I have known of the work of Tiljala SHED for many years, and I think I first met Mr Alamgir in the early 1990s. At that time, I was struck by the authenticity of Tiljala and the genuine closeness to the people of all who worked there. In 2010/11 I was privileged to collaborate more closely with the organisation, when with my colleague, Imran Ahmed Siddiqui (of the Telegraph newspaper in Kolkata), we prepared a book about the Muslim ghettoes of India, which drew largely on the achievements of Tiljala, and the experience of Mr Alamgir and his fellow-workers. I was impressed by three qualities in particular: firstly, that Alamgir had lost none of his easy intimacy and familiarity with the people, which had been there 20 years earlier.
Secondly, nothing had been lost of the commitment to people whose lives were being made even more precarious, in the name of ‘development’, since more and more sites in the neighbourhoods had been taken over by ‘developers’, and poor people’s homes were threatened by new high-rises and apartment blocks; and thirdly, dedication to the uplift of the lives of women – livelihoods for deserted women and widows, and especially the education of girls and young women. The devotion of teachers in some of the girls’ schools in particular, was deeply affecting, since they were giving their services often for very small reward.
One of the most remarkable things I learned from my time in Tiljala Road, in Tangra and Topsia was something that cannot be repeated too often. This is that the overwhelming majority of poor Muslims are hard-working, peaceable, law-abiding citizens, who ask nothing more than a moment of calm and opportunity to bring up a new generation in the light of their own values of humanity and dignity.
It was a joy and a revelation to spend so much time sharing the lives of poor people in Kolkata, and this would not have been possible without the patience and kindness of Alamgir and his team, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude and affection.
Jeremy Seabrook is a journalist and writer who has written for the New Statesman, Guardian, Time, and Independent. He writes plays for stage and TV and is the author of many books, including Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain and The Song of the Shirt: The High Price of Cheap Garments, from Blackburn to Bangladesh.
The West has become obsessed with Muslims, constantly classifying them as either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’. Reacting against this dehumanising tendency, Jeremy Seabrook and Imran Ahmed Siddiqui show us the daily life of poor
Muslims in India and sheds light on what lies behind India’s ‘economic miracle’.
The authors examine life in Muslim communities in Kolkata, home to some of the most disadvantaged people in India, giving a voice to their views, values and feelings. We see that Muslims are no different from those of other faiths – work, family and survival are the overwhelming preoccupations of the vast majority. Although most are observant in their religion, there is no trace of the malevolence or poverty-fuelled extremism attributed to them.
This enlightening and elegantly written book will be of great interest to students and practitioners of development and anyone who wants a more realistic picture of Muslim life and modern India.