First-Person Accounts of Poverty And Dreams in Buland Masjid, a Makeshift Habitation in New Delhi


An excerpt from ‘Dreaming a Paradise: Migrations and the Story of Buland Masjid’

Chitvan Gill

Where a man runs, hope waking in his breast,
For ever like a madman, seeking rest.

He must have died happy, for all around him was his creation, his paradise. Rising out of the swampy marsh now buried under solid concrete, was his city, the city he had built. The streets clearly demarcated, grid patterns or katras, the imposition of order, of discipline. He died in his paradise.

Maqsood, a man who spat in the face of destiny, walked from the abyss to arrive at this place, where he began his own story of creation.

He had walked quickly and then run across the dusty plains, chased by hunger, battling the raging heat of the sun and the fire of a slow, burning anger within.

Hunger gnaws the bones, it corrodes the thin epithelial linings of the innards, but hunger propels the world into existence.

Maqsood walked into Delhi with nothing. And within his lifetime, he created this…

I came to his paradise. What was this that he had created? What could one say about it? He sat on his charpai – inhaling the rancid tar of his beedi, dragging deep, his eyes half shut – and exhaled in two gusts. The smoke from his lungs and the blistering beedi created delicate wisps and swirls and gently wafted upwards to join the thick smog, the stinking fog, the acrid haze of burning waste that rose from the landfill. He raised his arm and moved it in a sweeping arc: “All this I have done, this is the labour of my life.” This was the culmination of one man’s passion, his search for a home, for a paradise of rest, of love and hope.

All around was shit, rotting entrails, refuse and the leavings of the stuff of the urban dream. Here in these teetering tenements is a story as old as man. “How terrible it would have been [ . . . ] to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”
Maqsood left behind a house and a legacy. This man, who walked here with nothing, transformed his world. Eschewing the symbols of wealth, the ornaments of ‘arrival” that proclaimed success to the world, he looked inward. It was the spirit of yearning, of trying to understand how to tame the beast of nature, the crudeness of raw reality, to transform the power of desire into a spirit of beauty.

I met him one day as I walked through the gallis of this slum called Buland Masjid. He was seated, as was his wont, on a charpai outside his tenement. Around him was clustered a group of men, listening to him in respectful silence. As I walked past, he softly hailed me: “I’m sorry I cannot get up, I have a bad leg, but I have seen you coming here for the past few days, I am very intrigued, and if you don’t mind tell ing me: what are you doing in this place?” I told him. Immediately the men around him turned to me and said, “But you must talk to him, he is the one you must talk to. He is Allama Maqsood, he is the one who built this colony.” Maqsood looked at me and said softly, “Yes, they are right. If that is the case, then you must talk to me.” This was said without the slightest touch of arrogance or humility, just a matter of fact, with a tinge of surprise as to how I had not done so till now.

He exuded a raw physicality, marked by the frailty of age. The eyes, which, at some point of time, would have been hard with steely determination, were softened now with the essence of a man who had faced his demons.

I often sat there, listening to him, eliciting the tales of his life. Maqsood told his story with a certain wryness; in his mind, he carried the knowledge of what it had taken to arrive at his dream.
“Oh yes, I have not forgotten. I remember violence. I remember when it struck my cheek for the first time, it was not just the physical pain but the mind which ran on to create the pain. That is what I remember . . . I had no control over that. I learnt quickly that there were different types of violence that ordinary people could inflict. Kicking, pummelling, being tossed about on the dry and dusty ground, a bunch of snivelling gigglers gathered around . . . But that was not as hurtful. Strangely, my mind’s eye would be cast ing around, gazing at their faces, and I would forget my pain when I would see in the eyes of some of the young boys neither revelry nor support, but a sense of suspended emotion, a sort of held-in-the-breath, unspoken hope . . . That one boy battled more than five and kept getting up. It was as if they were waiting for some other narrative to emerge from the ritual.

“But what I remember is the violence of words, of flung insults that called to mind a painful inescapable reality, a reality that had been imposed upon me . . . The sheer pain of the relatively painless act of being spat upon, and feeling the slow crawl of saliva dripping down my bloodied cheeks. Nothing hurt more than that. My life is almost over, but the act of being spat upon, from the moment when you see his face prepare, to the gentle settling of spit on the cheek . . . I can never forget the sheer pain of that moment or the face of that man.

“The word I remember most is Muslim. Within the sound of that word is wrapped the story of my life, the violence, and the sense of raging impotence, whenever I heard that word flung at me. As if I was not a human – I was a Muslim. ‘Tum Mussalman ho’.”

But violence was everywhere. There was no escaping. It was a violence of the soul. A battle between hunger and hope. The sheer violence that visited the failure of mothers, of fathers as they struggled to hide their inability to give their children the lives they had hoped for…

Courtesy: Scroll

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