Mission Delhi – Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat

Mission Delhi - Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Coming out of the kitchen, she stops at the centre of the room and looks around. Rachana Rao Umashankar’s apartment is bustling with life. The laptop is logged on. The leather bag is on the floor. The suitcases are half-open. On the refrigerator: a hairbrush, contact lenses, a tube of Vaseline and a bottle of cough syrup. “I’m leaving Delhi next week and haven’t started packing yet,” she says, sitting down on a swivel chair.

As part of her doctoral dissertation on Sufism, Ms Umashankar, a US-based scholar, arrived in India to – in her language – “look at the ways in which contemporary Sufis and adherents of shrine-based Sufism respond to critique from groups who oppose this form of Islamic practice”. Funded by fellowships from two institutions, she had a year for fieldwork. The first half was spent in the sufi shrines of South India. The second half is ending in Delhi.

After moving into a two-room rented flat in Shahpur Jat, an urban village in south Delhi, Ms Umashankar, 28, set to work. She met sufi mystics in the shrines of Mehrauli and Nizamuddin Basti. She attended lectures by sufi scholars at the India International Centre and The Attic in the Regal Cinema building. She went to sufi music concerts held at private venues. She arranged interviews with Sufism-inclined people at cafés in Green Park Market and Greater Kailash-II. And she always took notes. “Now it’s over. Now I’ll go home and start writing my thesis.”

Ms Umashankar’s home, in a town called Hillsborough in North Carolina, US, is completely unlike her Delhi apartment. Here the kitchen is a hole, the rooms have no windows and the balcony looks onto the ‘backside’ of similar apartments. “In Hillsborough, our living room has seven windows and upstairs we have three bedrooms.” Ms Umashankar is married to a software engineer. While she collected research material in Delhi, the husband remained in the US.

Though she has adjusted to the small dimensions of her flat, Ms Umashankar missed the scenery around her American house. “There I would look through the window to pine and maple trees. Birds chirped in the back garden.”

However, Shahpur Jat has its compensations. “It’s like what Greenwich Village was once to New York City,” she says referring to a New York neighbourhood that once had a bohemian character and was popular with poor artists, musicians and students. “Here in Shahpur Jat we have tattoo parlours and designer stores. Rich people come shopping in their giant SUVs but the streets are too narrow.”

Laughing at her observation, the anthropologist walks back into the kitchen. Empty wine bottles are placed next to the gas range. Rolling out rotis for the dinner, Ms Umashankar says, “I miss good wines in Delhi.” She then slides open the service window and switches on the living room television with the remote control. “This window is actually made for housewives so that they can watch soap operas while waiting for the rice to boil,” she grins. “But I’m crazy for cricket.”

India is playing South Africa and during a critical juncture, Ms Umashankar puts away the rolling pin. The smile fades from her face and she goes on gazing at the TV screen through the service window.

During the commercial break, she lowers the volume; a neighbour is now audible, probably talking on his mobile phone on the adjacent terrace. “I’m living in an anthropologist’s paradise,” Ms Umashankar laughs again. “See, this is Shahpur Jat. Next to the boundary wall, across the street, is Khel Gaon.” Talking of the upscale neighbourhood that provided housing for the players of 1982 Delhi Asian Games, she says, “On our side, women talk loudly, every peepal tree is a makeshift temple, and garbage is seldom cleaned from the streets. None of this across the wall in Khel Gaon. That’s a different planet. No rutty lane there. People walk with tennis racquets or guitars on their back. Dogs are on leashes. And there are guards to protect the posh people.”

The ‘Berlin Wall’ has an opening, though. The gate is unlocked twice a day so that Shahpur Jat residents can buy dairy products from Khel Gaon, which has the area’s only milk booth. “I can’t imagine a starker reminder of class barrier.”

Ms Umashankar navigates one more ‘wall’. Due to the subject of her PhD, her days are spent in Delhi’s Muslim localities. In the evening, she comes home to Shahpur Jat, which is a Hindu-dominated village. “My life has always been about jumping from one world to another. I was born in Bombay, grew up in Dubai, have relatives in Bangalore and now I live in the US. Besides, though my work primarily deals with Islam, I’m myself a Hindu. So, moving from one cultural setting into another causes no stress.”

In August, 2009, Ms Umashankar started taking classes for Hindustani classical music. Once a week she would take the Metro and cross the Yamuna to reach the teacher’s home in Patparganj. “As the Metro enters east Delhi, you see all this construction going on for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and then you see factories, and next to them, the sprawling slums. I wonder at the priorities of this city’s planners.”

The anthropologist then rushes to the laptop table, and flips through her notebook. “See, I have written a sher (verse) in Urdu here.” She reads it out:
Sunaa thaa arson pehle ‘ghareebi hataao’ ka naara,
Ab pardon ke peechhe na jhhanko, ki ghareebi ko chhupaana hai.

[Years ago we had heard the ‘Remove poverty’ slogan,
But now please don’t peer behind the curtains, we have to hide this poverty.]

The poem is scribbled in Urdu script on the back page of Ms Umashankar’s notebook. “I’ve been passionate about Urdu poetry all my thinking life. I had always wanted to learn Persian, and my academic interests turned towards the study of religion and sacred space towards the end of my Bachelors… I guess all of these things, along with a few others, led me to work with Sufi communities.” Mr Umashankar is fluent in Persian and also understands Arabic.

Not surprisingly, the part-time poet has extensively read works of sufi poets such as Jalaluddin Rumi and Hafez. “The Sufi poems appeal to a basic desire in us to know who we are, where we come from, why we’re here and where we’re going.”

The scholar is this close to Sufism and yet she has maintained a detachment. “Let’s be clear. I’m first an anthropologist. People are my focus. I don’t exactly study Sufism, but work with and learn from people involved in it,” she goes on explaining in her academic tone. “I’m intrigued by the deep and beautiful strains of thought that make up Sufi philosophy but I’m equally drawn to the way these philosophies, the differences of opinion within religious communities and the commonalities within and among various religious groups manifest themselves in our contemporary world.”

Four days hence Ms Umashankar will leave this apartment and fly for Hillsborough. “Research has been amazing. I doubt writing can live up to t
hat. But I’m looking forward to it. It may not be fun but it will be a challenging intellectual exercise and that’s great too.”

Will she miss Delhi?

“The year passed so quickly. But I’ll be back in Delhi, probably by this year’s end. Inshallah.”

[This is the 16th portrait of the Mission Delhi project]

I want your smile

Mission Delhi - Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat

PhD on the perfect roti, too?

Mission Delhi - Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat

TV watching through the kitchen’s service window

Mission Delhi - Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat

Full marks to the housekeeping

Mission Delhi - Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat

She has company

Mission Delhi - Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat

She likes sunflowers

Mission Delhi - Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat

Her life in Shahpur Jat

Mission Delhi - Rachana Rao Umashankar, Shahpur Jat