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 d├ęcor 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.