A “social experiment” in a Delhi neighbourhood is questioning the standard segregated housing practices of Hindus and Muslims.
New Delhi: Walking through the maze of thin, crowded lanes and by-lanes that make up Gaffar Manzil colony in New Delhi’s Okhla area, it was fairly easy to feel directionless after a while. The GPS service on my smartphone refused to be of any help. While many of the lanes were numbered, it was frustrating to note that particular one I was looking for wasn’t.
Later, on relating this ordeal to my host Faizal Khan, he said, “You should have asked where Kush’s house is, someone would have certainly brought you here.”
Kush Kumar Singh, a doctor by profession, is Faizal’s flatmate. Strangers to each other until a few years ago, the two have been sharing the space for the last three years. In Gaffar Manzil, a predominately Muslim colony, Faizal underlined, “There is only one Kush, one Hindu resident. So most people know about him.”
There is also a larger reality that Faizal pointed out – Hindus and Muslims may form the two largest constituents of the country’s citizenry, but they rarely live as neighbours, let alone sharing a roof. This is particularly true in North India.
The proof of this unstated but widely prevalent societal norm can easily be found across the nation’s capital too, even in its slums.
The rule applies equally to those looking for rented accommodation. Typically, if a Muslim tenant looks for housing, he or she will consider predominately Muslim areas, such as Ghaffar Manzil. This is what Faizal did when he moved to Delhi some years ago from Farukkhabad, Uttar Pradesh.
Kush too applied the same rule when he came to Delhi in 2010 to work. He chose Sarita Vihar, not only because it was close to his workplace but also because it had Hindu residents. In his native Agra, the same rule strictly applies.
“Colonies like Gaffar Manzil or Jamia Nagar were never in my list of places to look for rented accommodation in Delhi. The first thing a property dealer asks you is your name and accordingly finds you a place,” Kush said.
In Agra, he said, “If we have to go to a Muslim area, it is a rule that you venture there only during day time. My mother would say, ‘Shaam hone se pehle ho ke aajao (Return before sundown)’. During Diwali, the best sweets are made in the Muslim area of Agra. So a Hindu shopper will typically go to that area only during the day.”
So what made a young man raised in such a conservative environment live in Gaffar Manzil?
The answer – from both Faizal and Kush – turned out to be fascinating and a possible harbinger of change.
Living with the ‘other’
“It is a social experiment. By staying under the same roof, both Kush and I want to experience for ourselves what is it that makes us different. I am a religious Muslim, and he is a devout Hindu and also a vegetarian. We want to see…can a Hindu and a Muslim live together in amity…can they really tolerate each other…can they engage in more social interactions,” said Faizal.
“Having grown up in a household where a Muslim is not regarded your friend or someone you socialise with, Faizal’s offer to me to stay in this Muslim colony to see for myself how they live, what they think, eat, what they think of the Hindus, was interesting to me. I wanted to have that experience, to see for myself what it is that makes us different, so different that we can’t even think of living next to each other, that we can’t think of socialising with each other, that we, in fact, fear and abhor each other’s presence,” said Kush.
Kush met Faizal in 2010, as a patient in a South Delhi hospital where he was employed as a junior doctor.
“We typically go by one’s looks and attire. The moment I saw Faizal in a Pathani suit and a skull cap, I bracketed him as a conservative Muslim man who would have no idea about modern-day thinking, let alone medical science. So when he asked many questions about his ailment, I refused to reply and once even told him curtly ‘it is beyond you’,” said Kush.
“I pestered him so much for answers every time I met him that he couldn’t avoid me after a while and we began talking. I told him what I do,” added Faizal with a laugh.
“Knowing that he is a Muslim and also a social worker intrigued me. Till then, I used to think that all Muslims are fundamentalists when it comes to their religion and they do not listen to any other point of view, they never open up to other communities. Then I heard him talking about making an effort to revive a pre-independence organisation that promoted communal harmony. He seemed more interested in talking about social issues than religious ones. I felt I have to know this man better,” remembered Kush.
The organisation that Faizal was trying to revive was Khudai Khidmatgar, a social organisation started by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known to many as Bacha Khan or Frontier Gandhi, based on the non-violence propagated by Mahatma Gandhi. The organisation, which played an important role in the freedom struggle in the North West Frontier Province, died a sad death after partition.
Kush said conversations between the two continued in many informal meetings over the next few months. By then, he also moved into rented accommodation in New Friends Colony, not far from the Khudai Khidmatgar office in Gaffar Manzil.
“I began attending the organisation’s events. Though I moved to Jaipur in 2011 to pursue my MD, I continued to remain in touch with Faizal. I also decided to join the organisation,” he said. Faizal made him not only a member of the core committee but also a trustee of the organisation.
“By the time I returned to work again in Delhi in 2014, I overcame the fear of living among Muslims, the ‘other’. I could easily take up Faizal’s offer to share his flat in Gaffar Manzil,” said Kush.
However, Kush became a strange phenomenon for his neighbours and others in Gaffar Manzil.
“Those days I used to wear a bunch of red threads around my wrist, a very Hindu ritual. The shopkeepers would notice it and immediately ask my name. On knowing that I am a Hindu, their next question would be, ‘Have you come to study in Jamia Millia Islamia?’ They would find it strange when I would reply, ‘No, I am working’,” he said, laughing.
“Living in a Muslim colony for the last three years,” he said, “has not made me less of a Hindu but it has certainly made me open up to Muslims. It helped my neighbours to open up too. Just as I have never lived among Muslims, they also have never lived with a Hindu. So there are perceived notions about each other.”
“For one-and-a-half years,” Kush said happily, “my immediate neighbour would wish me every morning with a salam and I would typically return it with a namaste. Not because I didn’t want to say salam, but the instinctive thing was to reply with a namaste because I have grown up saying it. Now, that neighbour has begun wishing me with a namaste.”
Being a doctor was a big factor in why people accepted him easily, Kush says. “People here also look at me as a useful man, with respect.”
Kush’s first hurdle, however, was to convince his Hindu friends – most of them fellow doctors – to visit him at Gaffar Manzil.
“They have also grown up the way I have. They would ask me to meet them somewhere outside but I would insist they come home. Some of them have now begun visiting me and are no more so conscious of visiting a Muslim area,” he said.
A common question he would get from many Hindu acquaintances was, “Do the Muslims not have a bath only on Fridays?”
“Many Hindus have asked me this question. They feel Muslims are dirty, don’t take a bath every day. I always point out that a Muslim is supposed to do wuzu (washing parts of the body before prayers) five times a day, so how can he possibly remain dirty?” said Kush.
Kush’s second hurdle was to decide whether to keep an idol of Krishna in his room. “I am a Krishna devotee. I wondered if I could do it, especially because it is a Muslim area and they don’t practice idol worship. I shared my thoughts with Faizal; he told me to go ahead,” said Kush. On Janmashtami this year, when he went to Agra to take part in the festivities, Faizal along with a few Muslim youths of Khudai Khidmatgar, decorated the idol with flowers, keeping Kush’s “sentiments in mind”.
“Since he is a vegetarian, we also made a rule in the house and the office that that no non-vegetarian will be cooked or served when Kush is around,” said Faizal.
Kush said residing among Muslims also made him increasingly conscious of certain things the majority community never do. “For instance, sweets are distributed in my office during Diwali, like every other office. Though there are a substantial number of Muslim employees in my office, sweets are never distributed during Eid. I began doing it and it is now an office ritual.”
“Earlier,” he said, “many times we faced problems at the office where a Hindu will not do night duty with a Muslim because they will have to dine together. After I began to live in Gaffar Manzil and shared my experiences with them, such problems have come down drastically.”
He felt particularly happy when his superiors began showing an interest in Khudai Khidmatgar. “They want to know more about the organisation, ask me what I do there, it feels good,” said Kush.
Finding acceptance among friends, neighbours and colleagues was relatively easy compared to his family, Kush admitted. The first few months, he did not let his family know that he moved into a Muslim colony.
“My relatives still don’t know about it. When they come to Delhi and want to visit me, I call them to my office,” he said.
When his mother finally found out, she ordered him to find another house at once. “It worried my mother. Whenever a Muslim person would come home and we offered him a cup of tea, after he left my mother would say, ‘Cup tudwa dena (Break that tea cup)’. I also belong to a family that is actively involved in Hindu organisations like the RSS and the BJP. It took me a lot of time to convince her that I am safe, there is nothing to worry about, that I am not converting to Islam – the usual fears people of one community have towards the other. I also told her I moved into Gaffar Manzil because the rent there is much less than many other places. That somewhat pacified her,” Kush said with a laugh.
Faizal laughed along, adding, “I also come across many Muslims in our neighbourhood who stop me to say, ‘Ab kai saal ho gaye hain, doctor saab ko kalma padha hi lo (It has been quite a few years now, convert him to Islam)’. They still can’t imagine that a Hindu has decided to reside in a Muslim colony not to convert to Islam but just to live in the area.”
“Muslims as a community should also begin thinking more about progressive thoughts. The times have changed,” Faizal said.
While Kush said his friends still look at him “as a project and keep asking on a daily basis what new experience he gained,” Faizal called him “a success story”.
“There is no point doing seminars in air-conditioned rooms about communal harmony with just like-minded people. I value Kush’s story a lot more than it. It is a success story. Many times I feel activists don’t want to engage with people who have different ideologies, different upbringings. If we want true harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims, we have to have a dialogue with everybody, the liberal and the conservative. In Khudai Khidmatgar, we invite everyone to talk. However much you may try to deny it, religion is an important issue for people; you can’t solve the differences by avoiding to talk about it. Also, religion is increasingly being taken over by opportunist people,” he said.
Faizal added, “The media, like some activists, also love victims. I am not saying don’t, but also saying that it is also important to initiate a dialogue with their opponents too. The time is now to de-communalise society, there should be hriday parivartan (change of heart); growing hatred between the two communities is a reality. Since we can’t run away from each other beyond a point, we will have to begin talking about the differences to find a common ground.”
Faizal said he doesn’t want Khudai Khidmatgar “to become yet another Muslim organisation. That is why we have people like Kush who address our meetings. He [Kush] is one of the trustees of the organisation. We conduct dil joro abhiyan on both Ram Navami and Eid.” Kush added, “During my interactions with people, I come across persons from both the communities who claim their religion to be superior than the other and try to find faults in each other’s religion. I always say, hum galat nahi hain, alag hain (We are not wrong, we are different).”
Extending the experiment
Faizal wants to extend their “social experiment”.
“We are looking for a bigger place where at least 15 people can stay together. In three months, we will be inviting people from both communities to live together under the same roof for at least a week and try to know each other,” he said.
Both also pointed out “the need” to widen the scope of the “experiment” beyond the Hindu-Muslim binary.
“There are serious differences even among different castes and denominations of Hindus and Muslims. I am a Rajput, so when my Hindu friends learn that I am a vegetarian, they refuse to believe it. They believe a Rajput is always a non-vegetarian. Certain stereotypes are there about every community,” said Kush. Faizal added, “A Shia or a Sunni may rather choose to stay with a Hindu than each other. A Muslim from Bareilly and another from Deoband will never even touch each other’s water.”