Monday, May 15, 2006

Orchestrations at a red light

" A city without a soul" , said a writer about the national capital. About delhi. About my home. Coming back to delhi after a long break was enough to have the wind knocked out of me. The city is undeniable in its insolence. It provoked me each time I confronted it. Each confrontaion left its mark. But each encounter brimmed with the possibility of a story......

The teeming millions were milling about right here on the ITO crossing. They leapfogged from Tilak Marg onto Sikandra road and onward to the local train that would take them home past the slums and shantytowns - wastelands beyond which lay towers of glass and cool air. But the teeming millions breathed the sticky air ripe with scent of sweat. The city breathed in tandem with the rhythm and pulse of traffic signals, the movement of buses and the chugging of the trains. And so the urban drama would play itself out - a silent musical with an unseen beat.

The old man clinging to his polythene bag for dear life, trying to brave the merciless traffic. The crude man beneath a veneer of sophistication in his big car, cursing the old man who totters shamelessly in front of his expensive self. The traffic policeman in his stuffy uniform who watches the charade and thinks of his tenement in choked West Delhi and the power cut that awaits him. The young college going girl, aimlessly chewing gum and ignoring leering men with studied indifference. the scrawny urchin who momentarily forgets to beg as he is distracted by the burst pileline under Tilak bridge that is spouting jets of water and wetting motorcyclists. The bus conductor who shouts destinations at his flock - the passengers - while chewing on his cigarette and simultaneously tearing those coloured bits of paper marked 2, 7 and 10 Rs. The daredevil hangs perilously from the footboard of the bus hoping the girl chewing gum will notice. The auto-driver ignores the boy and concentrates on his unsuspecting passenger who he has successfully fleeced. He adjusts his rearview mirror to get a good look at the smooth-skinned lady even as she inwardly rebukes her own insolent driver for not having showed up that morning. Visibly upset at being caught in the sweltering heat, she eyes this alien mass of humanity about her from behind her dark shades.

A sick boy throws up on the side of the bus. A rickshaw driver pulls up under the drooping laburnum tree and proceeds to doze off, apparently oblivious to the heat and the stench from the festering drain nearby. The man selling cold water out of a hand cart for Re. 1 only, pours himself a glass of water. The old man has made it to the other side of the road. The traffic signal blinks green, everyone moves on gratefully. Elsewhere, a biker picks a fight with an autowallah. A cyclist wins the fight.


Arun Gupta said...

In some ways Delhi doesn't change (for that matter, neither does Kolkata or Mumbai, except perhaps in their new names - in fact I think people and places essentially remain the same, beyond the veneer).

I used to like Delhi once (some 25 years back)- especially the north campus of DU, with large college campuses of the kind one had earlier seen only in films; and the broad, sparsely populated, leafy roads of Lutyen's New Delhi, on those winter afternoon long walks dreaming of 'love'. Also the Mandi house circle, with the Triveni canteen and the Shriram Center book shop, and perhaps the Kamani auditorium. Then there was the Shakuntalam theater within the Pragati maidan complex, which showed cinema of obscure parentage & variety on hot summer evenings, with the just-watered Pragati maidan roads giving off nice moist dust aroma and Jagjit-Chitra Unforgettables softly playing on the PA system.

Also, one should not forget the grand well-kept expanse of Lodhi Gardens and the quaint India International Center nearby, home to the moving & shaking bara brown sahebs - strangely open enough for vague underachievers to sneak in and watch some serious Bharatnatyam.

Mandakini said...

Hi Arun!
I share a love-hate relationship with delhi. This piece of writing came out of a long bus ride on my way to work. And im sure you know what emotions a DTC bus can inspire.

It rained the same day in delhi and i was bowled over by the sight of an alley behind Hanuman Mandir which was lined with flaming laburnum trees in full bloom. It looked positively divine after the rain....iv always felt delhi looks very amiable after a good shower.

V.S. Naipaul writes of Lutyen's Delhi that "its a city meant for parades rather than people."

Roopal Kewalya said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
roopal kewalya said...

What stayed with me after reading your article was the girl chewing gum ignoring leering men with studied indifference. Each time I come back to Delhi, also my home, I become that girl. However hard I try to love the city, I fail miserably. There is a certain kind of a gnawing fear with which I have grown up in Delhi. And the fear returns each time I head back home. I don’t feel the same in any other city not because they are very different from Delhi but because they are strange and unfamiliar…I have always believed that the fear of the familiar is scarier than the fear of the unknown.

I really like the way you have captured moments in your words and added life to ‘a city without a soul.’

Anil P said...

A city can test you in a way where it is a crime to fail, and a disaster to succeed. It is in the 'in-between' that a city takes shape, breathing life into you.

Coming from Mumbai, I can state this as a fact!

anshuman said...

Came o your blog, via Arun's. I grew up in Delhi so this was really nice. Do read a book called, the city of djinns by william dalrymple - perhaps the best book on delhi that I have read.

rajat said...

really vivid. cynicism sans nostalgia. resolution of the moments are also very beautiful. must read this book patna rough Cut.
(to arun's comments) I am jealous of people who have nostalgic memories for a place or culture. it only shows that someone has really tasted the flavour of that space in the specific time of its life. I unfortunately have no such generic memories of the few cities i have lived in to recall. My point of view is so objective that it fails to have any romanticism of time and memory.
Having the ability to get swallowed by the place's character and enjoy every ounce of the juice that it exudes is a blessing.