Friday, August 10, 2007

returning to delhi






A slightly edited version of this appeared in Time Out, Delhi in July. Minus the photos, of course. funny to be posting this after returning to New York.




- When did you leave the country?
- 16th August last year.
And then I was through passport control at IGI, back in the country after ten months, as easy as that. Returning to the city was a slightly different matter. Ten months in twenty first century Delhi, waiting impatiently for its tryst with the Commonwealth Games, might as well have been ten years in another city, another time. In my absence, Metro construction has advanced into the far reaches of Noida, the rickshaws have disappeared from Chandni Chowk, a glass pyramid has grown in Vasant Kunj . Much has disappeared, including homes I had visited; the slum clearances creating disorienting holes in my remembered landscape.

Prices have gone up ten to fifteen percent. Drinks, autos, movies are all more expensive; even the 50 p glass of water is now 1 rupee some places. That, plus converting from the diminished dollar to the rising rupee, and I almost ready to agree with Thomas Friedman – I am supposed to feel the pecuniary pinch in New York, not in Delhi, but it’s the other way around. It ain’t easy moving back to boomtown, kid.

But then again, it is. Apologies for sounding like a gushing hippie, but Delhi is a truly warm and friendly city. Yes, even when negotiating with its public transport. I wouldn’t have said this last year, but apparently living abroad has made me soft, and now I’m dealing with people minus the aggression that Dilliwallahs wear like armour, and the city smiles back. Even in the crush on a rush hour Blueline, I find myself marveling at the sindoori sunlight slanting in on people’s faces, and chuckling at the banter.

Conductor to old passenger – Aa ja tau, main tera khayaal rakhoonga.
Passenger to conductor – Tu bas bus ka khayaal rakh, chhora. Mujhe rehn de.

Wandering around Connaught Place for the first time in a year, I am in love with the city all over again. After ten months of firangland, the jhataak colours of the clothes hung up on Janpath catching the rainwashed evening sun is sheer poetry. As is the mocha cold coffee at De Paul’s. In the subway between Jeevan Bharti and N-Block, the flute seller wonders where I have been. When I tell him New York, he asks if there are musicians like him there. When I say hundreds, he smiles and says, ‘You must take some of my CDs when you go.’

I spend a quiet hour reading, barely a hundred metres away from the bustle of KG Road, in a fourteenth century stepwell. For company, I have pigeons and the rustle of leaves. I walk back into the Inner Circle, and the new green of Central Park catches my eye, the transformation from industrial warzone to (literal) urban oasis. Like the families and couples around me, I take off my sandals, and walk in the water of the channel running down to the fountains. Delhi has caught me by surprise again.
An hour later, I am at The Attic, for a packed show of dastangoi, the art of epic storytelling which had died out nearly a century ago, and is now being revived. The show is amazing, and free. Something Dilliwallahs tend to take for granted; but it needs to be said – with all that is wrong with it, Delhi, in some ways, is the most generous of cities.

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