Review by Farooqui
MIDDAY / 20 APRIL 2007
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We built this city
by Mahmood Farooqui
April 20, 2007
When we first came and settled here, what was the land like?
It was ashes.
It was a wilderness.
There was nothing except ashes.
There was nothing here at all.
There would be ash in our mouths when we ate.
We have spent our earnings of the last twenty twenty-five years in building it.
Not just our earnings, we have built it up with our labours too.”
There is a startling combination of brevity and bite in this piece entitled, Manto-like, ‘Suna Gaya’, from a collection of writings produced by children from three bastis of Delhi.
Produced under the aegis of the Cyber-Mohalla project of Sarai and Ankur, two Delhi-based organisations ‘Bahuroopiya Shahar’, the title of the collection brought out by Rajkamal Publications is a first at many levels.
School children contribute
It is the first collection of writings from below, from that sub-city level organisation called the slum. It is also writing produced mostly by children of school-going age. But it does more than tell us about the lives of people we know nothing about.
It allows us to see the city differently, to witness the chimera of hopes, expectations and fears that underline migration into and within the city.
Divided into segments that narrate, broadly, signs of arrival, settlement and displacement, the collection is not merely educative, it also contains some superb writing.
Shamsher Ali’s ‘Rasool Bhai, how come,’ ostensibly narrates Rasool’s journey from Calcutta to Delhi to join his brother, who works as a kabariwalla in the walled city.
More than outlining the intricacies of the trade, the story presents a fascinating emotional study of the main players by drawing upon multiple narrative voices.
Rasool’s story comes to us from his own point of view, from his brother’s point of view and from a neutral observer’s account.
Rasool ends up making the city his own, exemplified by the quarter of booze he shares with his mates at the shop.
The protagonist in Suraj Rai’s story, the Decisive Moment, decides to leave school to start work as a courier boy, an easy enough option since the job requires no specialised skill, training or connection.
More than the story of a courier boy, Suraj’s story details the emotional struggles of a teenager, who goes against his father’s wishes and discontinues his education in order to take up a job.
Is it fear of failure or the desire to shoulder his responsibility towards the house, which motivates him, father and son struggle through the conundrum.
Older forms of writings are not adequate to the telling required by these writers.
So they go ahead and invent their own forms, a mixture of reportage, memoir and fragmentary reflection.
They thereby construct the city in a light that is unfamiliar to us and come to a realisation, through their writing, which might earlier have eluded them.
Displacement is not just about the demolition of houses, what we fight for is not the houses, but for the pride of having led beautiful lives here in this dump yard called Godam which is now J P colony says Suraj Rai in ‘I have seen from up close.’
There is colourfulness to the city’s language, we bring to it the colour of our own dialects and that is why Delhi is called a collection of different tongues.
Now when there is talk of changing the city, are we also going to alter this colorfulness, will these colours be restricted to a few chosen hues alone?
“It is said in Nangla, on one side is a soothing river and on the other there is a pair of drunken snakes.
The river is Yamuna and the snakes the two main
lanes of the ring road and its zooming traffic. Even strangers hold hands to cross the city.”
Finally, the snakes move to bite as the demolition drive arrives in full force.
It brings us face to face with the dread that might be experienced by an entire city if it were forewarned of extinction via a natural disaster of sorts.
What would we do if we knew that the entire city would be drowned?
Like the residents of Nangla Machi, an entire habitus that was demolished, would we cling on to our bits of papers right till the very end, would we continue to celebrate our marriages, observe our funerals, feed our guests?
What’s a city?
As the writers negotiate their understanding of what a shahar is, what it might be and what it threatens to become as beautification drives gather force, we are treated to a spectrum of voices which are both fresh and pungent.
Objects, space, organisation and social relations come into sharp focus as Nangla is displaced to Ghevra, two hours and Rs 60 away from home.
Years of labour, years of struggles to establish the legitimacy of existence goes awry in moments because this world now ‘runs on papers’.
What we have in this collection is cities within cities, mobility within stasis and consciousness that growing up is not an individual feat, but a collective achievement.
Spaces can be made and unmade but how do you arrange memories, which have been detached from locality as all things solid virtually melt into air?
While the collection is released next month you can get a foretaste of some of the writings at http://nangla.freeflux. net and http://nangla-maachi.freeflux.net.
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