Stories of Here

 1

As a youngster KT would listen to stories of the city from elders – of colorful dazzling streets; of men speaking different languages; of markets that sold everything; of big roads and bridges; of big buildings and small houses with toilets inside; of women who dressed like people in the movies; of the variety in food; and many more things. Like all other young boys of his age, KT had developed a keen eagerness to move out of the village and join his destiny with that of the city. Finally after a fight over his playing truant from school, KT ran away from home and got on to a train coming here. Before boarding, he called his brother, who had arrived in the city ten years ago. The next morning when the train arrived, the brother came to receive KT and both of them took a bus from the railway station. The bus was crowded and KT’s eyes got busy trying to peep through gaps between the huddled bodies – from there he got a glimpse of the roads, buildings, bridges and the women he had heard about.

They got off on a big road. KT saw a large number of people working on the land adjoining the road – they were building something very big. They then crossed the road and on the other side entered a little dirt path. On the left of this road was an open space with some horses grazing and to the right was a small two storied building with some shops. But the clarity of the roads that KT saw from the bus had suddenly disappeared as the road on which they were walking kept varying in width; it had no pavements and its surface was uneven – with water accumulated in many pockets. After walking a few steps, they turned left on a street that had a slightly better defined edge – still there were no pavements and the street remained uneven. The width of the street was similar to that in his village, but he noticed that his brother had not greeted anyone or introduced him to anyone on the street. There were shops on both sides of the street – selling tea, pan, medicine, grocery, STD booths, etc. There were some houses too. The street also had a cart selling gram, peanuts and many interesting sweets. After a few more steps, his brother stepped into a hair cutting saloon and introduced him to Tanu. KT’s brother owned this saloon and Tanu was his assistant.

The shop was set up along a wall on the street. The wall was blank, three stories high and unfinished with exposed bricks. From the end of each floor all along the building and on intervals, KT noticed iron bars protruding out – as if the building was either broken down along this wall or was waiting to grow. The wall had become the main surface of the saloon, having a large mirror and a shelf. In front of the wall were two chairs. Two thinner walls were built perpendicular to the main wall to define the two other sides of the shop. The roof was made of corrugated sheets from where a rolling shutter hung precariously. The floor was raised from the street. All in all the shop occupied around six feet width of the main wall and came out by about four feet. Outside the shop was a bench for people to sit while queuing for a trim or a shave. As his brother ordered tea from the shop next door, Tanu busied himself with the clients. The two brothers chatted, mostly about the family.

After tea, KT’s brother took him to a room next to the saloon. This was where KT was to stay, sharing the room with his brother and Tanu. The room was tiny, similar to the shop, but slightly wider. KT’s mind was restless – there was a problem with the image of the city that he had created through the stories of the elders – though he saw all that was told to him, there was something that was troubling him. While he was impressed with his brother’s enterprise, he was also wondering where he was going to sleep in that tiny place – and what about bathing and shiting?

2

Later that evening, his brother explained how he managed to make a shop after working as an assistant with another person. His employer had sold his shop and packed off to his village leaving him to fend for himself. By then, he was skilled in hair cutting and shaving and had realized that the investment required was very little. He had come here with a box of tools and sat on the street during the mornings along the same wall. He managed with a small mirror, which he used to hang on the wall. At that time he would live with a relative. After some months, people started identifying him with that space. In six months the first showers came and he decided to put a plastic sheet on a wooden pole to cover his space. The street was prone to water logging and during the monsoons it would be a disaster when sewage also overflowed along with rain water. He raised the part of the street that he was occupying with stones, sand and some cement so that he and his customers would remain protected. Meanwhile, a couple of others also started occupying the remaining surfaces of the wall – one vegetable vendor and another, a tea maker. The tea maker soon brought his brother who ran a pan and cigarette shop. Later, when both of these were in the process of building their own roofs and floors, KT’s brother decided to claim a little bit more for his shop that would double as his sleeping area. KT’s brother told him that soon the owner of the wall started taking rent from its occupants and had also brought three others to occupy the rest of it – two small shops and one eatery. For KT this was new. He had heard of land being rented. But here someone was renting a wall, a vertical space.

From the following day, KT started assisting his brother in his shop – usually cleaning the floor, but also occasionally providing a shave. Later his brother asked him to cut hair for small children and old men – these usually did not require much skill. In about a year KT got to know the city as well as learnt how to give a good hair cut. Tanu left and both brothers now looked after the shop.  Managing the shop was easy, except during the monsoons, when they struggled to stop water and sewage from entering the shop. Another year passed and the shop was now completely handled by KT. His brother along with another relative started a business of distributing cigarette packets to small shops. Their networks grew and they slowly started distributing many other goods. Through these networks, KT’s brother came in contact with a party leader. Impressed by the leader’s contacts, KT’s brother assisted him in many of his activities – usually campaigning for the party.  Meanwhile KT had hired an assistant and had also improved the shop.  He had installed a larger mirror spanning all six feet of the shop, installed a new shelf, managed to borrow electricity from the wall-lord and had also installed a television. The shop was able to operate in the evenings now and was always crowded – not only by the people waiting to get a shave, but also by people who came to watch TV. People came to know the shop as KT’s saloon. His brother was happy as he liked to move around. It was also easy for him to now travel more often to his village to meet his son and wife.

3

The next year the monsoon was heavy and the struggle to keep water out of the shop became intense. Once, after a frustrating struggle with water and sewage, KT went to the neighbour next door – the tea maker for a cup of tea. He was wondering how the street flooded every year and why nothing could be done to permanently stop the problem. In the tea shop he found others discussing the same thing. KT asked Master Nathu, a respected elder in the neighborhood, “why is it that some streets get flooded and others don’t”? Master Nathu explained – “it is a complicated matter. Earlier there were lesser people and water consumption was less. Now with more people, consumption of water has gone up and so has the amount of sewage production. The pipes have overshot their capacity and hence there is an overflow. People have become greedy and have overbuilt their land to rent out and earn money. They build the way they want and do everything ad hoc – they spoil the edges of the street by not following the building line; they take ad hoc water and sewerage connections and do not repair them when they get spoilt. Some owners have tried to repair the street several times by pouring earth, but never succeeded. Only the government with lots of money and good engineers will be able to solve the problem. But Master Plan says that most things here are unauthorized and should be removed first. And that is the reason the government is not doing anything about this street”. Before KT could ask anything more it started pouring again and everyone rushed to their respective shops and houses.

KT couldn’t sleep that night. His mind was mixed up with many questions – was he and people like him responsible for the condition of the street? But where else could he have gone? Will people get angry and remove him and his shop? What will happen then? And who was Master Plan whom everyone was scared of? Why did he declare everything unauthorized? How could his shop be unauthorized when he paid rent every month? Who was Master Plan to declare anything unauthorized? Why couldn’t anyone talk to Master Plan and explain the condition here? Would he take a lot of money to solve the problem? A mixture of guilt, fear and anger troubled him. He had to do something before he was thrown out. Meeting Master Plan and explaining him all the problems seemed to be the only hope. He knew he could convince Master Plan. He had done this before with the Doctor who refused to treat his brother’s wife. He had met the doctor and pleaded his condition. The doctor had taken pity and helped his sister-in-law deliver. He decided to meet Master Nathu again in the morning and ask him where Master Plan lived.

Next morning, KT visited Master Nathu’s house. But Master Nathu had left for his grand daughter’s wedding early that morning. KT returned to the tea-shop and asked the tea-shop owner if he knew where he could find Master Plan. The tea-shop owner said that he was not sure, but that he could try at the Development Tower building. KT knew the Tower and decided to visit it immediately. At the entrance he asked the guard where he could find Master Plan. The guard told him he would find Master Plan on the third floor and that it would cost him Rs. 400. KT knew he would need money in the Tower so he had already organized for some. He went to the third floor and asked a person at one of the desks for Master Plan. The person directed KT to a counter at the end of the room. The person at the counter asked for Rs. 400 which KT promptly gave. The person gave him a receipt, and a large book. This puzzled KT and he asked him where he could find Master Plan. The person at the counter looked annoyed and said that the book was the Master Plan. KT’s face fell  – Master Plan was not a person, but a book. His embarrassment soon turned into a feeling of helplessness. He gathered courage and asked the person at the counter if he could meet the person who has written the book. The person at the counter was quite irritated with such a question and asked KT what exactly he wanted. KT explained his story and told him how he had mistaken Master Plan for a person. The man at the counter felt bad that KT had to spend Rs. 400 for a book that was not useful to him. He then asked KT to meet Sengupta Babu who would help him out. Sengupta Babu sat on the sixth floor.

4

Sengupta Babu was patient with KT and heard his story. He explained that Master Plan was a document that decides how a piece of land should be used. After some questioning about the location of KT’s shop, Sengupta Babu recognized that KT’s saloon was in the extension area of an urban village which had a historical monument within it. He looked up the plan and asked KT how far the monument was from his shop – KT answered “two minutes”. Sengupta Babu said that the government wanted to reorganize all development around the monument. KT asked him why they wanted to do such a thing. To that Sengupta answered – “so that the monument is accessible”. KT rebounded by saying – “but everyone can go there now”. Sengupta Babu explained further that since it was a very old building, government wanted everyone to see it from afar. KT couldn’t understand and asked again – “why”? Sengupta Babu found it difficult to explain to KT ideas about history, heritage, archeology, and things like that – moreover, he himself was not completely convinced about the government’s move. He decided to engage KT in another conversation – he told KT that in the Master Plan, the government had decided that large part of this area should be used for only residences and a small bit should be kept as open space. KT tried to make sense, he said – “so that is the way they wish to reorganize”. Sengupta Babu fumbled – how could he explain to someone like KT, who thought Master Plan was a person that there were two different ministries trying to differently reorganize the same place. After not receiving an answer, KT, trying to figure out the whole thing, asked “but why do they want to reorganize in this manner”? Sengupta Babu felt this was easier to explain and said – “the government feels it would be better for people to live in purely residential places because these would be clean and free of pollution. They would need open spaces in these areas as playgrounds for children, gardens for old people to meet and generally places for all to recreate. KT was puzzled and angered, he said, “then where will everyone work? And as for children, they play on the streets and everyone sits at the tea shop to chat for entertainment”. He asked Sengupta Babu, “where will all of us go if we are removed?”

Sengupta Babu felt that it was too complicated for KT to understand and decided to calm him down. He told KT that since there are large numbers of people like KT, the government will take a lot of time to decide on the issue. Moving away from the sensitive eviction issues, Sengupta Babu turned to more neutral issues of street and flooding. He told him that some years ago when he was teaching, he and his students had prepared a plan to improve the street and other things in KT’s neighborhood. The proposal was developed by talking to local residents and identifying the needs. Sengupta Babu stressed – “public consultation was the strength of the proposal”. KT did not remember anyone talking to him or anyone on the street about this proposal, but looking at Sengupta Babu’s enthusiasm, he felt that the proposal must be good for him.

The proposal was submitted to the City Beautification Commission, which then forwarded it to the Development Authority for implementation. The Authority was considering implementation of the proposal. Sengupta Babu pulled out another book from his shelves and opened up a page showing some colorful map. He then explained the various parts of the proposal – widening and improvement of streets, rehabilitation of people affected by widening, improvement of the monument, improvement of temple, etc. Sengupta also explained that the report has argued for a parking lot adjoining the main road instead of the open space that was proposed in the Master Plan (KT remembered that this was the area where generally horses were tied) as cars from the neighborhood did not have much space and their movement was one that was also causing the streets to get into a state of disrepair. KT was thrilled with all the information and returned to his shop with a big smile and a fat book – the Master Plan.

5

KT remained relaxed for the next few days until one day when some floors of the building opposite his shop were demolished. Luckily no one was staying in them so there was no eviction. KT however decided to enquire. He found out that the owner of the land had died a year ago and his elder son had sold the land to a developer. He also found out that there were some shops earlier on that land. These shops were on rent and the shop keepers were evicted when the construction of the building started. KT then found out that the builder had promised a house to the owner’s family along with the sale money. After construction however, the younger son of the family demanded one more house from the builder. The builder refused and the younger son complained to the government. He also bribed the officials and got them to demolish some floors. KT did not understand why the builder did not counter-bribe the officials. Soon he found out that during the demolition itself the builder had bribed the officials and a settlement was reached between the younger son and the builder, where a small house was given to the younger son. The demolition was stopped with minor damages.

KT was alerted by the information. He understood that a bigger threat than the Master Plan was looming over his shop – from the owner of the wall. It did not take him much time to figure out the semantics of the incomplete wall with iron bars protruding out – the wall which he was occupying and paying rent for. He understood that the owner of the wall was allowing the shops to exist as they were allowing him to claim the piece of road. It was very similar to the way his brother had started the shop by simply providing hair cutting service first and later putting a roof over himself. He realized that the owner of the wall was claiming this land through the shops on the wall. KT knew that soon the owner would extend his building using the iron bars that were protruding from the wall and remove the shops. But when was this going to happen? And how could KT save his shop?

The next day KT went back to the demolished building and enquired about the cost of a new house there. He was told that there was no house for sale. It could only be rented. He did not understand why the builder was interested in renting the place and not selling it. That evening he went out to drink with his friends in the neighborhood. They discussed the issue and one of his friends explained that the builder must be waiting for a good price, which is expected to increase after the mall starts functioning on the main road. He was also told that a number of jari and garment unit owners were already selling their premises and settling somewhere else. He also suspected that the mall owners would put pressure on the government to remove poor people from this neighborhood and replace them with richer ones who would be able use the malls.

6

Along with the Master Plan and the owner, there was a new parameter of threat now – the mall, which started functioning three months later. KT knew that the government had all the weapons to remove him and others like him from the neighborhood. He started noticing the changes in the neighborhood – new types of activities started – a pet clinic, a publishing house, art studios, new kinds of restaurants, new types of people. A number of new people were also interested in peeping into houses and shops of older occupants – taking photographs, interviews, making movies etc.

A few months later the space next to the main road where horses grazed was cordoned off. There was a big hoarding that came along the edge announcing – Multi-Storied Parking Lot. KT realized that Sengupta Babu’s proposal was being realized. He asked the supervisor of the construction if he knew anything about the street improvement that was also there in the proposal. The supervisor said that he should inquire at the Municipal Office which was responsible for the work. The next day KT went to Municipal Office to ask about Sengupta Babu’s proposal. No one seemed to know anything about it. KT decided to find out how the parking lot was being implemented. He asked several people at the Municipal Office. A clerk speculated that the mall owners must have pressurized the government as they always need more parking space.

KT was trying to make the connections – did the building of the parking lot and Sengupta Babu’s proposal have nothing to do with each other? But how could that be, how could there be such a big coincidence and in the exact same location? Did the mall owners know about the proposal and who must have told them? Did Sengupta Babu himself tell the mall owners about the proposal? If so did Sengupta Babu tell them about him and others as well? Or have they seen the proposal somewhere else? KT realized that it would have been easy for the mall owners to convince the government using the proposal – after all Sengupta Babu was an expert on what the city required. He thought – “but Sengupta Babu had proposed the parking for people from his neighborhood, which will now be used by the mall – the open space would have been better; at least some horses would have some food and shelter”.

KT did not know what would happen in the future – will his street be improved or will it remain the same? He thought – “if someone could push the government to make the parking space, can no one push it to improve the street – after all they were both on Sengupta Babu’s proposal. But who will push? – most people on the street are like him, without money or contacts. And why will someone with money and contacts push it? What would they get out of it? He thought that if the mall owners pushed it, they would want to see their users using the place and people like him would be evicted; if his wall owner and other owners pushed it, then they would want to build nice buildings for themselves or new people who could afford them and once again people like him would be evicted”. KT clearly saw the relationship between street improvement and eviction. That night KT sat with his brother and told him the whole story and how dangerous Sengupta Babu’s proposal could become. His brother too was terrified. Both of them were convinced that the floods were good for them and decided to meet the party leader next morning.  After listening to the whole story, the party leader came up with an idea – he said “let us write to the Development Authority and the Beautification Commission that everyone was not consulted in making the proposal and this proposal is not acceptable to the people”. Such a letter was written on the same day.

*****

 ‘Stories of Here’ has been produced by demapping the rich archive of KHOJ on Khirki Village in Delhi. I am grateful to KHOJ in allowing me to use the archive and thankful to the authors of the works that have been referred in (re)creating the stories. The works from the KHOJ archives that have been referred to produce the stories include – ‘Proposal for Khirki Village’ by TVB School of Habitat Studies (2006) for the Delhi Urban Arts Commission; ‘Community Aspirations versus Metropolitan Megadreams’ by Urban Resource Group (2008) for the 48o C. Public. Art. Ecology; ‘1mile² Delhi’ by Aastha Chauhan, Kelda Free and David Brazier along with Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group (2009); ‘Khirki Ki Kahani’ by Vandana Ram & Tim Carroll (2004);  ‘Khirkiyaan’ by Shaina Ashok (2006); ‘City (In)visible’ by Sreejata Roy and Mrityunjay Chatterjee (2008); and ‘Hamari Sadak’ by Rahul Srivastava, Matias Enchanove, Aastha Chauhan and Jose “Cole” Abasolo (2010) for the Urban Typhoon Workshop in Khirki. The work has also quoted from the Delhi Master Plan, 2021; ‘Relationship between Fabric and Object’ by Divya Chopra;   ‘Delhi’s Urban Dilema’ by Arunav Dasgupta in ‘Poster Book, Land, Market and Economy’ for Learning Book No.003 (2008); High Court Judgment for Indu Khorana versus Gram Sabha (2010); High Court Decision on Contempt against Kanwar Singh Saini (2009); and Central Information Commission decision on Appeal of Shri Lajinder Singh against Municipal Corporation of Delhi (2007)

 

Prasad Shetty, December 2010

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