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 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.