“Dilli duur ast” (Delhi is still far) is the prophetic message the Sufi poet Nizamuddin Auliya is said to have sent Emperor Ghiasuddin Tughlaq in 1324, as he began his journey back towards the capital after conquests in Bengal. The officious Ghiasuddin had interfered with the building of Nizamuddin’s baoli (step-well) and insisted that all men work instead on Tughlaqabad, his citadel. Legend has it that the Auliya’s curse caused the death of the emperor. The tent he was resting in at Afghanpur, on the outskirts of Dilli, collapsed and crushed him at the behest of his overeager son, Mohammad bin Tughlaq—the wise fool. The elder Tughlaq’s last words were: Dilli duur ast. Tughlaqabad, his forgotten citadel, was abandoned by his son and grew to ruins.
Today, redemption in Tughlaqabad, called the “toxic heart of South Delhi”, is just as elusive. The entrance to the Okhla Industrial Enclave lies past the busy Tughlaqabad East railway crossing. One of the oldest industrial areas in Delhi, Okhla holds more than 4,500 factories, the majority of which are garment-manufacturing units. A large part of the workforce is made up of cheap contractual migrant labour who come in the hope that the city can accommodate and redeem them. They work in hostile conditions during the day and rarely, if ever, make the sanctioned minimum wage. Come night, the city turns its back on them as housing is expensive and eviction a constant threat—a new film documents the economic might of sleep. Despite the promise of the city, captured brilliantly in Ajay Navaria’s collection of storiesUnclaimed Terrain, for most people who labour here, Delhi will always be far, even after they arrive.
Into the fashionable Shahpur Jat
Siri, another twelfth century settlement in Dilli, accommodates two beloved urban villages of today—Hauz Khas and its no-longer dowdier cousin, Shahpur Jat, which is home to the Navayana office and other publishing houses such as Zubaan and Tulika. For the past six years, we were located in a nice, sunlit but precariously mounted second-floor flat into which a mulberry tree extended its leafy branches and where squirrels, parrots, crows and the odd monkey foraged. This November, as part of a gentrification bid, the building was demolished and we were shifted to the rear end of the building: away from the sun and into the shadows, which till recently housed an “embroidery workshop”.
We were always aware of the poorly veiled secret that abutted us, the very problem that Jeremy Seabrook lyrically documents in The Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes across Continents and Centuries. Right behind the erstwhile Navayana office, fifty men, including children, lived and worked across three floors, each about 600 square feet. They cooked in a tiny room (the vegetarian landlords complained of the smell of fish), and bathed in the stairway landing (where the sun peeps between buildings that almost lean on each other). While we moved into their house, we learnt that the workers were in turn pushed further into the underbelly of Shahpur Jat—a neat metaphor if there is one.
An example of the urban village oxymoron—Shahpur Jat tops every Time Out and What’s Hot list for high-end designer clothes. It has its own “Fashion Street” with independent boutiques and cutesy cafes serving world cuisine. But not in plain sight are the crammed back alleys of the same “SPJ” where thousands of skilled zari workers from Bengal live and work. This corollary to the false self-sustenance exuded by the “alternative village” hides behind half-drawn curtains and doors left ajar, and tube-light lit basements that, if lucky, have exhaust fans. Those willing to wander into the winding lanes may catch glimpses of men crouching over fabric pulled taut across wooden frames, their hands swiftly fixing the glitter on tomorrow’s wedding trousseaus. From Brazil, as Elizabeth Bishop had asked in “Questions of Travel”:
Continent, city, country, society: the choice is never wide and never free. And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?
Now that the sham of the curtain is pierced, this is the new home from where Navayana chooses to conduct its dark business—in Dilli, yet far from it. A few days ago, Modi ushered in Constitution Day with great aplomb, butmodifications in labour laws by the present government make a mockery of many constitutional rights—including the right to protection and personal liberty. This December, we remember the architect of constitution on his sixtieth mahaparinirvan divas. Through the month, you can buy almost half of our titles at an end-of-the-year special sale at 50 percent discount and have them shipped home and abroad.