Harsh new world


First things first. My father, a BJP supporter and a tough critic of Pakistan, has requested me to convey his gratitude to the Pakistanis. He says he is grateful that while our government hardly bothered, the efforts of your government helped in the release of the cargo ship Suez that was held by Somali pirates for about a year. Six Indians were on board. Thank you, Pakistan.

Now I will tell you what is bothering me since the weekend. On Sunday afternoon while walking aimlessly in Old Delhi, I met a 72-year-old Muslim woman called Zubedia Bano. Blushing, she covered her smile with the red dupatta and lowered her eyes. Starting to speak, the dupatta fell off her face, which instantly dissolved into soft sobs. Bano was painfully shy, as if she was a 16-year-old beauty. Having lived almost all her life behind the purdah, she is not used to interacting with men outside her immediate family. Now she has no choice. Bano, along with her disabled sister, Hoor, is without a home. Through her story I wish to understand what happens to delicate people of an older and softer civilisation who are swept into the tsunami of today’s realities.

“We’re from a very good Old Delhi family,” Bano said in sophisticated Urdu, the language of the Walled City elite. “But now we’re ruined, worse than faqeers.” The old woman started sobbing again. I spent an hour talking to her in Pahari Bhojla, a neighbourhood near the tomb of Razia Sultan, India’s first woman emperor.

Bano, her sister and her younger brother lived with their father and his extended joint family in a mansion near Jama Masjid. “Our house was in Chawri Bazaar, Chitla Gate, Gali Gharraya, number 390.” Being a distant relative, Bano’s father had no share in the property. A few years after his death, the mansion was sold to a builder. The brother left with his wife for Seelampur, a Muslim-dominated slum across the Yamuna river. The sisters were left to fend for themselves. They took up shelter in a series of low-rent hovels in the Walled City, surviving on the Rs 1,000 monthly pension that the Delhi Government gives to senior citizens.

Living in a one-room flat in Bulbuli Khana, a 5-minute-walk from Pahari Bhojla, the sisters have just been forcibly evicted by the landlord. One day last week, he threw their clothes and cooking pots – the sisters have no other possessions – out of the room. “We’ve no oil, the stove is broken, the house is locked, and we are sitting outside.”

“Can’t your brother help?” I ask.

“His wife doesn’t like us and he himself doesn’t earn much.”

Bano’s mother died in 1947, the year of Pakistan’s creation when many of her relatives migrated to Karachi. The father did not re-marry for children’s sake. “Waalid sahib worked in Hamdard Dawakhana. Everyone respected him. They called him Ustad Ibrahim” The caring and conservative man rarely let his daughters out of the house. He tried to find them husbands but could not succeed since he feared for his daughters ending up with a drunkard or some such man. “Our father should have married us,” Bano said. “Then we would have our families to look after us.”

On the night of December 6, 1992, the father died of a heart attack. “He passed away while listening to the news in the radio.” That evening a large Hindu mob demolished the controversial Babri mosque in the temple town of Ayodhya, 250 miles from Delhi. That tragedy permanently damaged India’s secular character and destroyed the lives of many Indian Muslims, including Bano’s.

A day ago, the newly homeless woman took her sister to Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi. “Sheilaji talked very nicely to us. She offered us a place in an old age home in Tilak Nagar (in west Delhi).” The sisters refused to go there. “Tilak Nagar is very far. I will die there. I belong to Old Delhi.” Ms Bano started to cry again.

In 2009, the women left the Walled City for the first time in their lives and set up a home in Seelampur. They returned within a month. “The heart doesn’t agree in any other place.” Finding a new place within Old Delhi will be difficult because landlords, fearing for any health-related emergency, are unwilling to rent out their rooms to old people living alone.

The sisters cooked at home but after the price of kerosene rose, they started to buy rotis (Rs 5 each) from a bakery. The curry (Rs 10 for a portion) is bought from a nearby eatery. “When our father was alive, we lived in style.”

Despite her present poverty, Bano has an elegance that is the work of generations. Her conversational Urdu is as pure as that of any 19th century Old Delhi poet. Her pronunciation is perfect. Her manners are gentle. Her tone is commanding. Her shalwar-suit is clean. Her arm is decked with green and pink glass bangles. Her smile is life affirming.

“Our father’s home had khass curtains hanging in all the windows so that no outsider could see us,” Bano says, with pride. The eyes welling up, she adds, “Now I’m on the road and without a burqa.”


Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.