Monday, 7 October 2013

an outsider-turned-insider's perspective: living in a Muslim neighborhood. Part One.

(The Book Review, Volume XXXVII No. 10 - OCTOBER 2013) 

A Human Interest Tale

Juanita Kakoty

I must confess that the sight of a ghetto, particularly one with a Muslim core, used to stir emotions in me not too comfortable stemming from the obvious fear associated with the ‘other’. This fear was difficult to explain because all my life I had never ever been directly confronted by a Muslim; but the fear struck when I would see somebody performing the namaaz, men in beard dressed in white and a skull cap, the sight of black masses beneath which I understood were women. All this evoked a fear that even bordered on irritation.

I, like many, suffered from this inexplicable fear. Just the sight of the burqa, surma in men’s eyes, the black thread with an amulet sticking to the throat etc. roused that fear although I had some closest friends who were Muslims. Somehow they just didn’t seem “Muslim”. I still remember an incident from my graduation days. My close friend Shahida Hussain had got chicken pickle from home and all of us were devouring it. During the feast I said that I had only once before eaten chicken pickle, to which she replied, “At some Muslim’s place undoubtedly!” And quick came the reply from me, “No, at an Assamese’s place.” I still remember the look she gave me and what she said thereafter, “Aren’t Muslims Assamese?” That look and query haunted me for a long time.

I understood this fear as a “social construction” only during my Master’s in the university: A fear constructed by the media, by people who nurture that the good of one’s religion can be best highlighted by maligning the other religion, that the goodness in oneself can be pronounced only by demonizing the “other”. Hence, I value university education a lot. It taught me that fears emerge from creating distances, physically and in the mind too, from those who are not like us. And then, in time, I married a Muslim and with that traces of fear about the “other” even at the sub-conscious level vanished. As I interacted more with my husband’s family and people from his community, I got used to seeing women in the hijab and burqa and it stopped seeming strange any more. Salaam Aleikum, Khuda Hafiz, inshAllah were words that began to feature in my life regularly along with Namaste, Bhagvan etc. and they ceased to terrify me. The “other” became so regular and ordinary for me that I stopped taking notice.

About a year ago, my husband and I acquired an apartment in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, a Muslim neighborhood close to Jamia Milia Islamia. A few of my non-Muslim friends and family members were apprehensive about this move. But as they frequented us, their perspectives changed and this is what they have to tell me now, “What lovely neighbors you have! Where in the whole of Delhi would you get neighbors so helpful and concerned?” And it’s true. As we moved into the house, with our four month old daughter, my neighbors paid us a visit. They even sent us food. Food, interestingly, is how we bond in this neighborhood. There is a regular flow of food into my house and I send food too to my neighbors; be it Eid or any other day, whenever somebody cooks some special dish, a portion is sent across to the neighbors. There is a great sense of satisfaction and bonhomie in it. My neighbors, like my in-laws, know that I am a Hindu and accept me for who I am, what I am. And I respect them for this.

Some of my neighbors are the early residents of Shaheen Bagh. They preserve the oral history of the neighborhood. I seek, here, to construct the past of the area with the help of their narratives. Shaheen Bagh is a neighborhood along the banks of the river Yamuna at Jamia Nagar, Okhla in South Delhi. On the other side of the Yamuna lies the city of Noida. Rashida Baji, a resident, tells me, “Shaheen Bagh comes under Abul Fazal Enclave Part Two. It stretches from Thokar (lane) No. 6 to Thokar (lane) No. 9. The area is in Delhi but the road by the Yamuna belongs to the government of Uttar Pradesh just like the park at Thokar No. 9.”

Munni Baji (Faizun Nisa), 45 years old, came here in 1996. “There must have been about 50 houses only in the whole of Shaheen Bagh when I came. People used to come here from Jasola to cut grasses. This whole area was used for cultivation,” she tells me. “And at Thokar No. 7, where our house is, there were about 3 – 4 houses in all and lots of water and big grasses all around. Around that time, land rates were very low, at 1.5 lakhs for 150 Gaz. That’s the rate at which we had bought our plot of land.” Today, land is no longer available here and the real estate business is going strong. 

“Shaheen Bagh was much below the water level and was always inundated with floods. We filled our plot with earth up to 7 feet before building the house. Even now we need to fill the plot with about 5 feet of earth more to come up to the street level,” continues Munni Baji as we enter her house from the street and go down a few stairs from the main gate towards her courtyard that has pomegranate and mango trees besides other shrubs.

There are interesting anecdotes to share too. Rashida Baji and Munni Baji, who have grown as thick as sisters over the years, run their tailoring business from a room at one corner of the latter’s courtyard. Sitting there, Munni Baji narrates, “Till 1997, there was no electricity in Shaheen Bagh. My husband and a neighbor got some wire bundles and bamboo poles and set up electricity lines illegally from Abul Fazal Part One till our house. We had to pay a fine of Rs 12,000 for this when a raid happened. It was in 2005-6 that electricity was legalized in this area.”

Times have changed. Today, there are buildings all around and only a very few like Munni Baji have resisted the temptation to cash in on the real estate boom. They still maintain their house the way it was, with the courtyard. But, Munni Baji reminisces, “The earth used to be more fertile those days.”

Rashida Sameer, 36 years old, came to Shaheen Bagh in 2002. She recollects, “There were houses then, no flats. I could then see the Yamuna from my house at the ground floor. Slowly, a second-hand furniture market came up here and the density of population increased. There were many mosquitoes too at that time, because there was no drainage for water. It is since 2009 that facilities like drainage, installation of sewers and converting ‘kuccha’ road to ‘pucca’ road happened.”   

Rasheeda Sameer continues, “Till 2003-4, the Yamuna used to be filled with migratory birds. That changed and the birds suddenly stopped coming. I see a few birds this year again (end of 2012). That’s a good sign.” Shaheen Bagh overlooks the Okhla Bird sanctuary. It pains me to see how a neighborhood by the river, overlooking a bird sanctuary, has the potential to look good but no efforts have been undertaken towards that end.  

I often go to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and the nearby park at Thokar No. 9 with my female neighbors dressed in the burqa. The burqa is no hindrance to how we connect or how much fun we have when together. They follow their religion and I mine. It’s not religion that binds us. Or maybe it is. Because it is only those most comfortable with their own religion and identity who can respect that of another.


  1. A lucid narrative embracing many facets :)

  2. dats very nice... the situation between u and sahida... it happened many a times between me and some of my friends back home... hope your article breaks some prejudices among people...

  3. Why can't everyone think like you...why have everyone pigeon holed themselves with their own you have rightly said the solution to all problems lies in coming closer...agree on similarities and respect other's differences


My short story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018

My short  story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018 Right in the middle of the sprawling Nakhasa Bazaa...