Vijay is a popular momo-wala in Kotla Mubarakpur. He sets up his stall at the end of the lane leading to Sewa Nagar. His momo chutney is famous. “When I first started I would use 4 kg of tomatoes to make the chutney for a day’s business,” he says, “but now I use 7 kg. Some customers come only for the chutney.” He has lived here for over a decade, so he understands his customers’ taste. “Here most people are vegetarian,” Vijay confides, “and most of the momo-walas do not really invest in them. It is usually just cabbage and carrots. I innovate. I add more vegetables and interesting spices.”
Vijay is from Nepal. He is just another migrant in Kotla, a busy, crowded market and village in south Delhi, between South Extension and Defence Colony.
When Vijay first came to Kotla his choice was determined by the low rent. “It was only Rs 700 then,” he says. He has never thought of leaving, though there are times when he is reminded that he is “different”. He says, “I have never felt as if I did not belong here.”
Vijay has increased his income substantially since he entered the momo business. (Until two years ago he was a taxi driver.) His costs now are as follows: raw materials, Rs 800-900 a day; rent to the shopkeeper in front of whose shop he sets up his stall, Rs 150 a day; payment to the police, Rs 500 a month; house rent, Rs 2,500. He manages a profit of Rs 12,000 a month.
Income apart, what he likes about Kotla is that “at any given point there is someone else who is different here. So I guess people have gotten used to the difference.”
However, in Kotla not all migrant experiences are as positive.
In the last decade, one migrant group in Kotla has received the most attention, and not always the welcoming sort. That is, students and young professionals from the north-eastern states. It is the young women of this group who are most scrutinised by Kotla’s villagers. Even though there are several other migrant groups here — particularly workers from Odisha and Karnataka — it is the north-easterners who stand out, explains “Mr Sudhir” (this is what he calls himself), a local real-estate agent.
Another two realtors, the uncle-nephew duo of Ashok and Lovish, of Ekta Properties, says these discriminations really do not matter. They have five tenants, “from Manipur or Nagaland, one of those places”, in their building just off the main road near Defence Colony. Lovish says, “We don’t believe in these things [discrimination]. It is the people inside [i.e., Kotla’s main market and the adjacent villages of Pilanji and Kairpur] where people are lower-class and -caste who behave in an uncouth manner.” Just then one of their tenants returns from work. Lovish says, “She is from Nagaland.” Mimi, the tenant, corrects him: “Manipur.”
Mimi has lived in Delhi for eight years and in this house for three. It is not the best situation, she says, but she has seen and heard of worse. She says, philosophically, “We have to be careful about what we wear, when we go and with whom. I do not venture out alone, especially late at night or inside the market.”
When she goes up to her flat, her landlord Ashok goes on about the reactions the women attract. So why rent to them? “Oh, that,” he says. “They are also easy to scare. You can ask them to leave whenever and, unlike Indians, they will not challenge.”
Ask north-easterners in Kotla’s lanes about landlord difficulties, and most say they do not live here, they just come to shop. Then I bump into one such group of four young students, who have already told me they don’t live here, in a real-estate agent’s office. It is embarrassing for us both.
Mimi works in a Khan Market showroom, with four other women from Manipur and Nagaland. Two live in Kotla, a third is with them temporarily. They like Kotla for its proximity, the low cost of living and, of course, the rent. They do feel thought of as “different”, but they adopt strategies to avoid attracting attention. When carrying home pork to cook, they are careful to wrap it well, and they cook in a way that disguises the aroma. They do smoke, but discreetly. When going out socially, they carry party clothes instead of dressing at home. But none says that she feels constantly under threat. “The [north-eastern] men are made fun of for their accents and stuff, but it is we who are the main target,” says another.
B S Panchal, who has a women’s garments shop, does not disguise his disdain for “these women”. However, he says his business revived after a long stagnation because of fashion trends the north-eastern women introduced to the locality. Now, he says, the women and girls of Kotla follow these trends (jeans, net tops, slacks and more) — but not the north-eastern women, who “are too fashionable for what I have to offer”, he says, not without a sense of remorse at the loss of business.
So Kotla Mubarakpur offers a contradictory reading. As a village in the middle of a city where most houses still belong to the original villagers, is it a bastion of social conservatism? Or is it a space in which locals and migrants accommodate to one another?
Migrants bring not only different foods, goods and fashions. In Kotla they bring ideas and innovations, and open a space for negotiation, as the cases of momo-maker Vijay and garment-seller B S Panchal show. Kotla is at once prime urban real estate and a market not yet gentrified.
Tripta Chandola is an urban researcher