In violence-afflicted Northeast Delhi, women find ways to heal from the wounds of February 2020, write MEERA VISWANATHAN AND VARNA BALAKRISHNAN.
ORTHEAST Delhi does not betray its past to anyone visiting the place for the first time. Small businesses, street vendors, and large trucks bustle in unison across the roads held together by the dust in the air and embraced by the open drain that is the eastern Yamuna canal.
This is an urban jungle, almost dismembered from the large city it serves, yet thriving and hustling. But if you are among the nearly twenty-five lakh residents of this place, or like us, among the many who have now become semi-permanent cogs of this machine, northeast Delhi betrays the remnants of the violence of February 2020 it still carries.
In its lanes that have now been fortified by iron gates, in the homes where burnt and looted things have not returned, and in the eyes of those who survived, the violence lives. To those who know, this violence is not unassuming.
In a weekly women’s circle, Saira, Rehana, Parveen, Zubeida, Sahana, and Rubina are seated together. A tray of chai is passed around. Saira is a 54-year-old resident of Khajuri Khas. Rehana from Babu Nagar is here with her toddler. Parveen spends all of her days in her daily wage job to support her family—she has found two hours for this circle today. Sahana is a mother of four and a tailor. Zubeida from Shiv Vihar lives with her grandchildren—although usually silent, when she speaks, she is strikingly articulate.
Rubina, nineteen years old, is the youngest member of the circle. She aspires to be a nurse. In this circle, the women tell each other stories from their lives. Sometimes, the stories are silences. Sometimes, they begin in Delhi and end in their villages elsewhere.
Many times, one person’s story is finished by the others who were listening. Most times, the stories are about last February, a period that links their lives to each other.
“I was standing outside my house and I could see the mobs coming with bricks and torches. It was raining stones. All the women gathered in fear and went to our terrace. We heard a mob of men chanting Jai Shri Ram. In fear, all of us gathered and prayed as hard as we could,” says Saira. She immediately starts singing “pal do pal meri kahaani hai—my story will last only a moment or two”.
She says, “I could only think of this song when the men came closer. They were hurling sexual profanities at us. They took off their pants and flashed us. I ran down and locked all the doors and prepared for the worst. I held whatever I could find to fight anyone who came at me or my daughters. People twisted our stories claiming that we picked up weapons to instigate violence. I needed to defend myself. What else could we do? We can’t wait for death to just come to us like that. How are we wrong? … I saw houses burning right in front of my eyes.”
Saira recounted this memory when simply asked how she was feeling lately.
This is how the women’s circle meetings start almost every week. The women ask each other how they are feeling, but no feelings have been left unscathed by the memories of February 2020. Saira, Sahana, Rehana, Parveen, and Rubina know each other through these meetings. Some of them have met before—in the streets of North East Delhi, or more likely at a post-violence relief camp.
Sahana breaks one of the many silences to tell that it has now been exactly a year since her sixteen-year-old son was shot in the torso and rushed to the hospital. The bullet left him paralyzed waist-down. It quickly dawns on the others that today is 24 February. Exactly one year since the violence. Parveen remembers how she chased after the police, looking for help for her injured husband. She eventually gave up, she recalls, realising that the police were not going to help her family.
After several visits to the doctor and a year of recuperation, her husband’s injury is yet to heal. Parveen and Sahana’s lives, like many women’s, have revolved around caring for their injured husbands and children during the past year.
“Life has completely changed after the riots,” says Rehana. She joined the circle after the others. On her first day, she sat down with her toddler and everyone exchanged names. “Kya hua, behen? What happened, sister?” Saira asked. “Life has completely changed,” answered Rehana, and that is all it took for everyone to see her as one of their own. Rehana’s husband, too, is bedridden with an injury for the past year. So when Saira said that “life has only progressively gotten worse,” she spoke for everyone.
Saira lives in Khajuri Khas, a place in North East Delhi where Hindu men attacked their Muslim neighbours. A strong, never-ending sense of betrayal is omnipresent here. The memory of the violence is still vivid in her mind. “I saw policemen who were begging the mob to let us go. It made me wonder if they were the police at all or if they were the mob dressed in police clothes. If the police can’t protect us, then what is the point?”
She continues, “We moved to Khajuri in 1975. There was nothing in this area at that time and we would literally sleep on the road with no fear. No one behaved differently and we all stayed together. But today, we live in fear and insecurity. The same families who used to come to eat at home for Eid now yell slurs at us when we step out. Muslims are now terrified of Hindus. In this one year, we have lost friends, neighbours, and family. Even the Hindu families who were our friends don’t speak to us anymore.”
These friendships are among Saira’s biggest losses in the last year. Even as she forges new solidarities in this women’s circle, taking every chance to share how she has been this year, she mourns her life the way it was. “Even if there’s a slight commotion, it becomes a communal tension. Modi has turned Muslims into scapegoats for anything that goes wrong in the country today. Modi ne Musalmanon ko pyada bana diya.”
After a brief sigh, the women are asked what it felt like to be a woman in the community after the violence. “Kaam bohot hai—There is a lot of work,” Parveen says. Before her husband was injured, he was the sole breadwinner, while Parveen took care of the household and their three children. Now, Parveen is working for a living for the first time.
She is one among the thousands of women in Northeast Delhi who undertake small-scale manufacturing work for suppliers from within their homes. Parveen’s job is to fulfill a daily quota of putting materials into plastic packets.
When Parveen explains her work, others add, “Purse ke zip silti hun—I stitch zips on purses”, “Cooler ki ghaans banati hun—I make the straw inserts of desert coolers.” This is a life everyone in the circle knows—to be a woman in North East Delhi now often means working long hours on mind-numbing tasks, taking care of the household, and being caregivers to their injured family members.
In Khajoori Khas, where everyday communal tensions have now become the norm, fear and paranoia flow freely. Saira says, “Today when we go out, while nothing is said to us, watching Hindu men stand together on the streets gives me chills. A few days ago, when I was walking alone in these lanes, a man randomly yelled at me, ‘Idhar aao! Idhar aao! Come here!” I was so scared that I immediately called my daughters to come. In this one year, such fears have only increased. They are not only mine…They are also my daughters’ and everyone’s in this community.”
Her friendships are among Saira’s biggest losses in the last year. Even as she forges new solidarities in this women’s circle, taking every chance to share how she has been this year, she mourns her life the way it was. ‘Even if there’s a slight commotion, it becomes a communal tension,’ she says.
Rehana’s toddler’s crying interrupts the conversation. “How old is she?” asked the women. “Is she sleepy?” One by one, the women cradle her, trying to get her to sleep, until she settles in deep slumber in her mother’s arms.
Silence ensues. Silences are common in the women’s circle. They are often long and prolonged but never uncomfortable. These silences are priced—they do not demand explanations, they do not demand proofs. They exist with the understanding that everyone understands. They make space for Rehana to say, “I always feel anxious. I am startled every time I hear a sudden noise. I am unable to sleep, unable to stay still. Har vaqt ghabrahat hoti hai. Main jab bhi koi aavaaz sunti hoon achanak se, mujhe dar lagne lagta hain. Main so nahi paati hoon, ek jagah reh nahi paathi hoon.” Rehana does not have to explain why. All the other women know.
Who are these women outside the stories of February? How do they like motherhood? How are their friendships? What do they do for joy? Do they have a favourite song? “Aisa lag raha hai ki main saari achhi cheezein bhool rahi hun. Ab man halka rahega toh hi khushi ki cheezein yaad rakh paaungi. I feel like I am forgetting all the good things. My mind can no longer recall any happy memories,” Zubeida says. She was displaced in the violence, her son has been missing since, and now she struggles to feed her other children.
Rubina is only nineteen. She remains silent through most of the meeting, listening knowingly. With every story told in the circle, it becomes evident that she is still completely shaken by the memory of the violence and what it has done to her. She does not talk about what she remembers, she does not talk about her future. She talks about how she works very long hours these days. “Kaam hai. Samaan pack karna hai—there is work. It is to pack goods.”
Rubina is often covered in glitter—in stark contrast to her reluctant and short-lived smiles. She works four hours a day at a tuition centre, alongside how-ever-many hours it takes to finish her quota of packaging glittery trinkets for wholesale. Every bundle of 145 packets she packs gives her thirty-five rupees. Taking time out to acknowledge her memories, to join the women in conversation, to prepare for the nursing course she wants to do, costs her significantly.
Rehana loves to reminisce, almost as if remembering better times is an act of resistance; as if passing down the joy in these memories to her toddler is an act of motherly duty. She talks of her husband, “He was so good to me. We would often go out together to visit parks or the local masjid.” Rehana does not finish her story. With his injury never having healed, her husband can not get up without her help anymore. “We have been married for nine years, and I have nine anniversary gifts to show… I had. All those memories have now been burnt away.”
When Mumtaz hears the women grieve the life they had, the lives they could have now, she says, “Sabr karo behen, Allah sabka khayal karega—be patient, sisters. Allah will take care of everyone.” In many ways, in this maze of dark days, faith in god is the only thing that helps many women move forward. “But during the lockdown, even our masjids were closed. It felt like a dark time and that God was also denied to me,” says Sahana.
The stories that emerge out of the weekly women’s circle often come back to the memory of the violence. Sometimes their silences speak volumes of how they’re feeling. However, over time, the women have found ways to bring back cheer in their lives, even if for just a few minutes, even if it is in these meetings they sometimes call “time-pass”.
The women ask each other how they are feeling, but no feelings have been left unscathed by the memories of February 2020. Saira, Sahana, Rehana, Parveen, and Rubina know each other through these meetings. Some of them have met before—in the streets of North East Delhi, or more likely at a post-violence relief camp.
Parveen and Rehana love to discuss their favourite movies, Rehana loves to sing old Bollywood songs. Singing has become a regular post-conversation activity. “I like coming here. It finally gives me a chance to laugh”. The meetings happen with no agenda. The only agenda is to meet, to talk. Even though Parveen does not know how she will take the time to keep coming, she says “yeh batein karke mal halka ho jata hai. These conversations are a relief.”
The violence and then the lockdown left the women isolated in their pain, with no avenue for hope or change—the women’s circle changes that. It allows for the collective memory of the violence to be told. The women meet and talk to each other, allowing themselves to move towards some form of internal reconciliation.
Rehana, Saira, Parveen, Zubeida, Sahana, Rubina, and other women like them allow us into their lives during these circles every week—they invite us into their homes and sometimes, offer us their special aloo paranthas. Their anecdotes, their disagreements, and their resilience remind us that there is more to them than what the violence did to their lives. Like them, we too join the circle every week, to talk, to share the silence, to just be.
(All names have been changed. The women’s circle meetings happen in the presence of a trained mental health professional. )
(Meera Viswanathan is a mental health professional who works on community mental health care. Varna Balakrishnan is a researcher and human rights worker focusing on citizenship, communal violence, and gender. They have been working with families affected by the Delhi violence for the past year. The views expressed are personal.)