Partial Cross-Section of a City

As I started walking with my friend, on the vibrant roads of Khirki Extension, I was amazed by the life on streets; not just commercial, but social. We took a turn to a very quiet cluster of buildings. The climb, off to the 4th floor of the building was tiring due to the awkward staircase…completely dark, so I had to pull out my phone…and no ventilation. Few looks of suspicion from few open doors, for we were not black, evident of the tension due to the midnight incidence of 2014. We reached a closed door and knocked. Charline opened the door to the African Kitchen.

The 2010 Ivory Coast crisis, of violence, of human rights violation, and of international interventions that made the situation more violent. Many became refugees, so Charline arrived in Delhi. The Delhi of 2010, the city of malls…the city where courts demolished settlements for indescribable nuisance causing activities but upheld the illegal land encroachments of shopping malls as modern…. the Delhi as the reminiscent of Justice Sabharwal. Carline landed in Khirki Extension, the closest residential area to the highly sought after Saket Mall cluster.  With a baby girl and a house, she decided to run an African Kitchen as is commonly known, to supplement her income. One of the few remaining kitchens after the mid-night raid.

Charline’s kitchen, as many other African Kitchens, was the social networking space for the people from Africa, both from the continent at large and from Ivory Coast as well; not just refugees, but for business persons too. An eatery working out of a rented house, which serves whatever Charline desires and of what ingredients she has on that day.

Charline smiles, as she claims that she is a mother and sister to all the African community as she cooks for them. Reminds me quite of the political notion of women in India, where they need to take designated places of the ‘family unit’ to garner respect and legitimacy. The building was constructed for rental, no light, and very poor ventilation, to be able build as much as possible. As Charline claims..’we pay more rent than the locals, and we don’t complain about the building’… a case for access to housing, even with the terrible racial bias in the neighbourhood.

She fried me a fish and served it along with fried plantains (a distant cousin of the Kerala pazham-pori, without batter though!). As I ate I dwelled on the reactions of the other people in the room, with whom there was an instant connect and long talks.

Charline posing with the fish that she is frying for me

Charline posing with the fish that she is frying for me

Six years before Charline arrived, somewhere in the streets of Delhi, a car’s rear-view-mirror was being stolen. At that time, Delhi was narrating the success story of the liberalization (of the Indian economy in the 90s), and magically brooming the hitherto unforeseen inequality (due to it), under the red carpet. The owner was new to the city (probably that is why thought a rear-view-mirror is even required to drive in Delhi!!), replaced it. Nonetheless, the stealing happened again. One afternoon as Rani was planning to have a nap in her house at Malviya Nagar, she heard a sound. She came out running to see a young boy trying to steal the rear-view-mirror…she shouted…the boy was stunned…neighbours gathered…the boy was held. As expected they started to beat him, Rani tried to stop them and in that process, a small bottle of thinner rolled from his pocket. “Saala Nashedi”, shouted a neighbour, but the boy was expressionless. Rani was shocked, probably she was not exposed to the violence of this city yet. She was convinced that the lack of schooling led to this, in her position of an upper-middle-class lady this connection was but obvious.

Rani gathered her thoughts and discussed with her friends. As the general notion, she believed that the kids of a nearby slum should be rolled into a formal education system. She struggled with the idea for a year. In 2005, she launched her NGO ‘Aarohan’, basically on the theme of education. She enrolled primarily students from the nearby slum of Jagadamba Camp. As she used to live in Malviya Nagar, she got access to two classrooms and with the help of volunteers, started teaching kids to be integrated back to the mainstream schools. She with her access to knowledge, links, and language, got funding and even volunteers, sometimes from outside India.

As she told me about the work which her NGO was doing, it was lunch time and as the children are given free lunch, she invited me to taste it. There was an amazing level of confidence when she insisted that I should taste the food, and I realised as I ate it because it was really good. She was able to contract the food supply to a collective which produced food at a household level and thus the quality (both hygiene and taste) was controlled. As I ate the lunch I thought, she may be privileged to have been doing what she is doing, but the passion is commendable.

Rani with the kids during the lunch time

Rani with the kids during the lunch time

Some 31 years before Rani came to Delhi, Akbari Begum followed her newly married husband to Delhi to work for the construction of Apeejay School in Sheikh Sarai. Delhi of the 70s….the Delhi of emergency….the Delhi of massive, ruthless and violent slum demolitions. She claims the site was out of the city, today’s rich South-Delhi was a suburb that no one cared about. She worked along with her husband on the construction site. They were living in a rented accommodation provided by Ramji Lal and Hari Chand, who capitalised on the housing market for construction labourers, whom they charged a daily rent of 25 Paise, of their 3.60 Rupee daily wage.

Akbari Begum came to Delhi looking for a new life and she was not willing to give up. The couple saved some money and built a shack of their own. Many did too, and that was how the current settlement of Jagadamba Camp came into being.

Over the years the settlement grew and diversified, new people came and old left. So did Akbari Begum of today, who is now a local informal contractor. From a construction labourer, she now is the owner of an informal enterprise, which builds houses for people in the slum of Jagadamba Camp.

As she tells her story, she proudly points at the close-by lane and says, ‘this is all built by me, yesterday I used to work for people and today people are working under me’. She explains her job as a service to the people of the community, she claims she is illiterate, but has the knowledge of construction, and she uses that to help people build houses. She doesn’t claim, but as an architect I was amazed by her indigenous ways of dealing with the construction issues of the settlement….of small plots…of sinking ground and above all of the narrow lanes to bring in and store materials.

Akbari Begum at one of her construction sites

Akbari Begum at one of her construction sites

Three women who came to the city of Delhi at three different points in its history, with three different backgrounds, and to three different settlement “categories”. All of them see their work as something which is making a difference, education, housing and food….yet three different positionalities…three kinds of differential access to resources…..three different ways of negotiating these differential access….


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