Sunday, July 6, 2008

Opening Soon

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


My conversations with local shopkeepers, artisans and workers in the Khirki area enabled me to understand how the locality was changing. Over the past one year the rents have escalated, and the available space – small rooms shared by tenants – are mostly occupied by people working at Max Hospital or Select Citywalk Mall.

The locals accept the change but have dissatisfactions too, though they are profiting overall. Some people remarked that the area was becoming cosmopolitan, and consequently people were more open in behaviour and more expansive in outlook. Women walked around the lanes more freely, disregarding whistles and catcalls. Earlier, the youth were more repressed.

I went to Max Hospital to meet a nurse who lives in Hauz Rani and works in the Emergency Department at Max. I waited till late in the evening in the hospital lounge till she ended her shift. The lounge was almost as luxurious as a 5-star hotel, a surreal contrast to the grimy environs of Hauz Rani that tenaciously nudge the manicured grounds of the huge corporate entity.

The young nurse was quite exhausted when she finally came to me, having struggled all evening with a complicated case. It was late, but she insisted that I visit her home and meet her three roommates, all nurses at Max. As we walked through Hauz Rani, she narrated her daily routine. We reached her place, rented quarters in a small muddy lane. It would have been very difficult for me to find it on my own. Each time I visited the nurses during this project, I invariably lost my way in the cluttered warren of Khirki.

The day I forced myself to visit the Mall, I didn’t really know where to begin and where to end. I went through a security check and entered, immediately seduced by the central air-conditioning that felt like a celestial breeze after the sultry heat of Hauz Rani.

Constantly bright lights, escalators and the sophisticated décor of branded shops merged into a hallucinatory vista of unremitting allure as well as perennial satiation. I avoided looking at the extravagant prices as I persistently went into store after grandly designed store to try and find Khirki residents who worked in the mall.

I did find a few who had successfully modified themselves to their jobs and were willing to describe this transformation.


I was finally able to take a breath of fresh air after climbing up out of the machine-embroidery unit. It was dusk, and the atmosphere of Hauz Rani had changed. The lanes were full of children playing. There is no park or open ground in the colony, nowhere to play except the narrow alleys.

The stalls were becoming more animated, people were emerging from the upper storeys of the houses and strolling along. Women in burqas as well as Western clothes were moving from shop to shop. The big dhabas were starting to prepare dinner. Persistent motorcycle and autorickshaw horns seemed to be forcing people through the congested twists and turns.

The dim street lights came on. Vendors who had napped away the afternoon were becoming active again. Radios blared from cigarette and video rental shops. Small knots of people gathered at the corners were chatting in groups; others stood at hawkers’ carts and ate snacks.

The barbershop was full; customers waited in the street, watching the television in the shop, while the tenants of the two adjacent compartments were absorbed in transactions with customers.

The torpor of the afternoon had vanished entirely. My own fatigue slowly dissipated as I walked through Khirki’s lanes in the evening.


I slowly walked towards the machine-embroidery workshop, close to the hand-embroidery unit. The lane was uneven, the heat seemed more intense. I began to feel disoriented. I called the owner of the unit on his mobile, thinking I would stay in the workshop till it became cooler.

I went down a staircase into the basement of a three-storey building. The workshop is more a cell than a room, humid and claustrophobic despite warped exhaust fans whirring at full speed near street-level vents. Their grimy blades churn the sweltering air into the ongoing stream of call-in chatter, chirpy advertisements and blockbuster Bollywood numbers playing on an FM radio.

But all this is drowned in the incredible roar of the three converted pump motors that turn the aged makeshift machines at which the workers sit hunched, eyes glued to the designs miraculously forming on the fabric, hands flying between cloth, thread, needle, bobbin.

Not one of the three young men looked up for even a second as I came in. They work here for 12 to 14 hours each day. Juddering and snarling like a pneumatic drill in the suffocating little room, the brutal reverberation muscles incessantly through the fragile canals of their ears.

How long does it take for such thunder to finally congeal into a deafening void within the skull?

My nerves seethed as I shouted my questions to the young owner of the workshop, standing by an ironing platform in a tiny inner compartment piled high with cloth. He said had migrated to Delhi five years ago from Bihar. The workers in his unit are also from Bihar.

The unit has survived thus far, but the production level is actually going down. Sometimes he is short of work, and then short of workers as his men leave. But everyone who trudges with hope, will and grit through the labyrinth of Hauz Rani needs a job. The owner of the unit never has a problem finding replacements.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


My destination was the embroidery workshops at Hauz Rani, a locality that is an extension of Khirki Village. The roads through both areas culminate in the large sprawl of the authorised middle-class colony of Malviya Nagar. The houses are three and four storeys high, some old and dilapidated, others newly constructed. I felt I had stepped into a concrete slum. Despite the blazing heat, the lanes are clogged with slushy mud and patterned with countless footprints. The street surfaces seem to be excavated several times each month, the potholes as well as the piles of sun-baked sludge left just as they are. Few manholes have covers. The passers-by are indifferent to this now-routine disruption.

The way into Hauz Rani became narrower, the sun increasingly blocked out by overhangs, the bleached sky barely visible in the slits of glare. Large dhabas lined the road. They seemed to be emptying out, customers dispersing after the busy lunch hours. Some dhaba workers were now eating. The dhaba owner was taking a nap inside. These dhabas seem to be open round the clock. Clouds of flies buzzed around the large vessels of cooked food, the carcasses on hooks at meat stalls, the cut watermelon slices ripening on hawker’s carts.

The oppressive weight of a sweltering summer afternoon pressed upon me as I approached the hand-embroidery workshop. At the entrance is a huge iron shutter like that of a garage. Inside is a hall with two cupboards and a stack of utensils on one side, and a loft up at the back, reached via a bamboo ladder. Here the workers rest after their shifts.

The workspace is on the ground floor. Each worker sits behind wooden frames on which fabric is stretched. The embroidery is mainly zari (gold thread). Work begins at 8 am and carries on till midnight, with two half-hour breaks. It involves the deft use of needles, beads, silver appliqué and satin threads, along with the zari itself, to intricate floral patterns. From a distance, as one steps from harsh sun into shade, the embroidered cloth flickers with an iridescent gleam.
It was very quiet within the workshop. All I heard was the swiftly moving, unerring needles as they plucked at and penetrated the tightly stretched weaves.
The owner greeted me with a pleasant smile and asked me to sit. After I explained the purpose of my visiting the workshop, he agreed to talk with me each day at 1 pm. In our introductory dialogue he said he was from Bengal. He lived with his family on the first floor of the workshop. The 10 workers of his unit were all from Bengal, Bihar or UP.

While I was at the workshop, not one worker raised his head to look at me or stopped his work for even a second. I was somewhat disturbed by their absolute focus, and this mechanical dimension of what I intuited were complicated individual subjectivities.

I did not stay very long, as I had to also visit a machine-embroidery workshop nearby, owned by a young man from Bihar.


I walked through the heat of the April afternoon down the Khirki road, past small tea stalls and betel/cigarette stalls, half-shuttered for the siesta. I stood in front of one of these shops, and the vendor became curious. He gave me a friendly smile and asked who I was. I explained that I was doing a project with Khoj that involved interactions with local people. He suddenly became wary and suggested that I talk to his employer who, it turned out, had gone to his hometown in Bihar.

I kept walking, and noted that most of the small shops were closed in the afternoon. A colony of south Delhi, Khirki has been unauthorised for decades. Clusters of small dwellings and stalls cling to the existing walls of the historical ruins that are a local landmark. I came to a tiny tailoring shop, no more than 10 x 10 feet. The man there was operating a sewing machine. He barely raised his head to acknowledge my greeting. Obviously, the practice was to run the machine all day with rarely a break. All he would say in response to my tentative questions was that he had to deliver the complete work to his “madam” within a fixed time.
I then came to two big gates of a wide compound with rented rooms along the sides. I did not go in, hence cannot identify the kind of work that is done there.

I next encountered a barber’s shop, 6 feet long and 4 feet wide, with two attached compartments. One wall adjoined the colony’s ruins; the other side was open to the street, with a temporary shutter dangling from the roof. The shop had mirrors, two chairs in use, and a bench for people to sit on while they waited their turns for haircuts and shaves. Even in the sweltering afternoon the shop was full of customers. All were absorbed in gazing at the television fixed to a wooden upper shelf.

The tiny compartments are rented as living space by two individuals. These ‘rooms’ are like bunks in a ship’s cabin. Once inside, it is literally impossible even to turn around fully.
I met the younger brother of the man who owns the barber shop. The owner had gone for a holiday to his hometown in Bihar. The brother’s name is KT. He is 24 years old. He runs the shop with an older local man.

KT said he started work at 6 am and ends at 11 pm. He and his assistant are continuously busy and hardly have time even to eat during the day. A lengthy break is an impossibility. Leisure pursuits are out of question. The customers are all locals; they come and go according to their free time and work schedules.

KT and his assistant lived in a small room attached to the shop. Mulllaji, one tenant of the two tiny rental compartments, repairs gas burners and stoves. The other tenant sells vegetables from that space. Mullaji was initially a bit reluctant to speak to a woman, but became more forthcoming when KT introduced me.

Shops line both sides of the narrow winding lane passing through congested Khirki Village. They sell groceries, videos, mobile phone cards; they rent out DVD players and pirated DVDs. A doctor’s small chamber extends into an STD phone booth.