Two Overheard Conversations, Delhi 2010


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.)

9 thoughts on “Two Overheard Conversations, Delhi 2010”

  1. absolutely fabulous and thought provoking. will it be possible for you to post the full text of the talk?


  2. both the conversations are absolutely unexcetptional and ordinary, and rather appears made up. The first one is tad incredible for it is highly unlikely for the barber to answer back in such rude and uncivilised terms to his client. The author’s attempt to draw linkages is neither novel nor convincing.


  3. Henceforth I will not open my mouth in public places in New Delhi as I wont know whether the bystander is an anthropologist or not :).
    ‘‘uncivilised’? You haven’t had too many encounters with Delhi barbers!’
    I hope that barbers dont shutdown their shops tomorrow protesting this comment and I plan to get my hair cut tomorrow :).


  4. Stunning post, Anand.
    as – what appears to your smug middle-class self as “rude and uncivilised” is the kind of banter that is routine on the streets of Delhi. And obviously, in this local barber shop the distance and class difference between barber and “client” is clearly not what you expect wherever you go to get your hair cut. Anand’s reading of the conversations insightfully draws our attention to the “crevasses” that are illuminated in brief terrifying flashes right in the middle of everyday exchanges.


  5. Zizek talks of looking awry to see the reality. Anand, you are listening awry to mine the interstices of conversation, experience,history and reality. Bravo ! Everywhere, we encounter such illuminations, but our grossness do not let us learn from such subtle discourses. Who can deny that the her and now of our street life is not a University !


  6. Very sad to hear of your family’s experiences. I always say, we need to understand where a person comes from, what sufferings his family has undergone, before we call him a ‘naqli’ or ‘taqlidi’.
    Your aunties having their names tattooed on their arms reminds us of the victims of Hitler.
    However, to employ Foucault’s terminology, they were not objectified- or, indeed, Platonized- the name becoming inseparable from the haecceity of their flesh- by any Statutory or Epistemic process but by the spontaneous malice of ‘dividing practices’.
    One’s you invoke to perpetuate by clothing them in the marmoreal marble of scription.
    To commemorate what? Muslim violence against Hindus. Subliminally, you evoke the Nithari atrocities (carried out by Hindus, not Muslims) and link this to RSS stereotypes of the ‘weak, effeminate and dirty’ non-Hindutva Hindu.

    I have previously commented on your post mentioning jinnialogy. I said that people like you, if you genuinely want to protect your minority community, need to stop writing such amphibolous texts.

    I won’t say any more.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s