I want freedom from green vegetables; I want freedom from history class; I want to ask questions like I do in science class; to walk around the neighbourhood like I do on Eid”. These words could have been said by children anywhere in the world, but in the book My Sweet Home these are the words of children who led ordinary lives in and around Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, till Operation Batla House took place in September 2008. That changed everything for the 10-12 year olds.
Released at Jamia Millia Islamia University last week, the book (Mapin Publishing; Rs 595) tours the neighbourhood of Okhla through the eyes of children, through food, parks and history. It is an outcome of a one-week workshop held in February 2010, with 20 students from two schools in Okhla (Urdu and Hindu medium), which are part of the University’s outreach programme.
Samina Mishra, documentary filmmaker and writer, wondered what it was to be a child in the locality surrounded by OB vans and policemen. The idea of the workshop grew from there, and Sherna Dastur, filmmaker and artist, came on board to provide the visual language. From words they moved to one-line sentences and from there to stories of their neighbourhood. The book, filled with both wit and paradox, makes the reader a flaneur, aware of how it resembles one’s own life.
“We wanted the children to freely express themselves with paint and colour, follow their heart and remember that the end result was unimportant. We started with several 10-minute colour sketches to explore simple themes of love and freedom. They could use only patches of colour, no hearts for love or birds or flags for freedom. As the workshop progressed, the exercises became more complex. We began looking at new ways in which they could imagine their surroundings, and the events that had shaped their lives. They made maps that not only represented places and events in their immediate neighbourhood, but also other places that mattered to them. There was a river near a grandmother’s house in Uttar Pradesh, a desire to go to Shimla, a heart operation, a samosa shop, and a fake encounter,” says Dastur.
In the book, Abeer, one of the students, writes: “I have lost a lot of things but I’ve never regretted anything as much as the loss of my neighbourhood’s reputation. After the encounter, Batla House has got a bad name”. While Khushboo Khan, another student, writes: “The boys who were killed were students. They were not terrorists. The police framed them, perhaps to become famous themselves”. Amid these emotions are stories of cats, markets, holidays and friendships.
“It was an artistic endeavour to understand the self and the world around, and find one’s connection through that. I wanted to bring out the complexities and love for the everyday,” says Mishra, adding, “So there is a narration about mufflers, of cricket, nameplates and trees.” Taking off from some of these, Mishra has written three fictional stories that contextualise the drawings of the children.
Black-and-white photographs by artist-photographer Kunal Batra brings the textural elements of the streets into the book that is laden with Delhi, as a city that has been razed and rebuilt several times and contains within it stories of resurrection. This book is testimony to the hope that lies in children. Their neighbourhoods are not wastelands or centres of paralysis because of these fateful events — instead, in the everyday, they find their identity.