That Saturday morning, I was greeted with the nostalgic fragrance of Purani Dilli (Old Delhi) and inquisitive faces of young girls studying at the Parvaaz Adolescent Centre for Education (PACE). Their eyes, painted with liners and kohl, and wide smiles shining through slightly painted lips, eagerly waiting to start their day out.
At the outset, we saw clothes and jewellery shops on either side, closely glue together in the congested street. Ratna, one of the girls with us, came to my side, held my hand and told me,
“Pata hai, humare papa bhi aate hain iss market main apni dukaan ke liye saamaan lane”
Although I indulged Ratna in the conversation she is trying to make, internally I could only think of how effortlessly she approached me and held my hand. In a world, where a conversation is often made with much struggle and dialogue, this is hard to come by.
With Ratna’s hand still in mine, we started towards a shop that sells ‘Ittar’ (natural perfumed oil). Since 1860’s, this shop has been famous for selling perfumed oils and extracts. We were duly informed by the shop owner about the time when these scents used to be a luxury.
“In ladkiyon ko bahaut time se lagta tha ke itr se bhoot aate hain, ya bulaye jaate hain” said Yuveka, the walk organizer, while the shop owner continued to apply Shahi Gulaab on everyone’s wrists.
“Aaj kal toh sabko ek signature fragrance chahiye. Har koi aapko uss mehek se yaad rakhega. Hum toh jaane-maane brands ki bhi copy banate hain. Lijiye…. Khud hi sunghkar dekh lijiye!”
While the owner is busy imparting the history of these perfumed oils to the girls, Ekta, project member of the PACE team, shared with me the intention of this walk. According to her and her team, along with a text-based learning of the history of our spaces, it is important to gain knowledge by experiencing firsthand the physical manifestations of this history.
“I don’t know if you know or not, but Ratna gets beaten with a belt everyday at home. She was thrown from the roof of her house when she was little”, said Ekta as we walked away from the fragrant air of the Ittar shop.
In moments such as these, my reaction fails to do justice to the rush of feelings I experience all at the same time.
She continued, “You see Hema right there? She is 23 years old, already married with two children and takes care of her sister’s young girl”.
The congested road and my cluttered thoughts suddenly made me realize that we can no longer smell the fragrance from the shop. I could see past the lit-up faces of the girls – the lived reality of surviving in an unapologetically patriarchal world system. It is a system where violence, rigid gender roles, and various other expressions of a patriarchal structure have been naturalized. Behind these seemingly carefree faces are everyday struggles, with this very system for their existence.
We progressed with our walk and spent the day walking through Ghalib ki Haveli, the Spice/Masala Bazaar, and several other destinations, until we reached a small shop that sold belts. The shop owners were showcasing different products made out of leather and, of course the belts. It was a sudden realization to be standing in that place, which also manufactured the very instrument used for violence and aggression against Ratna. The source however is patriarchy, whatever its instrument might be.
Another highlight of this walk for me was the tomb of Razia Sultan, especially with regards to the girls in the process of creating their own destiny. Perhaps it was significant for them to see the tomb of the first female Mughal Emperor, who rose against the structure or fought for a more powerful place within it.
Parvaaz Adolescent Centre for Education (PACE), started in April 2015, is an educational programme for adolescent girls and young adults with the aim of providing education with a gender and sexuality perspective. The programme is implemented in partnership with community-based organizations, to make it a sustainable model.