Saturday, 15 November 2014

Whatever happened to the great debate?

On 6 November 2014 BBC World invited three panellists from different sectors to debate on ‘A New India: Free, Fair and Prosperous’ as part of the World Economic Forum. Issues of content and objectivity apart, one still has high expectations of a group like BBC when it comes to setting high standards of form. But this ‘debate’ fell flat on its face on all counts.
No rules of the game
One would think that in a discussion like this all three panellists would bring in varied viewpoints due to their specialization in their individual sectors. However, if one wants to quote either the minister or the corporate voice in the debate, it would require constant rechecking to distinguish who said what. Of course businesses and governments need not always be in conflict with each other. But this smooth overlapping can be dangerous if those who are to be at the receiving end of this coalition between corporate bodies and governing bodies get completely left out. So for all practical purposes, instead of having three distinct voices, the format of the session (to keep calling it a debate would be to perpetuate technical erroneousness) was two against one. The yesmanship resulting out of this format naturally dulled the sparkling energy any debate worth its salt should have.
In terms of an outline, the talk failed to meet its own description. The issues to be discussed had been listed on the website as:
- Balancing growth with development to reduce inequality 
- Improving governance and transparency 
- Upholding political and religious rights 
Hardly any time or importance was given to the last point. Even with regard to the first two, when questions were raised by the activist, they were dismissed as non-existent issues. For instance, in response to the activist’s question about religious tensions, the minister said there is no such thing in the country, despite the very recent incidents of communal violence in Trilokpuri, Delhi. He also insisted that ‘Dalit’ is an unnecessary adjective and that the government will remove all caste divisions, at the same time refusing to recognize them. One can go on picking up several such superficial statements and proving how they do not hold water. But to question unbacked claims and probe deeper during the debate, if only through pointing the already raised rebuttals in the right direction, was the moderator’s job and he chose not to do it, except in passing.
Have we forgotten to listen as an audience?
As members of the audience, we have our task cut out for us: to listen, and when we are sure we have heard it right, to ask relevant questions. Look before you leap, think before you speak. Someone had put it that simply for us. But we manage to screw up even this simple task. The worst crime scene exhibiting the murder of articulated thought is Twitter. Stomach this excerpt from the debate and a corresponding tweet:
Aruna Roy (in the debate): ‘The other India is unhappy . . . distressed with a whole spate of promises which are being retracted . . . beginning with a promise of keeping the works programme [NREGA] . . . putting back labour laws . . .
Tweet: Nikhil Pahwa ‏@nixxin hypocritical of Aruna Roy to complain about lack of jobs & then complain about the current governments [sic] business focus.
Apples and oranges? Since when did ‘government’s business focus’ start meaning the same thing as ‘jobs for the rural poor and safeguarding of labour laws’? In fact, a ‘business focus’ means exactly the opposite.
Then there are columns where the writer gushes about how the poor of this country do not need ‘schemes’ like NREGA. But all this concern for the underprivileged is not motivation enough for her to find out the difference between a scheme and an Act in her years of writing and tweeting on the same subject while making the same point, before deciding to deprive its beneficiaries, presumably for their own good.
Stigmatization of dissent
The debate was in English for a global audience. Rural India was being discussed by a platform in which they could not participate. On an occasion like this representation of their voices becomes as important as the person in office. (With regard to the government’s work in rural India, the minister could only mention the Jan Dhan Yojna, which, one hears, isn't really in the pink.) No one activist or civil society group can claim to solely represent all of India’s poor. But those who have worked in rural India for a substantial period of time on particular issues are a more direct source of information than others.
This lack of accessibility and representation also applies to minorities or dissenting groups, increasingly being targeted. Yet if an activist working with these groups or if a member of any such group speaks out, they are instantly branded as the perpetual malcontent. The debate was a mere microcosm of how constructive critique is being illogically refuted using reductionist stereotypes. This notion of dissent as being something obstructive, as minister Piyush Goyal called it, cannot further the cause of any government that truly intends to cater to the interests of all of India. It was said that merely pointing out the problems is not enough. But legislations like RTI and NREGA were solutions envisaged by the people suffering from the lack of information and employment themselves, processes that the civil society has been an active and long-standing part of. Laws hard won after years of dialogue and persuasion cannot be sacrificed in a democracy to the caprice of changing governments. It is not a matter of changing the curtains of a newly acquired office.
This deliberate dismissal of strong factual and on-ground evidence, much of which often comes from the government’s own records, is irrational and prejudiced. The concern of grassroots workers is conveniently dismissed as emotion and rhetoric, though to be completely dispassionate about the issues you are invested in shouldn't really add to your credibility. If representation is an issue, the government is welcome to take the debate to ground zero: to the rural workers who fear unemployment; to the victims of riots; to the villages whose land was forcibly acquired; to the women forcibly separated from their interreligious partners.
India did not get independent for a section of the people. These voices being snuffed out will lead to extreme distress and its consequences. If we go on dismissing their pleas, and demand a sacrifice of their lives, even the so-called development would not take place. We need a peaceful society for progress. The persistence that they must pay the cost of ‘development’, whose rewards others reap, cannot be heard in passivity in the era of mobile phones and TVs. People hear election promises and read manifestos. Their articulation is vital. They should be able to decide how much time they want to give to the government, to articulate whether these five months of governance have been too short or too long for them.
Deprivation and injustice are suffered, not taught. Hunger, unemployment, displacement, unfair indictment, communal, casteist and gender-based violence are felt and lived by people everyday. The repeated accusation that civil society is stirring discontent underestimates the power of these unheard voices. It is a negation of the ordinary Indian’s intelligence and sensitivity.

First published in Kafila, 14 November 2014.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


I assumed it went without saying; I took it for granted
Thought you could read my thoughts whenever you wanted.
Didn't strike me why you would bother to go through the fine print
When I couldn't make the effort to say the simplest thing.

First published in the anthology The Rainbow Hues, October 2014.


I've got a love letter to post 
And nowhere to post it to
A red red letter box 
For a red red love letter
Which doesn't ask 
For a mailing address

And does 
What the sea does 
For a message in a bottle
Would be welcome.

First published in the anthology The Rainbow Hues, October 2014.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014


I smear my lips with red chili pepper,
Salivate between my short breaths.
Biting hard, the searing taste reassures me
Of iron within my dream of hot pursuit.

I wake up in a sweat,
Pour my head into a bucket of water.
Clamp down my nose and mouth
Counting one, two, three . . .

I stand upon my head,
Feel the welts on my soles.
Welts course through my brain and erupt.
A crown of thorns pierces my temples.

My thighs give way under the weight of bullets,
My first realization of how many layers pain can exist in.
But numbing as it is to try to live
In your body, to live what it lived, lives . . .

I wonder whether I have it in me
To some day see your body as only yours
And mine as mine alone.
But I don't want that, I don't

Want to be left alone.
It's pathetic, I know;
A sick mind makes the real absurd.
It scares me shit

To imagine that numbness.
How can I not follow you,
How can we not be in this

First published in Kashmir Lit, October 2014.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Dead End Street

Two minor girls in Rohtak (Haryana), Madhu and Nikita, who ended their lives on August 25 after being stalked wrote in their suicide notes 'of fear and shame, of disrepute, of tongues wagging'. 'Everyday a new man would come and chase us. They would pass lewd remarks and offer us phone numbers. The people around us would stare as if we had done something wrong. You know how bad our colony is . . . how people will say we encouraged these men to follow us . . . even though we are innocent.'

As a school student in Ranchi, Jharkhand, a boy in my tuition class would at times ask me to lend a pen and on days would trail behind my bicycle on the way back home. Once I bumped into him at a wedding party in the locality and he asked me to tell the time by my watch. I later thought of how instead of just sullenly giving him the answer I should have said something that would have thrown him off balance, like interrogating him about his own watch that I saw gleaming on his wrist. But then he could have said it wasn't working; I won't have gone close to him and peered. Or he could have used the pretext of tallying the time. No, no, this won't do, I thought, I must come up with something better in case the incident repeated itself. I didn't really get many of these chances because the boy, a student of another school, stopped coming for the classes at some point and that was the end of it.

Today when sharp repartee rolls off my tongue in the vicinity of any unwanted presence, my friends laugh saying that it seems I have spent a good deal of time creating them. In a way it's true. I have had years and years to think. When people say girls mature faster I can't see it as a compliment because they shouldn't mature faster; they are forced to do so by other people and circumstances. When I was first harassed on the road, I couldn't give it back with the rage I feel today because I wasn't ready. More than anger I remember feeling the shock. I and others around saw me as a schoolgoing child and I couldn't see why a middle aged man would choose to fling upon a schoolgirl his slimy air kisses. A persistence of such occurrences forced me to think and act like a grown woman when still a child. I would have preferred not to but the choice that should have been mine to make had already been made by others, random strangers who had no claims upon my life. The self-training imparted thereafter was in the line of making myself more formidable and better prepared to answer back anyone who targeted me assuming I won't, a characteristic that stayed with me in the years to come and still often gets misconstrued as arrogance by many.

But never did it strike me to think of the police; I never knew that these acts of harassment, vile as they seemed to me, would be seen by the law as criminal offences. And while at that time I hadn't been given a list of things I must do to preserve my family's 'honour', there had also been no open talk of such things at home. We didn't learn about it in school or peer groups either. I sometimes heard my mother talk of how she handled her college students who cheated in exams or threatened to use their 'connections' if they were complained against. So there was a general sense that it was good not to take any kind of bullying lying down. But nothing was said around sexual harassment, stalking, or any other form of abuse. I lived with my grandparents and would have felt mortified at the thought of making them confront something against which they might have felt duty-bound to act but wouldn't have known how to. They would have probably asked me to stop cycling to tuition, as they later did when I once fell off and hurt myself.

When I joined college in Delhi University, the STD booth at the entrance to my hostel had numbers of the police and women's helpline. Teachers and seniors talked to us about it; leaflets were given out. I lodged my first complaint in the coming months itself and have registered around nine others since, along with having 'handled' other cases on my own. Except a couple of times, it was not like the police were encouraging. Some even tried to dissuade. But I knew the law and the course of action they were supposed to take and they knew I knew. So they were compelled to oblige despite themselves. Sexual harassment and police inaction were openly talked about in the city; protest marches were taken out, and the authorities may have felt that not all of us would be prevented by a skewed notion of shame from talking about it if they did not even perform the basic act of registering a complaint. Once an officer nudged another and asked him not to delay writing my complaint any longer because I may just get together with my fellow students and sit on a dharna.

My own experiences have motivated me to hand out a lot of unsolicited advice to my younger cousins about harassment and how to tackle it. I held on to a small patch of satisfaction and relief when my teenage cousin in Ranchi called me up to tell me how she shut up a guy trying to harass her and her friends in a park. She had called not to boast but to get reassured that she had done the right thing, because all her friends were scared and had warned her against it. As I told her about the varying ways of dealing with such situations in crowded and abandoned places, I couldn't help worrying about her, wondering if my tips would be enough for her to deal with the specifics of each situation, whether she would find herself finding a lonely battle at many other times. I am proud of the girl she is growing into and her doubts have been replaced with immense confidence. But I wish the familial and legal set up were more open minded, one that instilled more confidence in each girl about herself and the unconditional support she would receive if she were harassed.

I don't want to change the person I have become according to places, people and situations. So when I go back home today I tackle my harassers the same way I do in Delhi. But if some situation requires further intervention, I do not know how the police would be there or how successful my relatives would be in overcoming their own conditioning and awkwardness around the issue and at least not impeding me in my efforts.

Madhu and Nikita were intelligent girls. They did well in school and had been relying on their academic performance to take them abroad. They had been able to find out the name of one of the stalkers and had seen the number on the registration plate on his bike. They had also told their family about it, who tried to nab the culprits but could not. The family did not go to the police to report the stalking. We do not know why, and we do not know what conversation Madhu and Nikita had about it with their families. We do not know about their relationship dynamics with the family, the trust they shared, or where and how they learnt that the doers of wrong could roam about uninhibited but the done-upons must pay, else the honour of their family was in question. They had been planning to go to the United States. Probably they expected no better of this country.

First published in Quartz, 28 August 2014.

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.

Sunday, 13 July 2014


सड़कों की ख़ाक छानना ज़रूरी है,
ताकि घर को चाय के साथ आपका इंतज़ार करने का मौका मिले। 

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.

गलती से मिस्टेक

हम बस ज़रा हट के दिखना चाह रहे थे,
आपने तो हटा ही दिया। 

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.


'क्या आप जानते हैं?
आपके घर में 
फ़र्श के ऊपर,
कालीन के नीचे,
टॉयलेट के पीछे,
नसों को खींचे, मुट्ठियाँ भींचें
आप पर हमला करने को तैयार हैं 
सैकड़ों, लाखों, करोड़ों कीटाणु?'

जी? जी, नहीं।
अब रेंगते वक्त इन बातों का खयाल ही कहाँ रहता है?

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.

मिस की चेतावनी

'क्या करोगे नहीं पढ़ोगे तो?
रिक्शा चलाओगे?
फेल होके स्कूल से नाम कट जाएगा,
फिर बैठे रहना चरवाहा विद्यालय में।'

हम डर गए, पढ लिए। 

अब कोई और चलाता है रिक्शा,
कोई और बैठे रहता है चरवाहा विद्यालय में।

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.


इंतज़ार करते हुए वक्त नहीं, हम बीतते हैं 
और इंतज़ार करानेवाला सोचता रह जाता है 
कि जितना छोड़ गया था
उससे कम कैसे?

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.


वो तो शुक्र है आज आपने खुलासा कर दिया 
कि आप मेरे आत्मीय हैं
और व्यर्थ की औपचारिकता छोड़ मुझ पर अपने अधिकार ले लिए।   

वरना कमबख्त ये मेरी आत्मा तो बड़ी घुन्नी निकली,
आज तक मुँह में दही जमाए बैठी थी, बताईए ज़रा

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.

संशय और सम्पूर्णता

किसी होना हम कई वजहों से नकार सकते हैं।  

अपने जीवन में उसकी उपस्थिति स्वीकारने का अर्थ होता है
खुद को हज़ार सफाईयाँ देना, खुद सवाल खड़े करना और फिर जवाबों से मुँह चुराना -
जिस ज़मीर को हाल ही में झाड़-पोंछ, साफ़-पाक़ कर फ़ख्र से घूम रहे थे
उस बेचारे दागी को एक नए सिरे से होनेवाली शिनाख्त के लिए भेजना।  

ऐसे में यही हल नज़र आता है कि बार-बार गोल-गोल घूम चक्कर खाने से बेहतर है 
बात को हँसी में उड़ा दें। 

पर फिर उसी का न होना
इतने संशयहीन पैनेपन से भेदता है
जितना संपूर्ण हो सकता है 

सिर्फ किसी गलती का एकाकीपन। 

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.

समय-समय की बात

क्यों इन्सान को इतना समय लगता है 
अपनी धूल झाड़ खड़े होने में,
जबकि हाथ झाड़ते उसे तनिक देर नहीं लगती?

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.


'इस बार संतरे हर जगह महंगे हैं।'
अच्छा, भैया, आप कहते हैं तो मान लेती हूँ। 

नहीं, ऐसी निरी नहीं कि शक ना आया हो मन में,
पर ठगे जाने का डर गौण था 
विश्वास करने की क्षमता को खो देने के भय के सामने।   

First published in Samalochan, 10 July 2014.

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