09 May 14

The Slum That Must Not Burn

Are the lives and homes of those who live in slums not important?


There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” – Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus

On April 25, 2014 a slum settlement barely a kilometre from where I live got burnt to the ground. It housed around 700 families but no one is sure of the exact number. The inferno – which began early morning and lasted till a little before noon – reduced everything to ashes and dust. By late afternoon, the scene was that of a battlefield after the battle, with smoke rising from smouldering belongings that now belonged to no one. Fire tenders had come and gone. Women stood next to steaming corrugated tin sheets guarding them for use later. The sheets had warped and gone horribly out of shape but still qualified as a roof over one’s head. The stench of burnt tarpaulin and polythene bags was overpowering . “We had no time to even take spare clothes”, said Rahman . “My steel trunk is missing”, said Arun . “I can’t locate my jhuggi because someone else says it was his jhuggi at that spot”, said Asim . “We are lucky to be alive”, said Aslam . “Where will I sleep?”, asks a man gazing wistfully at the scene before him . Under the hot sun, the colour had bleached from the panorama. Soot does that.

The unused land upon which the slum stood is one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in India. Reports soon appeared that arson could not be ruled out, that the notorious cop-mafia nexus had something to do with it. Whoever the culprit, whatever the reason, the land now lies cleansed, ready for use, ready to sprout million dollar condominiums. It is no longer blighted by the less fortunate voters of this country. This destruction of homes – if tarpaulin-sheathed tin boxes could be called that – failed to make the 6pm national news that evening. It is someone’s prerogative to decide what is news and what isn’t. Perhaps the dispossessed are someone’s prerogative too.

Perhaps not. Fifty metres from where I live is another slum. It has no name – slums usually don’t – they are landmarks – “…Ek jhuggi aayegi…udhar se left lena, phir straight jaana…” (You’ll see a slum. Take a left from there. Then go straight.) A slum is viewed as an eyesore, its image is to be vaccinated against. The people who work as construction site labourers, security guards, waiters, kirana store delivery boys, domestic helps – they arrive every morning for work and in the evening they vanish. We do not know where. The slum does not exist in the mind’s eye. The slum is deceased.

In the winters, when the uneven footpath that runs along the length of this slum is bathed in warm sunlight, the slum dwellers can be seen populating it like we do a train platform. The children play kancha, the men cards, the women knit or pick lice. When the winter ends, the slum dwellers inhabit the footpath opposite. Like a forgotten heap of construction sand that, with the passage of Indian Standard Time, relocates itself across the road, grain by grain, gust by gust. The slum dwellers shift constantly, looking for an agreeable space. Meanwhile, city traffic slides past like an unannounced train – impatient cars, marauding school buses, wayward half-scooter-half-thela contraptions – they ignore the slum and its teeming life. This is the land of a billion stories and we are only interested in ours.



The slum is large – the lady tea vendor at its gates tells me it houses around 500 families. Uncollected garbage lies strewn beside her shack and is being nibbled at by strays as she pours chai and fishes out bread pakoras from a kadai.




A crowd collects; people are eager to talk. “The Sarkar has done nothing for us”, says the lady. “This slum is 20 years old, but we have no piped water, no drainage.”

“Electricity?”, I ask. The roofs – their tarpaulin weighed down by bricks and rusting bicycles – are teeming with satellite dishes and a jumble of cables and transformer boxes.

“They gave us electricity only three years ago, after they found out we were tapping it illegally.”

“They didn’t know you were tapping it illegally?”

“Of course they knew,” laughs the lady. “Just that the police got greedy. They wanted more hafta (bribes). We refused.”




I venture in. The slum is a labyrinth of lanes that are so narrow at places only one man can pass through. In no time I am lost. A bare-chested man emerges from his shack just at that instant. I smile and he smiles back.

“I came to Delhi in 1994”, says Nageshwar Das, “from Darbhanga. All this –” he sweeps his arm diagonally, “all this we made, brick by brick. I’ve seen this slum come up from a few jhuggis (huts) to now this.”

“Is this shack yours?”

“Yes”, says Das. “I’m lucky. You know what the going rent is for one of these shacks?”


“2500 rupees per month minimum. And now people have to pay for electricity, too. It is madness. I’m lucky.”

We are distracted by loud laughter, and Tamil being spoken rapidly.

“Madrasis”, says Das. “This slum has people from all corners of India. Biharis, Madrasis, Rajasthani, Nepali, Bengalis, Bangladeshis even. You want to meet the Madrasis?”

I nod and we walk towards the Madrasis.

“You understand what they are saying, Nageshwar?” I ask.

Nageshwar looks at me poker-faced.



Silva Kumar – young, smart, and moustached, hails from Tirukoilur. “A town in Viluppuram district of Tamil Nadu”, he adds.

“How often do you go back to Tirukoilur?”, I ask him.

“Once every year, in the winter. I came to Delhi 15 years ago. Boarded the train one day, as simple as that.”

“That awful fire the other day…”

“It happens, it is normal”, says Silva. His friends concur. “When I came to Delhi, I was on my own. I was not bothered by where I slept, when or what I ate – I just wanted work. Slum fires are very common. When I was young I used to think: what will I lose if a fire engulfed my slum, what are my possessions? Life was peaceful. But now I am a married man with children. I have to think of school, of hospital, of this and that. Fire bothers me now.”

“He met his wife here, in Delhi”, says Silva’s friend abruptly. The men laugh. The fire cannot be discussed anymore.

“Is she Tamilian?”, I ask Silva.

“Yes”, he smiles. “Folks back home are happy.”

I get the feeling the men want to get back to their card game.

“Thank you, Silva”, I say and move on.

I realise after a while that I am wandering the lanes purposelessly. Open drains, corroded desert coolers, TV soaps blaring out emotional rants, a small girl blowing into a chulha – the images and sounds register and fade out, to make space for more, of dark interiors made visible because a sudden draught fluttered  a curtain, of busy people leading a normal life.



Mohammed Issat greets me at the slum grocery store, a cave-like shack with groaning shelves stocked with Parle-G and wafer packets that appear swollen past their sell-by date. He, too, is one of the pioneers.

“I came from District Howrah in 1994”, says Issar.


“For work, what else. There were hardly any jhuggis here – not more than a dozen. And now, look at this place.”

“No one ever tried to evict people from here?”

“They did, many times. But we are in thousands now. We are strong. We made this slum – it is ours.”

We start to walk towards a small eatery. “We are a community”, says Issat. “There is no difference between this slum and those colonies you see around it – just that this place is dirtier. Everyone here works – men, women, even children. Everyone is busy. We have forgotten to ask the government for things. We are self-sufficient. It’s a normal life – with TV, fridge, mobile, work, school. Water is a problem but everyone is used to it – walking to the tanker every morning, I mean.”

“The fire that burnt down…”

“Thank God no life was lost. Those people will return, they will rebuild their jhuggis in no time. It wasn’t a pucca slum. Some tea?”

I decline the invitation and bid goodbye to Issat.



It’s getting on and as I look for my way out, a thought bothers me. What am I doing here? Am I a foreign correspondent writing for a foreign newspaper trying to sell to my foreign readers a slum? Or am I an Indian writer looking for untold grief so as to inform my Indian readers of it? Why did I visit this slum, for what purpose did I lose myself in its narrow lanes? Did I expect to find something new, something different – a way of life that I, an Indian, didn’t know of earlier? But how is that even possible? We Indians know of every misery there is.

I think it just happened, I just decided to visit the slum without knowing why. This journey was without its aim, without its reward. Must everything belong to reason or be accountable to judgment?

There is nothing unusual about a slum, or about the people who live in it. A billion lives are being led and no two ways of leading it are the same. The slum is a microcosm of what we are. The nation might have failed us but we aren’t failures. The slum, with its inhabitants drawn from all corners of India, speaking a dozen languages, wearing different attires, employed in different jobs – the slum is in fact that intangible, superfluous, ephemeral Idea of India, built by the Mormons, brick by brick, lane by lane, without any outside support, and when it is brought down, by arson or bulldozers, the Mormons build it again. A slum evolves like an animal does, its people live on hope for a better future, they laugh and they cry and they breathe in misery but don’t begrudge it, but most of all they wait for their country to give them that one chance, for they are tired of living out the absurdist philosophy most have only written about.

That the struggle alone is enough to fill a man’s heart and one must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.” – Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus


This article first appeared in newslaundry on May. 09, 2014.

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