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.