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Jawaharlal Nehru University
It was on Friday, 13th August, when I along with my co-intern Nian and our two little, but exuberant and extremely flamboyant guide Binu and Veena (name changed), made our first visit going around Khrikee Extension and Hauz Rani, our site for the project – ‘Networks and Neighbourhood’. The locality is undergoing gentrification, which is the ramification of the two eminent changes that took place just on the other side of the main road leading towards Khrikee Extension and Hauz Rani, – The Select City Mall and The Max hospital. However, amidst the broken buildings, newly erected ones and the one’s in process of getting a new structure, lives the migrant communities, who had influx not only from different corner of the country but also from different countries. Nonetheless instead of upholding the characteristics of a melting pot, which one might argue is the innate feature of any highly urbanized region, one might rather state that they are like a salad bowl, where each and every community did regained their own attributes, visibly printing their own identity.
Amidst the trodden down buildings, the new constructions and the divergent communities, what was most appalling was the stark invisibility of women from the streets, even during the broad day light. This distinctive feature of the place struck with our conscience on our way to KHOJ STUDIOS, which is on the first lane of the Khirkhee Extension. Not a single woman visible on the streets, only small ghettos of men distributed all over, which further increases with the march of the evening. This scenario is discernible throughout the Khirkee-Hauz Rani area, more so in the Hauz Rani part of the region. The religious background of Hauz Rani – which is largely Islam, possesses a barrier for the free movement of women in the space and also over its usage by them. The purdah culture, apparently has contributed to this strictness over the usage of space, and thus affiliated men as strong, dominant and unopposed contender of the space. The scenario, though not of much different, is slightly deviant in Khirkhee, where presence of women could be witnessed, nonetheless on purposive basis (visiting shops, going out for work, collage, etc.).
While strolling though the streets and the narrow lanes of the two localities another important feature that we witnessed was the continuous male gaze. Still Khirkhee posed a much better picture in this regard. The gazes, though offensive, but were not as stern as that of the Hauz Rani area. Walking through the shabby narrow lanes (of Hauz Rani; the lanes at some places were so narrow that it was practically impossible to pass through them straight i.e. without tilting the body) with numerous biriyani shops, meat shops, small food joints on both the sides and overflowing men population from the shops and small ghettos of them conversing in some or the other corners, it became really uncomfortable for we four ‘the other sex’ to traverse through them. The gazes that were showered at us were absolutely difficult to ignore which can be interpreted as lusty, questionable, and also stereotyped or prejudiced. At a certain point we became so uncomfortable that we paced our move through the lanes to reach our safe destination (i.e. Khoj Studios) as soon as possible. On reaching KHOJ, various thoughts engulfed me into their arms; so many questions emerged out from the day’s experience. But getting out the answers immediately would be too hasty a demand that I would make. A lot more visits and intervention to the implicit male space of the Khiekhee – Hauz Rani must solve them.
Researcher, Social Geography, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Narrow lanes with buildings towering high on the onlooker, innumerable shops occupying the ground level establishments of the buildings, congested lanes which has skipped the ‘sight’ of the Municipality, with men from distinctive social backgrounds spanning across all age groups hanging out in groups near the shops or at the corner, on foot or on their shining motorcycles and the practical absence of women on the streets painted my first impression of ‘Khirkee’. Right at the first left turn towards Khirkee, we found the image of a woman clad in salwar kameez at the desk, which was one of the attempts of the project to put women behind the walls to women on the streets and their desires and visibility on the wall. The image was of Reenaji, a middle aged woman residing in the neighbourhood, who is a tuition teacher helping out the kids from the community in a small space on the ground floor of the building right next to her image. Clad in salwar kameez with a smile on her face, she came out to the door to meet us and I peeped in to see the class sitting in small groups of varying age groups and discussing ‘themselves’ and trying to help each other out in studies. We moved on to meet Veena, Binu and Kamini, the trio of the community which an earlier member of the project chanced upon on the streets. On reaching the lane where these three reside, Kamini’s mother seemed a little bit reluctant on sending her with us on account of her inability to juggle both the art and her studies. On further enquiry and making inroads to the deep blockage, her fears of her daughter being seen with the Nepali (Veena and the term used commonly for people with Mongoloid features) came out subsequently. More than her own blockade, it was the society’s untrusting behaviour towards the so called “outsiders” from their own country has been nesting and leading to such an aversion of the young girls being seen with the outsiders that perturbs her from sending Kamini. Trying to bring down the wall, we pursued her and tried to engage her through her knowledge and possession of skills like stitching to which she nostalgically nodded and reminisced about the age old days when she used to make lovely paintings and other art work. The glow in her eyes for a moment surpassed the neighbourhood networks and put her in the framework of desire and recognition that she yearns for. Further interactions and interventions seemed important.
Opposite to Kamini’s residence was Veena’s small wonderland to which we were graciously invited. A girl of 15 years dressed in a pair of jeans and a oversized t-shirt with hair pulled back and her pocket flaunting a green coloured smart phone, she was the first sight that contradicted the public space and the caricature of women we had painted in our minds. Her mother probably in her 30s opened up to us and along with two other elder women of the family who joined the discussion. The two women who were originally settled in Darjeeling enquired about the project and eventually showed extreme interest as they went on talking about the women of Nepal who march shoulder to shoulder with men and are seen extensively in public space. Veena’s flamboyance was the reflection of the social space that has been instilled in her since childhood. Certain words that seem subversive in the society’s dictionary was apparent on the faces of these women like clubs and the utter pronunciation took them to a very different urbanism that speaks of a different culture that the women seemed to be averse to.
At 6 pm in the evening there is around more than 100 workers standing in the Khoj lane. Groups of these men are in front of each shop, and even in the middle of the lane, talking to one another about what they have experienced during the day. They talk noisily, in loud voices. They sit on the road, lean against walls of buildings and against parked autos and motorbikes. The fast-food stalls (samosa, pakora etc.) and tea shops in this lane have seating arrangements for customers, so they hang around there for a long time. The workers all seem to know each other as fellow migrants and walk around chatting with each other or talking on their mobiles.
I asked one of them why they stayed in the lane for such a long time. He said that all the groups had return after work exhausted. One member of each group would go to their room, shared by up to 10 people, to cook dinner for the group while the rest remained outside till the dinner was prepared, as the street was cooler than the room which became very hot when the cooking took place. The men outside relaxed with tea and snacks bought in the lane, and also used the time to purchase supplies such as grains, vegetables, oil and spices from their daily wages. They usually did not have enough money to buy supplies in advance.
I did not see a single woman or girl in the lane at that time, obviously due to the large gathering of men. The local women must be using other lanes to access the main road or cut through the neighbourhood. The people on the street did not move aside for cars or bikes even when the drivers repeatedly blew the horn. The men would shift slightly but as soon as the vehicle passed they would again block the road. They seem so busy talking to each other and with their tasks, they simply don’t bother about who needs to pass or bother about making space for anyone.
When I was roaming around the Khoj Street I found the shop where a women sitting in front of her computer alone in the shop and I saw the shop name ‘Shri Ji Solution’ above on the board. Then I entered into the shop for taking her views and thinking about women at Khirki Village and Hauz Rani, specifically for Khoj Street. When I entered in her shop she asked me, how can I help you. I think she thought that I was her customer. I replied, “Mam, I am from Khoj and doing a project in Khirki Village and Hauz Rani” and explained about the project. After hearing me she replied, you could talk with other girls or women in Hauz Rani, they are more helpful then me. After further request she agreed to talk.
The owner’s name is Sonam Gupta. After her permission I sit on the chair in her shop and ask her what do you think about your shop’s street in concern to the women and girls and why they are very less visible in comparison to men. Then she answer me there are all workers living in this street in front of the streets and backside of street. They all are standing in the street on road and talking with each other in a loud voice and they don’t bother about anybody who are walking around and traffic.
These workers are living in a small rooms with 5 to 10 person for sharing their rent. In their small room there are no enough space for everyone to stay together and rest together, then they all are on the road and sleep also at night.
There are cloth factories/workshops, biscuit factory, workshops and contractor who need these workers for their work. They live with their own community.
I asked her, are they misbehaving to anybody or anything wrong?
“When they don’t have any work they stand in a group at any shop and chat. They enjoy looking at girl and women, sometimes whispering, whistling. The ladie and a girls who wear short dresses, they pass comments and it’s a normal thing in Khirki and Hauz Rani.
Most of Khirki women and girls ignore this street to pass through another street just before the cobbler to access the main road. I also do but due to my shop I use this street otherwise I don’t.
Building in front of shop was not there 4 or 5 years ago. Before this building there were 700 workers lived on this land but after this building they moved in Khirki but most of them spend their time in the Khirkee street.”
Today I talked with Jha ji at his teashop, close to Khoj. The shop is partly in a basement, only half-visible, three steps below the lane. Jha ji is a middle aged short man. It was the noon when I stepped into his shop and the sun peered into the lane of Khirkee. The lanes were more or less empty. The shop has a small television apart from general equipments like kettle, pile of small glasses to serve tea. The television is to entertain Jhai ji himself in between making the tea of the customers and sometimes the passer by also stands for a while to watch the latest news or any entertainment channel. When I reached there, Jha ji was making tea in a kettle. Three people were sitting outside the shop on its iron bench, waiting for their tea. I introduced myself to Jha ji and explained my project, saying I was observing the difference in gender visibility in the public spaces of Khirkee and Hauz Rani. He agreed to answer my questions. I asked him how long he had been living in Khirkee. He replied he had been here since 1990. I then asked his opinion on the lack of visible female presence in the locality. After a while he shifted closer to me and started talking in a low voice According to Jha ji, 50 to 60% of the workers who worked in the area are from Bihar and UP and lived in the Khoj lane, as there was a lot of local construction going on and contractors hired these workers on daily wage basis, at 10 am every morning. Those who were hired would go to the sites, while those who could not find work for the day would wait around in the lane, visible throughout the day. In the evening the workers hired for the day would return from the building sites and the entire lane would be full of men.
I asked how women negotiated the Khoj lane, which is also an access to the main road. Jha ji said that there were many other lanes that accessed the main road from the locality and the women used those, avoiding the crowed of men in the Khoj lane. Women who wanted to access the weekly Monday Market found another way to reach it.
I asked why the workers stayed in the lanes all the time when they were not working. Jha ji replied that they shared living space, 5 to 20 people in a rented room. It was an all-male arrangement. Their wives obviously could not be with them, so one saw no women in that regard either. These people worked for two or three months and then went to their village to be with their families. After three months they would come back to the area and work on construction sites or small workshops, and this cycle was repeated.
Then Jha ji became busy with more customers, who sat on the bench outside the shop and drank their tea while watching the TV inside the shop. Some men hanging around in the lane also collected around the bench to watch the TV. I thought it was a good to have the TV there since it drew people to the shop and some of them might also buy tea. After serving them Jha ji turned to me and explained that till the early 1990s this area was basically agricultural land with villagers settled here and there, growing crops. At that time there were no flats, no construction. From 2005, building work started on the Mall across the main road, there is the hospital, the district courts. The workers have been living here since that time, hired to work on those giant projects. At first rents were cheap here, but now there is a property boom in Khirkee Village, construction of multistory buildings has developed the area, and there is now always work for construction workers. Locals have begun to profit through renting accommodations to groups of migrant workers, so their population has increased greatly.