Experiences of a Muslim on finding a home in Delhi
The word 'Mohammadan' is anglicised, tailored, or I dare say, circumcised to meet the urban youth's shallow needs.
- Total Shares
“I think you have God in you,” said Kailash Ji, “You, I, people around us... They all have God in them; even a fly has God in it and I…,” he paused for a bit to create an effect, "I respect everyone because I respect God," he concluded.
Kailash Ji was my ex-landlord and he categorically stated that, usually, people are not comfortable in giving out their flats for rent to "Mohammadans".
"Mohammedans", I heard this term for the first time when I came to Delhi. Kailash Ji didn't have any problem with "Mohammedans", but a lot of people did.
“Hey, are you a Mohammedan?” People used to ask. Delhiites loved to take things up for the sake of appearances and this word was one of those things. Musalman is too long and earthy. Muslim is too crude and abrupt. Mohammadan is anglicised, tailored, or I dare say, circumcised to meet the urban youth's shallow needs. Delhi was just starting to unravel its colourful span of wings.
In Delhi, living as a kiraayedaar (tenant) takes you through all strata of society. In the start, you live on bare necessities. It is the age of rooms – infested with big rats, small ants and medium-sized good old claustrophobia – only for those who feared the walls closing in on them.
It was 2007 when I came to Delhi from Jagdishpur (Uttar Pradesh) for good. I didn't have to go through the gruelling task of finding a room for rent. A friend of mine had already done that by the time I arrived. My first room in Delhi was in Gali (street) number 9, Zakir Nagar, Okhla.
Hanging from the edge of the world, the structure was reluctantly made. It reeked of money as it was a product of greed not love, like most of the houses in Delhi are which is a sad and practical thing. Three rooms arranged in an L-shape on the first floor and an unwelcoming balcony sticking out at a strange angle greeted you after a tedious staircase. On our right was a poor man's dream – the posh New Friends Colony and the bustling community centre. On our left was Yamuna and adjacent to it were Abul Fazal Enclave and Shaheen Bagh, just before Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border on the road leading to Noida.
In Delhi, living as a kiraayedaar (tenant) takes you through all strata of society. (Credit: YouTube screengrab/www.okhlatimes.com)
The landlady was happy to rent the room out to us. We agreed on Rs 2,000 per month. The two other rooms on our floor were already given out on rent.
Facing our rooms was one lonesome washroom with a fallen angel for a door and a little switch hanging from a singular string of two red and black wires interwoven together. Entering the washroom was the difficult part (you can't just walk into Mordor). One had to grope around in the dark for a while to find the light bulb switch which was hanging inside. The simple logic of putting the switch outside seemed to escape the esteemed electricians of Okhla. During power cuts, the washroom got filled with a death black air mixed with evaporated sweat, water droplets, and a perennial stench. Once you were inside, you could touch the walls with your shoulders and back if you stretched, even a little bit. And the blackness... It was inescapable.
The rooms; they were basic. Escapable. My room had two beds, an almirah, a matka (earthen vessel) and a slim balcony – and that was it. There were some books and clothes too, but they didn't take up too much space. Right above us was a middle-class ceiling fan which ran with full relish. Toilet, on the other hand, used to get jammed a lot. Whenever that happened, we went to the nearby masjid and did our business there. In His home, we went for selfish reasons, just like others did.
When I was not prostrating before the algae-streaked demigods of mosque washrooms, I used to sit on the balcony wall and think about my room where I didn't feel like home. “Will I ever be able to?” I used to ask myself, looking around. When will the stopping bell ring? People hurrying about like headless chickens. In the evenings, restaurants wafted into our rooms, riding on the smells of "mutton rara" and "chicken changezi". Indian Muslim's love affair with meat is timeless, and that showed here.
As "maghrib" came, the narrow roads of Batla House and Zakir Nagar exploded with men bombs, women bombs, rickshaw bombs and children bombs (coupled with crying children bombs). Rickshaws rolled like three-legged caterpillars past colourful shops of plastic delights. Dodging a waving arm here, ducking a low-hanging high tension wire there, they rode on as azaan rang in the air. It was a movie and your eyes were a camera to all the lights and actions of Jamia Nagar evenings.
I joined a coaching centre in Lajpat Nagar to prepare for graduation entrance exams. After doing 10+2 from Aligarh Muslim University, I didn't do what I went there to do (become a doctor). I found out that I could do other things (which, on the eastern side of Uttar Pradesh, one couldn't have done).
I wanted to do MBA, and for that, I had to do graduation and everybody said that the future of commerce and humanity courses was somewhat bleak in Aligarh – it was more promising in Delhi. So, I came here and joined a coaching class to qualify for graduation courses in Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia.
When I was not in coaching, I spent my time with my books. Books are your true companions – they don't need the crutch of technology. They just want you to read them. I rarely went out of my room. When I did, I saw the two wannabe optometrists, who lived in the third room, flirting around with the mysterious girl that lived in the second room.
“In our village, optometrists are eye-specialists; almost-doctors,” the optometrists told me. They wanted to do a diploma in optometry and practice illegally as doctors in the distant villages of Bihar.
They were the hopeful optimists of our nation who thought the world revolved around them. The girl – she didn't care about any of us and never talked to us.
Once, she borrowed a novel from me and asked a little about it. But the optometrists were interested in the guy who visited her now and then, and how the colour of her T-shirts changed when he came. Bizarre as it seemed, in the cold, anonymous labyrinth of Zakir Nagar, she lived too close to the boys. Why bizarre? Because it was Zakir Nagar and girls didn't live too close to the boys – even if they wanted to.
Two months passed. During this time, Khurram Bhai, my elder cousin, came to Delhi to join Wipro, I got selected in Bachelor of Business Studies (Jamia Millia Islamia) and one of our next door optometrists, who had a myopic foresight, fell for the girl. Career, education and love – everything at once.
Later, we came to know that the girl was actually Hindu, living there under a Muslim pseudonym and in dire need of money, love and all good things which generally come to an end. And then there was the bathroom. The stench. And endless trips to the masjid. And the stench again – of unwanted intimacy. I moved to another room with Khurram bhaiya, at Thokar number 5, Abul Fazal. It was a relatively open place and by open, I don't know what I mean, but it seemed like a good option against haphazard love affairs and washrooms unworthy of our shit. It was right beside Yamuna and we dreamt of river view apartments.
Living away from home removes some obvious things from your life. (Credit: PTI photo)
But how did I get the room? Khurram bhai got in touch with a one-legged property agent who found it for us and charged Rs 1,100, half of one month's rent (Rs 2,200). It was a nice room in a big one-storeyed flat. Ours was a room with a view as the door was made of glass (like those official looking aluminum doors with glass panels). Why? Because the flat was an ex-office.
It had seven rooms, four washrooms and a terrace. The structure was made half-heartedly to run a failed business. The badly painted walls, chipping ceramic tiles, open pipes and tangled wires emanated a general aura of disuse and depression. And Yamuna? It was across the road, barred by a high fence and all we could see were grey water, garbage piles and a lot of weed.
Disappointed by the Yamuna, we socialised with our flatmates. They saw the glass door and “Jinke ghar sheeshe ke hote hain” jokes followed. The jokes faded away along with our superficial friends and candid neighbours. We got accustomed to the Abul Fazal routine after bidding adieu to the Zakir Nagar routine. We thought of pasting wallpapers, putting up curtains and what not on the glass door, but our lives were not private – we didn't have girlfriends or drugs.
They say you can run, but can't hide. But what to do when you have nothing to hide – you live in a room with a glass door view and plan to put up curtains and wallpapers but never do that.
In that flat, I met some nice folks from Gorakhpur and Arshad (from Banda). Arshad became a good friend. Khurram Bhai, Arshad and I used to sit on the terrace (we had a terrace, unlike the other makeshift skyscrapers of Okhla) and from there we saw the lights of Shaheen Bagh, another residential society adjacent to ours, during the power cuts of Abul Fazal Enclave.
Power cuts were accompanied by mosquitoes (satiating their eternal thirst with our blood, bathing in the red darkness) and a searing summer (which, in Delhi, is not felt in the air – it starts in your bone marrow and pours out of your eyes, melting you from the inside).
And then, the nights used to resurrect us. Cool summer nights and a prized terrace – the last sheen of that humble one-storeyed house still sparkles sometimes in my eyes when I talk to Arshad or Khurram bhai.
Abul Fazal Enclave was named after a guy named Abul Fazal, apparently. It was a blasted version of Zakir Nagar – an organism which had come back from the dead and was spreading its tentacle-like alleys, riddled with boils of shops and mismatched houses trespassing rivers, lands and forests. It was almost cruel, how cities invaded the outskirts razing ancient villages to ground.
Cities were insolent and proud but, in metros, flats were prouder. They used to think they have got everything going in life with a good size and great demand, but bungalows and penthouses looked down upon them all the same.
After spending enough sleepless nights in the dark, and guided by the lights of Shaheen Bagh, we moved there with Arshad to a dusty 2-BHKin 2009.
In our 2BHK, "B" was a serious entity as the bedrooms were spacious, but "H" was as smaller than "K" and strangely, "K" was more spacious than "H".
Our flat didn't succumb to the greed and remained one-storeyed. Although they had little respect – the one-storeyed houses in Delhi – I always regarded them as silent rebels.
The neighbourhood was dusty. Why? Well, who is John Galt? The conspiracy theories of the systematic ghettoisation of Muslim majority areas in India have been circulating around since God knows when. The entire Shaheen Bagh revelled in a vulgar celebration of soil and smoke. Open sewers and muddy roads were so common a sight; you would befriend them. I befriended a sewer in Shaheen Bagh and named him "Deadpool".
People walked on the roads. Bikes and cars plied on the invisible footpaths. Dust was a free currency. It deposited itself with relative ease and amazing alacrity! You would think your bike was stranded on the road for ages even if you left it for an hour. Coming back to our humble abode, we had a kitchen for a change and a bathroom that was ours. And a terrace too.
We left the age of rooms back in Abul Fazal, but the power cuts tagged along with us. From one prized terrace to another, we still gazed at those precarious lights shining on the other side, shamelessly. But I had my friends. Khurram bhai, Arshad, summers, dust and Delhi.
We rented the flat at Rs 3,000, which was a really good deal for a ground floor flat. That made us happy, but happiness, when you are away from home, is short-lived.
I left my home after Class 10 to take admission in Senior Secondary School in Aligarh Muslim University (2004). I used to live in a hostel named Allama Iqbal Hall, and the two years I spent there changed my life. People who live at home don't realise how big a difference staying away makes. Your whole life changes. The faces you are used to, the routine you were tuned to, the little things you had been busy with change and they change so drastically yet so gradually that you never feel the change.
The ground doesn't leave your feet and your mother doesn't create a scene every time you leave. She stops. They all stop. They accept. Like we do. And, maybe that's why, you become impervious to it; the fact that your house is changed, you are living with strangers and you have to do every effing thing on your own.
I was subjected to adult tortures very soon: monthly budget, electricity bill, bank accounts, admission processes, food, house, commute, transactions and more transactions.
In India, transactions are known as haggling. I was never good at it. I always felt that the extra money I am giving away is the payment I am making to save myself from a haggling situation.
Living away from home removes some obvious things from your life. TV, for instance. Clean water and good food could be two other crucial things. You realise the importance of home-cooked food, no surprises there, you gain some good friends (lose ’em too) and you become more responsible or more irresponsible as you go along.
It was the last year of my graduation (2010) and I was travelling towards responsibility after saying goodbye to the irresponsibilities of my life. Friends. Chai. Kebab paranthe. More chai. And more kebab paranthe.
Looking back, it wasn't much, but it sufficed, or maybe it didn't, I wondered during the time I travelled. Shaheen Bagh was my last stop. I was going to take the fast lane. I haven't been able to figure out whether I took the fast lane or the ones that appear like it.
Most of us take those – the ones that look like the fast lane. I realised it when I grew up. The pseudo fast lanes are many, they are easy to take and they resemble the treacherous lights of Shaheen Bagh. Misguiding.
After my graduation, I got a job and I moved to Madanpur Khadar to live in a big 3-BHK flat (rent: Rs 10,000) with four other friends. After a year, I went back home to prepare for higher studies, a ritual you got to go through if you are born in India. l came back to Delhi to take admission in PGDM at FORE School of Management and have already moved four times since then.
It's like flashing through different backgrounds – as if life is pressing buttons of a universal remote and changing the channels just like that. We live through all of it, just like I did, but the time I spent in Okhla was memorable.
Only people we met daily were friends in the daytime and police in the nights. After a Ramazan time unrest in Batla House market and Okhla Head (2007) and the notorious Batla House encounter (2008), Okhla police chowki became Thana. What it meant, we didn't know, or, at least, I didn't. We just knew that it mattered. Police patrolled the roads on late night "gashts" and always used to catch us roaming around.
"Cigarette pi pi ke shakal pe phitkaar aa gayi hai (smoking has made your face disgusting)," they said to a friend who had a breathing problem and never smoked.
"Gharwalon ko pata hai ke unke ladke awaragardi kar rahe hain (do your parents know that you are roaming around)?" That time, we were studying late night and got out to get some fresh air. But not every time. We had had our fair share of challans, lost helmets and impromptu stories riddled with lies. The policewallahs; they saw through all that many times and never spared us a chance.
Delhi Police is very judgemental. Calling them rude will be rude to the word rude. They are cacophonous. They deliberately utter sounds that make you uncomfortable. But that's their job, isn't that? And who watched the watchmen. Well, the night had eyes. And trees too. But none other than them.
I am a working guy now. I live in an air-conditioned 2-BHK flat in Katwaria Sarai, South Delhi, and pay Rs 10,000 as rent every month. I have a nice bed and a wooden almirah that's mine. There are fewer things with me now that aren't mine. I have the luxury of laundry bags and doormats.
Truly, doormats are the ones that liberate you, make you a "man". When doormats come in your house, it becomes a home. Odonil, night bulbs, curtains and scented candles – they do that too. When you get money, you buy time and what do you do with that time?
You look around and start turning your house into a home. It's a fragile affair. In India, homes have stronger foundations than houses, but they are made up of tiny bits of time and money – hard-earned. Money – drenched in sweat – it's salty. And time – it runs amok, like sand. You chase it, and you’re are a nomad. You stay back, and you are a loser. A thin line. A measured pace. A fragile affair. A house of cards not dealt to you yet. Slowly, the cards start sliding out as you keep pushing them in because you don't want them to bring it down.
After all, it's difficult to build a home in the city.