Pakistani journalist and blogger Raza Rumi’s first book is an account of his travels in Delhi and his interactions with its people. An excerpt from the chapter “Those Who Stayed”:
I am back in Nizamuddin East.
After I finish my official work, I move to Sadia’s apartment that overlooks one of the many parks in the sleepy little corner where she lives. On a clear day, the tombs walk towards the balconies. The vendors chant in the mornings with their odd business
proposals. Sadia is cooking aloo gosht with her house help, Sabir, and we all sit to talk or deal with the stream of visitors. Sadia is quite popular among TV channels when they need a quote or two from Delhi’s educated Muslim women. The BBC correspondent walks in, followed by the crew, and Sadia hurriedly gets dressed
and makes her articulate statements on Indian Muslims.
I have seen her rant on the Muslim Personal Law, the Danish cartoons, Taslima Nasreen’s exile and plans to construct malls next to the Jama Masjid. She talks, writes, entertains and walks up and down, all in one go. I just love it. At last, I have someone who resonates my own eternal restlessness.
There is a girl living at Sadia’s place. She’s a Muslim, not surprisingly, from Saharanpur, a small town in Uttar Pradesh. Farzana is what we call in Urdu a ‘chanchal’—a boisterous sort born in a conventional religious household. Sadia indulges her and has turned her into a city girl. Farzana, like regular Delhi girls, wears western clothes, is not bothered about the timings of religious rituals, and is very mobile.
Ahmed Ali wrote in his sad, subtle novel, Twilight in Delhi:
In the world of an Indian home, where the woman is relegated to a subordinate place, love enters very rarely. An unmarried girl is not allowed to chew paan or wear flowers in her hair. She is not even allowed to wear fine and expensive clothes or to use attar. She lives under the threat of going away to strangers when she grows up, who may turn out to be rich or poor or nice or bad. In this atmosphere the idea of love does not take root in the heart. Even if the girl falls in love with a cousin, she cannot
speak of it for fear of being punished and looked down upon as an evil thing.
Farzana’s transformation in New Delhi was mind-boggling, even to herself ! She giggled as she spoke about her brazenness in the big city where she was learning the art of survival. She even managed to get a job at some small business establishment. When we met, there were no barriers. It is the Islam connection that works from Istanbul to Delhi via Islamabad. It is sort of seamless at one level. Farzana and I connected immediately.
In a matter of a few days, a strange intimacy envelops the conversation. This is less to do with lust and more with the ability to understand. She accompanies Sadia and me everywhere—to dargahs, parties and monuments. I notice her vulnerability, especially when the internal hierarchies of Indian Muslims deem her a rural outsider despite the fact that she is a Dilli-wali now. She clings. Sometimes it is too much to handle, for it restricts my urge to communicate with the ‘exotic’ Indian Muslims. I mean the snooty, artsy, secular types, the ones who have consciously moved away from a fossilized, patriarchal clergy in India.
Farzana was catching up though. Niceties and inanities laced with a few jokes were the social skills that she was not shy to hone. Her sense of humour was terrific. Cracking a joke came pretty naturally to her. So, in a short time, I was declared ‘Veer’ and she appointed herself as ‘Zaara’ a la the Bollywood film,Veer Zaara, that dealt with a superficial, exaggerated romance between a Pakistani and Indian.
As I leave for Lahore, Farzana asks me to bring back a doll dressed as a bride since she is fond of collecting dolls. Like heroines in black and white Indian films who live in a time-warp. So there were goodbyes and tears. And they were real.
A year later, I did not find Farzana at Sadia’s house. I sort of missed her since she had been such an integral part of Sadia’s open-house culture. What happened to Farzana’s life and ambitions? I learnt that Farzana eloped with a Muslim suitor whom she met at work, fell in love, and then ran away to marry him. However, the suitor did not come alone. He came with the baggage of convention and compromise that Farzana impetuously agreed to since she did not want to return to her
When she came to see Sadia she was dressed in a burqa, the black clothing designed for invisibility in a ritualized retreat within the inner courtyards of Old Delhi’s havelis crumbling with time and fighting change. So Farzana ended up exactly where she did not want to be in the first place. Conventions refuse to die; they just come back.
Sadia told me that the veiled Farzana now lives in a cramped space somewhere in the shade of the Jama Masjid. The place is small and dingy. She likes to sing her songs from her native UP but has to keep her voice low since Muslim women are not supposed to be heard loud and that too while singing. The neighbours are all Muslims too. Relegated to Ahmed Ali’s zenana or women’s quarters, Farzana has swapped centuries.
In the zenana, things went on with the monotonous sameness of Indian life. No one went out anywhere. Only now and then some cousin or aunt or some other relation came to see them. But that was once a month or so or during the festivals. Mostly life stayed like water in a pond with nothing to break the monotony of its static life. Walls stood surrounding them on all sides, shutting the women in from the prying eyes of
men, guarding their beauty and virtue with millions of bricks. The world lived and died, things happened, events took place, but all this did not disturb the equanimity of the zenana, which had its world too where the pale and fragile beauties of the hothouse lived secluded from all outside harm, the storms that blow in the world of men. The day came, the evening came and life passed them by.
Ghettos inside, outside, everywhere.