Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi – 30th January 2016
Morning in the Impossible City. Car engines are thrumming into life around the colony. The army of domestic workers are taking up their positions for the day ahead: five different men wielding large wet rags are wiping down five different cars, all conversing loudly with each other. Each are employed by different residents – as garage attendants, parking guides, drivers, perhaps. They wipe off the Delhi dust that accumulates in layers on everything – a mixture of concrete from the endless construction sites, assorted industrial pollutants and a pinch of Thar Desert blown in from Rajasthan. The maids begin to appear, slopping along in flipflops which are easy to kick off upon entering people’s houses. Soon the residents emerge from their apartments, duck into cars and a vehicular ballet commences, a pas-de-deux of incompetent reversing accompanied by a refrain of bleeping and chirping from the reverse warning alarms that so many cars here possess. A traffic jam is achieved before even reaching the main gate of the colony, and they embark upon the first furious hooting bout of the day, as an overture to the main act, out on the road itself.
The scene repeats itself in reverse every evening as cars return after dark, and the owners, nerves frayed from hours battling with impossible congestion and lunatic driving begin to jostle for parking spaces. One car in particular is a serial hooter, a large silver sedan with Kashmiri number plates. The owner is an old uncle in white kurta pyjamas and khaki bush-jacket – off-duty militant chic, as it were – and if someone is in his space (marked with the sign “No Parking: Tyres Will Be Defeated” – a misprint of deflated, I assume) he will sit and hoot for twenty minutes or so. On one particular evening the owner of the car occupying his space happened to return, and a furious row ensued: the Kashmiri jumped out of his car and was yelling at the other driver, who, not to be outdone, yelled back. They circled each other and made threatening gestures. The Kashmiri’s wife hopped out of the passenger seat and offered her own shrill contribution. A small crowd formed, roughly dividing itself in loyalities between the two parties. Heads began to emerge from the balconies to watch the evening’s entertainment. The Kashmiri shouted something particularly incendiary and the other driver, who had begun to swagger away, returned with a vengeance, until a wispy man half his size blocked his path and began to physically lead him away. He made a show of resistance but it was all a bit half-hearted. The Kashmiri, sensing victory, advanced with a new show of boldness, which petered out when the other driver shook off his assistant and returned anew. Round and round it all went, for a good quarter of an hour, like players taking their places in an operetta, or birds-of-paradise posturing, watched by a diverse audience: the veg stall guy, a couple of lads on a motorbike, assorted passers-by and hangers-on, a group of Afghan women in headscarves peering over the balcony opposite, and one solitary gora (white) clutching a notebook in his hand.
I later got the translation of what had been said that had been so incendiary, and it went like this:
“You have insulted me.”
“You insulted me first!”
“You are a mannerless person!”
“No, you are a person without good manners!”
All this yelled at full volume. Imagine a fight in the UK where two burly men scream at each other from inches away: “You’ve just got no manners!”
Similarly, one of the most common cries in the little flare-ups that happen with queue-jumpers, for example, is “Do you know who I am?” It’s a reiteration of self-esteem, a marking out of one’s position in a city with a vast hierarchical scale – “I am an important, influential person, and you are just a low caste nobody with no connections”. I heard a variant of this one from a young man who had dinged his motorcycle on someone else’s. “Do you know who my daddy is?” he shrieked quite unselfconsciously. To which I muttered as we passed, “No, do you?”
The dogs are as much characters of the colony too. They are stray, for the most part – one might say communally owned and communally neglected. “All life is sacred in India except human life,” as someone once said. Occasional kind-hearted souls go out to the park with food for them. The dogs spend their days lying in the sunshine or patrolling in packs, picking up any vaguely edible morsel that may have fallen off a passing cart. But one dog never joins them. It spends most of its time sleeping on top of the steps leading up to an apartment block, and sometimes can be found sitting on top of the roof of a car. It turns out that it is paralysed in its rear legs – run over by a car as a puppy; how it gets itself onto a car roof is remarkable, and must involve dragging itself up over the bonnet and windscreen by its front legs alone. We always stop and say hello, patting and stroking, and it shuffles itself upwards into a sitting position, thumping its tail, looking both abashed and delighted somehow, its useless rear paws folded demurely together beneath it like the ankles of a lady in a short skirt trying to sit on a low sofa. An aunty in a nearby apartment puts old blankets out for the dogs in the winter months, and the dogs dutifully tear them into strips and bury the remnants in the park.
Zainabad, Gujarat – 4th Feb 2016
We met three young students at an ancient step well – a series of ornately carved pillars marking out the layers as the stone steps descended into the cool depths. A couple of lads and a girl in a headscarf, they were studying at the art college in Ahmedabad, but all came from elsewhere in India; she was from Uttar Pradesh, which, with a population of 215 million, would be the fifth largest country in the world, if measured by population – behind Indonesia and slightly ahead of Brasil. The other two students came from Jharkhand and Bihar respectively – both bywords for corruption and impoverishment; they were like three ambassadors for the failed states of India. The lad from Jharkhand was the boldest, and approached us, asking where we were from: K’s fair skin and general air of bohemian cosmopolitanism marks her out as being as good as foreign in some parts here. I’d never been to Jharkhand, I told him. What was there to see? Should I go? He waggled his head, laughed ruefully and then said: “Not really. Coal mines. We have lots of coal mines. And dirt.”
They asked how London was. “Cold,” I told them. “Cold and grey. This would be an unusually warm summer day there.” They found this hilarious. So we chatted for a while, then they all shyly shook hands with us and went on their way.
North of Ahmedabad the landscape began to change, becoming more arid. We passed enormous hotels in the middle of nowhere that advertised conference facilities. These were incongruous enough already, but the sight of a local man dressed in baggy white homespun and enormous scarlet turban herding brahmin cattle across the forecourt of one such place rendered the scene positively surreal. Soon we left the hotels behind and entered a thorny semi-desert with occasional villages. Small round huts like African rondavels had mirror-work embedded in their mud walls which glittered in the sun. The people wore brightly coloured costumes – mauve and lime green together, or scarlet and purple.
Cranes are flying overhead in skeins, with watery cronking calls. They migrate here from Siberia – an inconceivable distance. And there are other migrants too – some of the waterbirds bobbing on the lake or wading through its shallows might have been at Minsmere in Suffolk last year. The sky is pink, apricot, lemon-tinged. “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” A girl pads across the dust of the maidan with a yellow swirl of skirt around slim brown legs, ankle-bracelets jingling gently with every step. The locals here move languidly, accustomed to great heat, as if performing a slow dance. This is still winter, and the temperature is 30 degrees at dusk, though the nights grow cold in the hours before dawn.
Soon the sky is strewn with stars. In the darkness of the narrow lanes the cows are going home, soft-footed through the velvet desert dust, and there is the smell of woodsmoke in the air. The trees are singing as we pass them, leaves shining silver in the light of the moon, each one alive with the susurrus of insects, as if the song were part of the tree itself. There is a deep hoop-hoop-hoop of a nightbird in the distance and then the faint, high cry of an owl. Nightfall on the Rann of Kutch.
Haus Khaz, New Delhi – 13th February 2016
Hauz Khas – which sounds like ‘Horseguards’ – was heaving on a Saturday night. We’d previously visited on a sunny afternoon and walked round the lake, along with countless others: families enjoying the sunshine, solitary pensioners hobbling bravely along, young couples shyly holding hands, gangs of young men practicing their swagger, with quick eyes sliding furtively over any passing female. But at 9 p.m. on the weekend it was clearly the place to be in Delhi. A line of cars half a mile long queued to get in to the complex. Motorbikes zoomed suicidally around them, swerving to miss pedestrians by… not inches, but an inch at most. One bike misjudged a gap between a parked auto rickshaw and an SUV in the queue, and bounced off the rickshaw with his luggage rack; his female passenger casually lifted her leg out of the way to avoid it being removed at the knee. A small white Suzuki Maruti Swift announced its presence with deep booming bass notes. Inside were three college boy types, the interior lit by UV neon, and they had some gadget attached to the suspension which caused the car to bounce up and down on its springs. They bayed lustily along at the top of their voices to the Punjabi hiphop the speakers were belting out, heads going back and forth as the car bounced, its small size barely able to contain such an excess of testosterone. Around the cars girls in high heels and miniskirts picked their way with well-practiced expressions of scornful disdain. Dozens of touts lined the street, gathering around potential clients as they approached. A young man swayed in front of me, voice hoarse with faux excitement: “Secret Bollywood party happening now, mister! Top celebrity guestlist!” I ignored him. The next one offered a free drink in an establishment of dubious merits. A third blocked my path like a mugger and shoved a flyer at me offering a romantic Valentine’s day dinner. I shouldered him impatiently aside.
Leaving after dinner in a fancy rooftop restaurant full of expats, we hit gridlock – again – in the Impossible City. We inch forward, stop, inch forward again. At a red light, everyone switches off their engines. We sit for five minutes. Then the light goes green, everyone starts their engines and a chorus of hooting breaks out. Everyone is hooting, nobody is moving. We begin to inch forward again as motorbikes slalom between the cars. Once the traffic is moving things begin to resemble one of those car racing computer games from the 80s – the kind where everyone passes on the inside, the outside, anywhere they can, in order to get ahead. There is just no concept of lane discipline at all. If you wanted a snapshot of Indian driving, it would be five lanes of cars all swerving wildly around each other while hooting simultaneously. And at the traffic lights where we all grind to a halt yet again, we are ambushed by the impoverished: small children, usually, tapping on the windows, or on your knee if you are in a rickshaw. Look away, shift your gaze, concentrate on the middle distance, or your phone. If you pay them anything you keep them here, condemned to a life breathing this toxic fug of exhaust, lead, cadmium, covered in dust and filth, occasionally being run over. It kills something inside you every time.
At M-block market one evening, nipping outside the Costa Coffee for a cigarette (140 rupees for a cappuccino – one pound forty, or a week’s earnings for some of these kids – a small child came up accompanied by a granny. They murmured beseechingly as we stood and smoked. I brushed off a small hand that tugged at my sleeve and turned my back, feeling an utter bastard. The child moved away to try someone else. Then one of our group, a local guy, fished out ten rupees and gave it to the child. Immediately the granny took heart. She stood and murmured, just on the edge of our consciousness, not quite daring to make contact but hovering enough to make her presence felt, to establish a sense of collective guilt in us all. We continued our conversation in slightly raised voices, trying not to notice. On and on and on she went. “I just gave to the child!” our friend eventually remonstrated from sheer exasperation. It had no effect. Eventually, to get away, we cut short our cigarettes and went back inside, humanity dying by degrees.
What is ten rupees? Ten pence. How could I begrudge her that? I often pay over the odds here, just because it seems so churlish to haggle over pennies. I refuse to be one of these travellers who not only bargains for ages with some desperate local but then takes a perverse pride in bragging about how they pay local prices for things. But there are begging rings, there are children kidnapped and disfigured in order to improve their earning power. If you hand out money to them you are not only keeping them on the streets but also perpetuating the whole industry of it. The charities who work with such people say you shouldn’t give to beggars. All this you know…
The problem is, there is no solution to the problem. And the full implication of that struck me later that evening as we sat in the traffic. On the edge of the kerb sat a little girl, about ten years old, hair in bunches. She was hugging herself defensively, while simultanously rolling her eyes in despair at the endless mechanical stream of toxic traffic going by. We halted a few feet away. And then I saw, in the glare of the streetlight, a solitary tear trickle down her face, leaving a track through the dust on her cheek. It’s a little girl, on her own in this city, looking at the traffic and crying. Anywhere else – not even in an ideal world, but just a normal one that has a shred of humanity in it – seeing a lone child crying on a roundabout, someone would stop and help her, call the police, who would alert social services, whatever. But here nobody looks. That’s how it kills us all inside. And if you ever see such a child in distress where you live, I urge you to stop and help them, not shamefully look away, as we do in the Impossible City. Otherwise one day everywhere will be like this – all kids so alone, all cities so harsh, all onlookers so dead inside.
Turning-Point – Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
The road from intensity to greatness
passes through sacrifice. – Kassner.
For a long time he attained it in looking.
Stars would fall to their knees
beneath his compelling vision.
Or as he looked on, kneeling,
his urgency’s fragrance
tired out a god until
it smiled at him in its sleep.
Towers he would gaze at so
that they were terrified:
building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!
But how often the landscape,
overburdened by day,
came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.
Animals trusted him, stepped
into his open look, grazing,
and the imprisoned lions
stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;
birds, as it felt them, flew headlong
through it; and flowers, as enormous
as they are to children, gazed back
into it, on and on.
And the rumour that there was someone
who knew how to look,
stirred those less
stirred the women.
Looking how long?
For how long now, deeply deprived,
beseeching in the depths of his glance?
When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home –
the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom
moody around him, and in the avoided mirror
once more the room, and later
from the tormenting bed
then in the air the voices
discussed, beyond comprehension,
his heart, which could still be felt;
debated what through the painfully buried body
could somehow be felt – his heart;
debated and passed their judgment:
that it did not have love.
(And denied him further communions.)
For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.
The work of the eyes is done
now go and do the heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.
Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.