Cities

Drive-By Hooting: On Board Delhi Tourism’s Party Bus

2010 was a red letter year for Delhi transport. The airport’s T3 was inaugurated in time to welcome athletes arriving for the Commonwealth Games; the Delhi Metro opened two more lines. Cycle lanes sprang up along recently constructed BRT routes.

A fleet of big, blue high-capacity buses also joined their shiny new red and green cousins. Long after the cycle lanes gave way to motorbikes, and cars reclaimed the bus lanes, these “hop-on-hop-off” buses continue to ferry tourists to and from about 20 city landmarks every day. Inspired by similar efforts abroad, Delhi Tourism’s HOHOs provide an alternative to full-day taxis and charter buses, and feel like a more organic way of exploring the city even to long-time residents.

Sharing-averse Delhi, know that you can also rent the entire bus for a six-hour tour for yourself and 32 of your closest friends. This is largely targeted to and used for children’s birthday treats, but since our dignity knows no age bar, we tried it out by throwing a party for a group of adults.

The Feels Of The Bus

After a couple of painless emails with the helpful HOHO team, we worked out an itinerary that incorporated the Shankar International Dolls Museum, the Rail Museum, and the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, as well as “drive-by” sightseeing through central Delhi and Chanakyapuri.

Our HOHO rolled up earlier than the appointed time, lovingly festooned with balloons, streamers and a Disney-princess-adorned Happy Birthday sign on its bumper, causing a small commotion. Aunties leaned out of windows to inquire about rates, and cars slowed down to stare.

The feeling of being part of a circus caravan only increased as we squeezed through Bhogal—like a great blue whale in a narrow strait—and Robin, our guest relations representative, cued up the season’s party hits. Bus conductor?

Floating above the sparse Sunday traffic in central Delhi to the tune of “Kar Gayi Chull”, our self-consciousness settled into a kind of giddy hilarity, aided by Robin’s party-starting efforts. (We imagine the game involving bursting balloons with our bums would really spice up a corporate retreat.) His DJ skills weren’t shabby either: we pulled up to the Doll’s Museum dancing (in)appropriately to “Baby Doll”.

 Robin adeptly threw out only occasionally dubious tidbits of Delhi trivia as we rode. He quizzed us as we swooped up Raisina Hill (“Who built the Parliament?” Answer, “Local construction workers”); then through the broad avenues of Chanakyapuri (“Did you know visa stands for ‘visitor intending to stay abroad?”).

Robin’s puckish energy was infectious: as the HOHO wallowed in southbound evening traffic on Aurobindo Marg, indulgent smiles spread across the faces of the surrounding commuters. For a moment, the street became a bizarre Bollywood set, bathed in the pretty polluted glow of a Delhi sunset, rather than a gauntlet to be run.

Bus Ki Baat

Our verdict: whether you want to throw a card party on wheels, or keep that contingent of foreign wedding guests out of your hair for a few hours, we recommend going HOHO(ho). Time is your only real challenge: if you’re boarding this bus, tell your guests to arrive half an hour before departure, as extra time en route incurs extra costs. Alcohol could be another sticking point, since this bus is strictly on the wagon. It’s shocking how they’ll put anything in Coke bottles these days, though.

Getting there: Visit www.hohodelhi.com or call 99589-66566. Prices vary by time and distance, but a typical six-hour tour costs Rs 12,500, including personalised decorations and taxes. Guests provide their own food and drink and any entry fees.

Accessibility: The low-floor bus is disabled friendly.

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, November 2, 2016.

Published: November 2, 2016

Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market

Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market ♦

Khanna Market

The cover of a trader’s association booklet about Khanna Market from the 1990s.

Each of the four big markets in the quadrangle of land bound by Lodhi Road, Nehru Stadium, Aurobindo Marg and the railway line has its own special charm, from the leafy literary appeal of Jorbagh; to the sleepy specialty stores and restaurants of Lodhi Colony Market; to Mehar Chand’s mix of haute and hoi polloi.

But of all the neighbourhood shopping centres on that fringe of central Delhi where the colonial city ended and the refugee city began, the one I visit most often and find most endearing, is Khanna Market. Between the lofty imperial archways of Lodhi Colony and the scattered, built-over remnants of an older city—the Aliganj area, with its Shia graveyard of Karbala, and the Shah-e-Mardan dargah; and the 18th-century tomb of military commander Najaf Khan—Khanna Market provides a prismatic view of the moment when Delhi became the capital of newly independent India, born from the labour of Partition.  It is also immeasurably convenient for erranding.

The oldest and most famous inhabitant here is Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel, an unassuming South Indian joint with roots in the area going back to 1930, well before the market existed. The original Chidambaram, from the town of the same name in Cuddalore, was the cook of a cabinet minister transferred to Delhi. Chidambaram wanted to join the military, but was drafted instead to run a mess for the officer’s quarters at Lodhi Colony, newly built by the British as they cemented Delhi’s position as capital.

C. Kumar, who now runs the restaurant with his brother, says their father “brought idli-vada to Delhi”, and used to feed “100 bachelors”. According to him, the elder Chidambaram believed that “selling food is a sin.”  Over half a century later, the prices and flavours still induce gluttony. Faced with this  sweet trespass—idli encrusted with gritty red masala; golden vada threaded with onion; creamy dahi-vada topped with crunchy boondis, chillies and beetroot; lacy rava dosa folded over shredded coconut confetti or slathered with garlic paste—the loyal regulars demand their sin again and again.

Manmohan Arora, of Arora Store

Manmohan Arora of Arora Store

Chidambaram was one of the first to set up shop in Khanna Market when the area was developed for Partition refugees in the early 1950s, under the auspices of market namesake Mehar Chand Khanna, the politican who eventually headed the Department of Rehabilitation. At Arora General Store, a kirana dukan enlivened by a colourful selection of embroidered borders, Manmohan Arora recalls coming here with his family from Gujranwala in 1947. “We did footpath business also,” he says, “until we got the shop in 1957.”

Arora’s store is tucked away in a neglected crook of shops next to a tiny park across Najaf Khan Road and beyond a cluster of tentwallas, in the so-called “New Khanna Market”. His mine of memories about the market’s heyday include a the festivities of the passing Phoolwalon Ki Sair, the four large gates of Karbala, and a parade for a young Dara Singh;. Back then, it was “four bananas, one anna,” he says.

There are still cheap, filling thrills to be had though, starting from Rs 5 for boiled anda at wholesaler Malhotra Egg Sales. The chhola-kulcha seller behind Trilok paan stand is the most popular of several; sample at your peril the tandoori momos at car-o-bar friendly Peshawari, or the snacks at Ram Singh Bhoj, Krishan Sweets or Bangla Sweet Corner. Burning a bigger hole in the pocket is airconditioned North Indian-Chinjabi restaurant Hot Chimney, which has deep ties to tourist taxi drivers, who take advantage of the market’s free parking and eat the same food at the cut-price Dawat next door. Meanwhile, market stalwart Golden Bakery has a droolworthy selection of cookies, cakes and snackfoods.

The Hakim may or may not be in.

The Hakim may or may not be in.

For home baking needs, there are two chakkis, and the woebegone but chatty owner of Chabbra Floor Mills (sic) was once kind enough to grind almond flour for me on request. (The smaller Bansi Mills is more efficient, but less accommodating.) The meat shops include a reliable Green Chick Chop, but  it’s really Khanna Market’s well-stocked and reasonable produce stores that tip the scales in its favour compared to other markets. My go-to is Puri Brothers, which carries everything from bamboo stalks to banana flowers, and whose owners  provides cooking suggestions for unfamiliar seasonal vegetables like fuzzy “barsati karela”. There are also two decent wine and beer counters.

Other market gems include the famous Devan’s South Indian Coffee and Tea in New Khanna Market, which has perfumed the environs with the aroma of roasting coffee since 1962. Bhatia Musicals, run by the knowledgeable Sandeep Bhatia, is packed to the roof with lustworthy imported guitars, classical instruments, and technical equipment (don’t miss the giant vinyl record on the ceiling). A bit further off the beaten track is a mysterious staircase leading to the Bareilly Surma Centre, an eye clinic run by Hakim M. Riasat Qadri, who shuttles between Bareilly and Delhi ministering to clients of every faith. The market’s three opticians  and half-a-dozen chemist shops supplement these services. (The hakim’s surma is purely medicinal.)

Khanna Market’s cloth shops sell everything from blankets to bolts of fabric, snugly fitted next to tailors with decades of experience in the crisp lines of sarkari office-wear. Keep an eye out for phulkari dupattas, fifty-rupee blouses, and sharp, pinstripe suits, as well as a dozen tailors, some little more than sewing-machines-in-the-wall, others part of full service shops that also sell fabric. There’s even a cute little dry-cleaning service, Roxy, that advertises four-hour service.

 

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

There are cosmetic shops, a mehendi-walla, at least two places to get your hair cut, a photo studio, shoe shops and appliance dealers. One of several textbook and stationary shops, Adarsh Pustak Bhandar displays both Raj Comics and Akbar-Birbal stories. Sahib Bhai Patang Wala’s shiny hole-in-the-wall is currently stuffed with Holi supplies.

Despite this abundance, Khanna Market is relatively peaceful, perhaps because it’s still the sum of its parts, not a destination. The shopkeepers wouldn’t mind a bit more business though. Kamal Kishore of Kamal Cloth House, which he opened on Republic Day, 1966, told me that his stock of Vardhaman yarn brings in knitters from far and wide in certain months, but the rest of the year is lean. A stone’s throw from the Swacch Bharat-supported Lodhi Colony street art initiative, the little park outside his store, which the shopkeepers once “maintained beautifully with trees and flowers” is now a tentwalla dumping ground.

Sitting in his loft office above a trinket-stuffed Archies, Ravinder Grover, president of the Khanna Market Trader’s Association, told me about low-key “revamp” plans. A few shops have constructed second storeys, and others have the NDMC’s approval to do so. It’s unlikely though that Khanna Market will see anything like what one shopkeeper called “the hijacking by Khan Market people” of Mehar Chand, which is largely unauthorised. According to Grover, Khanna Market has long survived by catering to the needs of civil servants for things of use. Grover said his father, Chamanlal, fed breakfast to “500 to 600 regular customers” at his restaurant in Lodhi Colony Market. Grover’s ran from 1945 to 1974, he said, with milestones like Delhi’s first jukebox and an early “expresso” machine.

Enjoying life at Chidambaram's New Madras Hotel.

At Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel.

Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel 7 Khanna Market, 2461-7702. Meal for two Rs 500.

DCCWS and DSIDC Wine & Beer Shops 80 and 31 Khanna Market.

Devan’s South Indian Coffee & Tea 131 Khanna Market, 2469-4467.

Golden Bakery 101 Khanna Market, 2469-4314.

Kamal Cloth House 125 Khanna Market, 2469-1872.

Jagdish Studio 91 Khanna Market, 2464-7700.

Malhotra Egg Sales 31A Khanna Market, 98919-72531.

Puri Brothers 10 Khanna Market, 2464-0549.

Roxy, 45 Khanna Market, 98190-40769

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, March 23, 2016.

 

Published: March 24, 2016

Crash of Civilisations

City of Spies ♦

By Sorayya Khan
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015, 239 pp., Rs 295 (PB)
ISBN 978-93-83064-78-6

city of spies

Pakistan was scorchingly hot during the summer of 1977, the narrator of City of Spies recalls: “the newspapers were filled with worry that rain might never come”. And the persistent Cold War chill in relations between the United States of America and the Soviet Union only meant that the politics of the subcontinent were simmering too. A day after the American Embassy in Islamabad celebrated its country’s independence, things finally boiled over. As some of the worst floods in its history hit Karachi, the papers reported that General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had imprisoned Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, accused of election rigging and murdering political opponents, and declared martial law. The General’s photograph was splashed across the front pages, with his eyes “cast down, as if he were posing reluctantly, like a Pakistani bride”.

In the decades since then, historians have researched, in depth, the transformation of Pakistan under the eleven years of Zia’s rule, as well as substantiated many of the open secrets about the international influences that allowed his regime to flourish. Several novelists have also attempted to unearth the gritty truth of life from beneath the heavy monolith of dictatorship, to describe how things changed, incrementally but irrevocably, as the State and military became further entangled with religious extremist groups and foreign superpowers. In his satirical novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), Mohammad Hanif channeled the comedic voice of a fictional junior air force officer to retell the story of Zia’s death – and suspected assassination – in a 1988 plane crash. In her very different debut, In the City by the Sea (1998), the London-based author Kamila Shamsie described the cost of Zia’s ruthlessness on the life of a child growing up in Karachi.

Sorayya Khan’s third novel combines elements of both these seminal books: her first-person narrator is an 11-year-old girl, Aliya Shah (rather unfortunately characterised as “a different Malala” by Amitava Kumar in a cover blurb). Aliya is the “half-and-half ” youngest child of a Dutch mother and Pakistani father, who believes that “being white is… being whole. And knowing it”. She is also keen enough to understand that her mother has become “brown” by “being married to my father… though, of course, you couldn’t tell by looking”.

In an essay on “The March of the Novel Through History” (Kenyon College, 1998), Amitav Ghosh, whose novel The Shadow Lines (1988) resonates in the pages City of Spies, wrote that to describe one’s environment, “one must somehow distance oneself from it… one must assume a certain posture, a form of address. In other words, to locate oneself through prose, one must begin with an act of dislocation”.

Like Ghosh’s landmark novel, City of Spies is a story of dislocation with diasporic dimensions, freighted with questions of national belonging. But unlike The Shadow Lines, or Kamila Shamsie’s sweepingly international Burnt Shadows (2009), Khan’s book is rooted in a particular place and time. Her characters do not range too far and wide, even if the causes and consequences of the things that happen to them in the 30 months following Zia’s coup spiral out from Islamabad, the titular city of spies, to places like Teheran and Cazenovia, New York.

Aliya is certainly a character at odds with her environment, but her moment of dislocation occurs as prologue, before the story begins. The Shah family is uprooted from Europe when Aliya’s father, bound by a patriotic sense of duty, leaves his United Nations job to head a Pakistani government agency. The family settles in what Aliya’s grandfather (a protagonist of Khan’s previous book, Five Queen’s Road, set in the aftermath of Partition) calls the “fake” city of Islamabad, a city that pales in comparison to his beloved, history-soaked Lahore.

Aliya’s self-conscious thoughts about her identity, and her observations, are a useful lens through which to view the rippling effects of the General’s political machinations in the public and domestic spheres of Pakistan’s capital. She is mostly able to keep the two halves of her life – the Shah household and the American School where she studies – separate. But as a sensitive pre-teen, she is also aware of the tension flowing through Islamabad’s wide, empty streets. In her eyes, the city is a playground for several strange games. There’s the competition for dominance between the cars marked by Soviet and American diplomatic license plates, surrounded by the clamour of a bevy of less identifiable plates from smaller countries, the pawns of this board. From the vantage of her seat on an incongruous yellow school bus, Aliya also has a ringside view of the spitting game the American boys play, targeting hapless Pakistani passers-by. Aliya cringes, but is unable to stand up to her schoolmates.“A small part of me believed that Pakistanis deserved to be spit upon,” she remarks. “I wasn’t proud of this, of course…”

These road games provide a neat dramatic setup for the tragedy at the centre of the novel, an event that causes Aliya’s discomfort to blossom into a full-blown identity crisis. Hanif, the young, Bhutto-obsessed son of the family servant, Sadiq, is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When Aliya discovers that the car was driven by the mother of her American best friend, the accident becomes conflated in her mind with the fate of Pakistan. Her personal loss – sharpened by guilt at her inability to have communicated with Hanif when he was alive – becomes a political one. “With the hit-and-run accident on an Islamabad street, Anne Simon had behaved in her personal life the way American governments behaved in the world, doing whatever they wanted without, for the most part, suffering any consequences.”

Khan writes this death with heartbreaking subtlety, keeping it from lapsing into a cliché plot twist by revealing the details of the accident to Aliya in bits and pieces, as the adults around her attempt to censor the information. City of Spies is not a particularly long novel, but Khan’s tight rein on its pace and artful ratcheting up and down of action make the consequences of the accident appear to slowly unfurl in the characters’ lives, even as the months pass swiftly by. (There are also many lovely distractions along the way, such as the juxtaposition of various cuisines: Aliya’s mother’s European baking; the imported junk food from the commissary stockpiled at her friend’s house; and Sadiq’s cooking, which makes her house smell “like Pakistan” to an American visitor.)

As Aliya begins to view Hanif’s death, compounded by Bhutto’s hanging, in geopolitical terms, she begins to see herself as Pakistani, despite being alienated by language and class from most of her fellow citizens. “Knowing who’d killed Hanif made the spaces in my life fall into each other like collapsing sand tunnels. It would be impossible to separate them, reshape them and restore them to the way they had been.”

In an attempt to give the accident some meaning, Aliya begins to secretly learn Urdu, with Sadiq’s help. Their friendship, built over convincing, though halting, dialogue, is just one of the tenderly drawn relationships between Khan’s memorable, sympathetic characters. In a way, her simple but emotionally packed story is an attempt to depoliticise the personal, or at least to find hope in the power of communication between two people to subvert the structures of power in which they exist.

It takes years for Aliya to understand that learning a language is only one aspect of this sort of communication. After a riot, spurred by suspicions of American involvement in a siege in Mecca, results in the burning of the American Embassy, a rift forms between Sadiq and the family. At the time, Aliya thinks of the riot as another kind of game: “I was suddenly reminded of Klackers, the game of two balls suspended on a string. When one ball hit the other, the klick-klack sent it careening. Countries were connected to each other the same way, which made our world a very scary place.”

Aliya’s thoughts – and the event itself– recall the reflections on a different riot, on the other side of the subcontinent, by the narrator of The Shadow Lines as he tries to “learn the meaning of distance” while drawing circles on maps. Attempting to “imagine an event, any event, that might occur in a city near the periphery of that circle” that could bring people at its centre “pouring out into the streets”, he comes up with “none, that is, other than war”.

“My parents tell me that we are defined by the wars we have lived, regardless of whether we can name them,” the grownup Aliya tells us in the prologue, “The war of my story, the war we shared long ago, whether we knew it or not, is the Cold War.” Riots, the civilian violence often engendered by war, are real and inexplicable —“to look for words” beyond the simple description of these events “would be to give them meaning… a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness” cautions the narrator of The Shadow Lines. But Khan also wants to suggest the possibility of a thaw; of reconciliation through communication, however imperfect. In her story, the city may be full of spies, and people prone to making mistakes, but they are also capable of forgiveness and surprising humanity. In her attempt to square Pakistan’s dire news headlines with the minutiae of life, there is a plea for giving people the benefit of the doubt, for faith in sanity even in the face of madness.

Originally published in the September-November 2015 issue of Biblio.

Published: November 9, 2015

Delhi-spotting

Looking for home at the National Museum’s Cosmology to Cartography: A Cultural Journey of Indian Maps exhibition.

delhimaps1

Published: August 16, 2015

Capital Rambles

Delhi: Unknown Tales of a CityDelhi: Unknown Tales of a City
By RV Smith
(Roli, ₹295)

Among the contemporary crop of Delhi’s flâneurs and society chroniclers, Ronald Vivian Smith is a tall figure. The septuagenarian arrived from Agra in the late 1950s, and his regular columns in The Statesman and The Hindu span the decades of wandering he has done in his adopted home city since then. Many of these columns are available online—rich inspiration for the first generation of city bloggers— and have also periodically been published in books such as The Delhi that No-one Knows (2005), Capital Vignettes (2008) and Delhi Rambles (2014).

The newest such edition is Delhi: Unknown Tales of a City, comprising columns from between 1990 and 2011, and brought out by Roli Books. Through anecdotes and encounters with Dilliwalas, both past and present, Smith explores myriad facets of the capital. As a raconteur, it is Smith’s “sense of delight in histories discovered over the years,” as Narayani Gupta wrote in her foreword to The Delhi that No-one Knows, that anyone who has had even a passing flirtation with Delhiyana will be able to identify with. As Smith talks about festivals, monuments, rulers and poets, the feeling of discovery is familiar; accessible. Yet Smith’s distinct personality only flashes through sporadically: in his attraction to a beautiful face, his self-deprecating awareness of the meandering nature of his own writing.

The journalist Mayank Austen Soofi, in a way one of Smith’s successors, notes in a profile in Mint Lounge that “Unlike other celebrated writers on Delhi, Smith remains as invisible as the people and places he writes about.” Particularly jarring in this book is the use of the neutral third-person, which results in awkward phrases such as “one stumbled” and “as one looked up with a start, one found a female form in white…” A more intimate first-person narration from Smith, if not a proper memoir, would be welcome.

And as far as compendia of vignettes go, this one could have been better shepherded. While The Delhi that No-one Knows has Smith’s writing grouped by geographical area and Capital Vignettes has thematic sections, the columns in Unknown Tales of a City seem somewhat arbitrarily organised, almost in a slightly muddled alphabetical order. Related columns—such as those about Diwali, or Bahadur Shah Zafar—could for example have been combined into longer chapters by an invested editor. An index would have been helpful, too.

Unknown Tales is still an enjoyable dip, in part because Smith is clear-eyed about his hobby. “Legends are more enchanting than factual history,” he writes. Concluding one particularly juicy tale, of a rumour about kebabs made of human flesh, Smith writes, slightly tongue in cheek, “Where exactly the tikka seller sat in the Mori Gate area is difficult to say now… Ask Mullaji, if you can find him, and he will confirm that this is true.”

In Smith’s tales of an old but rapidly changing city, facts are less important than the stories people tell. Some of the most interesting entries deal with the evolving names of places: Chandni Chowk, for example; or the names of places that no longer exist, such as a list of dry or covered-up wells. As one haunted well disappears under a new colony, it becomes, like so many other landmarks, “part of the gossip of old fogeys.”

Particularly poignant is Smith’s description of a deserted sentry tower in the cantonment near Naraina, which evokes thoughts of  “the futility of maintaining a watch over something which will eventually need no vigilance and harbours only vagabonds at night. It’s most distressing to think like that. You come back to the fishmongers…Perhaps the fishmongers may move out too and the sentry tower will be demolished. Then only memories will remain.” One could say Smith’s writing mirrors the city itself: rambling; extending, a bit haphazardly, in many directions and many layers; but with snatches of beauty and nuggets of history hiding just under the surface for those who go looking.

Originally published in Outlook Traveller, August 2015.

 

Published: August 3, 2015

A Weekend in Old Delhi

A budget weekend in purani Dilli ♦
DSC_0068

The top of Fatehpuri Masjid, facing towards the Red Fort.

The most difficult decision I had to make while packing for a weekend in Old Delhi, was what sort of attitude I ought to carry with me to this contigu­ous yet discrete part of the capital city. Many travellers have written about how home can only be un­derstood once one leaves it for the world; and how the world becomes known to us through what we find familiar in it. But who would ad­vise me about ‘travelling’ to a part of the city that I had been flitting in and out of for years?

New Dilliwalas have a complex relationship with Shahjahanabad, which is not just the historic capital of the Mughal emperor for which it was named, but also the last of Delhi’s great citadels; and it has been almost continuously ruined and rebuilt since it was founded in the mid-17th century. We read books about it, raid its kuchas and its katras for perfumes and precious metals, write blogs about it, fill city magazines with descriptions of its flavours and scents. Us new Dilliwalas bemoan the loss of puraani Dilli’s history because it is also our history. But the volume of trade that pumps life into the rattling, breathing sheher is mostly irrelevant to us; we don’t really live there.

Two nights of sleeping in the old city would at least be a different kind of adventure, and the Hotel Tara Palace seemed a promising start. The budget hotel with an incredible view is tucked away on an offshoot of Esplanade Road, the wide thoroughfare created by the British after 1857 to separate the city from their military encamp­ment at the Red Fort — a sliver of which was visible from the bal­cony of my alley-facing room. Tara Palace rises above the other build­ings in the cycle market around it, and the hotel, with its rooftop view of the Red Fort, the Jain Lal Man­dir, the Gauri Shankar Mandir, the Gurudwara Sisganj, and the Jama Masjid, has apparently been used for several film shoots, including Chandni Chowk To China (the lane outside was turned into a facsimile.of Parathewali Gali), Black & White and Delhi-6.

Rather than zooming in on the landmarks though, the fun of actually staying in the old city was the freedom to keep glimpsing these monuments in my periph­eral vision. So, just on the way to purchase a replacement for a forgotten toothbrush, I stopped by the Old Famous Jalebiwala for a sugar rush before ducking into Dharampura, the area east of Esplanade Road and south of Chandni Chowk. The historic dharamsalas in this Jain-dominat­ed area are a bit difficult to find, not least because there are nearly a dozen of them scattered about, but worth a visit for their colourful wall paintings, intricate marble in­teriors and golden daises crowded with wide-eyed tirthankaras. The prominent Naya Mandir, built in 1807 is generally open in the morn­ings, but the smaller Panchayati Mandir, originally built in 1745, is a peaceful stop in the evenings.

Emerging out of the tinsel-strewn Kinari Bazaar and bypass­ing the greasy plates in Parathewali Gali, I loitered at the Northbrook Fountain intersection, also called Bhai Mati Das Chowk after a dis­ciple of Guru Tegh Bahadur; their martyrdom at this spot is grue­somely reconstructed next-door at the Bhai Mati Das, Sati Das Sikh museum and commemorated by the Gurdwara Sisganj. Besides me, the only other people not in a rush to eat, pray and shove were a couple of boys on the terrace of the 18th-century Sunehri Masjid opposite me, watching the occa­sional Mercedes barrel out of the gurdwara gates and scatter the stream of human traffic before get­ting mired in a glut of electric- and cycle-rickshaws. Above the green­ish bronze domes of the masjid and the gleaming golden domes of the gurdwara, a full moon rose into the sky, its light opalescent behind the hazy veil of summer pollution.

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A view of Jama Masjid from the top of Tara Palace hotel.

The heat was oppressive. I was tempted to head down the ‘moonlit avenue’, luminous with sequined garments and neon signage, for a nimbu-soda banta from its supposed inventor, Pandit Ved Prakash Lemonwale. Instead, I headed back to Tara Palace for a stiffer drink. A few friends joined me on the roof, where the staff accommodatingly laid out a plastic table and brought us strong beer and vegetarian snacks.

Eventually, the Jama Masjid, twinkling with tastefully re­strained fairy lighting for Ramzan, beckoned, and we headed to­wards it for some proper grub. We ascended above the snacking and socialising crowd in bazaar Matia Mahal to the top-floor of Al-Jawa­har Hotel, to dine on kebabs and kormas in its peach-and-saffron painted family room. Outside, the sweetshops selling multi-coloured blocks of halwa, vats of shahi tukda, matkas of phirni, and piles and piles of fried pheni and khajla, did brisk business.

Back on Esplanade Road, la­bourers were unloading a couple of trucks, or stretched out across their handbarrows, taking a load off themselves. I was struck by how quickly the hotel’s alley had become familiar — probably because there was a bed waiting for me at the end of it. For a few minutes, I stood on my balcony, looking over a patchwork of roofs, unable to imagine them as once-spacious courtyards. The earliest account of a past I could think of that resonated with the present moment was just seventy-five years old: Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. “But the city lies indifferent or asleep, breathing heavily under a hot and dusty sky,” Ali wrote, himself describing a time eighty years before his own. “Hardly anyone stops the flower vendor to buy jasmines or opens a door to satisfy the beggar. The nymphs have all gone to sleep, and the lov­ers have departed.”

I was pleasantly surprised by my first organised rickshaw tour of the old city the next morning; the three hours with When in India, a tour company founded by sisters whose grandparents lived in a haveli, passed by quite fast. The sites covered — mostly masjids and markets — were not off the beaten track, but a steady narration of an­ecdotes and an album of historical photos kept things interesting.

An early stop was the Khazan­chi, or the treasurer’s haveli, one of several mansions that have fallen into ruin relatively re­cently. The sky-blue walls of the junk-cluttered courtyard set the tone for the rest of the morning. The sun dappled toppled pillars, dilapidated arches, and a door to nowhere — as well as the rough ad­ditions, bricked up windows and scattered furniture of the people living here. I was reminded of a let­ter Ghalib wrote around 1859. “If you want to know how things are in Dilli, read this,” he said, quoting his own verse:

What was in my dwelling that your devastation could destroy it?
What I used to have is here yet — just the yearning to construct.

“What does this place have now for anyone to plunder?” he added.

The poet’s question echoed as we trundled past the landmarks of Chandni Chowk: the E.S. Pyarelal Building, which once housed the Fort View Hotel; the SBI building in front of Begum Samru’s palace; the Central Baptist Church; the Allahabad Bank building; Ma­havir Jain Bhavan; the erstwhile Town Hall, which began life as a cultural hub and may soon become one again; and the sprawling, still majestic haveli of Lala Chunna­mal. Even if you don’t take a guided tour, a cycle rickshaw is the best way to admire the avenue’s last bits of marble latticework and wrought iron, hanging, like tattered lace curtains, between the shuttered shops on the street level and the concrete additions on top.

Standing on the cupola-corned roof of Gadodia Market, a partially enclosed quadrangle in the Khari Baoli spice bazaar, I shielded my eyes against the intense glare. Below me the tingling heat of a million red chillies wafted from gunny sacks, above was a searing, cloudless sky. I noted the crowded Coronation Building, on the site of the notorious Namak Haram haveli, and on the other side of the Fatehpuri Masjid, the tower­ing Crown Hotel — a hippie trail landmark famous for its rooftop parties in the early seventies, that now looks quite tame.

Winding through Lal Kuan and Bazaar Sitaram, the tour ended at the company’s own simple haveli, which was built in the 1860s. Old museum photographs lined the walls, and there was a spread of bedmi-aloo, samosas, jalebis, tea and coffee and, best of all, a creamy kulfi from the local sweet-spot, Kuremal Mohan Lal Kulfi Wale.

I got dropped off at Ajmeri Gate, opposite the Anglo-Arabic Girls’ School, but it was too hot to hop across to the 17th-century mosque within its premises. Men lay draped across their rickshaws, spread-eagled on any patch of dirt or pavement; I considered inves­tigating the ‘Purdah Bagh’ to the north of Daryaganj, but decided instead to check in to Casa Home­stay to recuperate.

Quiet, residential Daryaganj, which was set with riverfront mansions when the Yamuna still ran along it, is an ideal base for exploration. A little before sunset, I walked to Delite Cinema, a sixty year-old hall that used to also stage plays, including by Prithvi The­atres, in its heyday. It was divided into two refurbished auditoriums, Delite and Delite Diamond — com­plete with cushy loos, hand- painted domed ceilings, and Czech chandeliers — several years ago. I watched half of Dawn of Planet of the Apes (Hindi) and half of Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, with the theatre’s obligatory ‘maha sa­mosa’ in hand (they also sell chuski at the concession stand).

More grown-up delights were in order afterwards at Thugs, the pub in the boutique Hotel Broadway down the street. The Mogambo Margarita was sadly unavailable (a broken blender), but a solid Kaalia (rum and cola), complete with paper umbrella, made up for it. Then to Moti Mahal, the decades-old restaurant that claims to have brought butter chicken to India during Partition (let’s leave aside the hotly contested debates of authenticity around this estab­lishment). Dinner was tasty, and imbued with the sort of pleas­ant bathos that seasons all such exercises in consuming nostalgia. The small musical troupe churned out a timid rendition of ‘Kajra Mohabbatwalla’, the chicken was swimming in buttered tomato pulp, the breads were large, the spiced onions plentiful — all was well with the world and my air-conditioned bedroom was just five minutes away.

The next day the city itself seemed to have been skew­ered and slapped into a blazing tandoor, but I forced myself to walk out into the Sunday book bazaar that lines the main arter­ies of Netaji Subhash Marg and Asaf Ali Road. Between biology study guides and sex manuals from the 1980s, I picked up a couple of books of poetry, before crossing back towards the quieter area around Ansari Road, Delhi’s traditional publishing hub. I paused at Jain Saheb’s (one of a couple of popular bedmi-puri breakfast joints in the area), which is renowned for its pumpkin sabzi, before trudging along the city wall — rebuilt here by the British — towards the Zinat-al-Masaajid, or ‘ornament of mosques’.

Also called the Ghata Masjid, the mosque was built in 1707 by Zinat-un-nissa, one of Aurangzeb’s daughters. Zinat-un-nissa was a poet and a spinster (the mosque’s third name is ‘Kumari Masjid’, it was supposed to have been built with her dowry). Poets, including Mir Taqi Mir, apparently met here in the early 18th century; and one can imagine it must have been a pleasant spot at the time — a gilded building overlooking a river. Today, the mosque is spartan but pretty, with three striking black-and-white pinstriped domes and minarets that seem, in proportion, to soar up­wards. Zinat-un-nissa’s tomb was removed by the British after 1857, but its Persian epitaph, composed by the pious princess, read: “It is enough if the shadow of the cloud of mercy covers my tomb.”

Indeed, clouds were now amass­ing above the old riverbed, and the sky had darkened with the promise of rain. A strong wind blew across Delhi, heaving through the trees and taking with it my daydreams of this other city. Fat drops began to splatter the cracked sandstone around me. The minarets seemed to pierce the sky.

DSC_0023

The domes of Gurudwara Sisganj.

 

The information

Getting there
Old Delhi is 22km from Indira Gandhi International Airport, and about 4.2km from the New Delhi Railway Station. The Old Delhi Railway Station is next door. A taxi from the airport costs about Rs 375.

Where to stay
Hotel Tara Palace
(from Rs 1,800 plus taxes, includes breakfast and airport pick-up; tarapalacedelhi.com) is a welcoming, spic-and-span hotel with all the amenities, plus a 24-hour restaurant. Another great place to stay is the Casa Homestay (from Rs 3,000, includ­ing taxes and a hearty, homemade breakfast; casahomestay.com) is a posh yet warm suite in a historic Daryaganj mansion. It is run by Colonel Abhimanyu and Reva Nayar, who live downstairs and provide all the amenities with a personal touch.

Getting around
The Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk metro stations are practi­cal links to other parts of Delhi. Cycle rickshaws are the best way to get around (anywhere from Rs 20 to Rs 100 per trip; more for a tour). Several companies provide walking and rickshaw tours; When in India (wheninindia.com, from $50) tours are professional and com­fortable, with branded rickshaws, uniformed drivers (some of whom speak English), cold drinks in chill­ers under the seats, and unobtru­sive wireless headsets through which the guide gives informa­tion to the group. They average 1.5-3 hours and can be tailored for groups or individuals.

What to see & do
Red Fort
, the Jain temples in Dharampura, Jama Masjid, Fateh­puri Masjid, Khari Baoli, Delite Cinema, Zinat-al-Masajid, Darya­ganj book bazaar on Sunday and the local mansions

Eat, drink & shop
Old Famous Jalebiwala
serves overpriced (Rs 50 per plate), oversized jalebis at the entrance to Dariba Kalan. Al-Jawahar hotel (about Rs 500 for two) is an airier alternative to the more-famous Karim’s next-door and worth a stop for the nihari at breakfast; likewise Moti Mahal (about Rs 900 for two) for butter chicken and ghazals at dinner; and Thugs (hotelbroadwaydelhi.com; cocktails from Rs 175) for drinks.

Fancier than the stores around it in Khari Baoli, Mehar Chand & Sons (facebook.com/mcs1917) sells well-presented blended powder masalas (from about Rs 200), special teas and spices. Harnarain Gokalchand (facebook. com/harnarains) has its local brand of khus, kewda, rose and other sharbats further down the street. Gulab Singh Johrimal on Chandni Chowk (gulabsinghjohrimal.com) is a charming old attar and incense shop (from Rs 12 for 2.5ml vial) with retro-packaging and old-fashioned cabinetry. In Daryaganj, Aap Ki Pasand (aapkipasandtea.com) is an oasis-like tea shop.

Top tip
The Archaeological Survey of India’s free monuments app isn’t completely comprehensive, but it maps the major attractions. Download ASI Delhi Circle from the Google Play store. INTACH’s Delhi: 20 Heritage Walks (intach­delhichapter.org) includes two very informative booklets on the built heritage of North Shajahanabad and South Shahjahanabad.

Originally published in Outlook Traveller, August 2014.

Published: February 15, 2015

The company of strangers

In the neighbourhood ♦

I have never found Buddhist kitsch a particularly comforting form of interior decoration. But about two weeks ago, I found myself sitting in Hawker’s House, my neighbourhood’s beloved little sandwich shop, and something about the photo of a standing Buddha sculpture, its smooth, lean arm raised reassuringly in the abhaya mudra, and the roly-poly laughing Budai figurine near him, behind the cash counter, made me feel calmer than I had in days.

It was evening, but still hot; I had stopped by the store in front of Hawker’s to stock up on Rooh Afza, but had been lured into the long back room by the promise of strong air-conditioning and creamy cold coffee straight from the bottle. I squeezed myself onto a corner stool at the counter, which was crammed with young Jangpurians on their way home from work. Next to me, the woman at the till fielded phone calls, dispatching chicken sandwiches with their crusts cut off  and veg burgers in wax paper and issuing shorthand instructions to the delivery man: “Wahin, jahan Mr Rajat rehte hain – uske bagal mein.”

I sat dipping my toasted sandwich in green chutney, my heat-liquefied brain coalescing under the cool breeze of the fan, its sun-seared thoughts taking coherent shape. The plastic rotundity of the Budai’s belly in front of me was strangely soothing, but so was the pleasantly anonymous cocoon of strangers around me, a group of which I was both part and apart. With the ambit of daily life collapsed into a constant rotation of home-to-office-to-mediawallon ki mehfil, it seemed like days since I had seen an unfamiliar face.

The wider world—social media’s hollow promise of endless newness and unlimited connections—was limited to being accessed from my desk. “Facebook supplanted MySpace, which supplanted Friendster, which supplanted actually having friends,” John Oliver had quipped the other day in his tirade on net neutrality. “Do you remember physically having friends? It was awful. You couldn’t tap people’s faces to make them go away.”

Maybe the appeal of strangers is that even physical friendships nowadays devolve into “interactions”, fuelled by a relentless need to comment and share with competing wit, and interrupted constantly by the ping of another notification. Lately, some friends in the physical world had been discussing the new app “Secret”, which displays a list of anonymous comments posted by people in a user’s contacts lists. I am incredulous. Twitter has already reduced culpability into near meaninglessness. Secret pairs the titillation of good old-fashioned gossip and leaked fact with a complete lack of accountability—a joyful embrace of misinformation, cowardice and backstabbing.

When offline friendships tend towards extensions of online conversations, the thrill of intimate anonymity in the virtual world is perhaps understandable. But what happens when the corresponding lack of culpability spills out into the real world? As the restorative cold coffee worked its magic, the dark thing that had been lurking on the edge of my thoughts floated into the centre of the congealing soup of my brain.

A mob in Pune had run amok a few days earlier. The rioters had supposedly been spurred on by morphed images of Shivaji, model Kate Upton, Bal Thackeray and various animals—pictures posted by persons unknown, from proxy addresses halfway around the world. Enraged, perhaps encouraged, a bunch of young men went out into their city, singled out a stranger based on the markers of his religion, and beat him to death.

On my phone, I read the latest reports of the “violent response” to the “pictures and comments” defaming two long-deceased men. An FIR had been filed and the image-posting perpetrators of this alleged hate crime would be found, their whereabouts traced, IP address by IP address. The men who had reduced Mohsin Shaikh to a one-dimensional target would also be booked and punished, yet there was no official condemnation of their actions. Instead, there was an odd absolution from responsibility; BJP MP Anil Shirole told reporters “What appeared on Facebook was very painful. Some amount of repercussions was natural.”

In the physical world, a father, mother and brother grieved. A colleague recalled sharing food with the dead man. And the official silence gave weight to the idea that beating someone to death isn’t all that different from tapping an unpleasant image to make it go away.

The woman at the counter cut through my thoughts, calling out an address that happened to be on my block. “Woh kaahan padega?” the delivery man asked. I considered answering, but kept my eyes glued to my phone. Once he had left, I took a breath, looked up and smiled at the woman standing in front of Buddha. “That’s where I live too,” I told her.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 20, 2014

Published: June 20, 2014

Poster politics

Theatre of persuasion ♦

Last month, a strange plant took root in the hard soil of the Capital. Its season is rare – roughly once every five years; and its life cycle determined not by the laws of nature, but by those of the nation. Its steel stems and plastic foliage flourish in a hotbed of corruption, fertilised by the scum of ill-gotten gains. Gone now, its flowers – the beaming faces of our political hopefuls – briefly colonised every Delhi road, blooming black and white, orange and green, lotuses rising out of the muck.

When, as in this election, there seems to be no ethical lines left uncrossed, one turns to aesthetics out of a sort of desperate petulance. The two are fairly inextricable when it comes to political advertising; spending on “outdoor activations” (ie, eyesores) and other marketing tools has been particularly egregious this year. It’s difficult not to wonder what this expensive, collective subjection to billboards plunged into the ground and tacked over the sky is all for. This onslaught, in what Susan Sontag has called the “theatre of persuasion” of public space – compounded with the incessant phone calls and radio spots, the infinite regress of social media  updates, and high-pitch television coverage invading private space – is a convincing sign that electioneering in India has reached an unapologetically commercial apex that is disturbingly reminiscent of high-spend campaigning elsewhere in the world, particularly the United States.

In 1969, Sontag wrote about political posters in Cuba in an essay (“Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity”), in which she argued that “the aim of an effective political poster is rarely more than the stimulation (and simplification) of moral sentiments.” Expanding on this, she wrote that the most common way to simplify “a thing or an idea”, in political advertising is to attach it to “the emblematic image of a person… the heroic figure.” During this Lok Sabha election, the campaign posters in Delhi were limited to celebrated leaders, and contained the innate tension between elevating these men as heroes, and projecting their humility as self-effacing saints – what Sontag described as a “willingness to renounce private desires and liberties”. The theatre of persuasion began to look more and more like a theatre of the absurd, entirely divorced from reality. The audience of journalists and commentators watched each new act with increasingly weary fortitude. Liberals grew exasperated with other liberals, trolls trampled over all sensible dialogue and the unending debates over the existence of various waves could actually induce seasickness in our landlocked city.

If the circular public conversation remained focused on ethics, in private, a lot of frustration found its final expression in the form of juvenile bitchery about the physical repugnance of the men holding court over our streets. Given the advertising invasion and its emphasis on candidates’ blown-up faces and bodies, this was understandable, if not entirely excusable. More than once, serious discussions ended up fixated on this one’s deceitful, pillowy lips or that one’s smug, doughy dimples. In a more dismissive tone, that one’s bristling, indignant little moustache.

I think there was a real sense of betrayal animating these private, surface judgments – an unedited response to the hypocrisy of can­didates who are supposed to represent the people, but have made themselves the objects of veneration instead. Take, for example, the creepiness of the now ubiquitous candidate masks that turn a nameless and the faceless citizenry (sometimes identifiable only by essentialising sartorial markers) into politically-branded bodies, literally poster-stands for the logo of a candidate’s face. Or the #SelfieWithModi campaign that turned photographs of voters into an interactive online mosaic picture of the man himself – each supporter a tiny piece of his famously wide chest or grinning face.

Then there was the attempt at self-abnegation in the catchphrase “main nahin, hum”, which rang entirely false when coupled with the heroic, paternalistic political imagery of campaign posters. And the petty fight between the Congress and the BJP, over which party deserved “creative credit” for that profoundly disingenuous slogan, really said it all.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2014.

Published: May 17, 2014

A Strange, Familiar Place

This Place ♦

By Amitabha Bagchi
Fourth Estate / HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2013, 253 pp.,
Rs 499 (HB)
ISBN 978-93-5116-018-2

thisplaceAfter being suspended from his government job, Naresh Kumar, the title character in Amitabha Bagchi’s previous book, The Householder (Fourth Estate, 2012), finds himself a stranger in his own house. He waits desperately for the evening, “The time after which this house, which he had plotted and pleaded and sweated to have allotted to him, this house where every single object, durable and consumable, had been bought with the money he had earned, this house where every single person ate because he worked, this house that didn’t seem to possess the generosity to keep him during the day, this same house would open up and welcome him back. Shamelessly ignoring the fact that he had not left all day, the house would readmit him into its rigid routine.”

“This house” is the particular locus of Bagchi’s second novel, but the question of how people make and unmake – and are made and unmade by – place is present in all three of his books, which have sometimes been slotted into categories circumscribed by setting: the campus novel (Above Average, HarperCollins, 2007), the Delhi novel (The Householder), and the immigrant novel (This Place).

This Place takes in the larger reality of an entire city, Baltimore, but focusses its plot and action around one stretch of 26th Street, where its small cast of characters live. Compared to Naresh – a man mired in his relationships with the world, whose form of rebellion (a contemplated affair with his secretary) is almost as tawdry a cliché as the confines of his mundane middle-class life – the main character in This Place, Jeevan, is a cipher. Formerly a taxi driver, Jeevan has been in America for a long time but never quite lived there. He looks at other immigrants, settling into their new lives and sometimes tries “to want the things that they wanted”. Early in the book, he walks into his house and “for a moment it felt like he was visiting himself, Jeevan Sharma, an old acquaintance. He felt a twinge of curiosity, as if he had known this Jeevan Sharma when they were both much younger and was eager to see what his life was like now and how he kept his house.” In a sense, This Place is the story of how he discovers himself through the people around him on 26th street.

On one level, Jeevan already knows that this closeness to his neighbours goes beyond proximity and has a premonition that “he could stay in this place for a long time”. Besides Jeevan, on the four houses on 26th street there’s Miss Lucy, an elderly black lady who plays the organ and makes him pancakes; Henry, who never missed a day of work before he retired, and whose idol is Cal Ripken, Jr (the Baltimore baseball player who holds a record for consecutive games played); and the younger, more transient characters Matthew and Kay, a couple with marital problems who have just moved in. Jeevan’s Pakistani boss, Shabbir, owns three of the four houses and holds court at his Food Point restaurant nearby. As the diversity of the characters implies, this is not the “immigrant fiction” of the ghetto, but the story of a few people at a crossroads, unrelated by blood, yet functioning like family.

Bagchi is also especially interested in characters in transitional places, whether it’s The Householder’s government flats (where “there was always a near or distant future looming ahead… they would have to return this house to the government, ‘surrender it’…”) or the IIT-Delhi campus in Above Average. In This Place, Baltimore itself is in upheaval at the end of the 1990s. After years of neglect, the city administration, with the backing of Johns Hopkins University, is taking over 26th street for “urban renewal”. Bagchi casts “The City” as a larger entity, imposing its own agency upon its inhabitants. “The City has exercised its rights,” one of its representatives tells Miss Lucy. “The City has the power, they are using their power,” Shabbir tells Jeevan, “And we are all going to benefit.”

Larger economic shifts may be driving the City, but it is Shabbir, one of its newer residents, who celebrates and implements its decisions. “This hell will become heaven, Jeevan bhai,” Shabbir says, anticipating how highly he will be compensated for his property, “and we will be landlords in heaven.” Attachment to the old buildings and old neighbours is foolish, Shabbir explains to his son, who wants to help save the houses by registering them as historical landmarks. “What history is there in this two-hundred-year-old country anyway? In Lahore, every mohalla had a six-hundred-year-old-building just sitting there with birds shitting all over it.” He takes Miss Lucy to a new house and she protests that “I didn’t birth two children here… My husband didn’t fall down dead here.” He replies, “Your final home is in the sky with your god. Till then, if living here is your destiny, you must accept it.”

Bagchi is a writer who flirts with stereotypes, complicating them through his characters’ actions. While Shabbir’s motivations are primarily pecuniary, this “greedy man’s ruthless acquisitiveness” is tempered by “a version of honesty”. Jeevan is Shabbir’s accountant and moral compass — accepting his shady business dealings while drawing a line when the landlord tries to keep his ownership of Miss Lucy’s house a secret and to profit from it. Jeevan may be putting down roots in shifting ground, but it’s precisely this churning that allows him to realise the extent of his attachment to other people. Another character reflects that “This time it wasn’t he who would leave but the place itself.” The threat of a reverse type of displacement compels Jeevan.

Bagchi also excels at monologues and dialogue, and he often uses both to stylistically reflect the book’s themes. Henry’s uninterrupted retelling of his past in an early soliloquy mirrors the stasis (soon to be shattered) of the city he has known for “seventy some” years. During a dinner conversation between Jeevan and Shabbir at a Chinese eatery, intrusions by the owner and delivery boy and the random dialogue of fellow diners captures the fragmentary, cheek-by- jowl nature of urban life. Readers who liked the compressed style of Bagchi’s previous books may find This Place disappointing: the writing feels sparser than the college slang-filled dialogue and almost fetishistic descriptions of Delhi in Above Average, or the thick descriptions of babudom and domestic life in The Householder. In some of This Place, Bagchi uses the lighter touch of short story writing, inviting sustained intimacy through a description or a dialogue, but dancing away from overly long digressions in favour of punch and concision.

Bagchi wrote This Place before he wrote The Householder, but the subtle stylistic difference seems more like an authorial choice than the result of a lack of experience. Bagchi has described in a note how he wanted This Place to echo the emptiness of the paintings of Edward Hopper, “landscapes marked by human habitation but empty of human figures,” that imply an understanding of “the essential transience of human life and [a] hope for permanence” on what humans build. At the end of each chapter, Bagchi appends a coda that riffs on a word or a theme from the preceding pages through a conversation between anonymous strangers or a description of the cityscape. Some are oblique, such as a conversation about homemade versus box pancakes overheard on a bus. Others are heavyhanded; one chapter ends in a vision of decrepit, bullet-riddled walls and then an assertion, almost in the voice of the City: “What do we do with this place? … Perhaps the best way is to start from scratch. Demolish them, each last one of them. Pulverize them. We need to start afresh. A clean slate. We won’t make the same mistakes this time.”

These codas, and Bagchi’s excursions into characters’ back-stories and inner lives, all accumulate to create an excess of incompleteness, an almost claustrophobic lightness. He approximates the surface emptiness and sudden intimacy of urban American life itself. Space – a limitless resource to be conquered, administered and turned to profit – supersedes place. When Kamran and Kay dissect the significance of the words “our past” in the criteria for registering a historic landmark, Kamran says, ‘“I don’t think that their ‘our’ means us,’ … ‘It’s like, you know, a bigger ‘our’.” “Yeah,” said Kay. “That’s what’s funny. It’s an “our” that includes us, but it’s so big that it doesn’t mean us.”’

These characters try, and fail, to resist the erosion of place – “This place will not be here in a few months’ time,” says Jeevan – but find what refuge they can in planning a future together — “And all of you will be in all the places you’ll be in,” answers Matthew. The idea echoes Walt Whitman’s “A Song For Occupations,” (Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman / James R Osgood and Company / 1881-82), which encourages “You workwomen and workmen of these States”, who build the nations’ cities, to make some meaning too, out of each other’s company:

Will you seek afar off? you surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best,
In folks nearest to you finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest,
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour,
Man in the first you see or touch, always in friend, brother, nighest neighbor…

Originally published in the March-April 2014 issue of Biblio.

Read as a PDF here:

Published: April 16, 2014

Here’s looking at you

The eyes have it ♦

On the occasional morning, a tall, dark, handsome man and his short, dark, even more handsome Labrador visit the pocket-handkerchief of a park opposite my house. Once in awhile, the man happens to look up towards my balcony and, suddenly, the world is transformed. The scraggly park becomes a charbagh set with generously leafy trees, rustling and reticulated in myriad shades of green, from parrot’s feather to peacock’s tail. The weedy flowerbeds into which the dog is relieving himself become a many-splendoured gulistaan. And I’m no longer a half-asleep lecher in rumpled nightie with a pillow-streaked face, but the girl in a Bru ad, looking out mysteriously over a suggestively steamy mug of coffee, my cheeks dewy and flushed, hair impossibly kempt.

Then he guiltily looks down at his mobile, and I dart back behind my newspaper, and the spell is broken.

I’d almost forgotten, over the past year or so, about this game of harmless flirtation, played with two pairs of eyes, and with no real object but momentary elation. From newspaper articles to Internet forums, concern about the violence of the male gaze has been so much more in focus. As a viral video released by film students last December 16 suggested, all escalating eve-teasing – brushing, nudging, whistling, pinching and worse – is built upon this foundation of ladki ko galat dekhna. In “Dekh Le”, the ogling men find their daft expressions reflected back to them when the object of their gaze slams down a visor, slips on a mirror pendant or dark glasses, or adjusts a purse. In this fantasy, the daily negotiation of public space is won by women who put the coffee shop creeps and scooter sideys firmly in their place.

But if the current moment is all about reflecting and correcting the inherent violence of the Indian leer, a part of me still romanticises the abundant celebration in our art – in poetry, film and fiction – of the look of lust. If the brazen, impudent looks of the drunken lout worry us now, it was also the mischievous, flashing eyes of the lover that drove the poets to drink. I may be ideali­sing an aesthetic device; nigahon ka khel is a safer game in theory than in practice; but I still hope that between nazron ke teer chalana and aankhon pe mar jana, there’s some possibility of agency, and pleasure, for both parties.

I remember the summer of my awakening, in my early teens, into a world of unfettered visual impulse, of constant sizing-up of men. Until then, I was mostly disdainful of the hot gossip of who-liked-who and who-did-who that kept the pubescent student body of my American middle school on a constant boil. But on a visit to India that summer, my dormant hormones kicked into high gear. I couldn’t stop ogling and mentally ordering. I became a connoisseur of jaw-lines, hairlines and degrees of stubble. You name it, I objectified it: men in tight jeans with non-existent asses; men in uniforms that creased awkwardly around their hips; men in bright spandex shirts and cotton bush-shirts and particularly men in graceful kurtas and flowing pyjamas; men with puffy hair like old film stars, or centre-parts like Salman Khan; even Salman Khan himself, larger than life and hotter than the summer sun, a star fixed in a firmament of PVC flex.

Eventually superego caught up with id and I learned to look away, or not at all. For women on the street, it’s easier to think of men as one undifferentiated pack to be avoided, rather than a species with many variations, to be observed with curiosity, to be considered individually, or catalogued for future fantasising. We use the phrase “shamelessly ogle”, but it seems to me unfortunate that the familiar male stare is always either laden with shame, or else lascivious, but laced with moral judgment.

The past year has brought editorials, articles and umpteen tweets suggesting that India needs a sexual revolution – a good cleansing romp and a round through the wringer to rid us of our dirty shame. I fear the reality of such a revolution would be even more excruciating, and even less cathartic, than sitting through Imtiaz Ali’s Highway.

But I do wish there was something between engaging with the unbearably cocky head-to-toe appraisal and going around blinkered like a gelded horse – and not just in the socially sanctioned spaces of the city where the rules of class and gender are complex but clearly understood.

Maybe romance is just the art of channeling the heat behind an initial look, through the complicated conduits of language, and back to pure heat. Still, what separates the men and women from the dogs and pigeons is the ability to indulge in the pointless yet pleasurable exchange of glances that can be its own reward. I believe the man with the Labrador in the park understands this. We’ll probably never exchange more than a half-smile each, but he knows I’m keeping an eye on him.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2014

Published: April 12, 2014