More than a city of djinns, Delhi today exists as a city of migrants and refugees. Its map is a patchwork of diverse communities – from Karol Bagh, Punjabi Bagh and other colonies in the North-West where the post-Partition refugees from Pakistan settled; CR park in the South formed of the East Bengali refugees after the Partition and then during the Bangladesh Liberation War in the early 70s; Majnu ka Tila where Tibetans sought refuge in early 60s, Lajpat Nagar and Bhogal which have been home to Afghani refugees since early 80s; Pamposh Enclave which has housed the Kashmiris pundits who escaped their massacre in the 90s, and the more recent, deplorable camps for the Rohingyas refugees in the Kanchan Kunj area. Delhi has taken in these diverse communities and even if they may not be discernible to most, they have entered the city’s cultural lexicon through their cuisines from the thukpa, gushtaba to Naan-e-Afghani.
Rural migrants from across the country along with international migrants from neighboring South-Asian countries and African countries have been arriving in Delhi increasingly over the last decade for higher education and business opportunities. Many such enterprising immigrants have changed their fortunes through their hard work and after several hardships. The capital of the country is increasingly becoming cosmopolitan, though with varying degrees of partial treatment to its immigrants based on their economic background, religion and ethnicity. Thus, Caucasian immigrants from the developed nations find themselves treated preferentially, and are only referred to as ‘expats’. Those with darker skin, however, and often hailing from erstwhile colonies such as ours bear the brunt of our deep rooted prejudices and ignorance, as has been the case with the recent spate of attacks against African nationals.
Running a phone recharge shop as a community hub in Khirkee Extension has made me witness our inherent biases and racism first hand. Khirkee is Hindi for ‘window’ and true to its name; the community at Khirkee in Delhi has gradually become my exclusive window into our society. The sustained nature of The Khirkee Storytelling Project offers a unique interface to share, and gradually begin to create, digital stories within the community on a weekly basis. Through a multi-cultural media exchange via phone memory cards, it creates a platform for self-expression and conversations between diverse groups in Khirkee Extension.
It is through this portal that I discovered how much Nigerians love Bollywood. Khirkee is home to several Nigerians who have come here for better job opportunities. After coming here, apart from realizing that couples do not regularly run around trees or dance in synchrony like in the movies, they experience firsthand the racism reserved for them. There is also a substantial Afghani and Somali refugee population in Khirkee, who are fleeing the war and terrorism in their countries. Afghanis tend to receive a better treatment from the locals due to their fairer skin color and have also been able to assimilate with them due to their knowledge of Hindi, from watching Bollywood movies and due to its similarity to their own languages – Pashto or Dari. They still do have to withstand negative stereotypes constantly, as one of them shared with me his experience of being called a terrorist on more than once occasion, simply for being from Afghanistan.
Somalians face similar racism and hostility as other African nationals here, but are treated marginally better as they do not come across as intimidating to the locals as do the Nigerians who are often taller and stronger in build as well as darker in skin color. Furthermore, many locals have told me that they think the Somalians are ‘better’ than the Nigerians as they are devout Muslims and dress conservatively, with the women typically wearing burkhas. The Nigerian women dress more liberally and also move around more independently, which the locals do not appreciate.
“Who is a good man? He who leaves for work on time, comes home at the end of the day, looks after his family and then goes to bed on time,” lectured a middle aged Indian man to me at the shop one day. “The Nigerians party late into the night and create a ruckus here.” When he further accused them of being involved in drug peddling and prostitution, I asked him if it’s not possible that only a very few might resort to it while all of them are being persecuted for it. “Yes, but what can we do?” he retorts. “They all look the same!” The irony inherent in his response summarized to me how most Indians might be racist without realizing it, and I think ignorance is a bigger problem here than deliberate racism.
We gained independence from our colonizers but not their racist mindset which continues to color our vision of others. The Hindu caste system which still prevails in our psyche has now been exacerbated by the class system brought home by the British. Time and again, this erupts into violent attacks and vigilantism, fueled by rumors and a severe lack of awareness. To overcome this, we need to move beyond stereotypes and confront our deep rooted prejudices. Even in school, our history has focused on Europe and the Americas but hardly on other Asian or African countries. We are infatuated by the stories of wealth and victories of the Anglo-Saxons but have failed to appreciate the stories of courage and resistance of others who have been colonized just like us and are still struggling to get back on their feet. This hegemony of the West is also apparent in our world view, popular culture and social media.
The phone recharge shop is a place to create and share stories – from someone’s favorite song to their favorite recipe. It’s an attempt at developing an alternate hyper-local form of social media for self-expression and conversations. If a viral video can be used to incite violence, can it also be used to trigger an understanding of the ‘other’? Instead of sharing videos of violent attacks against African nationals to raise awareness, what if we now begin to share their stories which are not very different from ours? I didn’t know much about how similar my Congolese friend’s life was to mine till I started talking to him. He told me about how he woke up one day to see a girl in his house that his mother had invited as a discreet ‘arranged date’, bringing back hilarious memories of my hapless parents’ attempts at setting me up with ‘good’ Indian boys. Looking out of my Khirkee has only made me realize how much we need to look within.
– Your friendly neighborhood shopkeeper, Swati Janu