Thursday, November 02, 2006


Ten pages of some writing on wandering Delhi past midnight which I'd been commisioned to do, ten pages which took me three days to write, already 'in exile' of sorts of Calcutta, ten pages of some decent writing, are now being curtailed to a two page box.
Well, now I'm free to put some of it on the blog as sampler, so y'all know what you're going to miss out there in the public domain. If you want more, mail me.

Say you’re in NOIDA (Nyoda, Naveda), across the river and in another state, and it’s way past midnight and you can’t sleep and dancing the night away at Elevate is not your scene. Lose not hope.

Stand at the beginning of the DND flyway, the cows gently chewing plastic for company and in about five minutes a call centre Qualis will pull up, fresh from ferrying workers to their night shift jobs, keeping time with the American workday. The drivers earn some extra cash, and you’d be surprised to see how many hitchhiking souls are already in the cab, traveling past midnight to a city that was thought, not so long ago, to be an early sleeper. There are no cops, no speedguns on the road this hour (most of the time), the shining lights of the twisting tollbridge turn to psychedelic blurs looking up at this speed, Delhi will shine before you in the bright lit marble of the Lotus Temple and the dome of Humayun’s tomb, visions of a promised land.

It’s quite a ride for just ten rupees. Keep the change handy. Welcome to Delhi.

Long years ago, when Babur came to Delhi, he did a midnight peregrination on horseback, visiting the moonlit tombs of Sultans and saints, all the way from Nizamuddin to Mehrauli. Many of the memorials he visited are still around, and Delhi has nearly five hundred years more of building (and history) since, and is now a city of fourteen (eighteen?) million, not all of them inhabiting the same time zone. Your ride is likely to be far more interesting, and you don’t even need your own horse or contemporary personal transportation equivalent, though that’s preferable. You need to be good with haggling with autos, which are surprisingly plentiful and prowling for passengers at night on the main roads, and available in vulturine flocks near railways stations and bus terminals. The DTC even runs night buses on select routes. And there are always the taxis, expensive but reliable, and just a phone call away.

Head north from Ashram Chowk up Mathura Road to Nizamuddin. From here you could head east to the 24 hour dining comforts of Comesum Plaza at the Nizamuddin Railway Station, which verge from the merely stale to the outrageously inedible – like the Chinese samosas, stuffed with soya burnt chowmein. So unless you’re a gastric masochist or a late night railway station ethnographer, you’ll head west, to the basti around the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. It might seem deserted and empty when you enter, the restaurants on the outside close by around one in the morning, but if you head further in, the smaller tea shops and restaurants, closer to the dargah are open till two or three. The food is invariably delicious, if a trifle greasy, and definitely non vegetarian. The kababs and tikkas are long gone by this time, the charcoal grills shut down. But the handis of qormas and rumali rotis are going strong. Eat your fill, drink chai or Pepsi, and head in to the dargah to offer thanks to the man around whose dargah the settlement is built, as is the whole tourist-pilgrim economy centering on it which the restaurants cater to.

Nizamuddin Auliya, the most revered of Delhi’s Muslim saints, is also among the most famous of its insomniacs; it is said of him that he had flown from Delhi to Mecca and back in one night. His dargah is among the most important shrines in the sub-continent and is quite crowded during the days, but at midnight the marble courtyard around his mazaar is almost deserted. Sit here for a while, in contemplation, it is among the most restful places in Delhi. You will hear the faint strains of qawwali. The qawwals who live adjacent to the dargah practice at night, and sleep in the mornings to surface only in the afternoons, refreshed for evenings of performance. You can sit and listen to the faint strains of the their rehearsal, while sitting in the courtyard between the mazaars of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau, leaning on the marble filigree screen surrounding the grave of the Mughal princess Jahanara, and believe again that there is magic in the world. Or you could go up to their residence to ask permission to listen closer. They are hospitable folk, always glad for a friendly ear, you will be welcome. They live in the basement of a tomb.

Even if it’s summer you’re probably too late by now to catch much live action at India Gate, apart from the eternal flickering of the Amar Javan Jyoti under the arch. Till one in the morning though, it is a rather lively place to be. The Delhi family ritual of eating ice cream and sitting in the lawns of India Gate, cool after the heat of the night, has become quite extravagant in recent years. There are balloon sellers, chana jor garam and bhelpuri sellers, chai and coffee wallahs. You can lie on the lawns looking up at the imposing bulk of India Gate, and suddenly a bunch of balloons, ethereal and translucent in the floodlit night, will cross your vision, as fluorescent arrows rise into the sky and fall like shooting stars. Don’t make a wish though, they come from the catapults of the sellers of made in China toys, who have many other radium delights on offer to light up your nights. India Gate at midnight is spectacular in more ways than one. The Rajasthani mehendi waalis have become tourist attuned enough to offer you ‘temporary tattoos’ on the shoulder if you’re not obviously feminine and/or desi. The preferred design is a highly abstract and improbable fish. On days when the security detail is a tad relaxed, and there are some, children splash in the shallow pool at the base of the empty canopy where the statue of King George once stood. The sheer joy of splashing in cool water after a hot day is infectious, and it radiates outwards along with the shrieks of delight. On nights like this, the lawns of India Gate are the happiest place to be; a place of wonder. Wonder at the beautiful vista, the double line of lights that is Rajpath, an arrow straight two miles all the way to the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan rising in the distance, framed by the Gate. Wonder at how a vista of imperial pomp has become a truly democratic space, where the awaam of Dilli come to have a jolly old time. The British Empire and its stiff upper lip traditions are forgotten anachronism, furthest from anybody’s minds in the laughing bustling nights at India Gate. Almost as much of an anachronism are the bioscopes with their screechy scratchy tunes and calendar art tableaus viewed through portholes. India Gate is among the last places in Delhi where you still see them, drawing curious audiences even past midnight...

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