Teaching the Foreign Teacher How to Travel

Before Michelle Obama paid the area a visit, a group of teenage girls in Nizamuddin Basti had been giving their English instructor some food for thought

01 January 2011
Fatima with her niece and mother at their home. She is the last of the 11 children.
Fatima with her niece and mother at their home. She is the last of the 11 children.

IT'S NOVEMBER IN DELHI, and the streets of Nizamuddin Basti are covered in blood. Groups of men cluster in the narrow lanes of this once medieval Sufi village, texting celebratory messages to their loved ones as they watch the ritual goat sacrifice during the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Adha. Except for the occasional glint of sequins through a curtained doorway—accompanied by an outstretched hand clutching a hunk of freshly cut meat—women are nowhere to be seen in the streets. Beggar children play on ancient, crumbling graves, vendors hawk green-gold prayer cloths and blinking LED clocks, and, inside the dargah to the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, women moan and toss their hair to exorcise evil djinns, their fingers gripping the latticed wall of an unmarked tomb.

I am on my way to Sana’s house; she is part of a group of teenage Muslim girls to whom I have been teaching English conversation for about two months now. As I walk through the maze of alleyways, smiling unsurely at a group of young men who cry “Eid Mubarak!” at me, part of me wishes I had covered my head—and part of me wishes I had brought a camera.

I first came to Nizamuddin Basti in August, when I accompanied an army of SLR-brandishing tourists, fiddling obsessively with their makeshift headscarves, on a ‘hidden history’ tour led by a local NGO. I became obsessed with this part-medieval, part-21st century village tucked into the heart of Delhi, fuelled by a desire, born of many a heated college debate, to find other, non-Western ways of existing. I was on a Fulbright scholarship to study Dalit literature, the Narratives of the Oppressed—or something like that—and my head was swimming in grand academic concepts, brewed in the gothic classrooms of the University of Chicago: Modernity, the Postcolonial Experience, the Other. The Veil. And so, on a quest to find the Untranslatable—which I saw in the ghostly otherworldliness of this bustling, impoverished neighbourhood that had burst through the ruins of an ancient cemetery—I signed up to volunteer at the local NGO’s informal school for girls.

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    Thalia Gigerenzer Thalia Gigerenzer is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been published in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the New York Times, covering everything from East German communist nostalgia to Muslim American artists.

    Keywords: Delhi English Burqa Thalia Gigerenzer Nizamuddin Basti michelle obama humayun’s tomb mehrauli