Week #36: Stories from Okhla

52 weeks of reading and writing

my-sweet-homeWhat’s special about your home? That was the question that filmmaker and fellow writer Samina Mishra and her friend Sherna Dastur asked about two dozen children in Okhla, Delhi. In reply, they wrote and drew about their lives and their homes, about ‘the terraces, mosques and train tracks that lead to the villages that their families came from’. And the result was My Sweet Home, a book that explores this ‘busy, congested area that is teeming with stories that the newspapers and television don’t bother with’.

Once upon a time, Okhla was a small village on the outskirts of Delhi, which was eventually swallowed up by the gluttonous expansion of the capital. This is also the area that houses Jamia Millia Islamia, the historic university, established in Aligarh in 1920 during the nationalist struggle, moved to Delhi five years later, and to its current location starting in the late 1930s. The area developed and more and more people moved in. Today, there are mostly Muslim families, many of whom have moved here because of communal tension and intolerance, which makes it hard to find homes in other parts of Delhi. The growing population has led to infrastructure problems, but people still ‘throng to this “Muslim area.” In September 2008, Batla House, a locality in this area was the site of an “encounter” between the Delhi Police and some young boys who the police claimed were terrorists. The much-televised encounter thrust Okhla onto the national centre-stage and the area became synonymous with the image of a Muslim ghetto harbouring terrorists and fomenting fundamentalism, if not separatism.’

The My Sweet Home project began when Samina, who has lived in Okhla, started to wonder about

what was missing that could connect Okhla’s story to the story of other neighbourhoods in other cities and so let people interact with each other in ways that the television and news stories did not let them. The answer I felt was — everyday life… in which people go to work and children go to school, in which birthdays are celebrated and kites flown, in which exams are taken, friendships made and broken, cricket matches played. Stories of everyday life tell us what we have in common with this space and what is special about it.

It was these stories of everyday life that the children in the workshop wrote and drew about, and from which resulted the book My Sweet Home: Childhood Stories from a Corner of a City. The book is currently in production, but you can find out more about this amazing project here.


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