By Mohammed Wajihuddin*
Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banane mein
Tum taras nahin khate bastiyan jalane mein
(People go broke in building a house,
And you don’t take pity when you go burning neighbourhoods)
— Bashir Badr
My heart sinks as the death toll in the recent pogrom in North East Delhi rises. Cocooned in relative safety—well, we are safe only till the trouble reaches our doorsteps—I remember one summer that I spent years ago in Bhajanpura, one of the riot-affected localities in North East Delhi.
It was 1994. Newly-arrived in Delhi from the backwaters of Bihar, my first concern in the city was to find a source that could sustain me. I was slumming in South Delhi with a cousin, a proud chaiwala whose day began before daybreak and ended almost at midnight.
Since I was not interested in adding more degrees to my mere graduation, I didn’t seek admission in any of those universities that Delhi flaunts. I desperately sought a job with a publication and began hunting for it within a week of my arrival to the city. Riding a redline bus—yes, from the same redline buses’ fleet that had earned the notoriety of “killers” because of the frequent accidents they met with—I would reach Connaught Place (CP) to buy second hand books from the pavements and spend time at a bookstore near the iconic Madras Coffee House.
The glass-panelled bookstore catered to different tastes—apart from titles on various subjects, it also stocked newspapers and popular Indian and foreign magazines. One day a new newspaper, an eight-paged tabloid, caught my attention.
Since I had not summoned courage to meet editors of established dailies, I tried to enter Journalism through small, obscure rags. Buying a copy of the tabloid, I rushed out of the bookstore and reached a nearby telephone booth (then mobile phone in India was almost a decade away). I called up its editor, a certain Mr Sharma—sorry, I forget his first name now. He was home and picked up the phone.
The paper’s print line also carried the proprietor-printer-editor’s address. It was at a street in Bhajanpura. The editor guided me how to reach his address. Next morning, after changing two buses which commuters crammed like sardines, I reached Bhajanpura. This was first time I had travelled across the Yamuna in Delhi. Going to Bhajanpura was like going Jamuna ke paar (across the Yamuna), a metaphor for long, taxing travel.
The tabloid’s editor lived in a haveli-like huge home with multiple rooms and a huge courtyard. He was one-man army and ran the paper from his well-stocked study. His father was a professional jyotshi (astrologer) and spent most of his time in a corner room telling people’s fortunes. Politicians and businessmen were among his regular clients.
Seeing me in the precarious situation—I had told him why I didn’t want to sit for the IAS exam that my father wanted me to and how acquiring more degrees didn’t appeal me, the editor said I could work with him provided I gave tuitions to his two school-going sons. He was nice to me and had spoken frankly, but I soon realised that he wanted to make journalism a route to prosperity but didn’t have the required wherewithal. He would often cite examples of some famous journos whose beginning was humble but went on to own huge houses and fancy cars.
Initially I agreed to teach his children, but teaching is not my cup of tea. Though I come from a family of teachers—my grandfather, father, many uncles and three siblings have been teachers—I somehow find myself at sea when it comes to teaching even my own children. So, after a week or so at laboured tutoring, I told the editor that it would be neither justice to the children nor fairness on my part if I continued as a tutor.
Since he had also found me a one-room accommodation—it was a windowless shop that the owner had rented out and the editor had agreed to pay the rent—the editor announced that I was on my own and he would not pay the rent. Fair enough. He didn’t want a reporter; he needed a tutor, I had realised. I had to fend for myself.
I began looking for a job with a paperl once again. Every morning I would leave that Bhajanpura room, walk for about 10 minutes to the nearest bus stand and board one of the crammed, sweaty Redline buses to reach Connaught Place. And then I ran short of money. The tea seller cousin would hand me some cash off and on, but my self-respect prevented me from living off charity.
I still remember one hot afternoon. I got off from a bus at Bhajanpura, hungry and thirsty. I didn’t have a paisa in my pocket and couldn’t have bared my heart to borrow from a stranger. I needed food. Oh, how helpless you feel if pangs of hunger hit you? I began trudging towards my tiny room, hoping against hope that food would come from somewhere.
Suddenly I saw a crowd queuing up outside a newly-built temple. As part of the temple’s inauguration ceremony, they had organised a langer (free food). Seeing it as a blessing in disguise, a manna from the heaven, I joined the queue of the devotees. They handed me four or five puris in a thonga (a cup made of peepal leaf) and some sabzi. I ate to me heart’s content, drank two glasses of water, silently thanked God and the temple management for having arranged free food.
After a few weeks, I found a trainee reporter’s job with a fortnightly magazine in Nizamuddin. And they paid the princely sum Rs 2000 per month. It was more than enough to sustain a bachelor like me whose only shauq (habit) has been to devour the printed words. Soon I left Bhajanpura and found myself sharing a slightly better room at Julena, not very far from Jamia Millia Islamia University.
I wept and cried as I saw Bhajanpura suffering due to the madness that gripped North East Delhi last week. The devils desecrated some places of worship too. I remembered that Brahmin editor who resided in Bhajanpura. I remembered that temple which had fed me that hot, hungry afternoon.
It was that tiny, windowless room in North East Delhi which had sheltered me for a couple of months before I moved to another place in Delhi. North East Delhi is limping back to normalcy. The wounds will heal in time, but the scars caused by those dreadful days and nights when goons masquerading as politicians stoked communal fires, when cops looked the other way and when lawlessness ruled the streets of North East Delhi will remain.
*Senior assistant editor, The Times of India, Mumbai. Source: Author’s Facebook timeline