”I’m 15 years old and I reside in Trilok Puri. Though, I’m still studying, when I grow up I want to be a Police Officer.”
I never enjoy getting on a plane. If I can, I always prefer driving, to my chosen destination. But driving to Kashmir during the floods was not an option. It was on my flight back to Delhi from Srinagar on the 14th of September, last year that I met her. Arshi was a bubbly, seventeen year old, Dilli 6 ki ladki, who spoke nineteen to a dozen-about the floods and about herself. Being the youngest of six siblings, she knew how to hold my attention. I soon became ‘aapi’ and of course, I was totally enamoured by her charm. After all, she loved Ghalib, too.
Recently, I caught up with my little spitfire at her home in Chandni Chowk and strolled through Old Delhi. Here, are excerpts from the conversation.
Do you feel pressurized to wear a hijab?
No! It’s my wish.
When you step out of Chandni Chowk, do you ever find people staring at you?
Yes, but it doesn’t make me a difference.
What do wish for young Muslim girls, such as yourself?
First, we should be independent. We should be allowed to speak our minds, freely not only at home but outside, as well.
Do you consider yourself to be independent?
Yes! I do. Mein kissi ke dabaav mein nahin aati. I move freely. I do what pleases me but I try to be good.
I was really excited to visit Kashmir. There was a family wedding in Srinagar and my sister and I reached there on the 1st of September. The wedding got over on the 4th of September and on the 5th the area, Batmaloo started submerging in water. We were evacuated from smaller houses and moved to taller buildings. It was very difficult to get through the night. There was no electricity and it was really cold. Hum bahut pareshaan the lekin, Allah se dua karte rahein. Then Allah helped us and after a few days we returned home.
Did the neighbours help?
Yes, the roofs were connected with planks, so first we shifted to a neighbours house and then as the water receded we moved back to our relatives. When it had receded to our waist level, we walked through it and caught a flight back to Delhi.
What do you like to do?
Mein speech me sabse aage hun. I participate in a lot of debates and competitions. I have many participation certificates and have won many prizes. I love to dance and my teachers love me because I am freedom.
Plus, you love reciting poetry. Do you want to recite something?
Yes! I love poetry. Hame kyaa maloom tha zindagi itni anmol he dosto. Kafan odh kar dekha to nafrat karne wale bhi ro rahe the.
“Khusrau darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhaar,
Jo utra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar’’- Khusrau
I jumped in to drown and when I drowned I went across the barriers of fear. In 2002 I went alone to Kashmir for the first time. At the time it was still considered to be unsafe. But I guess God works in mysterious ways. I guess I was destined to go there, to meet Zila Apa and to fall in love with a place I would be hung up on for all eternity.
There she was on the bank of the Dal Lake dressed in white. A lady I didn’t know. She seemed so pristine, untouched by the world connected only with the Almighty as she sat there singing surrounded by a group of musicians. I remember being so utterly in awe of her connection that my hands shivered as I made the pictures.
At the time I had no idea that she came from a lineage of generations of musicians and that she was the daughter of Ustad Vilayat Khan, the sitar maestro. That she had been a homemaker and had a little boy. I had no clue that she was a famous Sufi singer or that making pictures of her at that moment meant that I would get to work with her extensively for over a decade.
All I could see was someone who could move me to tears. Apa said to me once that when she sang a Sufiana Kalam, she reached a sublime state and the purpose of singing in front of an audience was to help them achieve that. Even after hearing her live umpteen times she still manages to make me reach that state!