Of my shahar and its stories, or how to love an ‘unloved’ city

‘When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city? / Do you huddle close together because you love each other?” / What will you answer? “We all dwell together / To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?’ — T.S. Eliot

Recently, while travelling in a DTC bus in the city, my attention was drawn to a man—let’s call him Badamuh—who was complaining loudly to the passengers around him about what a terrible city Delhi is. Talking about how in Delhi, you spend more time in transit than anything else, he lamented, ‘It took me just 16 hours on the train from Bombay to Delhi, and here I am stuck in this bus for over two hours.’ Badamuh takes a break from his rant to tell a middle-aged woman who is standing that she should move ahead and claim a ‘ladies seat’. She is not very hopeful and tells him, ‘Yahan ke aadmi bahut dheet hote hain. Seat nahin denge.’ (‘The men here are very insolent. They will not give up a seat.’ It is unclear whether the ‘here’ refers to the men of Delhi or the men in the bus.) Badamuh asks her to complain to the conductor, but she is not keen. He complains loudly to the conductor on her behalf. The conductor retorts rudely that it is not his job to get seats for women passengers, ‘Jo karna hai karo. Yeh mera kaam nahin hai.’ Badamuh is disgusted, ‘In Bombay, men never sit on a ladies seat. The seat will remain vacant, but no man will sit on it. Kisi ki majal jo baith jaye—no man there has the guts to sit on a ladies seat.’ He continues his harangue about Delhi–Bombay, which jumps from one area of comparison to another. I can catch snatches of his monologue, ‘One night I was out with my old mother and no autowalla was ready to take us. In Bombay, no matter what time it is, night or day, no autowalla will refuse to take you. Here, they will first ask you where you want to go and then they will charge you double the usual rate. There, they will take whatever is due…What kind of a capital city is Delhi…here they fleece the rich and the poor alike…here both the rich and the poor fleece you?’

Does Badamuh represent the typical Delhi resident, or a part of all of us, who crib about the city but are stuck in the city for various reasons—family, job, education or opportunities? Is Delhi really a city that elicits no loyalty or affection, except from ‘a few chasers of djinns’, the writer Khushwant Singh and ‘some descendants of long-established Delhi families’ as the editors of a volume on Delhi cheekily suggest?[i] Or are the only attachments to the city those that relate to ‘a vanished, magical world of unhurried grace and honest shopkeepers’[ii] and memories and traces of a past glory? Is it possible for lives to carry on in a city, which is what makes a city, by just making money off each other?

Cities by virtue of their density and heterogeneity generate a multiplicity of connections, involving varying intensities and different degrees of familiarity. Just as one cannot understand the city in its entirety but through its smallness, for instance, a street, a neighbourhood, a building or a bazaar, we live our lives in the city through its smallness—of relationships, communities and places. Whether we love the city or dislike it strongly, our everyday lives cannot continue without a sense of familiarity, comfort, attachment and/or affection to small places in the city—it could be a room or a corner in your house, a chai ki dukaan where you hang out with friends, the balcony overlooking a Gulmohar tree in a friend’s house, a spot outside your office where you smoke with colleagues, the kirana store you frequent for groceries, a neighbourhood you feel safe in or something else.

This piece is about such small places, about other kinds of stories than the ways in which Delhi is ‘unloved’, about entangled stories, places and lives, and about ways of seeing, experiencing and, yes, even loving the city. It is a response to and a conversation with My Sweet Home: Childhood Stories from a Corner of the City,[iii] a delightful book on Delhi I recently stumbled upon. In Fahrenheit 451, Faber explains to Montag that certain books are important because they have texture, pores and features, with telling detail, fresh detail. That if you’d put such a book under a microscope, ‘You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion.’ My Sweet Home is such a book, textured, telling and fresh, not because its stories are novel, but because they have probably not been told or heard, and not in this form.

The book is a result of a workshop that Samina Mishra and Sherna Dastur did with 20 children from schools of Jamia Millia Islamia, who live in the congested neighbourhoods of Okhla, many of which are come under the official category of ‘unauthorized colonies’ and tend to be overdetermined as ‘Muslim areas’, with the associated stigmas of being bad neighbourhoods and having linkages with terrorists. It provides glimpses into the everyday life of the children and their ways of seeing their neighbourhoods and the city, through their friendships, favourite places, likes and dislikes, wishes, favourite clothes and more. The design of the book playfully intermingles the drawings and writings of the children, black and white photographs of the neighbourhoods, and three stories by Samina, written as a response to, a dialogue with, what the children created through their art and writing.

Image 1
Detail of a painting from the book. The book’s design alternates between using full images of paintings and blown-up images of segments of the paintings. These allow you to move between the parts and the whole, move along with and get moved by the brush strokes and also alternate between different ways of seeing. And you don’t need a microscope to see that the pages are teeming with life—real, imagined and everything in between. For me, sometimes this painting is a depiction of a congested neigbourhood with a cool colour scheme, and sometimes, I like thinking that the patches on the right are the windows of the buildings on the left, who have decided to go for a walk on the street.

Image 2
An everyday scene of congestion—of street, market, residences, people and rickshaws—from the area. This photograph from the book reminds me of other congested areas in the city, in Old Delhi, Mandawali and Chiragh Dilli. Once a shopkeeper in Jamia Nagar while giving me directions advised me to avoid bheed bhadakka (hustle bustle) and take a particular route, while a chaiwalla in Chiragh Dilli recommended a particular route saying, ‘Yeh bheed bhadake wala rasta hai, aaram se nikal jaoge.’ (‘This is a busy road; you will get out easily.’) Congestion takes on different meanings and functions in different contexts and for different people—it can be a nuisance and a facilitator, it gives a sense of being safe and unsafe, it can be comforting and claustrophobic, it can enable you to lose your way and find your way around—but it is probably a key feature of the urban way of life.[iv]
There is something about the form of the book that defies categorization into this or that genre. I feel the book can be read, in parts and entirety, as an ethnography of the everyday city, a poem of dreams, a memoir of places, a memoir of children in the city, a collection of stories, an art book, a children’s book or an illustrated book. When I first went through the book, slowly and in sequence, I skipped the ‘introduction’ and ‘epilogue’ written by Samina, partly because I wanted to experience the book without being informed by the context or purpose of the book and partly because the bright colours of the main section of the book invited, tempted and drew me to those pages. ‘Come see us first, this is where the exciting stuff is happening,’ these pages seemed to say to me, much like how in the weekly bazaars where I do fieldwork, a particular section of the bazaar tugs me towards itself. This first experience, and then going back to the book several times after, was similar in many ways to walking in the city. I moved through some sections quickly, slowed down my pace at others, went back and forth, paused longer at some points, familiar places brought back my memories of those places and some places reminded me of other places. Reading any good book is like walking—you join up in the movement of the words, characters and places across the pages of the book, you meet people, see new things, you discover, you remember, you don’t know what surprises lie ahead. But I was pleasantly surprised when I went back to the introduction and read ‘Come, walk through these streets and share these stories because stories…have to be told otherwise they die.’

Image 3
This page from the book, which has a segment of a map continuing from the opposite page and a photograph, for me is an interesting design technique that nudges you to interact with the book, not just getting you excited to share your own stories but also letting you make up your own stories. I think the boy is asking his grandmother to hurry along to the other side of the page—he wants to show her the spot where he had buried a bird with his sister.

The following are some of the stopovers in my walk through the book and fragments of the responses, affects and memories they evoked, which are entangled in different ways to the places and stories in the book and elsewhere in my city.

Image 4
I like the juxtaposition of the complex layering of the paints and the simplicity and innocence in what freedom means to Nooma and Simee. I too want the freedom to walk the streets of my neighbourhood and others, anytime, all the time. I too want the freedom to ask questions, anywhere, everywhere.
Image 5
Abeer’s map from the book illustrates how we live our lives in the big city through its smallness, through the connections we make with certain places and people. The map includes the zoo, the graveyard where her uncle is buried, her building where many of her friends also live, her nani’s building, a letterbox, a fruit shop and the mall ‘Grate India Palace’ she frequents. I stopped here to look at the two birds and an animal sharing a cage in the zoo, wondering if they get along well or squabble all the time. Even as the idea of animals in cages breaks my heart, the zoo is among my favourite places in the city. I love meeting the Hoolock Gibbon couple—I wish they could be elsewhere, but I also wonder if they would get lonely if people didn’t visit.
Image 6
This photograph of a motorcycle instantaneously transported me to a chai shop near the Chiragh Dilli dargah that had a motorcycle parked inside it. The chaiwalla who Sayeed and I were meeting for the first time fussed around us as if we knew each other and were meeting him after a long time—he told us stories of his life in the city, his relationship with Baba and the dargah, how the city has changed in his lifetime and much more. When we asked him for directions to Satpulla, he offered that we take the motorcycle and return it when we are done. The generosity and love of strangers in the city always amazes me—tiny, fleeting and recurrent encounters such as these are also intrinsic to making the city.
Image 7
As on this page, the Batla House encounter of 2008 appears here and there within the narratives and drawings of the children’s everyday life. Abeer feels bad how the encounter resulted in the loss of her neighbourhood’s reputation, Maria writes about how her neighbourhood became famous because of the encounter, while Khusboo marks the site of the encounter in her map and writes ‘the police framed them, perhaps to become famous themselves’. I too feel bad when I get to know that a friend, his friends, and even people I don’t know felt scared, unsafe and insecure after the encounter because of being Muslim. I feel bad when a friend is unsure of leaving the ‘Muslim’ neighbourhood he lives in because he doesn’t know whether he will easily find accommodation or feel safe elsewhere in the city. Perhaps negotiating these feelings with my love for the city I live in will always be a struggle. Perhaps violence, prejudice and insecurities are also a part of living in the city, of life carrying on, entangled with stories of hope, friendships and love. And perhaps difficult, sad and discomforting stories also need to be told, and perhaps this too is a way of loving.
Image 8
I had to make a stop at Maria’s samosa shop, because, like her, I too love eating samosas. When I go to my friend’s house in Ghaffar Manzil, we often make a journey, sometimes by an electric rickshaw and sometimes by walking or a combination of the two, to a particular shop in Okhla Head, where we have not-so-nice chai with very nice samosas and some dangerously fiery green chutney. Sometimes we have a second round of the not-so-nice chai because we are engrossed in our chatter and don’t want to leave. When I showed a friend Maria’s story, she said, ‘Oh my god, she is just like you.’ That’s the thing with stories—sometimes they make you form connections with people you haven’t met.
Image 9
I sat on these steps for a very long time, the writing on the left ‘Love: I really like animals because they are loveable’ making me smile and making me remember all my favourite animals in the city, some of whom I know more intimately than others. People in my neighbourhood feed all kinds of animals, dogs, cats, crows, pigeons, ants, cows and sparrows. The gardener in the tiny MCD park behind my apartment block lives in a tiny house in the park along with several dogs. He has raised them from the time they were born. He feeds them, talks to them and takes care of them. The uncle who feeds the dogs in the market complex next to the park also feeds the gardener’s dogs. Sometimes a girl comes to the park just to play with the dogs. Surely, there is some love involved. By the way, the animals in the painting ran up the stairs and are playing hide and seek on the terrace. I might go up and join them if they let me.
Image 10
I met all kinds of vendors in my walk through the book, an icecreamwalla, a bunch of noisy vegetable sellers, a bhujia man, a famous kebab seller and a mithaiwalla. I made a brief stop at Haaris’s Tuesday Bazaar where ‘people were enjoying themselves’. And then somewhere along the way, I paused to watch this quiet melon seller from a distance…I didn’t want to interrupt his silent conversation with the melons. He reminded me of the pakodewalla in the Wednesday Bazaar near my house, who talks to his pakodas and sometimes even sings to them. Street vendors are an inseparable part of my everyday life in the city just like they are of the children in the book—some are just familiar because I pass by them everyday when I step out of the house, some are favourites because they give me a good bargain or have the best aloo tikki or anda bhujia. And then there are others with whom I have complicated relationships, like the vegetable seller outside my house who I squabble with and often call a cheat to his face, but end up buying vegetables from more regularly than I would like to.

Loving a city is never easy—it involves passion, betrayals, heartaches, attachments, hopes, hard work, care, taking it for granted and struggling to make it better. But I do think that the everyday in the city is impossible without the small loves that connect us to people and places in the city. It is these small loves that also make the city, shape it in tiny ways, making it bearable, liveable and, sometimes, even exciting and loveable. And it is important to tell stories of how an ‘unloved’ city is loved, as also all kinds of other stories. Stories need to be written, told, heard, shared, retold not only because otherwise they die but also because we would lose our way in the big city without stories. As Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.’

—Samprati Pani

All images are from the book My Sweet Home: Childhood Stories from a Corner of the City,
© Samina Mishra and Sherna Dastur, reproduced here with permission. I would like to thank everyone involved in the making of My Sweet Home—it blew my mind and I can’t stop walking through the book. And thank you Samina for meeting me, sharing the process of making the book and listening to me.

[i] Dupont, Veronique, Emma Tarlo and Denis Vidal (eds). 2000. Delhi: Urban Space and Human Destinies. New Delhi: Manohar.

[ii] Sengupta, Ranjana. 2007. Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City. New Delhi: Penguin.

[iii] Mishra, Samina, Sherna Dastur and Children of Okhla. 2017. My Sweet Home: Childhood Stories from a Corner of the City. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing.

[iv] I thank Sayeed for drawing my attention to the complex ways in which congestion enables everyday life in the city, by sharing his research on Jamia Nagar and through innumerable discussions and some disagreements. See his post on architectures of congestion.

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