Twenty-two-year-old Haido Nawal could have gone to college anywhere in the world, but he chose to study in Delhi. Lured by the warmth and promise of a new India he had seen in Shah Rukh Khan movies in Nigeria, Nawal was sure he had made the right choice. After a year of living in a tiny, cramped room in Ramesh market, Lajpat Nagar, with six others, he is furious with himself for not having known better. The group of six Nigerian young men — all students of Stratford Institute near Lajpat Nagar — would like nothing better than to find a larger home. For the first few months, they even tried. “But the property dealers told us that all ‘blacks’ stayed here, the main Lajpat Nagar area was not for them,” says Lawal. His roommate Hashim Sani adds, “It is small, but there is peace here, and freedom. It’s away from the prying eyes of Indians, who never spare an opportunity to mock and ridicule us. It’s our corner, one where we can be ourselves.”
Walk through the sprawling neighbourhood of Lajpat Nagar, and you find the language changing every few blocks. Over the years, the many migrants who come to Delhi for work and education have made it their home. A longtime resident like 80-year-old Devendra Singh, who came here in the 1950s when it was a vast expanse of farmland, has it mapped out in his head. “By and large, the area is essentially Punjabi. In Lajpat Nagar I, live the Partition refugees; Lajpat Nagar II is where you’ll find the Afghans who come here for treatment. Walk a little further and that’s where the Pandits who have run away from Kashmir are settled. Lajpat Nagar III is where everyone comes to shop, and Lajpat Nagar IV is where you’ll find people from the Northeast and those who work in call centres in Gurgaon and Noida,” he says. Despite this multicultural jostle, Lajpat Nagar remains the vivacious middle-class (and Punjabi) heart of Delhi, which shines through in Hindi films like Do Dooni Chaar, Band Baaja Baraat and Vicky Donor as an earthy, unaffected cultural space. But this is also the area where a young man from Arunachal Pradesh was taunted, and then beaten up when he objected.
Farooq Ramesh, an Afghani who stays in Lajpat Nagar II, an area called ‘Little Kabul’ because of its predominant Afghani population, believes they have worked out a coexistence. “This was an area created for the displaced and the refugees by the government. This common awareness has bound the people together, while living in their small pockets with their own community has set them apart,” he says. It is a very Delhi kind of coexistence, as Gulshan Gupta, another refugee from Pakistan, goes on to explain. “Everyone minds their own business and stays in their own territory. There is little interaction between communities. That’s how it’s always been,” he says. “I don’t remember any major clashes since I have been here. For a while, the Afghans did create some trouble, but that was resolved. A few Indians got together and beat them up.”
If Delhi is one of the most populous migrant cities of the world, it is also a place that has not learnt to deal with differences. It is a city that belongs to no one, but where smaller fiefdoms are zealously guarded. In Lajpat Nagar, where the dominant Punjabi settlers thrive on a rent economy, the fault lines are not glossed over, but reinforced by a clannish culture. “It is common knowledge. You don’t talk to Indians, Indians don’t talk to you. It’s an unstated rule, one that everyone here follows,” says Abbas, an Afghan who has recently come to the capital. On the streets, and in the markets and parking spots, where the communities are forced to meet, interact and rub shoulders, the resentment comes out. “I live in Lajpat Nagar because it is affordable and well connected. But, do I think it is safe? I don’t. Just yesterday, my friend had to slap some locality boys because they wouldn’t stop passing dirty comments. Today, she is scared that they might come back and rape her. Staying here for eight years, I have become used to it all, but for someone like my friend who’s new in the city, it hits like a lightning bolt,” says Suku, 25, a call centre worker from Darjeeling.
“I wasn’t surprised when I heard the news about Nido Taniam,” says PK Sharma (name changed), a general physician who has lived in Amar Colony in Lajpat Nagar IV for over 40 years. “It’s terrible, because the new outsiders, whether they are from the Northeast or from Africa, keep to themselves. They go about their business and do not challenge the established order of things. Because if they do, something like this might happen,” he says.
City historian Sohail Hashmi argues that Lajpat is just another example of the Delhi power trip, the “north Indian upper-caste male mindset” that makes men believe “that they were born to rule, and anybody who can be browbeaten is subjected to their blows. Whether it is somebody from a different or lower caste, women or outsiders.”
Perhaps, that was what drove shopkeepers in A Block to beat up Taniam. “After a while, you wonder: how much is too much? Maybe, that’s what the boy thought.
I know that feeling. It’s not pleasant and, sometimes, you feel like acting on it, just like Nido did,” says Madhur Baruah, a resident of Amar Colony, who belongs to Assam.
But, in a brusque, matter-of-fact city, no one lingers over the anger. “The rent is affordable, it’s a good location. Looking at the large picture, the bullying is just a minor inconvenience,” says Madhur. “It’s better than Afghanistan,” jokes Sayed Mohammad Raza, who runs a falafel shop in Lajpat Nagar II. “I’ll take this any day over going back,” he says.
And so, people have figured out a way to deal with things. While some like Suku are inured to it, others like Suleiman, a 22-year-old Nigerian, choose an invisible life. “ I go to college and come back home. My food is delivered at home and I shop online. I don’t like the Indians around, and I don’t step out,” he says.
In this neighbourhood of simmering hostilities, the silence screams louder than words.
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