City Life – Demolishing the Unwanted

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Two Ladies

This ain’t no city for the poor.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The day when Delhi’s cosmopolitan gay community was flaunting its existence in a parade, I was in a settlement that has ceased to exist.

Walking past my old office in Kailash Colony’s L block, I took a turn to the right, and reached an open yard. Once a jhuggi cluster of south Indians lived here. The husbands worked as rickshaw-wallas, wives as kaam-waalis, and children lolled around in filth.

But now a graveyard-like stillness lurked. In 2006, under the orders of the Delhi High Court, MCD’s demolition squad had cleaned up the slum in the course of a single afternoon. That morning I crossed the park, adjacent to that jhuggi, on my way to work, and stopped by an aunty’s breakfast cart. Each morning she would sell her idli-sambar to the fellow jhuggiwallas. I didn’t know it then but I had my idli sambar for the last time there.

The bulldozer arrived in the afternoon while I had a window seat view of the spectacle from my air-conditioned office.

But let’s not be sentimental: facts first. The jhuggiwallas knew that their homes, more than 30-years-old, were illegal and that the authorities would be demolishing them. They had already been served a notice. However, when you are used to something as real as home, you feel — How can they destroy my home? But nothing stopped the bulldozer.

The slum-dwellers cursed and cried in Tamil, hurled stones at the cops while their houses were razed down — bedrooms, terraces, courtyards — everything. However, they soon surrendered their intifada and hurriedly rushed to salvage whatever they could — a bed sheet, a pressure cooker, a transistor. Later, they stood by and helplessly watched the demolition carried out by the MCD staff with a been-there-done-that look.

Where have those people gone? Who would parade for their right to live in the city?

The day I was there, the empty space looked squeaky clean. There were no unclean children, no squabbling women and no cursing men. Even the pavement temple had disappeared. Moss-green grass has sprung up everywhere. The former slum looked like a garden where ‘People Like Us’ could go for a stroll with our pomeranians. Kailash Colony had reclaimed its beauty and our aspiration for a slum-free city has grown a little more real.