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Melting Pot: In Khirki Extension, a unique barter system — of cultures and stories

This social experiment not only reflects the heterogeneous nature of the area but also provides insight into the memories these settlers carry on their phones.

Written by Damini Ralleigh | New Delhi |
May 3, 2017 3:01:50 am
Swati Janu at her recharge shop. Praveen Khanna

Little Minal, clad in a black burqa with red roses on it, sits in the middle of a temporary mobile recharge shop in Khirki Extension. Her gaze, transfixed, as Somali Canadian artist, K’naan’s most popular song, Soobax (come out), plays on a laptop in front. Her mother had recommended the song to Swati Janu, a community architect with a keen interest in informal settlements and unauthorised colonies. Janu first set up shop in Khirki as part of a month-long residency programme at Khoj Studios last year. “We don’t know this but many people who do not have access to the internet buy media for as low as Rs 10 from mobile recharge shops. Instead of charging people for the media, I adopted an exchange policy. So, in return for what they wanted, I took what was on their phone,” said Janu.

This barter led to the formation of a diverse media archive that has songs and movies from Bihar to those produced in Congo. This social experiment not only reflects the heterogeneous nature of the area, which is a hub of immigrants from Africa, Afghanistan and Iran, but also provides insight into the memories these settlers carry on their phones.

But is it also an echo of the bitter-sour racial mood of the capital?  “Through conversations, loaded with racial slurs and prejudice, one can tell the discrimination that men and women from Africa, mostly Nigerians, have to face. The xenophobia stems from how they find the Nigerian ‘body’ slightly intimidating, their dress sense is more western and emit an ease with their sexuality that Khirki’s conservative population is not comfortable with, or even be jealous of. Somalian refugees, especially women, are less targeted as they wear burqas and are Muslims, as opposed to the Nigerians who are mostly Christian,” said Janu, taking a 3GPP file of the Aamir Khan-starrer, Dangal from a migrant labourer’s phone. In return, she gave him two Bhojpuri films, the posters of which are pasted on the walls of her otherwise sparse shop.

Janu’s clientele comprises mostly male migrants from Bihar. This may be an interesting pointer of how digital consumption is male-dominated in a certain section of society. Most of the women who frequent her shop are from Somalia and Congo, though she has been able to build an acquaintance with Nigerian men and women.

As more and more memory cards exchange hands, Janu hankers after evolving the project. Her focus broadens from just sharing music to recording and disseminating work created by those who inhabit the area. “A few rappers, who go by the name Khirki 17, have come to the shop. We recorded them here and I give it to whoever is interested in lending them an ear. Now, I’m looking to get more people on board so that this shop can function like a physical radio or a TV channel, to which people of Khirki can tune in every Wednesday. I want to start with entertainment and then move to important issues. So that this becomes a platform of mediation between two persons who otherwise would never talk to each other,” Janu added.

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