A Budding Sisterhood

Edited By: Pragyna Divakar


Masooma, Afsana, Gul, Hafsa_ oddly unfamiliar movements that my tongue takes a moment to catch up with. Sallies and Matts are as smooth as second nature but some strange fate ensured that it was unacquainted with strangers who happen to live at home. Today I am at the Jafrabad protest at Seelampur. Seelampur in Delhi, Khidderpore in Kolkata, Mumbra in Mumbai, Chepauk in Chennai: all a common picture painted across the shifting fabric of Metropolitan India, each an ill-kept secret shared in the knowing glances of the locals, underbellies amidst proud urban heartlands. All working-class, predominantly Muslim, and crime-ridden. Today I venture into the space banished to subtexts and uncomfortable silences with the greatest weapon I have: words. 


The auto I hail from the metro station carries me and three friends, two female and one male, to Jafrabad, one of the many protests that dot Seelampur and other Muslim majority neighbourhoods in Delhi. The auto ride coupled with the pleasant end February breeze fills me with a sense of carefree abandon. I muse over the privilege that allows me to romanticise auto rides, the fun occasional occurrence in my weekly expeditions to Delhi rather than a mundane routine. The romance of it persists. I choose to hold onto it thinking that perhaps one of the best things one irrelevant woman can contribute to a protest is her good vibes and cheer. The women of Jafrabad, I find out, hold onto a romance of their own. Only such exhilaration can sustain something so momentous. 


The woman at the heart of this protest is Hafsa - the unrelenting and loving spirit kindling the fire of the movement. The small shamiana, divided between the men and the women who occupy different sections, is overlooked by her house. She gave up a newfound job at a luxurious hotel to dedicate the entirety of her energies to her cause. She has been sick for the past few days, I hear. Occasionally coughing blood but never defeated enough to remain absent from the organisational feat that she so successfully executed. I am told that the protest garners a different kind of force when she is around. When I meet her, I understand. My female friends and I are hugged as though we were old beloved faces. Names are neither asked nor needed. Words are futile for conveying what Hafsa had captured within her small, petite form. 


I lounge around with the shyness of a newcomer, a first-timer scraping at layers of awkward privilege. My excitement and fascination win out in minutes because of the easy charm with which I am received repeatedly. Two middle aged women approach us and introduce themselves. One has a son who is a social activist and a student at Jamia. She tells us “Shaheen Bagh nahi dekha toh kuch nahi dekha”. We are invited to her home for tea. We are also told that it is at a slight distance but if we did not mind, we were most welcome. There is no trace of artifice or gentrified politeness in her voice. She’s dead serious. I am taken aback at my own comfort at saying yes. We do not end up going for the paucity of time. Asifa and Afsana, my new acquaintances are seated on a makeshift platform covered with a thick cloth. They are working on cloth but they quickly make some movements and insist that we join them and make ourselves more comfortable. They are young enough to be pursuing some form of education. In a different world, we could have been classmates. We introduce ourselves_ Navya, Puja, and Reya. The odd unfamiliarity finds its way from our tongues to theirs. Regardless, their warmth is dazzling. They talk freely of the reputation that Seelampur has_ “Aapko batane ki zaroorat toh nahi hai”, says Afsana. This was no embarrassed dismissal. This was a space moving from subtexts and asserting itself in speech. If anything, it was an acknowledgement that quietly said, good and bad exist everywhere but instead of half-baked embarrassment for the bad we have not done, let us engage in more interesting conversation. They speak about their families, their friends, and their lives. We go on to discuss fake news, our cause, and the sentiments that unite us. Jokes are exchanges and an easy camaraderie soon develops. 


We are joined by Hafsa who soon becomes the inexhaustible source for sweet tea, packets of biscuits, and unwavering hospitality. Of course, she is one of many channels for the new culture of protesting set by the women of Shaheen Bagh. I have no proof but heart of hearts I know that these were the little rituals that defined a protest led by women- mothers, daughters, aunts, and sisters- who had emerged from the walls of their domestic realm but carried their nurturance with them. They would never let us leave on an empty stomach. Ruksaar is clad in a maroon burqa and from our little group, her cries add the loudest gusto to the naras being chanted. I notice a pretty golden brooch pinned to the side of her head. I think back to my childhood when I gradually learnt that chumki laden shoes and clothes were characteristic of Muslim fashion and momentarily marvel at the informal sociological training that happens to us within our families. With her neatly donned burqa and healthy dose of itr, she paints a comely picture. I point to her brooch and tell her that it is beautiful. Ten seconds later, I find it pinned to the left side of my sweater- “Apko itna acha laga, aap le lijiye”. The symbolism of the left side was not lost on her. I am rendered speechless by the love that I have just been shown. I try to insist for a couple of seconds that this was ridiculous and it looked far better on her (which it did) but eventually swallow back my protests. The gift was presented with such wholehearted conviction that refusal would have been akin to insult. 


As we gather our little group and prepare to leave, Hafsa reaches on to a makeshift shop for small food items- chips, biscuits, and the like- that stood right next to the platform where we sat. The shop was probably a humble panwari ki dukaan at best. Each of us are handed a packet of chips to carry home with us. Before I leave, I give her a massive hug. Her, and all the other women, have etched themselves on my tongue, as they have on my heart. I leave knowing beyond any doubt that the spirit of giving has nothing to do with the degree of possessions and everything to do with bigness of heart. 


Today, barely a week later, Seelampur is plagued by violence. Those who were, only five days ago, brimming with life may or may not be there the next time I visit. The uncertainty of such tenuous existence has become so mundane that I no longer have the energy to be affected. I live on, in hope that they do too.