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Delhi Diary

We have been misrepresented, say angry residents of Delhi village in eye of AAP storm

In Khirki, a 21st century mall stands opposite a 14th century village. That has raised rents for villagers -- but also brought the sex workers they are so unhappy about.

Khirki gets its name from the intricate windows on the mosque there, one of the finest examples of Sultanate era architecture. The sun shines through the latticework and plays a design game on the floor all day. Ferozshah Tughlaq built the mosque as a pious tribute to Delhi. Completed it 1354, the mosque was restored some years ago. You will still be greeted by a few bats and, despite the best efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India, some garbage thrown by residents around it. From the roof of the mosque, the residential buildings are so close you can speak across the terraces.

Lal Dora, the red thread that colonial city planners used to mark Delhi's urban villages outside city limits, gives Khirki village special status. Exempt from regular construction laws, Lal Dora areas are the site of unplanned development and civic facilities tend to be poor. Most outsiders walking into Khirki see a public art painting on a wall on their right and a Sai Baba temple on the left. They are most likely to turn left before the temple and go to Khoj, an international art collective, for an exhibition opening. But instead of entering Khoj, if you keep walking straight, you will not realise when you have entered Hauz Rani village. Around these two Lal Dora urban villages are the “unauthorised colonies” of Panchsheel Vihar and Khirki Extension. In one end of Khirki Extension are fancier DDA (Delhi Development Authority) flats.

If that sounds like a place on the margins, it isn't. Khirki is the heart of south Delhi, opposite spanking new malls, making it an affordable and convenient location for international migrants and young professionals looking to rent a flat.

The Trouble

“Most of the trouble is in Khirki Extension,” says Nadeem Ahmed, a property dealer. “Here in the DDA flat nobody rents out their flats Africans.” The trouble, he explains, is not so much drugs as it is the flesh trade. On the main road outside the village, every night, cars pull up and roll down the windows. “Nigerian women” living in Khirki Extension negotiate the rate and get into the cars. How does he know they are from Nigeria? “They're mostly Nigerians in Khirki Extension,” he says

Rohtas Singh, a former president of the residents welfare association of the DDA flats, walks into Ahmed's office, repeating the same story about cars pulling up. How does he know whether the interaction between two people is about sex trade? “I can show you and you can judge if it's anything else happening,” he says.

Ditto for drugs, he says. “Do you realise that woman who used to walk home every evening with a bag, she's disappeared lately?” Singh asks Ahmed, who nods. They explain she was a drug seller, and, like the sex workers, has disappeared after Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti's midnight raid on 16 January.

They insist they are not racist or xenophobic. Despite this, Singh says only 1 percent of Africans are “not bad”. Ahmed puts the figure at 20 percent. “But the Afghans and Yemenis are all good,” Singh says. “Their women cover their heads when the walk down the road. Not even by mistake will you find a single one of them involved in anything wrong.”

To further prove that his motivation is not racist, he talks about one African he had befriended, a footballer. “Even he was shady but he never did anything inside the colony,” Singh says. “He claimed to be a footballer but I wonder who he played football with in Delhi!”

Sex work involving foreign nationals is flourishing in Delhi. While sex workers from eastern Europe are better  known, Khirki's residents say they are not seen in public. “Parde mein rahein to chalta hain,” says Ahmed. If it's behind the curtains it is ok. “But the Africans parade on the streets and make an open culture out of it,” he said. “That is a problem.”

Illegality aside, how is consensual trade in flesh and marijuana hurting the locals? “Area to kharab hota hai na,” is the refrain. The area gets a bad name. “Would you like your neighbourhood to be known as a red light area?” says Singh. “If yes then please take them there.”

Singh and Ahmed say that one pick-up point was the Sai Baba temple from where you turn in for Khoj – and a number of residents of Khirki and Hauz Rani villages independently pointed out the same spot.  Sameer Naqvi, a young finance professional, meets me outside the temple and agrees to take me around the area. “Before 16 January, after 10 pm, they would be standing here as if in a beauty contest, all lined up,” he says. “They have all now disappeared.”

Sameer lives in the Muslim-dominated Hauz Rani, where he says he has some African neighbours and they are just fine. “About 10 percent of them are good people,” he says. As he takes me to Hauz Rani, we meet his uncle on the way, who tells him not to speak to the media. “You people are only going to say we are racist and the minister should be sacked. There is no use,” the uncle says. Another young man joins in threatening violence against the media if they didn't stop what he sees as false propaganda.

Culture Clash

In Hauz Rani, a local woman running a boutique refuses to reveal her name and requests that her boutique's name not be published. “The problem with Africans is that our night is their daytime,” she says. “They walk around these lanes and openly smooch each other. They are my customers, I know them. One man keeps buying a lot of bedsheets. I wonder why.” We are joined by her neighbour, an alumnus of the Jawaharlal University who works in Parliament. “One day one of them was doing obscene activities on the road, around 11 pm,” he says. The woman running the boutique says she saw that. “They do drunken brawls all the time and don't let us sleep,” she adds. “Just last night there was one. LCD monitors were broken.”

But no one says the Africans harass Indian woman or steal anything or cause any direct harm. Does the seller of bedsheets mingle with them? “They don't mingle with us and we don't mingle with them. Why should we get familiar with bad people?”

Seema Pathak, a school teacher, has just returned after giving the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi a letter in support of the raiding minister, who is also the local legislator. “So many times have we complained to the police station but the police never did anything,” she says. “Even if they didn't want to raid any house, they could have increased patrolling or come and seen for themselves what the problem is. Why did they not even do this much?”

In these conversations, the locals regularly use racist words such as 'habshi' and negro' but not in a racist tone. “Not all negroes are bad,” is typically the line. They complain about drugs but can't say what these drugs are. “I know they sell them because I have bought it from them!” says one young man called Shoaib, who lives in neighbouring Malviya Nagar but comes here often. Realising the irony in his complaint about Africans, he adds, “I don't smoke up any more.”

Locals say “the problem” increased manifold in the last two years and they needed to do something about it. But “the problem” began really with three big malls coming up across the road in 2007. The best known among them, Select Citywalk, has become one of the key places for south Delhites to spend evenings and weekends – it was from here that the gang rape and murder victim popularly known as Nirbhaya had boarded the fatal bus along with her boyfriend on 16 December, 2012. The arrival of the malls raised rents in Khirki, and the locals are now less forgiving of the rental culture that is happy to deal with Africans for a premium.

The 21st century shopping mall opposite a 14th century village is not a problem for village residents, as it has helped raise rents and generate employment. Yet it is the malls that have also brought the Africans and the sex work they complain about.

As dusk falls, a lot of people are returning home from work, including many Africans, men and women. But they refuse to speak. Even when approached through their Indian friends over the phone, the Africans are now completely tight-lipped.

After Somnath Bharti's midnight raid, a key role in mobilising media and activist opinion about racism in Khirki was played by Aastha Chauhan, an artist who worked at Khoj until recently. Chauhan has been concerned about everyday racism in Khirki for the past few years. “The worst affected are the children, who grow up learning Hindi and English and can understand the racist jibes hurled at them,” Chauhan says, “And the African women are often harassed and molested.”

It is clear in Khirki that morality is a bigger issue than racism, that sex work around the area is a reality, and the least one can say about the interaction between Africans and Indians is that it is a culture clash. “One African friend of mine, a 50-year-old woman, told me something very interesting,” says Chauhan. “She said that men here see African women independently and confidently walk wearing Western clothes, and feel threatened that their women might do the same.”

Chauhan investigated the sex trade charge and found that the sex workers came from elsewhere and did not actually live in Khirki or its surrounding neighbourhoods. “They mostly stand outside the malls but when the police is tough or hasn't got enough bribes, they come inside to Sai Baba mandir and call the clients there,” says Chauhan.

Along with her friends, she was trying to organise a festival that would provide a common ground for Indians and Africans to interact. Ironically, they approached the new law minister for help. Instead, he told them, "If you feel the police are not taking enough action against the Africans, how about you conduct a sting? You are the first people to speak on their [the African community's] behalf. I will see for myself what has to be done."

He saw it for himself, and now it may be too late for dialogue. The Africans can see on TV news that it is the minister versus themselves, and are planning to move out. The locals will only be happy.

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“Doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, our mistakes will be there for everyone to see”

Celebrated architect Hadi Teherani tells us what luxury in the living space means to him.

Hadi Teherani is best known for designing iconic buildings in Germany including the famous Dockland office in Hamburg and the Kranhaus in Cologne. But he’s also left his mark on the landscape of Abu Dhabi with the Zayed University, and has designed a luxury residence that will soon grace the skyline of Mumbai—Lodha Altamount. We spoke to him about the challenges of designing luxury living spaces in India.

Q. In your opinion, what is the definition of luxury specifically in the area of private residences? Is it a lot of fresh air, space and daylight? Is it the room composition? Or is luxury something completely different?

Hadi Teherani (HT): For me, luxury is first and foremost to have space, not just enough for what you need but enough space to really thrive. And luxury has always been defined that way. If you look at Art Nouveau houses, those rooms have incredible heights. So yes, space is definitely an important factor when it comes to luxury. In Europe people pay attention to every square metre and here in Mumbai it is the same. There are slums where 4 people live in one room and just across the street somebody is living by himself on 1000 square metres. Once you have space, luxury can be in the features, in using certain materials, and there is no limit. Some things, of course, are simply not available here: the luxury of fresh air and a clean sea. No matter how much money you are willing to spend, you cannot get those. Therefore, you are limited to what is available.

Q. Have you incorporated this concept of space into previous projects?

HT: Yes, in different ways, no matter if you are working on government-sponsored housing projects or in the luxury segment. Usually our projects are more in the luxury segment, where space is crucial. We are currently designing a building where luxury can already be sensed at the parking level. You reach with your car and you are already supposed to have the feeling that you’ve arrived at a hotel lobby. This is how far luxury has come. That the arrival in a garage already gives you the feeling as if you are coming to a palace—you get out of your limousine into this stunning lobby and this feeling continues as you go up into the apartment where you have a bathroom that is 20-30 square metres and not just 5-10. The idea of really designing your bathroom or kitchen has not yet reached India. Bathrooms are still rather compact and practical since the idea of spending quality time in your bathroom doesn’t seem to exist yet. Customers definitely do not request a spacious bathroom when we discuss their projects. For me, personally, a great bathroom is extremely important, as it is the first thing you use in the morning. Afterwards you go to work, and you come back home. But I believe the areas that you use most need to have enough space for you to move and thrive in.

Q. Do you have any role model in the field of architecture? Maybe a building or a person?

HT: The Bauhaus is still my role model. Back then they designed products for day-to-day life, affordable for the general population. But those products have become classics today like the lounge chair by Le Corbusier. Those were project works but Bauhaus thought further ahead. The idea was to give people light, air and space, and to free them from elements that were poorly designed and uncomfortable like big stucco ceilings. The focus needs to be light, air and sun. For them, architecture and product design were always very fluent concepts. Le Corbusier, for instance, designed fantastic buildings as well as whole cities, but on the other hand also designed furniture. Gropius had even designed a car once and furniture, too. This school of thinking has influenced me, and once you have all those “tools” and this way of thinking, you get very far. With this “toolbox” of modern design, you can create anything and influence society. The times back then aided this development; everyone was opening up, living in and with nature, not hiding away in little holes. And the world evolved from there. And today you can see they are daring even more spectacular things in Asia than they used to in Old Europe.

Q. You have already gained quite some experience in India. Is there something that you would define as a typical “Indian palate”, and if so, how does it differ from the international projects? You already mentioned the differences in bath and kitchen design, but are there, for instance, taboos like colours you wouldn’t use or something in room composition?

HT: I haven’t encountered anything like that. What I do experience is that many projects are influenced by religious thoughts and by Vaastu, something like Feng shui. So the master bedroom has to be in the south-west and the kitchen has to have a certain location. Those rules need to be followed exactly, no matter if it makes sense for the building or not. Here in Mumbai it’s a little more liberal but in other regions, Hyderabad for instance, every centimetre has to be exact as per Vaastu. Sometimes they want a dedicated room for pujas. All this changes while designing a project, of course. But overall the ground plans are not that different. The families might be bigger so houses and apartments are bigger as well, or they are trying to utilize each and every square metre and avoid hallways, for example.

Those projects are also in the centre of a lot of marketing. We are not used to that in Europe but here in Mumbai or even more in other cities like Bangalore, along the entire highway from the airport into the city you only see 50-metre-high billboards announcing new real estate projects. You don’t see anything else! And it’s very creative marketing with catchy headlines and slogans. That isn’t happening in Germany. One more difference: when designing upper class buildings in India, they require a maid or servant room, maybe a separate entrance from the staircase and so forth. Here, you can still afford having a maid. In Europe you might have someone coming by for three hours once a week but certainly not living in.

Q. Let’s talk about the Lodha Altamount. What was the challenge?

HT: The design of Altamount was strongly influenced by being a Lodha project and by its location. Next to Altamount stands a luxury highlight of architecture, the Ambani tower, the most expensive home in the world. How do you want to top that? The Ambani tower is very structural. It shoots through the air, it combines all sorts of crafts and structural design elements with gaps and open spaces. You can’t top that and definitely not with our type of design. That’s why we decided to hold back and instead develop a dark and sleek building. That type of building doesn’t exist a lot here in India. Usually buildings have many structural elements like beams and balconies. By creating a calm building in the skyline of Mumbai, we will make Altamount stand out. Plus, the top of the building is very unique. Many structures are either simply cut off straight or completed by a dome. We have two geometric pointy tops so that the building is properly completed and doesn’t look as if it could grow further. It has a head and feet and is finished. So for us to hold back was our way to stand out. It doesn’t devalue the building design in anyway. It is meant expressively in the sense of “less is more”. And the interior is of course very luxurious: it is designed through and through, there is the green car parking podium, each balcony has a mini pool. So all those luxury features are present but the architectural design is based on the idea of “less is more”.

Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.
Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.

Q. Luxury can drift into the eccentric, depending on the client. Have there been any projects that were very eccentric which you still accepted or projects that you had to turn down because they were too eccentric?

HT: As architects, we create a space. What happens, of course, is that people buy an apartment in a great contemporary building and then furnish it in a baroque style. But that freedom has to be there, of course, because we can’t also tell the client which curtains to use or clothes to wear. At a certain point our job is done. However, when it comes to public buildings, the public is supposed to benefit from, so I have to be strict and dictate. In private buildings you can leave it up to the individual but publicly I have a responsibility and cannot consider each and every taste. I have to do a clean job so that in the end every individual can find himself or herself in my design. Anyway, taste always stems from a certain upbringing, culture and environment, so I also have the duty to educate and that’s what I do with my projects. When a small child walks by a building, she recognizes when the proportions are right even if she has no idea about architecture. But if the proportions are off, the child will pick that up too, because every building also exudes energy, either of unease or comfort. So we have quite a big responsibility as well. I always say doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, but our mistakes will always be there for everyone to see.

With one residence per floor and a host of bespoke luxury services, Lodha Altamount is the epitome of unrestricted luxury. Designed by Hadi Teherani, and a part of the Lodha group’s Luxury Collection that has homes present at only the globe’s most-coveted locations, Lodha Altamount is the last word in luxury in India. For more information about Lodha Altamount, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Lodha by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff

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