In Limbo

Through photographs, Shivani Dass weaves a poignant tale of the lives of Chin refugees in Delhi.

Written by Nikita Puri | Updated: August 3, 2014 12:00:50 am
talk-L Image from the book I Often Think of Those I Left Behind.

For the past four years, 44-year-old Mung Vang has been plagued by insomnia and other medical conditions. Her nightmares, all memories from a harrowing past, never go easy on her. Vang’s husband Baithong died of injuries he received during his imprisonment in Myanmar and, during his funeral, Vang was assaulted while she tried to protect her daughter from the army. Ever since she left Myanmar in 2008, Vang has been living in Bodella, a village near west Delhi’s Vikaspuri, with others who have memories as tormenting as hers, if not more.

Giving a voice, and a face, to stories such as Vang’s is Delhi-based photojournalist Shivani Dass with her latest project — a book on the Chin refugees in Delhi, a neglected lot.

Called I Often Think of Those I Left Behind (AuthorsUpFront; Rs 2,499), the book introduces readers to a community that escaped to India to seek protection from persecution and economic distress, but have not received any recognition from the Indian state. The book was launched at India Habitat Centre on Saturday evening.

Dass says, “I’m interested in stories of conflict, and my aim is to be a good documentary photographer. For this project, I initially wanted to include both the Rohingyas and the Chins, but the Rohingyas were reluctant and I didn’t want to force my way into their spaces. I focussed on Vikaspuri since a good majority of Chins stay there.” According to Paris-based anthropologist Chowra Makaremi, whose essay is included in the book, there are about 12,000 Chin refugees in Delhi, and more than 70,000 in India.

“After going to Vikaspuri once or twice, I didn’t have to look for people anymore. Word had spread that someone was coming to document their stories, and people came forward to invite me into their homes. The fact that I had a young translator and a community elder with me also helped,” says Dass, about the year-long project. Mary Therese Kurkalang of Khublei, who directed the project with Dass, says, “They really welcomed Shivani because they felt that someone was interested in listening to their stories. This is a community whose features really stand out in an area such as Vikaspuri, and they have been shown animosity for more than one reason. They themselves feel they don’t have any rights here; that’s why crimes against them go unreported.”

In the true stories separated by pale blue papers — intended towards highlighting the sense of gloom that hangs heavy on the subject — are instances of rape and injustice that the community faces on a regular basis, but which are left unreported.

For the project, Dass met 35-odd families, a section of which are featured in the book. “So many people spoke about leaving India at a moment’s notice. Their lives are in limbo,” she says. “A part of the proceeds from this book will go towards their welfare. My next project will focus on Chin community across India,” adds Dass, whose earlier projects include an exhibition on her travels across the country, and another on the many aspects of Sufism.

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