Guest post by ANAND VIVEK TANEJA
Conversation One. I’m sitting in a barber-shop in Sector 34, Noida, getting a haircut. The older guy sitting next to me, getting a shave, asks this younger fellow who’s just got up from a haircut –
- Tu kahaan se hai bhai? Where are you from?
- Main to Noida se hi hoon. I’m from Noida only.
- Noida ka to na laage hai. You don’t look like you’re from Noida.
The young man in question was slight and skinny, and was dressed in what could be described as generic global college student/hipster style. The conversation continued. The barber said, no he’s definitely not from Noida. The young man turned on him and said, Tum kaunse Noida ke ho, Well, you’re not from Noida either. The barber says, Main to Bihar se hoon. Main thodai hi chhupa ke rahkta hoon. I’m from Bihar. I don’t hide the fact. Then the barber says, Yeh to lawaris hai ji. He has no parentage, sir.
- Lawaris hai? To phir kaunsi naali se nikla hai bhai? No parentage? Then which drain have you crawled out from?
- Nithari ke naale se, is the immediate comeback. From the sewer of Nithari.
And then the conversation turned truly weird and obscene. The man who’d started the conversation said yeah, you probably survived and crawled out because they thought you were a girl and found out you were a boy so didn’t know what to do with you. I don’t think anyone reading this needs to be reminded of the Nithari murders, where the children of migrant workers were sexually assaulted and murdered, and then their bodies were thrown into the drain flowing past the urban village of Nithari. A phone call came for the older man, apparently a property dealer, who then went on to convince the person on the other side that it was okay for two young women to rent an apartment in a kothi with the landlord’s family present, because they wouldn’t object to boyfriends, for having a boyfriend was pretty much the same as being married these days.
Conversation Two. Hawker’s House in Jangpura Extension. Jangpura is a Punjabi refugee colony moving rapidly from middle class to upper middle class, with a generous sprinkling of expatriates. The shop is an old institution in the neighbourhood, a hang out for many people, renowned for its sandwiches. While I am sitting there, three people walk in. Two in their early thirties. One older man, maybe in his fifties. One of the young men, a turbaned sikh, is showing the other two pictures on his mobile phone. Pictures of men with massive oiled and tattooed chests, I imagine.
- Yeh mujhe Mike ne bheje hain. Dilli ka best tattoo artist hai. Bahut bodybuilders ko tattoo kiya hai. Usne mujhe kaha hai mujhe yeh waala tattoo dega, with WARRIOR written on top. Who kehta hai uske bahut Sardar client hain. Mike has sent me these. He’s Delhi’s best tattoo artist. He’s tattooed many bodybuilders. He’s told me he’ll give me this tattoo, with “warrior” written on top. He say he has many Sikh clients.
- Kya hai yeh? The older man asks. What is this?
- Sikh Warrior hai uncle.
The old man doesn’t react to this so well. He’s turned away from me and he’s softer spoken than the younger man, so I can’t really hear what he is saying, but the fragments that I catch make it clear that he disapproves of this whole tatttoing business, and says it in no uncertain terms, including invoking that the Gurus would not approve.
The younger man looks devastated.
- Par meri dadi ne to tattoo karaya tha…But my grandmother had a tattoo….
- Haan, par who haath pe tha, aur identification ke liye. Who log Pakistan se aaye the… Yes, but that was on her arm, and for identification. Those people came from Pakistan.
The third man jumped in to lighten the mood – haan unki tattoo machines bhi alag hoti thin, simple waali – aur who tattoo isliye karte the ki kahin Kummbh Mele mein kho jaayen to. Yes, and their tattoo machines were different too, they were simpler, and they used to get tattoos in case they got lost in the Kumbh Mela.
These two conversations I have recounted are not exceptional, but representative of every conversation that takes place in this city. In all light-hearted banter here, in every occasion for a joke, somewhere there are always a few crevasses. These crevasses are not wide, and those who speak easily leap over them and carry forward their conversations. But they are deep, and if you listen to them carefully, you get some idea of these depths, and the secrets hidden in them. In the middle of a conversation in a barber shop, suddenly, the decomposing bodies of murdered children, and the moral bankruptcy of the police make an appearance. In a conversation about tattoos, suddenly, Partition violence appears, though still veiled. The Nithari incident, of course, had massive media attention, and could be talked about relatively easily because it happened to someone else. The violence of Partition, which is foundational to the city as we know it, is something that is seldom acknowledged. Because it didn’t happen to someone else. It happened to those who came, those who left, those who stayed behind. Why was the reference to Pakistan necessary to explain the grandmother’s tattoo? Why the joke about getting lost in the Kumbh Mela? Because, I believe, much of the tattooing of names on arms arose from the anxieties of Partition. All my father’s older sisters have their names tattooed on their forearms – and he doesn’t. They were women, and they migrated from Pakistan in ’48. No one says this, but they were probably tattooed in case they were abducted by Muslims, so that they bore some unerasable mark of their original identity on their bodies. The next time the old lost at the Kumbh Mela joke comes up, you know it’s an allegory for something else.
Every place in this city is a memory of loss.
Every place in this city is a loss of memory.
(This is an excerpt from a longer talk given at a panel on “Experiencing Delhi” at Ramjas College in February 2010. The panel was organized by the Literary Society of Ramjas College. Anand Vivek Taneja is a PhD student in anthropology at Columbia University, currently doing fieldwork in Delhi.)