graphic novels

‘Nigeria? You still do jhinga-lala and eat humans there, na?’

A graphic novel explores what it is like to be a Somali refugee in Delhi.

Fatima Hasan sat in Delhi’s Khirkee Extension with her friends, Mhd Koofe and Hafez, talking about what it was like to live in the Capital as a Somali refugee. “I don’t consider myself to be a ‘typical’ refugee,” she said. “I had to take on the refugee status because of some personal problems.”

“I had hoped people would be more used to having foreigners around them, but from the second I stepped out on to the railway station I noticed people looking at me like I was an alien,” said Hasan, who had lived in Pune before she moved to Delhi. “We are so visibly different. You walk down the streets and people call you names like ‘batman’, and it sounds really funny but its very hurtful.”

Hasan, Koofe and Hafez have lived in India for over a decade and speak Hindi with ease. They know the latest Bollywood songs, love Delhi’s food – but are reminded on a daily basis through people’s racism, of their status as outsiders.

“Sometimes we sit in an auto and hear them say mean things about us in Hindi, thinking we can’t understand them,” said Hafez with a smile. “When we respond in Hindi, they are always surprised and try to make up for what they said by making small talk and asking where we are from.”

Their audience at Khoj, a studio in Khirkee, had gathered for the launch of a graphic novel, The Horizon Is An Imaginary Line. The book compiles the experiences of refugees and immigrants in Delhi in an attempt to give its readers a comprehensive account of the problems and hurdles faced by them, in a country with a confused refugee policy.

The panel at the launch of the graphic novel 'The Horizon is an Imaginary Line'. Courtesy: Facebook.com/KHOJStudios
The panel at the launch of the graphic novel 'The Horizon is an Imaginary Line'. Courtesy: Facebook.com/KHOJStudios

The book follows the journey of a fictional character, Maryam Jama Mohamed, and her family as they escape the violence in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu and arrive in New Delhi. A refugee, 16-year-old Mohamed knows she looks different, but is not prepared for the discrimination she has to face from Indians who can’t look past her skin colour.

In the panels, a curious Mohamed walks down a street in Delhi’s Wazirabad, about to explore her new home, but is driven back into her house by people shouting racial slurs.

“Through Maryam, we reflect on the lived experiences of alienation and marginalisation as an outsider on the fringes of an increasingly bordered world,” said Radha Mahendru, Curator and Programs Manager at Khoj and the co-author of the graphic novel along with Bani Gill. “Designed partly as an infographic, The Horizon is an Imaginary Line sets out to dispel myths and assumptions about the refugee crisis and India’s ambiguous status within the global refugee regime.”

In the initial stages, Gill and Mahendru considered creating a handbook for refugees without a clear legal status which would share tricks and hacks on how to navigate Delhi and its inherent prejudice against immigrants. It soon evolved into a graphic novel to allow for flexibility of perspective and tone, while communicating the emotional struggles of unbelonging, waiting and being in a state of limbo.

Many readers have confused Mohamed to be based on Hasan, an active member of Khirkee’s community – but as she points out, the book is not about her experiences alone. Mohamed’s story represents the issues of many women who occupy the doubly marginalised status of a refugee and a woman, in a country that is not fair to either.

“It was through the narratives and experiences of Hasan, Koofe and Hafez that the semi-fictional character of Maryam Mohamed emerged,” said Gill, who is currently on the editorial board of a journal called Refugee Review and is studying the ethnographic inquiry into migration, within the global south. “We developed her through a series of storytelling workshops held across a span of four months, where deeply personal narratives of alienation and limbo came to the fore, as did accounts of struggle and resistance against the status quo of the global refugee regime.”

The illustrations, made by Pia Alize Hazarika, are done simply and starkly in black and white. In one, Hazarika captures the tedium of standing in a line at an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, depicting the loneliness of immigrant life and the constant feeling that you must hide yourself.

In one of the sequences in the book, Mohamed is asked by a woman on the metro where she is from. Africa, Mohamed says. “Aah, Nigeria? That’s the capital, na? Actually India is very different from Africa. You still do jhing-a-lala and eat humans there, na?” the woman blurts out. When Mohamed politely clarifies that she is from Somalia, the woman gasps and says: “Pirates!”

Several of the book’s panels are humorous in this way, while simultaneously revealing to the reader just how deep our prejudice runs.

The Horizon is an Imaginary Line is part infographic and part narrative, it brings together the statistical, factual and personal along with the lived experiences of its characters. Mohamed’s story is universal, yet completely specific: a familiar account of being out of place in a world that is increasingly defined by legal categories, borders and fences.

In the last scene, Mohamed is seen standing alone at the airport as her family takes off for Minnesota, United States, after spending five years in India. She is seen standing alone, a lone figure with nothing around her, a heartbreaking image of a teenage girl left behind. This particular scene is Hasan’s own. “I was not allowed to leave with my family,” she said. “It can be that sudden. It is mentally draining. You don’t know how to do anything. You end up feeling so helpless.”

The Horizon is an Imaginary Line, priced at Rs 299, is available at Khoj Studios, Khirkee Extension, New Delhi.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.