‘Dreaming A Paradise’ by Chitvan Gill: Survival, struggle, triumph of human settlers : The Tribune India

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‘Dreaming A Paradise’ by Chitvan Gill: Survival, struggle, triumph of human settlers

‘Dreaming A Paradise’ by Chitvan Gill: Survival, struggle, triumph of human settlers

Dreaming A Paradise: Migrations and The Story of Buland Masjid by Chitvan Gill. Seagull Books. Pages 185. Rs 599

Book Title: Dreaming A Paradise: Migrations and The Story of Buland Masjid

Author: Chitvan Gill

Parbina Rashid

‘The human imagination is obsessed with the idea of leaving” — Chitvan Gill introduces us to the concept of migration in her book ‘Dreaming a Paradise’. To explain how the idea of migrating has consumed the human race since the beginning of life, she builds her argument around Adam and Eve’s eviction from paradise, to the cursed wanderer Cain, to Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Adi Shankara.

One may agree or disagree with Gill, like I didn’t with her bringing in Laika the dog’s space voyage in support of her contention, but once she holds our hands and gives us a guided tour of the gallis of Buland Masjid, the Sputnik 2 tragedy is forgotten.

From those gallis emerges a beautiful story that embodies the quintessence of survival, struggle and triumph of the human settlers. As the author puts it, “Buland Masjid is the story of migrations into hell and they (the early settlers) end in a struggle to create a paradise.”

Gill, who has worked extensively on social and developmental issues in the urban sector as a writer, independent filmmaker and documentary photographer, brings the story of Buland Masjid alive both with her words and photographs. Her observations of this human settlement are hard-hitting and her style of documenting these is almost lyrical, which at times borders on surrealism.

As she brings us face to face with the characters that inhabit Buland Masjid, we see them in silhouettes, but their souls are laid bare — for us to understand them, know them as persons rather than ‘the invisible other’.

Here we meet Mohammad Zafar, who came from Moradabad and converted the swampland near the Yamuna into a paradise for thousands of destitutes, who were forced to leave their homes in search of a better future in Delhi. There are others who enrich Gill’s narrative, like Rizwan Bijnori, a dhaba owner; Dr Ishtiaq, who runs a Unani clinic; Sohan Lal, one of the few Hindus of the colony; Nafisa, who runs a beauty parlour; Shabana, who runs a tikka stall, or Hare Baba from Kolkata. Most important of them is Haji Aneesuddin, the one ‘who knows how to get things done’.

Getting things done in Buland Masjid is not easy. Spread across 8.5 acres, it is just one of the 1,797 unauthorised colonies of Delhi. Gill lets the researcher in her shine as she pits these unauthorised colonies against the ‘great idea of urban India and the smart cities so meticulously being planned for this great urban age’. With the zeal of an activist, she attacks the Delhi Development Authority for the housing shortage by approximately 20 lakh units.

“In 1961, the DDA was handed over 19,190 hectares for residential development, but till 2011, had not been able to build houses on even half that land,” she comments. This chapter on ‘The Urban Age’ is informative but sees a departure from her usual soft and poetic style of writing.

She immediately returns to her original tone as she captures the social milieu of the colony. Gill observes how everything is divided and sub-divided within the colony — linguistics, customs, regionalism… Barelvis, Bijnoris, Bengali, Bihari. Surprisingly, the handful of Hindus who live in the colony confess, “It never struck us that we are living in a place dominated by Muslims.” Religion-based politics is a rich man’s muse as far as the inhabitants of Buland Masjid are concerned.

The scene is fast changing though. The politics of the nation has seeped in and turned them into a nervous lot. Nobody is willing to talk to Gill any longer. “We can’t talk. Don’t come here. They will take us away,” they tell her. Twisted, discriminatory laws, the revocation of Article 370, communal riots — “the residents of this colony are being forced to submit to a new language, the language of fear,” she writes.

Gill’s language on human migration and their subsequent rehabilitation is fearless. Only if she had refrained from using too many excerpts and quotes of writers (from Charles Darwin to VS Naipaul to Charles Dickens — 75 of them in total). The real-life drama of her subject is so engaging and her way of capturing it is so skilful that she could have done better without such frills.