Friday, May 14, 2010

Plot Nr 240 (English)

Delhi was demolished many times, our elders always told us. Resettled many times, and destroyed many times, that’s what they told us.
– Malkhan

Plot Nr 240

You take a kapaas seed. Then you plant it in a field. The seed grows into a big tree. Then the tree sprouts the biggest buds you’ve ever seen—one tree will have fifty to one hundred buds. Then the buds burst—and the kapaas seed falls out, which you then extract with a machine. That’s how cotton is made.

The first time it happened, it was pitch-black night. There were muffled voices, the dim flicker of oil lamps, and an agreement. And there was that sound—the sound of the namaaz prayer, normally a soothing melody signaling the end of the day, now a shrill siren snaking through the galis, coming closer and closer to the five men sitting in a circle, staring solemnly at a tiny white seed. This is what our elders told us. When the Muslims were trying to forcefully convert Hindus to Islam, we changed our work in order to save our caste. Our people learned different kinds of work so that they wouldn’t become Muslim. It is difficult to say how the decision was finalized—perhaps there was a simple form, perhaps a note was scrawled in the records, but most likely not a single note was made. It was an unspoken decision about a never-written law. In those days there wasn’t that much education, there wasn’t much of this paper-letter stuff. Our elders formed a committee and said, now we are going to start this line of work, secretly changed their caste and silently went about their new work. That was the first demolition—silent, unrecorded, and final. My great-grandparents worked with cotton, my grandparents worked with cotton, my parents worked with cotton, and we worked with cotton. Cotton – that’s the name of our caste.

Malkhan grew up in a small village about thirty kilometers east of Delhi. His family owned no land, but the air was so clean that the flock of pigeons Malkhan would set free every morning could be seen from miles and miles away—in the daytime my pigeons flew so high in the sky that I could see them passing the stars—and the ghee was so pure that not even a chamar could touch it. Cotton work—washing cotton, filling mattresses and quilts—would take up the winter months, and the remaining seven to eight months would be spent doing whatever work his family could find, from tending to crops and buffaloes to odd jobs. After the schoolday was over, Malkhan would rush to his elders’ baithak (gathering place) and listen to their stories of epic battles, courageous heroes of the Ramayan and Mahabharata, and why things were the way they were. In the evenings, our elders would sit and talk, and we would listen to their every word. Five to six elders would sit smoking hookah and talk about all sorts of things, and we extracted every detail about everything from them. When he got older and they began teaching him how to sew, they told him stories about that great beast of a city, Delhi, how it was surrounded by the thickest, untamed jungles that previous empires had built to fend off enemies, how the bridges that had been built during the British Raj were so strong they would last 100 years, and the many times Delhi was destroyed and rebuilt from scratch.

When he turned 16 in 1958, it happened again. Malkhan’s father was old and sick, his brother’s newborn child had died suddenly, and food was scarce. He had dropped out of school after fifth grade, there was no work in the village, and he had an uncle doing cotton work in Delhi. From his village, he walked 16 kilometers by foot until he reached Loni station, where he boarded a tiny train for 25 paisa to Delhi Railway Station. The minute he left his village, his name was erased, crossed-out, torn-out or just removed from the village vote list, and then there was the in-between time, during his journey to Delhi, when he had no name—those six, seven hours when he didn’t exist. And then, all of a sudden, there was that moment when, getting off at the crowded Delhi Railway Station, his name reappeared, this time in a sea of the names of the thousands of other migrants. And just as his name was wedged into the jammed voter list of Delhi, he squeezed into a tiny jhuggi in Daryaganj and, armed with a Delhi ration card, began his second life in that fortress of a city, buffered by its British-made flyovers around the Yamuna River (they were built to last 100 years, those flyovers, every one of them) and thick, untamed jungles. That was the second demolition.

I came to Delhi out of necessity, and I was very scared. Leaving your home is painful, and I was faced with many challenges upon coming to Delhi…I had to make food with my hands, I had to find work. People travel far and wide for money. When I started making money and getting food, only then did I start to like Delhi.

When he first came to Delhi, it never crossed Malkhan’s mind to purchase land—and so he moved from one unauthorized slum to the next. The first place I lived was Daryaganj, near the Ghatta Masjid, there were lots of buffaloes there, so I set up a jhuggi near there. After that I moved to Tihar Gaon—at that time two and half kilos of flour cost one rupee—and set up my jhuggi there and lived there for 6 years. Then I moved to Kotla for four years, and then Bengali colony for six months.

The third time it happened, it was during the Emergency, and there were bulldozers. There were the towering bulldozers that bulldozed his jhuggi to the ground, its dirt-cement masala crumbling into tiny pieces, crushing—No, there were no bulldozers at the time. What is there to demolish in a kaccha (makeshift, raw) jhuggi? There were only about 50 jhuggis in our colony. We didn’t destroy anything, we simply cleared the area and took the bricks from our jhuggis. No, the bulldozers were elsewhere, razing and leveling that century-old barrier to outside attacks, the thick, untamed jungle surrounding Delhi, to carve out 10x20 spaces of dignity for the slum-dwellers of the city. As the last crumbling chunks of their jhuggis dropped to the ground, the unauthorized residents of Bengali Colony were told to grab the little stuff they had—utensils, clothes, cots, goats—and get in a truck that would take them to their new home. Quickly, now, quickly! The drive took only 15 minutes, after which the truck dropped them off in front of a camp in what seemed like the end of the world—utter wilderness.

No one knew how Indira Gandhi had acquired this untamed land—perhaps she forcefully seized it from the marauding villagers, the looting gujjars from the surrounding villages, or maybe she simply signed a contract and purchased it, or taken out a loan. No one knew exactly what wars had been fought over the plots of land they received that day, but everyone was sure it had taken great strength. That day everyone cooked dinner out in the open, sitting outside of the temps the government had set up for them. Everyone was cooking their food out in the open. It was like when people bathe in the Ganges to cleanse themselves of their sins, everyone was crammed so closely together. On that day, Malkhan received his first plot card and became Malkhan Singh, owner of Plot Nr 240, Block Number 6.

That day, Indira Gandhi gave us plots for 100 years. She saw how we lived in our jhuggis, and she said: ‘How much longer can they live in those jhuggis? How will their children ever get ahead?’ And that’s how she settled Dakshinpuri. I still have my plot card, as well as the two photographs that DDA took of me. I have two pictures and they have one, as well as a photo of my plot card. When the government came to collect taxes, I showed them my photo and my plot card, and they matched it to their records, and they left me alone. They can tell from one’s face whose plot is whose. They have my entire record. They have proof, and I have proof.

Gradually, the vast jungle turned into a colony with many amenities. Malkhan’s ration card and plot card enabled him to get a water connection, then an electricity connection, and later still a sewer line. He built a small jhuggi, using the bricks from his old jhuggi and bricks he purchased—170 rupees for 2.5 kilograms—some sticks and cots. That was the third demolition—a demolition to end all demolitions; a birth certificate for a new life.
Malkhan's plot card

Shortly after Malkhan received his plot in Dakshinpuri, there was another kind of demolition sweeping the country—they called it family planning. Similar in many ways to the third demolition—there were camps erected all over the city, there was a list of names, and there was great fear. But this time, no one wanted their name to be on that list. Indira said that in the year 1990 the population will have had grown so much that there will be no place to put your feet. That’s why she had people sterilized.

At the time, Malkhan was stuffing cotton in Chirag Delhi, but would sometimes have to travel to different parts of the city for odd jobs. He would usually cycle to work, but his bicycle had been stolen and so he had to walk to work every day. He ran back home from work everyday, scared to death that his name would make it on that list. All over the city, men—at first it was unmarried, but after a while they stopped discriminating—were being kidnapped and forced to undergo those terrible operations. It was so silent near the camps, I was really scared. They would come out of the camps with two- or three-hundred rupees—sometimes even a plot card—but they would look ashen and robbed.

The fourth time it happened was five years ago, and Dakshinpuri had four-lane roads and five-story buildings, and was now snugly tucked into the bustling center of Delhi. It was a simple application—please state reason for inclusion of your caste in OBC category—and after a few years of processing time, the kandera-karan cotton-washing caste went slid up from the backward, tribal status to Other Backward Classes—a government category entitled to reservations—and the shame of that first name-change, centuries and centuries ago, was finally undone. Malkhan felt it was time that his caste got a higher status—he had stopped washing and stuffing cotton years ago, opened a tailor’s shop in the neighboring posh colony Greater Kailash-1, his children were educated and working as tailors and sweet-sellers, and his grandchildren wanted to be doctors. Malkhan keeps the revised list of OBC castes in a big storage room where he has stored all important documents over the years—his first plot card, his first electricity bill, and the receipt of his first TV.

Right here, where we’re sitting, this is Delhi. However many people come here from far-off places, one thing is for certain: they will never die of hunger, they will earn money, and they will work hard, and they will never die of hunger. In the village there’s no way to make a living, but this is Delhi, our capital! This is where people come to make a living, this is where no one can die of hunger.
Malkhan sits cross-legged on his sewing machine table on his roof, which he has turned into a sewing workshop, with threads and measuring sticks hanging from the walls. Our country has come so far, he reflects, now the clothing that we make is sold all over the world, we have machines that wash cotton, we have a fridge, a TV, multiple-story-houses, and real bulldozers. Look at how far we have come in these last years. Look at how far our country has come in these last years.

, his demeanor turns dark, this is the Age of Kalyug. The Pandavas said that this would be the Age of the Kalyug, and you can see it spreading everywhere. The old traditions are being broken, girls and boys are running off together, the ties of community are being torn. In 60 years, Dakshinpuri will be nearing its 100-year-limit, and it will get more and more crowded until there is no space to walk, no space to breathe, until it bursts, at which point it will be demolished again, razed, and its residents shifted elsewhere.

You take a kapaas seed. Then you plant it in a field. The seed grows into a big tree. Then the tree sprouts the biggest buds you’ve ever seen—one tree will have fifty to one hundred buds. Then the buds burst—and the kapaas seed falls out, which you then extract with a machine. That’s how cotton is made.

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