May 2021
#Yamuna , 12386 Views

By: Samprati Pani

The Yamuna flows through Delhi and cleaves it in half: not just spatially, but socially as well. What lies across the river has been stereotyped and vilified but never understood. This is the story, and the history, of the other side.

In Delhi, when you meet someone new, among the first questions you’re asked is, “Where do you live?” What on the face seems like innocuous small talk is actually a way of assessing social capital in a city marked by spatial inequalities, overlaid with hierarchies of class, status and power. When I reply, “Patparganj,” some say, “Oh, where is that?” I say, “East Delhi, across the Yamuna,” and I know from the awkwardness that follows that I’ve already been assessed. Others who know where Patparganj is often tell me, “Oh, I’ve heard it’s a happening place these days,” and I have no idea whether they’re being derisive or consoling me for the neighbourhood I live in.

The bias against Patparganj, or for that matter most localities across the Yamuna, is not just limited to those among the middle-class or elite of Delhi who are either unaware of this part of the city or regard South or Central Delhi as the only habitable places. Before 2010—when the metro improved the connectivity of Patparganj—whenever I’d try to get an auto rickshaw home from my office in central Delhi, autowallas would blatantly refuse, saying “Jamnapaar nahin jayenge.” (We will not go across the Yamuna.) Some would just say “Patparganj? Jamnapaar?” and shake their heads or quickly drive away as if I’d mentioned something terrible. If I did manage to get an auto, on many an occasion, I would be regaled with stories that painted Jamnapaaris (trans-Yamuna dwellers) as tricksters or crooks, the story invariably ending with the commuter disappearing into a gully on the pretext of getting change and never returning. This characterisation of Jamnapaaris is central to the plot of the comedy Fukrey (2013), a rare Delhi film that is set across the Yamuna. The film depicts petty crime and jugaadu tactics as a way of life of the fukreys (wastrels) of East Delhi. These tactics are the only way for the struggling musician Zafar to support his family, and for the other three characters to crossover into an elite college and improve their prospects of hooking up. The cinematic depiction of Delhi has mostly centred around picturesque monuments in its south or centre, which provide the perfect setting for romance: the old city for rich shots of the city’s history and culture, Delhi University for youth films and, increasingly, Punjabi neighbourhoods like Lajpat Nagar as the setting for quirky Delhi characters.

Fukrey breaks away from this over-familiar representation of the city through actual trans-Yamuna locations and references—Billa Halwai in Geeta Colony, the Jhilmil Colony bus stop, the old Yamuna bridge or Loha Pul, and the character of Bholi Punjaban, based on real-life don Sonu Punjaban. But even here this part of Delhi is something to be escaped, and the oddball wastrels in the film know too well that the “happening” city is not their neighbourhood, but rather on the other side of the river.

In central Delhi, autowallas would blatantly refuse, saying “Jamnapaar nahin jayenge” (We will not go across the Yamuna).

Historically, the many cities of “Delhi”—from Khandavaprastha of the Mahabharata to the Mughal capital of Shajahanabad and the British imperial capital of New Delhi—were settled to the west of the Yamuna. The sites of these different cities fall within a triangular area, also known as the Delhi Triangle, two sides of which are flanked by the Aravalli Range (the Delhi Ridge) and the third by the Yamuna. The elevated plains between the west bank of the river and the ridge protected settlements from flooding and this is believed to be the main reason why rulers chose this side of the Yamuna for settling city after city rather than the flat plains on the eastern side of the Yamuna that were prone to floods. Post-Independence, in many ways, expansion of the city continued along this divide with everything of significance—colleges, universities, institutions, business districts, cultural centres and plush markets—being built on the western side of the Yamuna. New Delhi continued to serve as the administrative and political centre of the new nation-state, while South Delhi emerged as the locus for the city’s business elite.

However, between 1941 and 1971, the population of Delhi expanded from less than 700,000 to over 3 million, an expansion caused by both Partition refugees and migrants coming in from other parts of the country, and the city found itself spilling over to the less-favourable eastern side of the Yamuna. Comprising the north-east and east districts of Delhi, today Jamnapaar is the most densely populated region of the city, stretching all the way from Seemapuri in the far east to Burari in the north and Mayur Vihar Extension in the south. It has diverse housing forms ranging from jhuggis, resettlement colonies, regularised unauthorised colonies and villages to apartment complexes, kothis, planned industrial areas and bustling informal manufacturing units. Trans-Yamuna or Jamnapaar is, however, less a geographical area located across the river than a pejorative term for that which is not quite the city. From a painted message on an auto stating “If you ever marry, don’t marry someone from Jamnapaar,” to this area’s representation as paatal lok (“the underworld”) in the eponymous web series set in Delhi, Jamnapaar has been continuously constructed as the Other of Delhi, with the river marking the boundary between these two worlds.

But even though most cities of Delhi were founded to the west of the river, trans-Yamuna does make an appearance in history books.

But even though most cities of Delhi were founded to the west of the river, trans-Yamuna does make an appearance in history books through one of its earliest inhabited neighbourhoods: Patparganj. A number of historians have mentioned Patparganj as an important suburb of the Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad, integrally connected to the city in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In his book Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639–1739, Stephen P. Blake points to the links of trans-Yamuna suburbs with Shahjahanabad: “South and to the East, on the opposite side of the Jamuna, were Patparganj and Shahdara. In these mahallas resided wholesale grain merchants. The grain which they imported from the doab was stored in large walled enclosures, then ferried across the river and sold in Paharganj [in present-day central Delhi].” The word “patpar” means “lowland”—ruins, a desolate place, land that is prone to flooding in the monsoons—while “ganj” meaning “treasure” is usually used as a suffix with the names of places such as bazaars, mandis and market towns. The coming together of these two incongruous words, one implying emptiness and the other abundance, can perhaps be resolved by understanding this region as one that was unsuitable for cultivation and yet an important marketplace. Both Patparganj and Shahdara were destroyed in the mid-eighteenth century in the wake of the recurrent invasions of Delhi. The final blow came in September 1803 in the Battle of Delhi, also referred to as the Battle of Patparganj, which was fought in Patparganj. The battle between the British troops led by General Gerard Lake on one side, and the Marathas and Mughal troops of Delhi on the other, lasted just three days, but would go on to secure British control over Delhi and, consequently, British rule over the subcontinent.

Interestingly, when the British decided to build a new imperial capital in Delhi in 1911, Patparganj was also considered as a possible site and then rejected. A July 1912 report of the Delhi Town Planning Committee noted, “The land on the east bank of Jumna is hallowed by no historical associations except for the site of Lord Lake’s battle of Delhi.” The economic ties of this area with Shahjahanabad did not count as “historical association”; what counted was that this area had no ruins or monumental architecture of past cities that could be used to embellish a modern imperial capital. In the end, the report declared the area as unsuitable for the new capital on the grounds that the banks of the river were flat, liable to flooding and “unhealthy”.

Jamnapar has been continuously constructed as the other of Delhi, with the river marking the boundary between these two worlds.

Present-day Patparganj has high-rise apartment complexes that were built from the 1980s onwards, a feature it shares with other East Delhi neighbourhoods like Mayur Vihar and Vasundhara Enclave. With the area known to be swampy and desolate, the government incentivised its development into a middle-class and upper middle-class locality by providing plots at subsidised rates to cooperative housing group societies for the construction of apartments. The widening of two bridges over the Yamuna, the ITO Bridge and the Nizamuddin Bridge, connecting East Delhi with Central Delhi and a section of the Ring Road near South Delhi respectively, served as further incentives for its inhabitation.

The people who came together through cooperative housing groups were from the middle class and upper middle-class, looking for affordable housing or an investment in property, increasingly difficult by then in the inner city. Each cooperative housing society also typically had a shared background apart from class, whether it was a professional, institutional, regional or caste affiliation. Kurmanchal Niketan brought together people from Kumaon; Press Apartments housed journalists; Agrasen Awas, the Baniya community; Shree Ganesh Apartment, the Mathurs (a Kayastha sub-caste) of Old Delhi; and Vidisha and Sah Vikas, university teachers. This form of cooperative housing thus allowed you to choose your neighbours in advance, making possible the stabilisation of identities and communities, old and new, even as the city transitioned to modern apartment living and expanded its boundaries. On the face of it, Patparganj’s apartments appear to be small islands, each holding together a set of people with a shared social background. But life here, as I have come to learn over the years, is hardly one of isolated living confined to apartments.

Unlike many posh neighbourhoods of Delhi as well as its suburbs, where the dwellings of the poor have increasingly been pushed to the periphery, literally out of sight, Patparganj does not have such stark boundaries. Adjoining and interspersed between the roads lined with apartments are a large number of dense and diverse mixed-use neighbourhoods—Chander Vihar, Joshi Colony, Indira Camp, Hasanpur Village, Mandawali, East Vinod Nagar, West Vinod Nagar and Madhu Vihar—with residences, shops, markets, small workshops, eateries, vegetable and fruit haats and mandis, mosques, temples and gurudwaras. Many of these are unauthorised colonies that got regularised in 2012, while others are urban villages, jhuggi-jhopri clusters and pockets with ambiguous legal status. Dwelling in these neighbourhoods are local business and shop owners, people servicing the apartments such as guards and domestic helps, street vendors and other working class families. The apartment folk and the people from these neighbourhoods use the same public parks, streets, local markets and weekly bazaars that pop up on different days of the week in different parts of the locality.

In fact, I probably know more people on the street outside my apartment complex than inside. This isn’t an individual eccentricity, but something that is made possible by the culture of the street itself: the layout of the place, of apartments complexes intermeshed with other kinds of neighbourhoods, makes it impossible to practise segregated lives. When I step out to buy vegetables in the morning, I know I will see these two women in their gym clothes heading to the chai stall while an elderly man from my apartment building, who uses it as an escape from his family, is already there. I know he will stay there through much of the day, drinking endless cups of tea, chatting with autowallas, painters, contractors and others who stop by at the shop for refreshments.

The bustling street life and the intermingling of classes in public place —characteristics that urban theorists see as markers of cosmopolitanism—is for some of the apartment folk a sign of backwardness, of the neighbourhood not catching up with the world-class aspirations of the city. They prefer to shop for fresh vegetables in malls and enjoy a plate of hot aloo tikkis comfortably in their cars. And in many cases, they choose to move into apartment complexes that come with their own gyms, shopping outlets and more, and there is no reason to deal with the chaos of the public street because it simply doesn’t exist.

The dream city is always relational, the elsewhere that is more planned, advanced and glitzy than here. But for many Jamnapaar residents in North-east Delhi, even neighbouring East Delhi is not a remote possibility. East Delhi, due to the presence of its apartment colonies, has had better schools, hospitals, roads and street lighting as compared to many other trans-Yamuna areas. Infrastructure development in the form of road widening, underpasses, hotels and hospitals and a sports complex got particularly accelerated here in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. On the other hand, according to a baseline survey conducted by the Ministry of Minority Affairs—many neighbourhoods in North-east Delhi are predominantly Muslim or have a sizeable Muslim population—it is difficult to imagine the North-east district of Delhi as part of the National Capital Territory because “it does not have even the most basic amenities considered to be essential for any town”. The survey points out that tap water facilities and electrification are not universal in this area, sewage and street lighting conditions poor, and public parks and playgrounds missing.

Jamnapar has been bound by the history of being on the wrong side of the river, even as many parts of it have transcended this history.

If choice and incentives provided by the state led to the settling and gentrification of parts of East Delhi such as Patparganj, the settling of North-east Delhi came about through a mixture of necessity and force. Post-Partition, the composition of Old Delhi transformed with many Muslims leaving for Pakistan, and Punjabi refugees and Muslim migrants from northern India moving in. The already crowded old city began to suffer from severe congestion. In Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi (2017), Ghazala Jamil points out that starting from the 1960s, many Muslim karkhandaars (small manufacturers) chose to move across the river to Seelampur, often first as a place of work and then as a place of residence. It was a convenient location because many workers from Old Delhi too had moved here or commuted between Old Delhi and Seelampur. This was also the time when north-east Jamnapaar started getting forcibly populated by the state with persons evicted from the city (including a large number of Muslims from Old Delhi) to enforce the Jhuggi Jhonpri Removal Scheme of 1958, a process that was violently fast tracked during the Emergency.

In her 2003 study of a trans-Yamuna resettlement colony called Welcome in the larger area known as Seelampur, anthropologist Emma Tarlo argues that while the east of the river has never been considered of any consequence to Delhi, “the birth of the colony is inextricably bound with the morphology of the city as a whole.” She points out that the population of Welcome comprises people evicted from as many as 80 different places of the city, from Chanakyapuri in the south to Jama Masjid in the heart of Old Delhi. These people remain connected to the places they were removed from through their memories of the inner city and through the rubble of their demolished homes that they carried with them to start anew in the resettlement colony. More significantly, Welcome is inseparable from the making of Delhi, for the city wouldn’t look the way it does were it not for the construction of parks, wide clean roads and public buildings in the areas cleared of slums.

Virtually every neighbourhood, or even every block within a neighbourhood, in Seelampur is connected to a place in the inner city that its people developed by moving here.

In fact, Seelampur and other parts of North-east Delhi have a large number of informal manufacturing units that make a wide range of products from needles to readymade garments and electronics, the owners and workers of which too reside in the area, which is another reason why people have stayed on here. Many residents, especially women, are also engaged in low-paid home-based production such as making bindis, assembling machine parts, doing embroidery on clothes and stripping cable wires for reuse. The products made in the small manufacturing and home-based units are sold in local markets all over Delhi and are also part of global supply chains through a complex web of middlemen, traders and export houses. For example, Gandhi Nagar in East Delhi—believed to be among the largest wholesale markets for readymade garments—is entirely dependent on the tailors, thread workers, button-fixers and stitching and dyeing units operating in various parts of the North-east district. The singular representation of these areas as backward or crime-ridden glosses over the labour and enterprise in which North-east Delhi is embedded and its contributions to the markets and economy of the city as a whole.

In a plot twist in the film Fukrey, the neighbourhood junkie who has a penchant for stealing bike parts reveals that he rents out twelve shop spaces in Gandhi Nagar, files taxes and has a lot of money—all white. It’s a twist because it challenges popular perception: not everything in Jamnapaar is what it seems or what people like to believe.

Jamnapaar has been bound by the history of being on the wrong side of the river, even as many parts of it have transcended this history. But it has equally been bound by the singular imagination (or lack of it) of those on the “right” side of the river that perceives the entire area as a backward part of the city or some faraway place out there towards the east, mostly invisible but sometimes popping up in the newspapers in the event of riots, flooding or some building collapsing in one of its congested neighbourhoods. This essay is a small attempt at looking at the history of Jamnapaar and how it is intertwined with the history of Delhi, and providing a glimpse into its diversity and the trajectory of its inhabitation, marked as much by divisions of the city as internal ones.

Neither Patparganj nor Seelampur are representative of all of Jamnapaar, which is made of many multiplicities, just as Vasant Vihar is not equivalent to South Delhi or Khan Market to Central Delhi. We need to learn to understand Jamnapaar through the particularities of its neighbourhoods, rather than as a homogenous region or stereotype. Delhi has for too long been understood and imagined as what lies to the west of the Yamuna. It’s time we begin to see the history of the city from this side of the river as well.