From foreigners to transgenders and students to artists, all found home in Delhi’s centrally located and affordable Khirki Extension. Somnath Bharti’s midnight raid here may fade, but with the cracks it has left, it may be a long time before Khirki is the same, find Pritha Chatterjee & Aditi Vatsa.
In a basement on a rainy afternoon, three students from Congo in their 20s are trying out their musical instruments. They have formed a choir for prayer meetings, where young African professionals and students gather thrice a week. The keyboard, drums and guitars are arranged on a decorated platform, while chairs line a red carpet. “We have turned this basement into a church,” says John Kahilu, a 24-year-old student. “There is no image of god here, we find him through our music, and these are the most unconventional prayer songs you will hear.” Their landlord of three years, who lives on the floor above, is “not sure” what the basement is used for, but loves the music that travels through closed doors. Making chapatis for lunch, she hums along.
A block away, a group of women models has just returned home from a photo shoot. They drop down exhausted on couches, dabbing their eyes with make-up removers, while their house help prepares coffee, amid the post-shoot chatter of “fussy photographers” and “haughty designers”. Between the ages of 18 and 32, they are Czechoslovakians who have been staying at Khirki Extension for eight months now. With three modelling agencies in the neighbourhood, the models have had a packed few months. Conversation drifts to how it has been ages since they visited their favourite haunt in Khirki, Baba ka Dhaba, for adrak ki chai (ginger tea).
A group of young kids, from a slum colony called the Jagdamba area, behind Apeejay School, sit in rapt attention in class as their teacher takes them through three-and four-letter words. This is Jack Todd’s second stint as a teacher in Delhi, and Khirki Extension has been his home both times. A volunteer for the NGO Swechha, Todd lives in R Block. “I feel safer in Khirki than I do in parts of south London… and that’s something,” he says.
A 28-year-old woman — a “Partition Punjabi”, she calls herself — has just got her children home from school, and is rushing them in for a bath. It’s weekend, so their “Daddy” will join them for lunch, she says shyly. Their neighbours, a couple who study in JNU, are contemplating marriage after a year of living together. As they quarrel over what to order for lunch, the Beatles song Let It Be drifts in through a window.
As she rolls another chapati, the landlady smiles at the music her Congolese tenants are again playing downstairs. “In Khirki,” she says, “people mind their own business.”
That wasn’t what it looked like on January 16, when close to midnight, Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti led a raid to the area, directing police officers to act against a “den of vice”, and charging primarily the Africans living there of a drug and prostitution racket.
In the wake of that raid, a neighbourhood of around 50,000 people, which a generous number of foreigners (1,500-odd), artists, students and even transgenders (around 50) have made their home, has found itself being targeted for either being too open or too closed. Bharti’s Aam Aadmi Party also wants people to believe he was acting on what is a shared feeling in Khirki Extension.
Since that night, the area has been crawling with police, with barricades up and a PCR vehicle parked 24/7. Media crews keep trickling in, and in the evenings, television talk shows are held in neighbourhood parks, now labelled “ground zero”.
A colony of disparate houses that look hurriedly mounted floor upon floor, Khirki Extension was before this known for largely its location — right across the road from two of the biggest and glitziest malls of South Delhi. The malls made this one of the toniest locations in the city, while Khirki’s unauthorised status meant affordable rents — both of which drew in the students and professionals who are now being seen as having changed its profile.
Saket, a software engineer who has been staying here for three years with his cousin, says, “What I find absurd is how Khirki is being portrayed as an Africans-only colony, with shady happenings at one end and these protests at the other. My family in Bangalore has been calling me, everyone has an opinion on Khirki. And their sheer brazenness is infuriating,” he says.
Khirki started out as a small village in the 14th century, deriving its name from the Khirki Masjid built during the Tughlaq dynasty. Back then, it primarily comprised agricultural land. According to heritage expert Navina Jafa, after the 1857 revolt, many residents of Shahjahanbad in Old Delhi moved here.
Over time, land ownership moved from rich Muslims to Sainis and Chouhans. The few bungalows that dot the landscape now belong to members of these communities. “My ancestors migrated from Rajasthan,” says Sandeep Saini, a BJP member. It was in the 1960s, Saini says, that the transformation began. “The government acquired large plots of agricultural land in 1962. The land on which these malls — Select City Walk, DLF and others — have sprung up were acquired by the government for a residential colony. For 30 years, the land lay vacant, only to be sold to big builders,” he says.
As shopping arcades, speciality hospitals and malls came up on the opposite side, and a Metro station opened nearby, Khirki village couldn’t escape the impact of urbanisation. By the 1990s, agricultural land had already started giving way to three- and four-storeyed buildings. “Following Independence, when the master plan for Delhi was drawn up, several plots of land which had earlier been used for agriculture, falling in the Lal Dora category, had to be used for commercial or residential purposes. Construction on this kind of land did not need the approval of regulatory authorities. Ill-conceived policies like Lal Dora led to unchecked construction in Khirki,” Jafa says.
With freshly allotted plots, the area around Khirki village came to be known as Khirki Extension.
With the buildings and cheap rents came students and professionals some decades ago. Foreigners have followed in the past seven-eight years. The lanes are still clogged with slush, with concrete only now being laid on a single street. But apart from the tenants, Khirki Extension’s fortuitous location means artists too have flocked — including Khoj, an association of artists, a dance studio called Gati, and the NGO Swechha that recycles used material.
The diversity is visible everywhere. ASI-protected monuments stand cheek by jowl with shops and unauthorised houses, while human faces, giant squids and other such art on walls are reflected in muddy lanes.
If Indians pay Rs 8-10,000 for a one bedroom-hall-kitchen house, foreigners are charged Rs 12-15,000. A 2 BHK costs about
Rs 15,000 for Indians, but foreign nationals shell out around Rs 20-25,000. Transgenders pay about Rs 12,000 for a 1 BHK and Rs 22,000 for a 2 BHK.
It’s the dynamic nature of the neighbourhood that brings them here, says Daku, a street artist who has painted murals in the Malviya Nagar-Saket area. “Khirki is unlike any other urban village in Delhi. The place has a lot of potential being in the centre of things.”
A pavement wall in one of the dirtiest bylanes was painted over by a Nigerian tenant who lived here some years ago. It shows a villager in dhoti-kurta and pagdi swinging to “African hip hop”.
“People who have lived here for ages have trouble moving out,” says Sunny Verma, who has lived in Khirki for several years. “You can’t help but fall in love with the area.”
The mushrooming of big corporate hospitals nearby was what drew the Afghans. On his second visit to Delhi for treatment for his eight-year-old daughter, Asif Mohammad says: “Last time, we stayed in Lajpat Nagar. Due to the high rent there, we decided against it.”
Hundreds of Afghans like him also stay in nearby Hauz Rani, leading to Afghani restaurants sprouting. At one such joint, Jan Mohammad Hazara watches an Afghani TV show as he eats a naan (bread). The instability in Afghanistan forced Hazara, a schoolteacher, to move to Delhi five years ago. Hazara now works as a translator-cum-facilitator for Afghans coming to Delhi. “Many of them stay here for a few years and then move to the US or Canada. I plan to move to Canada too,” he says.
Within this panoply though, there are neat segregations. Khirki Extension has three landmark temples — Sai Mandir, Shani Mandir near a cremation ground, and Krishna Mandir — and communities live in well-defined areas around them. “The Africans stay around Sai Mandir, Europeans around the shamshan ghat, and transgenders around Krishna Mandir. Indian tenants are lodged in considerable numbers around both the shamshan ghat and Krishna Mandir. The only Indians around Sai Mandir are those who own houses there,” says Bunty Meena. A local who runs a small property brokerage business, he says very few Indians rent places where the Africans stay.
The Africans, at the centre of the controversy sparked by Bharti, live primarily in blocks J 4 and S. Even they usually congregate with own countrymen.
Says Valerie Kahilu, a multimedia student, “There are Nigerians, Congolese, Ugandans and Somalis here. The Nigerians are mostly business people, while us Congolese are students. We speak French, while the Nigerians are English speakers, so our interaction with them is limited.”
Valerie stays with his brother in a 1 BHK. He is learning to make video films, and photography books, negatives and studio lights crowd every spare inch of his house. “When I am not shooting, I come home from class and drop asleep.” Smiling, he adds: “The TV channels say our houses are packed with drugs and women… I wish I had the time.”
Most evenings, the Indians, Africans, Slovakians and Afghans congregate at Baba Ka Dhaba, which offers Mughlai, Chinese and Indian food. Most of the regulars are friends with Sunny Garg, a local who runs the dhaba. Going briskly through the orders, Garg says: “I know who likes their tea milky, who likes it sugary. I have picked up their language, learnt their history. If they go, a part of me will be lost.”
Julian Ihebom, a businessman who buys clothes here and exports them home to Nigeria, says Khirki has given him the freedom of privacy. “At Munirka, the landlords would disturb me if I cooked beef. At Malviya Nagar, there were only Hindus in the building, so I was turned out. In Khirki, in three years, no one has disturbed me.”
Some African residents also say clashes among them, which they admit happen often, get misinterpreted. “There is little understanding of the complex relationship between African nations. Often there are clashes between people from Uganda and Nigeria as we have many issues. But it doesn’t mean we are a violent people,” says Jamie Aluko, a Nigerian, adding that he understood though how that could look to locals.
However, residents of the two blocks dominated by Africans say there is some substance to what Bharti claims. On January 10, the Residents’ Welfare Association (RWA) had circulated a letter to house owners asking them to tell their “Nigerian and Kinnar (eunuch)” tenants to vacate.
Says Faisal Khan: “There are so many foreigners here, but Africans engage in weird activities. They sleep through the day and stay up at night, they walk around late at night drunk, they wear short dresses, the couples cozy up on the streets, they play loud music and eat things which smell.”
Locals say the problems had worsened recently. “Over the past two-three months, our area had become a pick-up place. You could not step out of your house after 9 pm. Black women would be negotiating rates openly. Sometimes their men would stop us and ask us our rates,” says Shalu Chopra, an RWA representative.
Chitra Singh claims she can clearly remember the night many of her African neighbours ran out nude following an earthquake. “I threw potatoes and onions at them. I even threw stones. Earlier we were fed up of Biharis living here, but these Africans are worse.”
Nancy George, also a member of the RWA, blames the owners too. “Property dealers and landlords grew richer, but families like ours are suffering,” she says.
Alisha doesn’t like the “N people”, as she calls the Africans, because their “misdeeds” have brought so much attention to the colony. Eunuchs like her have been staying in rented homes in Khirki Extension for 30-odd years. Clad in designer jeans and a black net sweater, Alisha, 29, prides herself on being “one of the prettiest transgender girls in Delhi”.
Sitting on the staircase outside her delicately done home in J 4 Block, she sighs. “This was a very peaceful neighbourhood. We would go to our neighbours’ houses for mehndi, they would cook for us, and the foreign students would lend us pretty dresses. I have lived here since I was 10. Till now people never had problems with us. Now I step out at night, and all the aunties are at my throat,” she grumbles.
Incidentally, Alisha had voted for AAP in the Assembly elections. Now she regrets her decision. “When they wanted our votes, they touched our feet and called us devis. Now they call me a whore and say I am friends with the Africans, and the local boys run after me when I come home late… Khirki was a place where you could do your own thing peacefully and nobody would bother you. Now we are being targeted.”
The blocks dominated by Africans also have a dominant migrant population from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Malini Kochupillai, a photographer based in S Block, has been shooting the Africans as part of a project. “The issues of racial discrimination and inter-community cultural clashes have been bubbling under the surface. Last year, we had local men beating up an African woman,” she says. Kochupillai adds that she can understand why the two worlds, of migrants waiting for work on the streets and the Africans, collide. Several activists of NGOs such as Khoj have been calling for inter-community interactions. “The Bihari migrant needs to be celebrated as much as the African migrant,” Kochupillai says.
Kanishka Bagga, Manager, Gati, regrets that there is no platform where they can connect with the foreigners. “We had a recent session of Italian artists doing performing arts for two days and it had a very positive response,” Bagga says.
Suman Choudhary has more enemies than friends in J Block, but the stolid businesswoman shrugs this off as she shouts orders to her staff, going through files of police verification of tenants, and to her younger sister auditing the cash register. Choudhary is “mumma” to those seeking help for a place to rent. The village-educated 50-year-old has learnt English dealing with the Africans. “Why you so angry brother? All this pass, don’t worry. You tell problem to mumma, she speak to landlord. Have tea,” Choudhary calls out to African nationals who walk in every few minutes.
Problems with landlords have grown since Bharti’s raid, and she is the mediator between them and tenants. For two days after the raid though, she closed her office fearing trouble. Many landlords also visit her now, worried about how long they can keep their tenants.
Local residents say she came to the colony about a decade ago from East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar, and started out giving home delivery of Indian food from the same ground-floor room that serves as her office now. “She would address us as madam then, now we have to call her ma’am. She boasts she owns a house in every gali in Khirki now. She has grown richer and fatter, renting out to Africans,” charges George, who lives three houses away.
Choudhary does not deny either owning property or renting it out to the Africans. “People don’t understand them. Some of them may be doing drugs, but don’t Indians do drugs? I ensure that their verifications are complete. Beyond that, what can I do?”
Things are not really as black and white, says Mubaraq Bhai, a landlord, once the “Choudhrain” — as he calls Choudhary — is out of earshot. “Ten years ago, Indian students were staying in my flats. When Africans started coming, the Choudhrain promised us high rents. Now, over the last one year, I have realised I was a fool. They eat all sorts of things, locals tell me they even eat humans. I am so scared. I have been requesting Choudhrain to find me Indian tenants, but which Indian family will want to move into an area where only Africans stay? I have turned them out twice, but my flats just stay empty. Then I am forced to give out to Africans again. The Choudhrain only finds us Africans,” he complains.
Incidentally, Choudhary’s office has lately started another service: booking flights for those who want to leave the country.
Evenings have changed in Khirki since January 16. Earlier, the streets would be crawling with youngsters dressed up and headed for the malls, eunuchs in colourful saris singing, shoppers at nearby flea markets, and students and professionals returning home. Under the watchful eye of police personnel manning the streets around Sai Mandir, an eerie quiet hangs. Neighbourhood dog Golu’s new litter of seven makes the only noise.
Residents also come out at night and keep a watch now. Any African women seen walking towards the malls after 10 pm is turned back by policemen.
Roberta Christopher studies at Jamia Hamdard. As she and her two girl friends are turned away from the police post a little after 10 pm, it’s all she can do to maintain her composure. “Do they think they are the only ones who can scream?” she says, pointing to three-four women carrying young children who are yelling at the cops to stop her. “I am tired after a long day, so I was going for dinner to the malls. The poor cop told me to come back after these people go. If I was a prostitute, I would be able to afford a better neighbourhood like Lajpat Nagar. Don’t they see I don’t exactly love them either?” she says, pointing at another group of sniggering teenagers.
Julian, also a student from Jamia Hamdard, points out that there are some things about Indians they too find surprising, like the women in saris. “In our country, women don’t show their bellies. But over time, I have understood that sari is a symbol of Indian feminity at its purest,” he says.
Jack Todd, the teacher with the NGO Swechha, shakes his head. “You take a walk in the evenings here and you see beautiful transgenders, East Europeans, Africans and of course us English. I have never felt scared, but this recent police presence, it is very unsettling. What is Khirki turning into?”