“Hum Bhi Waise Hi Rehte Hain Jaise Insaan Rehte Hain”

An update from the scene of the fire in the “slum” opposite Vasant Kunj, New Delhi.

By Umang Kumar,

There was no way I could have anticipated the response. I am not sure when she had come out of her “house”- we had been talking with her father till then, who was telling us about his challenges in getting the Rs 5000/- as part of the government relief money. And then there she was, standing beside him all of sudden.

“Unki beti hai (His daughter),” my colleague offered, by way of an introduction, pointing to the father.

She wanted to know why we were there.

“Aise hi dekhne ke liye aye hain ki aap log kaise reh rahe hain (Just came to see how you all were doing/living/getting-by),” my other colleague tried to answer in a show of sympathy.

Fire in Slum_Masoodpur

To which had come her reply that had stunned me -“Hum bhi waise hi reh rahen hain jaise insaan rehte hain (We are also living like (other) human beings live).”

I briefly lowered my head and then raised it slowly to look at her again. I could not make out if she was totally sightless but I could mostly see only the white of her eyes. I think I noticed her tilt her head up as she spoke but I could not be very sure. She was spare of body and clad in a white, embroidered kameez and a black salwar.

“Hum aap logon ke saath kuch samay bitaane aaye hain (We have come to share some moments with you all),” I tried another tack with her. There was some silence as she seemed to register my voice and evaluate my answer.

“Toh baith jaeeye udhar – humare paas chair to hain nahin (Then sit down over there – we do not have chairs to offer you),” she said, pointing to molded-plastic containers which were used to store water. I proceeded to heed her suggestion.

As we had walked in to the grounds where the settlement lay, I could see busy activity everywhere – amidst all manner of household effects strewn everywhere, there were people engaged in one activity or other. Many were queuing up to get their ration of water from a water tanker which seemed to have arrived just then. There were others who were picking things up or moving them around in hand-carts. And there was the din of reconstruction all around, as people were busy putting back up what had been burnt to the ground.

The fire had struck close to midday on April 25 while most of the men – and even the women – were away at work. Some heard of it via TV news at their places of work and rushed back to see everything destroyed. About 700 houses were consumed by the fire.

We hear from the residents about the Lt. Governor of Delhi having visited the site soon after the incident and having ordered various relief measure, including the rebuilding of the homes on what is the corporation (DDA) land.

We first stopped by what seemed like a large window-like opening in the wall of one of the housing units that were being rebuilt. [All houses are being built with corrugated galvanized tin sheets and wooden beams (balli)]. It seemed odd staring into the living quarters of a family at lunch through this window which opens into the common gali (lane). The family scrambled to interrupt their lunch to talk to us. while I tried, unsuccessfully, to tell them to continue; we could come back, but, then, no one listened.

They told us how they lost everything in the fire, but were slowly rebuilding everything back up. What were their most pressing needs, we asked. “We’re lucky to have gotten most household items, a plate here, a glass there, even some bed-sheets. But, yes,bijli-pani (electricity and water), especially in this summer, are what we need most.”

“Abhi kaisi bijli hai aapke paas? (How do you get electricity now)” we inquired. “Abhi to chori ka hai…(It is an illegal connection right now).” We leave it at that. But, I thought, in a country where so much is chori-ka, from telecom spectrums to gas stations allotments to mining licenses, how does this chori-ka matter in such a grand scheme of things…

The old seemed to just give way to the new. New, shining corrugated sheets, new wooden poles, digging, measuring – and going on with life as though the fire was just a familiar nuisance. As flies buzz everywhere. As incinerated possessions still lie in lanes and on to the side.

Some fans whir from roof-beams. Many other homes cannot afford a fan. Delhi’s summer has been comparatively mild and merciful till now. Yet, this mildness has come accompanied by occasional rain and thunderstorms.

“Itna madad to apna baap bhi nahin karta hai (Even one’s own father does not help as much),” a shopkeeper, busy rebuilding his shop, from which he sold provisions and a mix of products, tells us. He is praising the help the administration has given them.

All the residents speak to us in a Hindi that has the the lilt and lehza peculiar to the dialect in this part of the country, very Delhi-Hindi. But, here and there, one can recognize the Bengali base to their Hindi, an elongated-vowel here, a misplaced preposition there. I cannot resist the opportunity to chip in with my basic Bengali at various intervals. I think I might assure them if I do. One woman even seems agitated by our presence and wonders aloud what we are up to. I hope my slipping into Bangla might reassure them somewhat.

“Apnar basha kothay (Where are you from/ Where is your home?).” they ask me. Basha? Where I am originally from…what do I tell them, I wonder…? Kolkata, I tell them, giving myself a certain degree of geographical “latitude.”

“Amra Cooch Behar elaka theke….(we are from the Cooch Behar area [the Himalayan North Bengal region]) ” they inform me. Ok…I tell myself…it does not really matter to me, this your exact place of origin, even if from another part of the world, from another part of the South Asian landmass, from across any border…you all are like me, bro…

Most of them anyways speak the Hindi of Delhi with nary a trace of any “Cooch Behari” accent, whatever that might be. In fact as I noted above in the case of one of our respondents, they have all adopted the Delhi “twang” – which combines, in my opinion, the potent mix of (at least) the Haryanvi and western-UP inflections. So, in that respect, they were more pucca Delhi-ites that I was!

Why should it matter where they were from? How does that determine their right to this city; aren’t they providing valuable services in the city? Does some household not desperately wait for the mehri/kaamwaali to come along and save it from a day of drudgery and jhadu-pochaiing? Does some housing society not value the security person who registers each incoming vehicle in writing in a dog-eared register and is there 12-hours each day? Did the city planners, when they designed the enclaves and purams and kunjs think about rickshaws to get around in the city? About a presswallah and a raddiwallah? Or did they imagine a city like in the west, where many such functions/services have either been done away with or have been transformed in the way they are accomplished? A city which all modern brochures and hoardings for our various fast-sprouting gated communities are promising. Only that – in India – even within gated communities with manicured lawns , 24-7 power backup and gondola rides in faux Venetian canals, a presswallah still comes in to get your clothes, the kaamwali from the neighboring basti will still be needed, as will the driver of your Skoda.

How much space do we all need to live, I wonder? Here, entire families are living in “one-room sets.” And the flies buzz all around endlessly. And I am sure there are mosquitoes too to set upon them one they get some shuteye from a hard day’s labour. I am not sure they are any more used to living like that as I am. But they do continue living like that. On the edge of the city, on the edge of existence as it were. Just across a mall. Within stone’s throw from a much sought-after kunj.

How much do they matter? The evangelist Billy Graham’s quotable-quote comes to mind – “If all chimney-sweeps and pastors went on strike one day, who would you miss more?” Does this city need me, I ask myself? Why? I do not ply a rickshaw and ferry maybe a hundred people each day…and maybe even 10 children to school and back. I cannot pick up raddi and compact those cardboard boxes and Dalda tins and then sell them to some chain in a reuse cycle. I cannot even clean homes (all that gymming and yoga-mala-asana does not enable me to squat and do pocha for more than 2 minutes) or ensure the safety of the housing-society jaan-maal. What good am I and why do I deserve a 2 BHK?

I come back thinking, yes, aap bhi to waise hi ji rahen hain jaise hum jaise insaan jeete hain.Shayad us se bhi behtar, us se bhi zyada haq se…(Yes, you too are living like people like us live. Maybe even better than that, with more claims to the city than us…).

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