Naseer beckoned to me from the other side of a doorway, through which I could see a large-ish courtyard, with several women, of various ages, heads uncovered, going about their mid-morning activities. I hesitated, and then drawing a deep breath, I stepped through…
After several weeks of wandering around Jahangir Nagar, survey sheets in hand and hanging out at the corner Irani chai café, I found myself being acknowledged and greeted on the street by several of the male residents. I had struggled initially to explain myself and my research, but the fact that I was studying and living in London seemed to clear many a brow and had a significant effect on my curiosity value.
My interaction with female residents however, was restricted to those I’d interviewed for the survey, usually along with a male member of the household. In cases where there was no male present, the interview would be conducted briefly on the doorstep, if at all. One obstacle was my own bashfulness. I was unsure how to approach and talk to women, especially in a neighbourhood where the niqab and/or burqa is customarily worn in public. I felt continually intrusive, awkward, ill-equipped, and a hairsbreadth away from committing an unforgivable faux pas. I did once get mistaken for a government official and yelled at by a woman because the garbage heap near her house hadn’t been cleared for weeks, but that was an unexpected bonus.
All of this meant that if I was to get to do in-depth interviews with women residents, unmediated by males in the household, I needed to rethink my strategy. Assistance came from an unexpected quarter – an accounts executive at a digital printing studio where I got some printing done, put me in touch with his father who runs a school, located not far from Jahangir Nagar. A few days later I found myself being invited to the house of Naseer, – a student of Huda School, Sultan Shahi – and his family, who live with nine other households in a ground floor unit, with shared bathing and toilet facilities.
The first thing I notice was a broken but evidently functional washing machine, swirling and gurgling to itself in the corner. It was washing day, and Naseer’s mother, was in the midst of pulling garments of various shapes and sizes from a multi-coloured pile. She would wring one out and pass it on to one of her daughters to hang on the line that stretched across the courtyard. Some of the other female residents were engaged in a similar activity. Naseer’s mother explained later that this was a fortnightly ritual.
The courtyard space seemed to be shared by all the households who live there, but Naseer’s mother possessed some subtle authority. I was to learn later that Naseer’s family were the tenants who had lived there longest, all of eight years. Naseer’s father drives an auto rickshaw, leaving the house in the morning only to return at night, and he told me he leaves the running of the house and paying of the bills to his wife. It appears that she may have some say in the running of the other households in the tenement as well, certainly as far as the use of the shared space is concerned.
I interviewed three other women living in the same tenement. The first was Naseer’s grandmother, who lives in the adjoining room. Her husband died last year and Naseer’s father decided she should move from the settlement where she and his father used to live. He felt it was not safe for a widowed woman to continue living there. She told me that she believed she would have been fine, but moved at her son’s insistence.
The second was a middle-aged women living in a two-room apartment along with her five daughters. She told me that her husband had left her some years before, and that he hadn’t provided much financial support for her or their eleven children. She has managed to marry off five of her daughters, and is now left with five more to worry about.
The last was the landlady, or as she described it, daughter of the owner of the building. She said she lives like a tenant along with the others, paying for utilities and managing the space for her mother in lieu of rent. Her husband works as a chauffer in Saudi Arabia, and visits once in two years. Unlike the other women I interviewed, she attended school and is literate in both Urdu and English.
I entered the tenement as someone who was known to the Headmaster of Naseer’s school, and was treated as an honoured guest. None of the women I interviewed put on a hijab, though they would have done so if they were stepping out into the street. This may mean that men who enter the courtyard cease being strangers, or as is more likely it was due to my association with Naseer’s school.
Towards the end of my conversation with the landlady, she enquired if I was married, and on learning I wasn’t, both she and Naseer’s mother, who was seated nearby, offered only half-jokingly to arrange for my wedding, and to hold it in their courtyard. An offer I was both deeply touched and petrified by. This exchange was the source of much amusement all round. When I left I was followed by three girls, aged approximately eight, ten and fourteen (the last wearing an oversize burqa) who accosted me and asked me when I was returning to get married. I smiled nervously, mumbled “soon” and walked as fast as my legs would carry me in the opposite direction.
Nikhilesh Sinha is in his third year of a PhD at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. His research relates to how poor people find places to live in Indian cities. He teaches a course on Global Citizenship at Hult International Business School, London, as well as a course on the challenges and opportunities of doing business in India. Before moving to London, he led research in affordable housing and urbanisation at the Centre for Emerging Markets Solutions at the Indian School of Business (ISB). He has also worked in television, co-founded a theatre company, and is usually in the middle of reading three books not remotely related to his research.