A fire devastates the Saheli office. 13 May 2011
A FIRE DEVASTATES THE SAHELI OFFICE...
Newsletter Jan-Aug 2011
Yes, we lost equipment, furniture, doors and windows, we lost books, published material documenting our ideas, debates and struggles, we lost our hand written notes to each other, we lost many important documents and many other things in the fire that engulfed Saheli office on that unbelievable morning of 13 May 2011 when a fire raged through the Defence Colony Flyover Market in New Delhi, reducing about 60 establishments to cinders. But what we have not lost is the fire inside us and the spirit to move forward.
It was in the early hours of morning when we heard that there was a fire in the market. Doubtful of the intensity, certain that nothing but marginal damage could have occurred, we rushed to the office, thinking all the time about who could reach faster, who had the key to enter and assess the damage… but we found nothing but gaping holes where once there had been doors. Soot and smoke and black sludge as the firemen worked their way around the fire till late in the evening. Embers rising into small fires intermittently through the day. And through it all, our eager eyes searching to understand the damage, seeking what could be salvaged.
No doubt it has been devastating to see our colourful, 27 year old office, our walls, cupboards, filing cabinets, documents, files, reports and other publications, reduced to soot and ash… everything turned into shades of black. But over these last few weeks, we have been trying to come to terms with this ‘event’ in the life of Saheli and move on. Material that could be saved in whatever state it was, is being sorted and stored, some very basic repair of the office is already finished and we are soon hoping that it will be in some shape so we can use it for a while, till repair work from Public Works Department (PWD) gets over and we can think of a more permanent renovation of the office… but all this will take maybe six months or more.
As we chug along with various tasks that need to be done before we can get back to our ‘real’ work as activists, we are also dealing with our small/big but precious losses within this collective loss. The hand written minutes books and daily dairies, saved for 30 years, detailing... the political and personal journeys we’ve all made are the ones we will miss the most. These are documents that can never be recreated. Though we have managed to save some, most is lost… and rest we are hoping will not disintegrate with time… half burnt and smudged with water as they are.
We will also miss all those letters and cards we used to get each year on Saheli day… in addition to all the small notes and messages we left in the daily diary… loves, fights, fall-outs and make ups documented to reflect that ‘we feminists are human too’!
Many hands holding it all up
But through all the loss, the support that we have received in the last few weeks has been incredible, amazing, humbling… and that’s what has kept us going.
On that ‘fiery day’, as we like to remember it, as word of the disaster spread, along with many past, present and future Sahelis like Divya, Sree, Vani, Shweta, Sadhna, Ramani, Nalini, Janaki, Jaishree, Savita; a lot of others friends and supporters like Pooja, Rudra, Shomona, Suro, Gurjeet, Param and Pamela; Mukesh from Hazards Centre; Mario, Shalini, Anusha and Shubham from Nigah; Preeti, Anupriya from Jagori; Jaya from Nirantar; Sarojini, Binu, Anjali and Deepa from Sama… all showed up to help in whatever way they could. To hold our hand as we gazed upon the devastation in front of us, to share our shock, to weep with us, to determinedly start working our way through the rubble to salvage files, reports, almirahs… anything that could be saved, working tirelessly in that smoke filled office by torches and candlelight.
Messages from friends and co-travellers poured in from wherever in the country or the globe they were at that point of time. Others showed up with food, water and love. Still others rushed to save the photographs from the red cupboard (and yes they did manage to save quite some!) And when we were too tired to handle any more soot filled, ash-ridden papers and ready to throw them all out to the kabadiwala, others quietly set us aside and made decisions on what must be preserved, or what decisions to discard must be delayed. Individuals, friends from other women’s groups, members of other NGOs, old Sahelis and new… on that very day, thanks to help from all of you, we managed to store and dry and stack our things in the office of Partners for Law in Development (PLD) in nearby Jangpura, a friend, Kajal’s basement in Nizamuddin and Ranjana’s garage. A ’Thank you’ is simply not enough!
In addition to the people who showed up that day, we have also had many emails and phone calls from fellow feminists, comrades and friends expressing their grief... for us and also for themselves – for their own relationships with Saheli the group, the space, the idea.
So the last few weeks, have been a tizzy. Kalpana, Satnam and Janaki dashing to banks and chasing the accountant. Vani, Deepti and Kalpana finding structural engineers and people in PWD to evaluate the place. Jaishree, Nalini, Savita, Nidhi, Deepti and Sadhna running in circles around electricians and masons. Satnam meticulously keeping records of donations and receipts. Vineeta holding up the e-end of things and keeping everyone informed. Teena, Kriti, Harshita, Sadhna, Prabhat, Maya, Radha, Deepti, Lata, Rahul, Akshara, Shubham, Charan, Sophie, Anjali, Myna, Nandini, Susanna (NTUI), Elakshi, Shalini and so many more relentlessly breathing the soot-filled air and braving the exhausting summer heat as they separated documents destroyed by the fire or the water from the tenders, from those that can still be read/ stored/ handled!
In addition, many more Sahelis like Shweta, Ranjana, Ashima, Laxmi , Nilanjana and Davi have been offering to take on specifics t asks like making an inventory of material and raising funds, etc. And at this point , how can we not mention the amazing support we have got from Dalip, Shaheen and Suresh of Deez Biryani just below our office!
An afternoon of collective energy, ideas, songs and determination!
Saheli had to move on. We thought that the best way for us to do this would be to actually reclaim the office with friends old and new for an afternoon of some singing, talking, chai and samosas under the flyover!
So we invited our friends and supporters to come to Saheli on 28th May 2011... “to talk, to share, to sing, to feel our loss, to feel our strength together, to float ideas on how to plan for that mountain of a task called ‘rebuilding’ and even how we could collectively re-imagine those two rooms anew!”
Before people came, a major clean up of the office was done, we hired fans, durries and chairs from a tent house. We hung fancy, colourful fairy lights on the frame of the false ceiling that was hanging burnt, from the roof! We even got a new Saheli name board! As people started dropping in, we almost forgot the circumstances under which we were meeting… it seemed like any other Saheli event (only better organised!)… warm, crowded, noisy… all of us, together again!
Starting with songs, many of those who came spoke as to what Saheli as a space has meant to them. The song …mein zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya…har fikr ko dhuyen mein udata chala gaya…. was sung with amusement at its pertinence to the moment. Amidst fun and humour and feeling of togetherness we went on to discuss some practical things too. We talked about the issues of repairs within the office and dealing with government departments like PWD, MTNL and other agencies like the BSES, etc. and the need for human and financial resources. Many came with ideas as to how to start with the process of rebuilding and also volunteered to give time for anything from sitting in the office for repairs to sorting, to actually running around the government offices. Needless to say, the afternoon was light, full of humour…simply electrifying! And that’s just what we needed because the very next day, repair work was started in the office, the false ceiling frame was pulled down and used to make a door for the office, and we got temporary walls built to cover the space that was left after the broken down windows and the plumbing was repaired, amongst many other small, small things.
We are hopeful that in the coming weeks, we’ll have some basics in place so we’ll be able to use the office soon. We have already started opening the place for our Wednesday meetings and Saturdays.
Oh, famed red file and white chair from our very first office, we used you and often just abused you … you were a constant presence at all our meetings… many a times you protested and wanted to be ‘set free’ but every time some Saheli or the other pulled you out of the dustbin or from the kabariwala’s stack. Goodbye beloveds, rest easy or whatever it is that a file and a chair are supposed to do!
You six young wall mounted fans had the big responsibility of keeping us hot headed Sahelis cool! We marvelled at how you moved around every time we pulled a string… wishfully thinking how wonderful if you could turn the same magic to stir the many other things we are constantly trying to move, at the pull of a string! Now you are gone and a new pedestal fan is trying to take your place. Beware, fading memory!
A blue fridge with an identity crisis was the storer of many a packets of chips, mithai, roohafza and keys! When we first gifted you to ourselves in 2005, it brought much joy and cheers to the lives of sweat-drenched and heat-hit Sahelis. Breaking down was not an option because you had overheard the fate of the previous fridge that was turned into a file storage cabinet! But, no matter how badly we treated you, you never once protested! How ironic that you, the maker of ice, melted.
We could write many many more about the various filing cabinets, the newsletter rack, the bottle rack, and the computer (oh, our comp with its overcrowded desktop) but let us say no more!
And an ode to some survivors!
The red laminate had sizzled to a crisp, but shades of it still peeped through the black crust. The cupboard is opened tentatively. A hand goes in to explore in the dark. Shelves and shelves of hardened spines. Amid them a cool, soft package. Pudgy, synthetic. We step out into the balcony to see what’s in it. A safe, clean packet of sanitary towels. Periods, anyone?
In another old wooden shelf, remnant of an officious table that once occupied a large part of the office, we struggle to open a drawer. Inside, everything looks glisteningly new and clean (all things being relative, you see!). An untouched roll of scotch tape… still sticky and workable, tumbles out... mocking us?! Or was it the good-as-new red and black marker pens that were having the last laugh?
Out of an old Burma teak box, our stock of posters largely survives relentless water-hosing by the firemen. Saved by a mattress which used to be on top of it. As we sort, out come a set of colourful masks – from the queer pride march last year!
And then, we venture into the toilet, built in 1995 after many years of feminist practice of holding bladders and suchlikes. The roof is burnt. The walls are fragile. The water tank has melted, as has the flush tank. But behold the green and white buckets and mug! Pristine. Glistening. Survivors.
‘Bhaisahib’, we ask the fireman watching our manic scrambling in amusement – a bunch of women and men desperately searching mounds of burnt paper for stuff to salvage, “Ye kaisi ajeeb si aag hai?” (What kind of weird fire is this?). He replies with a laugh: “I’ve been doing this for twenty five years, and I still haven’t understood fire.”...
Neither have we, brother, neither have we!
Saheli office had been a place for friendly chat and discussion and of course the rounds of tea and samosas. But we shall overcome.
Shocked is all I can say right now. It is horrible news. Under the flyover has been an address that all of us feel such a belonging to and needless to say we shall rebuild it again for all our sakes.
I have no words to express the shock. I feel a very important part of me also has gone with the other things that Saheli lost in the fire.
No fire can stop us from being a Saheli let us plan together for the future.
Lots of Love in Sisterhood
I was in Delhi when Saheli was set up and have many memories of trying to build a broad platform of women’s groups. Then patriarchy was a bad word. It was tough to build broad platform, many efforts were from Saheli. Those were struggles for meanings.
Saheli has been one of the most inclusive spaces, full of warmth, laughter, singing and jokes, where you feel a distinct sense of belonging and stop feeling like an outsider. We in the queer community understand how valuable such spaces are to us. It’s terrible that Delhi has lost the space and history which Saheli holds. We at Nigah extend our support to everyone at Saheli.
The Nigah team
We as FAOW never had place neither any documentation... and hence always found solace that all that is important is there in Saheli.... So this is great collective loss to all of us... But, may be this will give us opportunity to resolve towards creating more history, making even more vital contributions to feminist movement...
I am sure Saheli will be on its feet soon. I pray to a non-existent god that this happens fast.
I ask myself many times what is lost. I ask myself many times what can be restored. I ask myself many times how long will it take to finally dim the image of the terrible fire licking up all those precious docs and papers and files and registers and publications. And I still persist to ask what has it taken away... Really. And I tell myself there is no fire really that can rip apart what saheli has given to us all.
Love n tears thru a big smile,
I feel like I have lost something precious of mine too even though I haven’t been a volunteer for long enough.
We are deeply shocked with this news. The Saheli office has been such a happening place. There are just so many memories. The loss of documents and files etc is going to be irreplaceable. This is a huge loss not only for all of you but the entire movement.
Arti and Kiran
Terrible news. Many of you have spent half your lives under that flyover!! I wish you strength and know that the spirit of Saheli can never be gutted! In Solidarity,
Meena Saraswathi Seshu
... just want to say that you are most welcome to use our space at Jagori for whatever you may want to do - meet, write, make calls, send materials, etc. and we will only be too happy to support in ways you wish best.
How are you guys holding up? From so far off, one can only imagine what the situation is like and share in the grief... Take care all. Love,
We are so sorry to hear your sad news... We will pray for you all and to rebuild your office... let us know how we can help.
All of us at Burmese Women Delhi
Can a movement be gutted by a fire? Can a collective be gutted by a fire? Can our space/s be gutted by a fire? Definitely not. On the contrary, the fact that recorded memories are gutted by the fire may provide an opportunity for all or force all Sahelis and the rest of us to reflect and jog memories and put down a history/her stories together looking back from where we stand today rather than merely a static history or just moving on and on. Love,
Peoples who have functioned for years in hot summers under the flyover with no coolers and no loo - indomitable spirit! Saheli will rise like the Phoenix from the ashes to confront misogynist patriarchal forces! In solidarity,
I still remember the first time I visited the place and how welcoming it is. With you in these difficult times.
All of us out-of-towners awaiting orders from under the flyover.. yes, it still exists..charred maybe, but bouncing back. I am sure it is still too overwhelming to plan and delegate tasks, but the sooner that happens, the sooner the momentum will carry the organization forward. The support pouring in is so heartwarming...
What a wonderful idea!! If you need someone to host a small workshop for this. Count on all of us at Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre. Pune University campus is lovely in monsoons and it could be a wonderful time to think thru ‘History and Labour of memory’...
Vidyut, Sharmila, Swati and Anagha
... so I was wondering if we could use this moment, all of us, particularly those who remember the early history of Saheli, its campaigns, its publications, to record in writing or on tape, what we remember, to do it individually and collectively, and to make this then part of Saheli’s new archive - a remembered history, but a history nonetheless.
The Zubaan Team
I want to say how very sad I’m feeling... PRISM meetings, Voices meetings, mourning the death of friends in the movement, celebrations... but I am sure the new Saheli space will grow to be as wonderful...
You all are simply wonderful—so full of love, enthusiasm, passion and integrity. It makes me believe that this is just a new beginning...
Dear all at Saheli, For many of us, like me, who may not have been to the Saheli office very often, just knowing that it was there, doing all that it has been doing, the site of a history to be proud of, felt like having a rock to lean on. Always,
Even if it seems so ephemeral and vulnerable now, please regain the confidence that it’s there in all our hearts, our work, our offices, our struggles on the streets, in homes and in courts, everywhere.
For many of us Saheli has been a space which nurtured us, and also which has been such an integral part of the Women’s movement. Yes, the loss of documents means the loss of a generation of activism’s records. Well, one needs to look at it perhaps philosophically. Saheli lives on in the hearts and minds of so many. You people have a tough task at hand...
Really sorry to read this. I am afraid can’t help in what has been lost. You are most welcome to use Anhad office and telephone internet etc as base till things settle down.
It’s a disaster if all the historic documents are lost! All I can contribute is to go through my albums and copy my old photographs, - and I believe I have some posters, reports, etc. -
Sahelis, I’m not in Delhi, and it’s all much more worrying when you’re far away... Lots of love and hugs, Saheli means too too much, yaar, to all of us! Thank the goddess nobody was hurt.
I am attaching Saheli related documents that we have at our centre — a small contribution towards a movement of sorts in retrieving our collective history... Love
Its important to document the history of the women’s movement and the organisations while we still have our faculties. Loss can occur even without fire or floods..
This is a sad news. I hope it was really an accident.
Never mind the hazy pix, but it is good to see some old faces, some familiar ones and some new ones who I have never met.
Yesterday at Saheli was wonderful; before we change its look back to a Saheli office we really should do a disco party since it looks like a very stylish New York bar at the moment and that too will pass into history— pretty soon we hope when we repair the premises.
Much feeling—of all kinds
This is an immeasurable loss for all of us. Please hang on in there and tell us what we can do.
Anuja and RAHI team
Very sorry to hear about this grave loss. remembering when NBA office in Vadodara being gutted down twice in past by mob and we helplessly watching burning of files. Very sorry to hear this.
FUND RAISING APPEAL
Given the damage to our office, equipments, documents and so on, our expenses towards restoration and reprinting of important documents, etc., are expected to be pretty substantial. If you can make a donation - cash or personal cheques - however small or big, it will be most welcome.
Cheques need to be made in the name of ‘Saheli Women’s Resource Centre’ and sent with a covering letter stating they are meant for “Rebuilding Saheli” along with your name, address and phone number/email contact to our address: Saheli, Above Shop Nos. 105-108, Defence Colony Flyover Market, New Delhi 110024. Cash donations, you can give to any Saheli you know or meet. However, if its easier for you to do a bank transfer, do drop us an email for details at firstname.lastname@example.org