Tuesday 22 July 2014

The Heart of Light

Several meetings were held with the police officials of the area for the prevention of Nigerians and transgenders. An account of the wrongful activities going on here was given to them. As a result, the SHO closed down the places for vending liquor and other nefarious activities in the neighbourhood. All landlords are requested not to let their properties to Nigerians or other such disruptive elements.

This is the translation of a paragraph in a pamphlet issued by the Khirki Residents' Welfare Association earlier this year after a raid was conducted by Somnath Bharti, law minister in the Aam Aadmi Party government. Members of the African community were accused of being part of a drug and sex racket, searched, and publicly manhandled. The premise of this attack was not the due process of law. It derived its confidence of legitimacy from the complaints of many of the 'aggrieved' residents. These grievances emerged from a prevalent set of stereotypes that can get thus proliferated only in gullies that rub against and merge into each other, as in Khirki. The murmurs collude in insisting that Africans, especially Nigerians, are here for drug dealing and prostitution. When Joanna (name changed), an African student from Malawi says that she gets a three-year visa in one go while her Nigerian friends have to get it renewed every year, sometimes every six months, it becomes clear that one is dealing not just with mohalla rumours here but set perceptions at a much more deep-rooted level. The comfortable gullibility with which accusations become trusted facts stands out in sharp relief against the city's famed hospitality, its readiness to accommodate and fete guests. Would the prejudices in the Khirki lanes be so pronounced, authorities so casual, had the accused been from the other side of the Mediterranean? It is difficult to imagine the RWAs subjecting European visitors to such obloquy, though they have their own challenges to deal with.

Ola Jason, an erstwhile resident of Khirki who moved out to Chhatarpur some time after the incident, says, 'When you have pain, you have a story.' It is to trace this story that I traversed the streets of Khirki, to learn about the lives and aspirations of the African dwellers there beyond their status as victims. When I had moved to Malviya Nagar, the first piece of information I had received about Khirki was, 'You can get places at low rents there. But because the buildings stand so close together facing each other, not enough light comes through.' My visit to the place happened once or twice only to go to some Internet cafe for a print-out or to go to the ATM. I remember feeling, on these couple of occasions, more conscious of what I was wearing as the narrow lanes made you feel that not just the buildings but also the people were standing too close to you. Then a few months back I signed up for a dance workshop in Gati studio there, a privileged space, a protected corner in Delhi where you could feel completely free learning about how much exalting movement and expression your body is capable of, instead of just being something you're always trying to protect.

Gati Studio/Photograph courtesy: Soumik Mukherjee

As I stepped out of the studio each day after my class, my perception also changed. Far from being intrusive, the alleys seemed to contain an open community space, a common courtyard where people weren't just locked up inside their homes but were out there, interacting with each other, bargaining, selling, living the ease-and not the paranoia-of being the part of a crowd. The lanes came alive with the chatter, robust humour, bustle . . . the sheer assertion of being there. Those days I would take my own time getting back home, leisurely walking to take in the surroundings, buying vegetables, getting a recharge for my phone.

Now, when I notice the remarkable number of CCTV cameras perched over the streets like birds of prey waiting for their death feast in silent alertness, asking everyone to remember they are under the gaze, I wonder if, like me, for other residents of Khirki too their own mental state determines what they find in their surroundings. Are the lenses a source of reassurance or an infringement for them? Do they feel more secure or violated? Do the machines instil confidence or lend insecurities to their daily milieu? I try to think about what may have happened for them to project their fear upon what has otherwise been a safe space. What was their reason for having unleashed this vigilantism upon their African neighbours?

A CCTV camera notice in Khirki

Khirki's own landscape defies definitions. A road going uphill will suddenly plunge into a godown of watermelons. You enter one end not knowing what you will find at the other. The lanes which house Khoj, an artists' association, and the NGO Swechha, along with Gati, best illustrate the tone and temperament of the place. Looking around the labyrinth of lanes you can quickly make out why members of other nationalities feel more at ease there. The street is abuzz with people, shops and vendors so that the walking area is reduced to a narrow strip. One 'apartment gate' could lead to basement parking, another could be an opening to an entirely distinct lane of houses, and yet another could be the entry to a salon with 'Namaste' graffiti stamps on one wall and bold, colourful, 'India Beyond' on the other. A closet-like tailoring shop rubs shoulders with a pakora shop, and the entire scene is duly punctuated with vegetable vendors. The mix of voices tells you that you are amidst people from many places-India and beyond.

Basement salon

I look at the African residents purposefully going out for their planned evenings and question the ethics of accosting them to ask my questions. On the first day I decide not to, until I have got appointments through friends. After a few days have passed with no leads and I have grown more desperate, I visit again and finally decide to ask a girl who has been walking in the area for some time and therefore, I try to tell myself, may be relatively free. I approach her and tell her about the idea behind this story and she agrees to speak to me some day soon, giving me her number of her own accord. I am surprised by and grateful for her trust. However, on the appointed day she does not turn up, either understandably upset about my not having been able to confirm an earlier appointment or having had apprehensions about the interview in retrospect.

It is not easy to establish contact with the Africans living in Khirki. Some of my mails to Indian artists and photographers well versed with the area-full of promises to respect my interviewees' privacy and to tread with sensitivity-go unanswered. These are people who in all likelihood are by now tired of people plaguing them with similar requests, having already complied with many. Other, closer friends do their best to help and succeed in putting me in touch with a couple of their African friends. My friends warn me that it was months before they could win the trust of their neighbours from another continent and, as it turns out, even with a reference many choose not to talk to me. After the raid and the subsequent controversy, and the tension gripping the area, there has been a certain amount of mistrust around Indians. There could also be the threat of being singled out because of their statements. Talking to African students studying in the universities here, whom I also met to get their perspective, was a little easier. As Jason tells me, like him, many Africans also decided to leave Khirki after the raid and are now settled in different areas from Chhatarpur to Janakpuri.

Srishti Lakhera, a filmmaker living in the colony, says that while Indian men gawking at or harassing women in the city is a common enough experience, she never faced any trouble from anyone of African nationality. In fact she has some good friends in the community. While I and my friend wait outside an apartment to meet an African contact for this piece, we find ourselves being looked at by many men. Some are also of African origin, though considering my several visits to Khirki the latter could be called an exception. In spite of knowing that generalization is a dangerous tendency in the social paradigm, we still let stereotypes target a community, more so if it is small and vulnerable. The media makes us feel so outraged every time there is news about Indians insensitively frisked at airports. We are incensed over 'our' people being subjected to discrimination in high-profile areas of corporate affairs, sports and diplomacy. Have we still learnt nothing about the injustice we commit and the intolerance we encourage by 'othering' communities? If Marie Curie is to be believed, 'Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.' But we tend to feel fear, not healthy curiosity, wherever we find difference. We discriminate not just on the basis of countries but states, regions, caste, sub-caste, language, dialect, class. In Khirki, Muslim landlords prefer African Muslims as tenants rather than Christians from the same place. Halilu Babaji, a Nigerian doctoral candidate in Delhi University, asks, 'How can you judge someone unless you know them personally?' There are drug dealers and prostitutes in India too, even if we do not get into a debate over their legal status here. Srishti says that such Indians have learned to be more discreet, and even know their way around authorities. On the other hand, Africans, used to a much more open culture, aren't used to such caution. They literally have to pay for being 'them' as the rents they are charged are higher than those paid by 'us', Indians.

Babaji with a memento received in a university conference

Women of African descent have to sometimes face the worst of it. Unlike most Indian women, African women can be seen carrying themselves unapologetically and easily. Probably for several Indian men this becomes, as other signs of independence in women, a cause for insecurity, or disturbs their religious sense of virtue that is seen as reposited with women, and they pass lewd comments on the women. Despite such attacks, I notice with great respect that the women retain their uninhibited body language and often dress in their traditional attire, instead of always trying to conform and escape undue attention. Babaji recalls an African friend who once went up to an Indian woman to ask something and she panicked and started screaming. He finds the African culture better in this regard for it allows men and women to have regular interactions and does not compel them to remain alien to each other. He adds that while behaving in such spaces men know the laws and the consequences of not respecting women, or of trying to impose themselves on women. If India too, he feels, would be less conservative about following a rigid code of separation between men and women, there would be far fewer instances of violence on women.

In Khirki there are Africans who have earlier lived in other cities like Hyderabad and Pune, and find them much better and open minded. Temidara, a student from Ekiti, Nigeria, who has lived in Chandigarh and Mohali, describes her overall experience there as 'pretty good'. A Master's student Yucee Okoronkwo, whose name doesn't seem so unfamiliar to his literature friends who have studied Achebe's Things Fall Apart in Delhi University, has recently finished his dissertation on the anti-terrorism laws of India and Nigeria and is an avid blogger on the legal-political issues of both the regions. I ask him if he would have liked to stay in a place other than Delhi. He replies that despite its discriminatory practices, Delhi would probably still be more adaptive to foreigners, being more used to them. He remembers a trip to Himachal, which for all its beauty had irked him when people there would go around clicking his pictures without permission. Once he leaves, he says, he would miss India's cultural variety, which he had best experienced living in DU's International Students House and while organizing the intercultural festivals there. In these festivals students from different countries would participate with their music, dance, food, dresses and crafts. Kelvin Obi Olisamuni from Lagos, Nigeria, who has passed out of Ramjas College and Jamia Millia Islamia and lives in Kalkaji, also appreciates this about Delhi and is glad to have met his French girlfriend here. He agrees finding friendships becomes easier if you are in the university, that too as an undergraduate when other students are also new, still trying to find their footing. Joanna feels the same. She met her best friend from Assam on her very first day in Miranda House as a political science student.

However, students cannot be on campus all the time, where they have understanding, camaraderie and much more respect for differences. Once out on the road, they too have to face stares and catcalls. Kelvin says, 'When I hear them calling me names like kalu and habshi, I really want to ask them to grow up. I am a black man and proud of it. But what's wrong with Indians who are so crazy about fairness creams? For me someone's fairness doesn't make a difference. You have to be smart to get my attention. That's why I like Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra better.' Joanna quips, 'Why am I always asked what I am doing in India? Do Indians feel that their country is not worth coming to? I would understand if they would ask me something more specific like what my special motivation was or about the particular things I like in this country.' Her response to hoots is to plug in her earphones and block the voices out, though she frets about her sister in Daulat Ram College who is much more vulnerable. Babaji feels that while racism exists in a country like the UK too, there people are careful not to let it show blatantly, 'I once boarded an auto here and the driver asked me to get off. After I did, I saw that a few metres ahead he picked up an Indian passenger. He describes another incident, 'I used to go to this shop where the shopkeeper would keep attending to other customers, ignoring me for a long time. Once a foreigner intervened on my behalf and called out the store owner.' In India other foreigners would often reach out to him, though he ultimately made Indian friends too and grew close to them.

Jason's experience of being gazed at was slightly different. 'When I was in Khirki, I used to work out in the gym for an hour. Eventually I had to reduce it to fifteen minutes because people would be gaping at me all the time. When I would ask them why, they would compliment me on having a great body and ask for tips about what they should eat and drink to have a body like mine,' he blushes. He continues to have this experience on the Metro and on the road. Like Kelvin, he too has had modelling offers and even accepted some (though one couldn't help notice that Lee Cooper chose to dress up Kelvin as a Masai warrior and a white guy in jeans to show stages of evolution in human clothing styles). Jason elaborates, 'When people look at me, it makes me anxious about what they might be thinking. So I ask them why. And even if they had something else on their mind, I would prefer if they say that they were admiring something about me, though such stares too can be tiring.' He is often benign in his treatment of onlookers, 'When a man once asked me if I were a south Indian and asked to touch my hair, I let him. By doing so, I helped him accomplish a mission going on in his own mind or it would have kept troubling him.' In strangers he was able to find some of his closest friends. An old man befriended him on the Metro and later had his son pick Jason up and bring him home. It developed into a relationship with all the family members, joining them for lunches and dinners and learning to cook Indian food. When not too tired to opt for KFC or Domino's, Jason cooks Indian and African food and is aghast that I cannot make chapattis.

For Chike, another Nigerian, who owns a salon on the outer side of Khirki facing the Saket malls, the 'auto man' is his best friend who comes whenever Chike gives him a call and takes him wherever he needs to go. He has been in Delhi for a year and while the salon is doing well with several Indian men as part of its clientele, he could do better, Chike feels, if he could also open his cafe. He proudly recounts how all his meat pies got sold in the Antarrashtriya Khirkee Festival organized in March 2014 by a community of resident artists and others. But because of language issues he is unable to communicate with his landlord for a little more space for the cafe.

Chike in his salon

For Kelvin and Jason, Bollywood fans with a host of Indian friends, language isn't a similar barrier. Jason remembers how at home he would be doing dishes to the tune of 'Yeh duniya ek numberi, toh main das numberi' as a child. Even then he knew that he would be coming to India one day, though people at home often miss him and feel he should come home now. Talking of his reasons for leaving Khirki, Jason shares that he used to be an articulate, vocal member of the community. When the raid happened, national and international journalists were coming to speak to him. His name became familiar in the locality and he also got a call from Somnath Bharti's office about creating an Indo-African community. All this created suspicion around him in the community; some felt Jason was trying to sell them out. He felt that his landlord had started seeing him as a threat. His apartment was broken into, and money and valuables were stolen. He then decided it was time to move out and keep to himself for some time. In response to a question about what he does, his answer is, 'I can sing, I can cook, I can make someone look good, like in a salon, I can write, and I can make documentaries.' His current passion project is to start a magazine, which would serve as a space for African voices, 'Many people have faced many troubles but don't have the space to share. Reading about others will help them believe they too can do something.' Leaning against a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., he talks of how Gandhi and Mandela had to struggle so much, 'But ultimately it is their success that is celebrated.' He refers to a park in Malviya Nagar as his example, saying it won't have been named after Bhagat Singh had he not been a revolutionary, 'A strong leader has a clear vision and clears all the roadblocks in his path.' This is the sort of vision he now has for the magazine. His other dream is to have a storytelling place for children called 'Tales by Moonlight'. He wants that kids from different national backgrounds should get together to share their stories, play games and attend and participate in dance and musical performances. Through this, he hopes to make them culturally rich and tolerant from the very beginning.

Ola Jason

Possibly the Antarrashtriya Khirkee Festival organized in Khirki and Sheikh Sarai was a glimpse of the dreams Jason and others like him cherish. The 'friendship festival', through the participation of the numerous nationalities living in Khirki, had a photo exhibition, food stalls, video screenings, singing and drumming. It had Indian kids joining their African friends in hip hop performances and African youth rapping in Hindi. Another significant effort in bridging interracial differences was Gabriel Dattatreyan's film Cry Out Loud, which not only documents the community's experiences but also uses young local talent to put the film together. Baba Da Dhaba, an open air eatery run by Indians, is a place Africans come to for their north Indian fare. One hopes that through the contribution of both Indian and African communities more such spaces for mingling and dialogue grow, and that soon enough, along with Sai Mandir and Krishna Mandir, 'Tales by Moonlight' becomes a popular landmark in the area.

Baba Da Dhaba

Srishti Lakhera and Smita Rakesh participated in conducting some of the interviews. All photographs of people and their properties have been taken with permission.

First published in The Equator Line, Jul-Sep, 2014. Later published in the anthology The Best of TEL, May 2015.


manju said...

The much awaited article. Liked every bit of it like a mouth watering cuisine. Very well expressed and I hope will clear many misconceptions as it cleared mine . Hope they also read it and be comfortable in our country.

Unknown said...

Is a good starting for understanding our differences. African's are friendly people in all their manners and behavior. And in terms of crime committed by some Africans, many Indians always generalized it upon all Africans which is very wrong. In every country,societies and communities their are good and bad citizens. Be with Africans, and you will see how hospitality they are.

ഹസനുൽ ബന്ന said...

Well done Ankita. It is an eye opener to all. You are the Aam Aadmi.

probe said...

Extremely insightful and very, very, well written. Thanks for this bit of enlightenment wrapped in layers of good writing :)

ankita said...

You make me happy.

jabber said...

Thank you for mentioning Antarrashtriya Khirkee. Here is a link to the project page >> http://khirkee-2014.tumblr.com/.

ankita said...

I didn't know of this page. Thanks for sharing.

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