To go from Azad Apartment to Sancharlok—two residential buildings in East Delhi — all one needs to do is to cross a busy main road. But one woman has to go a step farther: she has to wear new identities.
She is Salma when she gets down from one building; Seema when she climbs into the other.
“When I was new in Delhi, I was thrown out from work several times because of my name. Then I decided to live with a double identity,” said Salma, who declined to give her full name or be photographed. “Now I am a Hindu for Hindus and a Muslim for Muslims.”
It is her insurance in a city that has cosmopolitan pretensions but remains deeply prejudiced.
“There is no choice, I have four children to feed,” says the maid as she waits at the bus stop (as Seema) to pick the schoolchildren of a working mother who pays her for this substitution.
The name game continues as far as her children.
Salma has given religion-neutral names to her four children so that they do not have to do the jugglery she does. They are called Prince, Beauty, Fairy and Bobby.
And she is so good at switching skins that she recites the Kalma on one side and Hanuman Chalisa on the other.
But her husband Mohammad Razzak, a rickshaw puller, refused to compromise — and Salma believes that that is why he is jobless. It is difficult to independently verify that claim.
“He lost a job at a ration shop because of his name. I had fixed everything for him. I requested him to say that his name is Vijay,” she said. “But he did not. Now the burden of running the house is largely on me.”
Her day starts as Seema at eight in the morning, when she prepares breakfast and does the dishes at the home of a Punjabi family at Indraprastha Apartments. At noon, she becomes Salma and has to rush to the Haq family at Azad Apartments where she prepares lunch.
The transition goes on several times a day.
“It is not that everyone is biased but it is better to be on the safer side. I have to earn my bread. A few Hindu families where I have been working for over seven years do know that I am a Muslim but they still trust me,” she said. “Once a family threw me out of work two years later when they got to know about the fact. But within three months recalled me, they could not do without me.”
Still, she is not bitter.
“It’s much better here in Delhi. In my village in West Bengal there were separate streets for Muslims and Hindus. We were not even allowed to fill water from the same taps,” she said. “Here several times I have got away even after my identity was revealed.”