India built on linguistic diversity and the creative potential of the small village has been uprooted by continued communal violence, Hindu majoritarianism, and illusions of urban prosperity. This is seen in slum demolition efforts that pluck people from the ground as though they were skin blemishes, in the name of urban beautification. A similar process drove white flight in the United States from cities to suburbs; whites did not want to see their areas overrun by minorities, so they moved away. Now, money is flowing back to the cities, and residents of metropoles like San Francisco are finding eviction notices on their doors to make room for dwellings for the nouveau riche. Gentrification – an empty, moralist politics of “this doesn’t belong in my city” – is the buzzword of class politics in urban America, though the poor of India do not have the luxury of belonging to such official, formal housing developments. Cleaning a US street with money is essentially cosmetic (retrofitting an old building and charging more for rent is a simple enough task), whereas demolishing entire slums for new, lucrative developments in urban India is a much more cystic, larger-scale issue. In either case, these are systems in which the poor – an entire class of citizens – are expendable. The valorization of foreign goods and money – a fetish that urban India has wholeheartedly adopted – has dangled in front of the poor a quick way out: buy a phone, take a few selfies, see your face blanketing Calcutta. The allure of individual success sows individual divisions, which developers are more than keen to reap.

India is 70, but its problems grow ever younger and more nefarious – from rampant consumerism and pollution to overpopulation and resource depletion. And when the eradication of poverty is interpreted as the erasure of the bottom rung of society, it leads one to wonder who will be next. If urban India belongs to the Hindu elite and the new, hip class of English-speaking affluence, it is only a matter of time before we see against whom the next pogrom is waged – Sikhs in Delhi 1984, the poor since 1991, Muslims in Mumbai 1992-93 (Nayar 2015) and Gujarat 2002 (Dawn Staff, 2016), and so on, and so on. Where do we go, then? Appadurai and Bandyopadhyay describe processes by which slums and marginalized groups gain official recognition when they shed their invisibility and take on the games of governmental bodies. This requires resisting the allure of things, products, goods as the path to self-improvement, but instead viewing self-improvement as a collective, long-term endeavor. Poverty is not glamorous, and it robs its victims of the ability to mobilize themselves towards anything but subsistence. The impoverished are numerous and nameless, referred to simply as the poor: a problem to be solved, not a mosaic of people and their dreams, stories, and nightmares. Why must they fight for recognition? What is the cost of our city eyes? The question of who belongs in the city is the question of who deserves to be under the gaze of the outside world, and Modi’s India, it seems, would much rather hide the poor than show that even the most densely-populated, downtrodden pockets of India’s gleaming, filthy cities can make it in the country’s incredible, impossible patchwork.

Give the poor voice, for they are indispensable. All the world’s most pressing problems are occurring every day in India, and the slum is the very battleground upon which these wars are waged. And we must conceive of the poor not by their caste or faith affiliation, as reservation has so far been a forum for governmental representation, not class advancement. Poverty is an inevitability of capitalism, but apathy toward the poor does not have to be. If the rest of India continues to ignore the plight of the poor, then it is only a matter of time before they, too, will be staring down the same precipices. As Bhabani Sengupta wrote of 1990 Calcutta,

“Calcutta itself has profoundly changed in its character… the life of the megalopolis has shifted to the crowded suburbs with all the agonies and anguishes, toils and turmoils emanating from overcrowding, an incredible shortage of housing, lack of roads and other civic amenities, endless ‘load-shedding’ and paucity of transport. The appalling disorder of life in most of Calcutta and in the huge suburbia around it, is too barren to produce sparks of radical thought or action. It is a molten universe of lumpen humanity, thriving on wholesale or retail crime, and supplying muscle power to political parties as and when required” (37).

To move forward, India must consider the vast human and cultural price of its ongoing post-liberalization boom, and the blind eye it has developed to those on the ever-expanding bottom rung of its society. For those people, too, have adopted the outlook that money over knowledge is power, and that power lies in the possession of things. Find a vision of society that does not require people to buy into the temptations the outside world has to offer, and see India learn to salvage its treasures within.

Works Cited

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About Conner Singh VanderBeek


I am a biracial Punjabi-American Sikh based somewhere between California, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Toronto, with additional research ties throughout England and India.
I write music and words, study contemporary Punjabi art, culture, and diaspora, and do visuals and video. I travel more than my budget sometimes allows.
I also play piano and harmonium, sew stuffed animals, and attend the PhD Program in Ethnomusicology at University of Michigan.My art explores narratives of trauma, belonging, Sikh identity, and mundanity through styles ranging from jazz and classical to performance art and noise.My research is on South Asian artists in North America and India and how they negotiate race, language, class, and gender through social media and technology. I also focus on cultural memory and religious politics in the Sikh diaspora.
Conner has lived and worked in India.

A note on Urban Body : entrapments & releases

70 years after freedom, India is clearly an important part of the global development paradigm. The trajectory is gradually but surely moving, tending towards an universalized architecture of  urbanity.  Yet pathways to future seems to be determined but not self -determined. The position of liberties which freedom offers are constantly evolving through a continuous discourse amongst diverse forces.The urban spaces meanwhile are mangled, chaotic, polluted, dystopian – much an result of sudden influxes and accidental growth rather than of planned development – merely factories and supermarkets of bodies in motion – plugged effectively to a matrix which is centralized and oriented towards productivity.Urbanity – symbolic of progress is also the colonization of the body, mind & soul. It is the desecration of the soul, deconstruction of the body and remolding of culture. 70 years after independence the urban body is entrapped, colonized, by powers which are invisible yet more efficient.Hence we look at writings which examines this entrapment and the quest for release – to liberate.   Writings which helps us to negotiate, envision and determine  – to love , to live and progress as individuals & as a collective, in and from – this urban dystopia.

This project is supported by Iris Home Fragrance.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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