Delhi is celebrating 100 years of its existence as the capital city of India and shades of its glorious past squint through heritage sites and dilapidated pockets of livelihood. The long journey of transformation from collective villages into a metropolis has been traumatic, uneventful, deceitful, apathetic, joyful, resentful.
Delhi is my adopted city, married here, and Allahabad my birth city and school holidays meant visits to my mother’s ancestral home in one of the lanes of Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. My great-grandfather had seven sons and one daughter and the wise old man refused to build property because he did not want his sons to fight over bricks and mortar. I remember the rented ‘haveli’ or mansion with its shadowless rooms, the ‘baithak’ or lounge with a massive mattress, where great-grandfather reportedly spent hours puffing on his hookah, and the labyrinth of passages for the children to run around. I heard stories from my mother and her cousins of how they would sneak out to purchase candy from street-hawkers when great-grandfather had his afternoon nap. The visits also meant gorging on jalebis* at the Dariba, fruit chaat* from the vendor in front of State Bank building and parathas* from the Paratha gali or lane.
I made New Delhi my home, after marriage, and similar to most dwellers became immune to the dirt and squalor blaming it on the government and the people trooping from adjoining cities and villages. I would weave my way through traffic stopping at red lights by choice and accepting noise pollution, power outages and water shortage as addendum of daily living.
The equation changed when we returned after five years in Oman, 2000, and I viewed Delhi from an ‘outsider’ perception. The ‘India Shining’ slogan rang hollow against the squalor, the lounging cows blocking roads and traffic, the daily workers living on roadsides and using the vacant plots as toilets, the women beggars with scrawny infants hanging onto their hips, child beggars and the ‘acceptance’ attitude of the public. The list was endless little realizing that I was voicing ‘tourist’ views when I too was to blame for the apathetic state of affairs.
In 2006 we moved to Gurgaon, 15 miles south of New Delhi, hoping for a slice of the ‘millennium’ bonanza. My first impression of the ‘Millennium’ city was that ‘it is haphazardly crowded’ with nearly 26 shopping malls showcasing major world brands, golf courses, private clubs, movie theaters, pubs and bars, luxury apartments, palatial villas, slums and all-glass commercial hubs displaying world’s top corporations. The city touted as the symbol of rising India slipped somewhere along the line and problems that were once the bane of Delhi haunt the new city and its residents: The unreliable power supply (generator power is the main power supply), missing pavements and sidewalks, vacant lots converted into garbage disposal sites, pot holed roads and lanes, the newer overcrowded Metro stations still in incomplete stage, rickshaw queues and traffic snarls.
On a recent visit to Delhi/Gurgaon from Hong Kong, our residence since 2008, I was driving from Gurgaon to Delhi on the main connector M.G. Road with its demolished landmarks (commercial buildings demolished when the Municipal Corporation decided they were illegal) and the crawling traffic made me chant prayers to keep my cool. For a few minutes it worked but I soon gave up all pretence of civility and for rest of the one hour drive I was mouthing expletives at passing motorists and motor cyclists. There is still no lane or signal concept and before you can say ‘red’ a car zooms past oblivious of your rear view mirror. It is an ordeal or an adventure, whichever way one looks at it, though I still would not trade it for a monotonous drive I experienced commuting from San Jose to San Francisco where one is in danger of dozing off.
The 2011 Anna Hazare movement against corruption captured the collective imagination of the country in different ways. Even when the Anna fast was going on and streets crowded with sympathizers, an employee of the electricity sub station in my block, in Gurgaon, wanted to know whether I was living in a bungalow or an apartment. I had gone to register a meter fault and was without electricity for four hours. He showed up around 6 p.m.,least apologetic about the inconvenience though sorry for missing out on ‘pocket money’ because by then I had called a private electrician to repair the meter. A Catch-22 situation..be damned if you give and be damned if you don’t.
The Gurgaon and Delhi refurbishings are still on, and hopefully, someday the cities would not remind me of village belles stepping out of their comfort zones with mismatched accessories.
* Stuffed Indian flat bread