Adjust (adaptation Indian style)

Young men 'adjust' on fairground ride by standing on the seats.

Young men 'adjust' on fairground ride by standing on the seats.

'Adjust' karna hai - one must adjust

Heid Jerstad

Climate change demands a response. Conventionally this has been divided into mitigation: the reduction of emissions and the shifting of energy infrastructures into less greenhouse-gas-intensive forms; and adaptation. Adaptation in this context refers to changes made to reduce the negative effects of climate change on people and the environment, the realm of necessary water, food and air. In practice adaptive changes (when not conflicting with mitigation efforts, for instance the use of AC (Cooper 1998)) are by definition beneficial, to people and to their capacity to live good lives into the future. However, the word has also been used in unhelpful ways to hide what Chakrabarty has called the gaps between the global problem and local implications (2014:3). The word adaptation comes from biology, where it describes the evolutionary process and the idea of a species being adapted to an environment. Humans are currently falling behind in adaptation, one might say, because the Anthropocene world is changing around us, if unevenly. And many people in the Global South as well as marginalised people all over the world have a doubly uphill journey because not only is climate change disproportionately affecting the places where they live and work, they are also less financially capable to build resilience: walls against flooding, shift to new kinds of crops, leave home and make a life elsewhere. 

This is all pretty much accepted by people who work with climate change. However, I would like to suggest another word, not to replace the term adapt, but to describe with more fidelity what the adapt term smoothens over and leaves out. Adaptation as a concept shares more with a sense of infinite natural resources (cf Brown 2013 on wastelands, Paolisso 2003 on fishermen’s ideas of crab resources) than the limits of the earth’s capacity (United Nations 1987). Enter the term ‘adjust.’ Its current aptness derives from how it is used in Indian English, rather than British, American or other forms of English (see Chauhan 2009). The Hindi and Pahari-speakers I worked with in the Indian Himalayas who do not speak English used it (alongside terms such as ‘light,’ meaning electricity, and ‘battery,’ meaning torch). 

‘Adjust,’ in the north Indian context, is what one does as a person, as a woman, child or low status man, not what one does to an object, as in British English. ‘Adjust’ is a personal, bodily strategy, done in response to both social and logistical factors. It happens in relation to a particular situation. On the bus in India, adjustment is called for when someone wants to sit down, regardless of the intended number of seats. This form of adjustment is such a familiar idea that it was used as part of a television ad for mens underwear, as told by Jeffrey: 


   ‘The television ad for the pants begins with a man sitting on a milepost waiting for a bus. Another man walks up and asks the first man to "adjust" slightly, so that he can share the seat. We also see people squeezing into a tiny space on a train, a man barging his way to the front of a queue for cinema tickets, and people clambering onto the roof of a bus.

    A voiceover cuts in: "How often in life do we have to adjust?" It asks in Hindi, but using the English word "adjust". "But with our underwear it is different. The fit is so great, there is no need to adjust."

    The final punchline is that VIP are India's first "hands-free underpants". Men no longer have to adjust their crotches in public, because the underpants fit so well.’ (Jeffrey 2014).


It is not only men who are called on to 'adjust.' In Pahari north India a woman is generally required to ‘adjust’ on marriage to her husband’s house, to her in-laws, the expectations regarding behaviour and the work. During my PhD fieldwork in Himachal Pradesh I was called upon to ‘adjust’ when space was needed for male guests at a village wedding, they used the room I usually shared with the children in the household while I slept elsewhere. Anupriya, whose room I shared, adjusted to her brother’s early morning studying by pulling the quilt over her head, much like Kali, our neighbour, did to adjust to the mice who moved around freely in the room where she slept. Adjustment in India, as in the advert for underwear, often implies discomfort, there is only so much space on the bus seat, it would be easier to breathe without the quilt over ones face. Adjusting is neither natural nor desirable, it is externally imposed, socially (remaining docile before in-laws), or environmentally (Kali did not have a cat as Anupriya and I did).

Climate change involves reduced flexibility and increased constraint. The term adapt can blur experiences of hindrances, making do and difficulties of various kinds. There may be points where adapting to the changed world makes life harder, heavier, and even, shorter. If we understand the world as finite then at some point adaptation will hit a wall, for instance a landslide stops the bus entirely, or another person simply cannot be squeezed onto the seat. Then the adjusting people must do becomes fraught, or even, not possible.





Cooper, Gail. 1998. Air-conditioning America : engineers and the controlled environment, 1900-1960. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2014. "Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories."  Critical Inquiry 41 (1):1-23.

Chauhan, Anuja. 2009. Hinglish. It's got Aux, boss! Times of India. Published 11.01.2009. Accessed 06.01.2017.

Brown, Kate. 2013. Plutopia : nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jeffrey, Craig. 2014. English explodes in India - and it's not just Hinglish BBC Magazine Published 30.06.2014. Accessed 06.01.2017.  

Paolisso, Michael. 2003. "Chesapeake Bay Watermen, Weather and Blue Crabs: Cultural Models and Fishery Policies." In Weather, climate, culture, edited by Sarah Strauss and Benjamin S. Orlove. Oxford: Berg.

United Nations, (1987) Our Common Future - Brundtland Report. Oxford University Press.