Thursday, April 14, 2011

Now that Delhi is far away

'Does it snow there?' was one of the most popular and most juvenile of the many questions we had bombarded our tired father with when he had disclosed to us that he had been transferred to New Delhi and that we would have to spend the next few years of our lives in that city. Having stayed in rural Andhra as infants, in Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai as kids and in Bengaluru as blossoming teens, the prospect of living in the capital of our nation was, according to us (and by us I mean me and my younger brother) was the perfect gateway to the good life. As we boarded the two and a half day KK express towards Delhi, our minds were filled with the colorful images of India Gate, Jantar Mantar, Qutub Minar and Palika Bazaar. Images that we had only seen in strong black ink illustrations in our social studies textbooks published by NCERT. Images that had lured us with their historical greatness in our Tinkle comics. Images that, we knew, would be part of us forever.

With such ambitions aboard, our train finally chugged to a halt in the 37 degree boiling pot called Delhi one merciless afternoon in June 1992. A gush of hot air (of an intensity I had never experienced ever before) rushed into the compartment and wrapped itself all over me as I stepped into the din of Delhi's cacophony. Loud noises that claimed to be speaking Hindi (but sounded nothing like the kind we had been taught in our modest CBSE schools) welcomed us as we zoomed past fast red line buses and faster speaking Dilli wallahs towards our flat in Narayan Vihar (we later moved to Inderpuri). I can still recall a sense of being in an absolutely alien place my first few weeks there. Given the velocity with which the twangs of Delhi Hindi swept across us, me and my brother – who back in our schools were famous for our pristine enunciation of the language – were now feeling somewhat shortchanged at the hurling of 'le liyos' and 'aa jaiyyos'. In fact, it was in my second week there that I had whispered to my dad – 'Can we not go back to Bangalore next year?' indicating to him of confirmed trouble ahead.

But nevertheless we continued to be surprised at every fresh piece of information Delhi kept flinging our way. The first trip to see our new school in Lodhi Estate seemed like a two hour journey as we got a chance to be a part of the mayhem that was peppered all around the roaring capital of the nation. I distinctly remember my brother, wet with reluctance, pleading to dad that he couldn't imagine going this far to school each day even as my poor father consoled him by telling him there would be a school bus for all that. Narrow streets that seemed friendly and welcoming suddenly opened up into generously wide spaces which were lined with large mansions of politicians and guarded by grim looking soldiers standing behind large sandbags with obvious weapons in hand. As we looked in wonderment at the residential areas of the likes of Murali Manohar Joshi or Advani or VP Singh, we couldn't help pondering how we would spend the next two to three (maybe more!) years in this concrete puzzle of a place where people spoke something that wasn't exactly Hindi and had armed soldiers guarding residences.

Then something happened. Once school began, we found more children just like ourselves who had come from the broad horizons of our grand nation and were equally intimidated by their new surroundings. They too, like us, were learning the fundamentals such as a Punjabi and a Sardar are two different things and that there can be Punjabis who don't wear turbans. Together, we were taught that 'liyo' was just another way of saying 'lo' and that screaming 'Oye!' at someone wasn't rude at all. A lyrical collection of such newly acquired tones began coming together as a song while we mastered the art of getting off buses without waiting for it to stop. We juggled with 'aa jaiyos' and 'de diyos' with finesse as we traversed the length and breadth of that grand city exploring everything from panchkuian to Noida to Safdarjung Enclave to Karol Bagh to Rajendra Nagar to Janakpuri. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond our radius of possibilities. I even participated boldly in the under-18 painting contest held at the Lalit Kala Academy and submitted two pieces from my prized collection. That I didn't win anything is another matter but one of my pieces was actually showcased as part of their eventual display. School life ushered in a whole new lease of confidence as the art of haggling with a bus conductor became as easy as biting into warm jalebis near Chandni Chowk. Yes – we embraced Dilli as it gracefully complimented our gesture. Within a few months we had become such regulars in the city that it was impossible for anyone to say that we were the same uncertain and shaky kids from Bangalore who had wondered how they would get to school each day.

Even though I left that city more than 15 years ago I still think of the place as a spot that had given me so much without ever judging me or smearing me with labels. I still think of my school in Lodhi Estate. I still recall the faces and the names in that edifice with fondness. The sight of the misty India Gate in the distance which I would pass each day on the way to school still remains fixed in my mind's eye. The smells and sounds of Jama Masjid still linger within me every time I hear the name in a passing reference. The gasp of excitement we would feel every time our car passed the majestic Parliament building is still very much in the pages of my past. The punch of disappointment we would feel every time we spotted out number 18 bus near Pusa Bhavan each morning still unfolds when I close my eyes. Yes – being the city that patiently endured the pains of my critical teenage years 'that Delhi' will always remain a prominent member of my memory club.

Today, in 2011, I sit back and think of moments from those bygone days as I read horrifying stories from that city. I read of such inhumane acts of violence on children, women and men that a shudder runs down my spine questioning me if this was the same city I had spent some of the best days of my teenage years in. What happened? When did that 'dilwaalon ka shahar' become so ruthless and gory? When did the love in the big hearts of those people turn to muck? Why has the skies seen so much innocent blood and tears spilt on those city grounds? Why? How? When? Questions and more questions. As I watch heated debates unfold across the Internet accusing Delhi and calling it names, a part of me feels blue since in many ways I have always carried a bit of Delhi with me wherever I have gone in the world. The image I see of it today certainly does not match the beauty and grace of that muse who sits within the canvas I have built for it over the years. It probably never will. Not with the way each new day brings more horror and wails of woe from within those historic city walls. As I sit in shock and read about the catastrophes unfolding there I am more convinced that the Delhi I had once seen and experienced is now invisible to the naked eye. Gone, possibly, for good.

I am reminded of that 1957 film which was titled 'Ab Dilli door nahin' (Delhi is not far now). According to me that Dilli of my fond past is now beyond my mortal reach. This time, that Dilli of mine, is definitely far away. Ab woh Dilli bahut door ho gayi.

4 reflections:

Anjani said...

Wonderful article.. Just the right amount of emotion for a bygone era!!!

Sandhya said...

Very well written. I share the same feelings for a city where I spent my initial working years - my first job, my first salary etc. I enjoyed the feeling of being financially independent for the first time in that city. I left the city 7 years ago and things have changed a lot as I hear from people hailing from there. I am talking about the "City of Pearls" - Hyderabad. Your post made me nostalgic.

Aditi said...

Very well written Shashi..Delhi is really a big hearted city, having lived there for greater part of my life now I can vouch for it...I would say that it is not that people have changed, what has changed is the sudden increase in wealth of the wrong kind. Such wealth brings with it attendant vices, and the demonstration effect of wanting to get rich quick anyhow and emulating the lifestyle of the rich among the poorer residents of the city has led to increased crime as well.

ShaK said...

@Sandhya - Some cities are impossible to walk away from. I share your thoughts on the significance of context being a large part of that.

@Aditi - Interesting points there friend. A rather dangerous culture there if get-rich-quick is making way for such horrors.