The women are leaving, and Sultana Begum says, they are always the first ones to leave. “Why didn’t you go then?” I asked her. She said, “Somebody needs to look after those who have nowhere to go.”

We are sitting on plastic chairs, surrounded by old men, orphaned sisters and the occasional infant. The rest of Block 27 is leaving for Old Delhi, Kanpur, Meerut, wherever else they can stay, until normalcy returns.The ease  with which the elders of Trilokpuri turn philosophical is disconcerting: for the generation that has witnessed the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 here, “communal violence” is not about the neat divisions of Diwali and Eid, cows and pigs, bhajans and azaans and loudspeakers any longer. It is about how quickly the illusion of safety is dispelled, and how, once broken, it can take a lifetime to restore. “I don’t know why Allah let me survive the last time,” said Abrar Khan, 62, “but I think now it is finally time to meet my maker.”

This presentiment of death was delivered again on Sunday, this time with a level gaze and the unwavering voice of 23-year-old Tarana, one of the six unmarried sisters who looked after their father’s clothing store, A to Z Collections in Trilokpuri. On Saturday, the family returned from a wedding to find that their business and life’s savings had been torched ‒ the shop stood metres away from about 20 policemen who refused to call the fire department, saying they “hadn’t received any orders to act”.

“We have no option now but to kill ourselves," said Tarana. "There are eight of us, our mother is ill and our father has gone mad with grief. We are safe, but for how long? What can a house full of women do, but wait?”

Fragile truce

In the wake of recent riots, the neighbourhood of Trilokpuri, is being described in the national press as having always existed in a state of fragile truce ‒  a description fit for most of New Delhi’s neighbourhoods, where tensions could be communal, but could just as well be over parking space and still end with murder. Try as one might, it is always a difficult task to truly love one’s neighbour. Having lived next door to Trilokpuri for the past 28 years, in different parts of Mayur Vihar, I grew up hearing about not just Hindu-Muslim clashes on festivals, but inter-caste, inter-sub-caste, regional and sexual battle lines drawn across the neighbourhood.

The product of a large-scale slum-resettlement project during the Emergency, Trilokpuri's 36 blocks are ghettos based on religion, region and language, inhabited mainly by daily-wage workers. Living among the present generation of workers are keymakers, cleaners, cooks, drivers and gardeners, but also garment manufacturers, fashion designers, media folk, jewellers and doctors who leave Trilokpuri for work every morning to melt into the rest of New Delhi.

Swirling resentment

When Sultana was sending away her youngest daughter-in-law, eight-month pregnant Israr, to Old Delhi on Saturday, her auto driver was pulled out of his vehicle at the edge of Trilokpuri and beaten until he was unconscious. Israr was asked to run away, “unless she wanted to be impregnated by a lathi”. Seeing the look on my face when she finished her story, Sultana said, “Kyun? Aurat kahaan badnaam nahi hoti?” Where are women not humiliated?

The scale of violence in my neighbourhood this week, the resulting police presence and media attention, have set in motion currents of religious resentment that will poison the air for some time to come. But the most familiar story here, is still the one that is the most easily dismissed ‒ of how politically loaded events like riots, revolutions and uprisings escalate instantly into sexually threatening situations for women.

The accounts are endless. Twenty-year-old Chandni, beaten and stripped by a gang of four policemen until she fainted, dragged into safety to a neighbour’s home on Saturday. Thirty two-year-old Rehana, whose wrist was broken by a policeman repeatedly asking her why Muslim men were such cowards, running away and leaving their women behind for the Hindus. Forty three-year-old Tahira, who sent her three daughters away to their grandparents home, when Hindu rioters pulled down their pyjamas to “show the weapons they would use on Muslim women”.

Too little, too late

Not a single one of these women has been allowed in to the police station at Mayur Vihar Phase One to register a complaint of assault. “How should I identify them, when so many of the policemen currently patrolling are not even wearing a badge?” asked Chandni.

Meanwhile, the police “manhunt” for the original group of drunken miscreants that defiled the Mata ki Chowki and triggered the riot on Diwali night on Thursday is already too little and too late. A chain reaction of hatred has been set into motion, particularly among the area's youth. Both communities are in possession of video recordings of violence, passed on through mass Whatsapp messages, in which each community sees itself as the victim seeking revenge. Seven Hindus were shot. Dozens of young Muslim boys were picked up, beaten and detained without explanation. Grainy video footage supposedly identifies those with skullcaps as Muslim, but who are the men in helmets, already prepared for a ritual of stone-pelting?

Near the Mata ki Chowki of Block 20, after nearly two hours of incessant accusations against “the Mohammedans”, ranging from rumours of firing guns to complaints of unpaid rent, the room finally fell silent. As my co-reporter and I got up to leave, 60-year old Attar Singh caught us by surprise “Ajeeb lagta hai kyunki sab saath rehte thhe tine saal.” It’s strange because we’ve lived together for so many years. “What do you think we should do for peace? How will all of this end?”