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The city of barricades

The city of barricades
There’s a ‘strange kind of performance anxiety’ in every labyrinthine road girdling Delhi, carrying in their hearts a ‘furious wail of horns’ and portentous lights of red, orange and green. For Rana Dasgupta, Delhi is the script that plays out on its roads because it’s the roads whose asphalt and tar absorb both the city’s sweat and its excreta, its dirt and grime, mixing it with whiffs of a thousand imported perfume from across the glassy, air-conditioned malls.

Dasgupta’s decoding of Delhi is an astute one: Capital is a manual – an excellent, large-hearted, sharp-eyed one at that – to the laboratory of globalisation that the Indian national capital turned out to be since the mid-nineties. About two decades of manic change at breakneck speed saw the number of cars shoot up by over a hundred times, and colonies, mostly gated and high-walled, come up in every part, like bubbles closing on themselves, an involution of being. Delhi began to unfold in a number of simultaneous directions and zones, and like a schizophrenic, chose to be oblivious to the other doppelgangers it had spawned over the years.

Capital is the biography of Delhi, ‘a city of euphemism,’ a city slumbering under its own wakefulness, giving in to the dark urges beneath its neon lights. There are farmhouses and penthouses for the city’s ‘elite’: the moneyed class that frenetically purchases everything – designer clothes, shoes, imported cars, houses, perfumes, bags, jewellery, sunglasses, watches, real estate investment, land, glassware – to ratify its existence.

They buy, therefore they are. Like Rakesh, the thirty-something businessman Dasgupta describes in the first chapter ‘Landscape’, who lives in a houses that looks like a space station, Delhi’s elite is a globe-trotting, circuit-hopping, suspicious clan that zealously guards its fortress. Entry or exit into this coterie is highly restricted. As Dasgupta says, name and address dropping are the secret armours of Delhiites. A Defence Colony address or a Jorbagh nameplate would automatically keep the drivel out: because that’s the code accepted by everyone, willingly or grudgingly, who walks or sleeps in this city.

Yet, Delhi is a product of pain. The pain of Partition. The large Punjabi population in West Delhi, or the Bengali residents in South Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, were refugees to begin with. Some among them, mostly Punjabis, have crossed over to the other side of the high walls. They now live in Sujan Singh Park, or Sainik Farm. Dasgupta says, ‘In no other Indian metropolis does the urban elite bask in such pastoral tranqulity: this is an idiosyncrasy of the capital.

It is striking in fact how Delhi’s rich, a quintessentially metropolitan set of people, who have made their money by tirelessly networking in the capital’s many clubs and corridors, eschew the urbane. They do not, as the rich do in Mumbai or New York, dream of apartments with sparkling views of the city from which their fortune derives. They are not drawn to the energy of streets, sidewalks and bustle which was so heroic a part of great nineteenth and twentieth-century cities. No: the Delhi rich like to wake up looking at empty, manicured lawns stretching away to walls topped with barbed wire.’

That’s a pitiless description of a city that all the while cashing in on memory, works on the principle of amnesia. There’s forgetfulness written on every face looking out from their car windows, or maniacally shopping in gargantuan, centrally air-conditioned malls. Movies and malls go together, and real estate behemoths like DLF merge the two dreams into one common stream of consciousness. Their credit cards and mobile phone models are the passwords to this hyperreal world in which rural idylls intercut glaringly-lit glasshouses offering a sanctified, filtered version of desi modernity.

‘Delhi is the pioneer of India’s private townships,’ writes Dasgupta. That’s as much an intuition as it’s a remarkable observation. No more parks and open gardens for children and elderly folks. It’s as if the city has eschewed everyone to populate its belly with the designer young – men and women anywhere between twenty and fifty, so ubiquitous in their shiny shoes and sparkling dresses and metallic cars. This is the bracket that holds the logic of aspiration dearer than any cumbersome history lesson or political baggage. This is the bracket that has brought about a pan-Indian political change, in favour of a furiously money-minting drive that blindsides any other ideal that might have once lay claim to sensory maps of post-Independent India.

It’s easy to get lost in Delhi. The roads, wide and piteously ill-illuminated, are harsh, serpentine tunnels that could eat you up. They are not meant for children, women, walkers, old people, clueless tourists, travellers, college students. They are not meant for discovery, they do not let out secrets but gobble up lives that do not exist in the amniotic metallic sacks called cars – SUVs, LUVs, MUVs, the bigger the better. In a sense, even Lutyens’ Delhi’s political career drop, perhaps over the last few years, is a denouement that was inevitable and integral to the idea of Delhi.

Unlike the jostlings of contradictions in say a New York or Mumbai, Delhi is a suburb at its core. Hard to gauge how this once imperial capital of the Mughals and British impacts even its aristocrats. It believes in separating its staggering differences with long stretches of darkness. Like the cold desert of interstellar emptiness, it’s Delhi’s lacunae that really give away its story. Dasgupta taps into those half-empty spaces of half truths.  
Angshukanta Chakraborty

Angshukanta Chakraborty

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