City Obituary – Suhana Begum, Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti
Life of a woman.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Her arms were covered with bangles, her ears decked with shiny stones, and stones were adorning her fingers too. She could be heard approaching from a distance, because of the chhan-chhan sound of her anklets.
For more than 20 years, Suhana Begum lived alone, homeless, in central Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti. She died on the first day of this new year. “She was discovered lifeless, late in the morning, on the street where she would usually sit,” says Imtiaz, a kebab seller in the vicinity.
Ms Begum’s age was not known but she was white-haired and seemed advanced in years. She often spent her days wandering around the Basti lanes. Sometimes she would step inside Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah, the area’s famous sufi shrine, and enjoy a brief nap in its sunlit marble courtyard, or silently sit in a corner there and busy herself arranging her bangles, nose ring, and necklaces.
Although she off-and-on stayed in a homeless shelter nearby, Ms Begum would most frequently sleep at night on the broad pavement in front of a car repairing workshop. Once, before the coronavirus pandemic, she talked to this reporter while seated on a mattress laid on her sleeping place. That night, she was wearing a golden yellow sari, and was ornamented in her usual fashion. She was just done with dinner—the food stall owners in the neighbourhood gave her meals for free. Playfully waving her arm to make her bangles jingle, she said that she bought all her jewels “from a shop for almost nothing.” She insisted that her home was this entire Basti. “I’m lawaris (belonging to no one) but I’m under the protection of Nizamuddin Baba,” she had said, referring to the aforementioned Sufi saint.
But she wouldn’t tell why she was lawaris? “My father… My mother… their stories are over… my childhood days were spent with my saheliyan (women friends).” Though she did reveal that before arriving in Delhi she used to live in Jabalpur, in a Sufi shrine there.
Not appearing to be overwhelmed by her solitary life, she didn’t put much premium in having a husband or a friend. “When your heart aches, you have to comfort it yourself.”
The last encounter with her took place a few nights ago. She was sitting in a street corner and being teased by the neighbourhood’s young boys, who were calling her by a nickname they knew she despised. “The day she died, those very boys were seen with tears on their faces,” says Rashid Jung, who lives on that street.
A few hours after her passing, Ms Begum was buried in the nearby Panj Peeran Qabristan. Her final journey included 30 people, all of whom
were from the Basti, informed the graveyard’s caretaker, while showing her fresh grave.