Years ago I lived in the now infamous Khirki Extension. I had just begun work, couldn’t afford more and wanted to live in South Delhi. My brother had moved to the US and I was left without a flatmate. After living with a succession of girls who things didn’t work out with, I moved in with a childhood friend. It might have raised a few eyebrows at that time, but our families were comfortable with the arrangement and that is all that mattered to us. His grandmother was my grandmother’s mentor and friend. His mum and mine grew up together. And then, he and his sister and my brother and I. Three generations of friendship.
His mother figured her son would be kept on the straight and narrow now that he had me as his flatmate. I’m known to be quite a prude and very determined. My mother was grateful that I wasn’t a single girl out in Delhi, alone. We got along like a house on fire, had the same friends circle, worked in the same office and had many of the same interests. In fact, he was one of the first to notice the OA’s growing interest in me and teased me mercilessly about him.
The OA would often drop by to visit us, as did our other friends. While there was no loud music or drugs, we did enjoy our little get together. They never ended well, though. We’d walk our guests out, only to find that all their tyres had been deflated. No, they were not parking in anybody else’s spot, but far out.
It’s difficult to explain the concept of Delhi’s many villages to those who haven’t seen them. Khirki was lal dora land. A maze of lanes, squiggly streets, piles of rubble, pink, green, purple houses decorated like confectionery, haphazard parking, houses built cheek by jowl, precluding any trace of privacy, paper thin walls, rooms built like train coaches so that you had to walk through one to get to the other, dingy shafts that hummed with the sound of pigeons cooing and smelled of their shit.
There were empty plots scattered across this mess that most of us used as visitor parking. We’d invariably stand around the car and stare in dismay at the four deflated tyres, while sanctimonious neighbours would stand at their windows, glaring at us, challenging us to take it up with them. There was nothing to be done of course. There was no way to pinpoint the culprit – if there were only one.
If it were too late we’d have the owner of the vehicle stay back at our place, else the boys would chivalrously roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Our landlord was a sweet old grandfatherly gentleman who either assumed we were husband and wife, or didn’t care, because we paid our rent on time, kept the house well and didn’t create a nuisance. He lived on the floor above and would painfully take the stairs, stopping to pant after every second one. Often he’d sit down at my doorstep to catch his breath and if I happened to see him, I’d invite him in. He always refused, but would smile and say – How hard you work, beta. My wife is fast asleep – always is!
I worked with a news channel, so there were shifts. I’d often walk back late at night because the car would drop me at the top of the main road and I’d negotiate the lanes by myself. I look back and wonder how my parents let me do it, but I guess that is what makes me the person I am today.
Khirki was rumoured to be full of ISI agents, plotting, planning, building bombs. We never saw anything to confirm that rumour but it was a running joke that they were too busy plotting about blowing up parliament to bother with us. They’d get their 72 virgins there and weren’t interested in women like us. We were probably haraam! The streets were full of young people coming back from work, TV channels, call centre agents. We’d just fall in line with any group headed into the dark lanes and walk home. Oh no, it wasn’t the ISI agents we were bothered by.
It was the local men of the village who were the real problem. Young single boys who thought of us as fair prey, waiting for their mothers to move out of view so that they could pucker up at us. Married men who would step out to pick up groceries and far from their wives’ watchful eyes leer, stare, pass comments. Often the outsiders, the boys who were renting apartments just like us, would defend, support, or simply walk up to the girls and chaperone them to their doorsteps. They were far from home, too. They knew what it was like to be alone. They worked alongside women in their offices and knew that the fact that we were single girls in jeans didn’t mean we were fair game/cheap/anything the local guys imagined.
The months went by and then one night I was fast asleep when I heard a noise at my door. Banging, shouting, abusing. I rushed to the door, to see that my flatmate had already got there. There were a bunch of drunken men outside, screaming abuse. I peeped out of the window and recognised the familiar faces. The guy who lived across the road and often stood at the door scratching his belly over a cup of tea. The creep two floors above him. The bearded guy who always stood at the chai shop down the road and stared. They’d united over a bottle I suppose and demanded that I come out.
I remember the look on my friend’s face as he went out to talk sense into them. I remember them getting violent. I remember rushing out to stand by him. I remember him hurrying back in, because it was the only way to keep me indoors and safe. I remember him barricading the door as best as he could, knowing he was the only buffer between me and those louts.
Those lovely, self respecting middle class men who believed I had the morals of an alley cat because I was sharing a flat with a man I wasn’t married to. Who believed that if I was his wife, I should be home cooking for him, coming out in my nightwear with a dupatta covering my modesty, only to bargain loudly and rudely with the subji wala. That I should not be working odd hours and wearing sleeveless kurtas. Who were sure this was a den of vice where we solicited men and sold drugs. Who believed that the way to deal with this ‘problem’ was to get drunk and scream filthy abuse at my door.
Their wives stood at their doors and watched openly. Their eyes filled with hatred and distrust of the other. They didn’t like their husbands staring at us girls, and this was one way to get back at us.
The show raged on for more than an hour and we didn’t call the police, because we needed to live there. We couldn’t antagonise the neighbours further unless we had other options. My poor old landlord shuffled down and begged them to leave. He didn’t want to lose a good tenant either. Thankfully they ran out of steam and went home. I sobbed through the night, in terror and shock and anger.
It was the first and last time it happened to me, because I casually let slip in the morning to my maid (who the neighbouring housewives had been persuading to quit my place because it was a den of vice) that I was planning to lodge a complaint with the police and would call in my TV channel to report, if I was harassed again. Maids love to gossip, the message was put across.
When the recent raid on Nigerians and Ugandans made the headlines, I knew that the nosy, moralising residents were at it again – and this isn’t endemic to this area – happens all over the country. Never mind that the cigarette shops sell Madhur Munakka packets for a few rupees, ensuring that most of the much married men roam around in a drug induced haze. Never mind that they get drunk and harass single girls. Oh no… only they are allowed to create a nuisance there. Only they are allowed to set moral standards. Anyone not meeting their rather dubious standards of morality is at the receiving end of such mohalla committees. What next? Set up a khap panchayat under a tree and order the women raped while their men watch. Something like this poor girl who fell in love outside of her caste and was raped by 20 men on the orders of the village elders. Put yourself in her place and ask yourself if you want to be at the receiving end of such mohalla, majority justice.
I find this form of mohalla moral policing, the xenophobia and the misogyny, outrageous – particularly because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’m sorry I supported the new regime, if this is the way things are going to turn out. We wanted a more lawful regime. Not one where women are dragged out of cars at night, not allowed to use the bathroom, not arrested with a warrant, no lady police officer present. How is this any different from what a rather despised party in Maharashtra behaves around Marine Drive and Valentine’s Day?
I leave you with a piece by Aastha Chauhan.
And one by Kavita Krishnan who I greatly admire.