A provocative portrait of one of the world’s largest cities, delving behind the tourist facade to illustrate the people and places beyond the realms of the conventional travelogue
Sam Miller set out to discover the real Delhi, a city he describes as “India’s dreamtown—and its purgatory.” He treads the city streets, making his way through the city and its suburbs, visiting its less celebrated destinations—Nehru Place, Rohini, Ghazipur, and Gurgaon—which most writers and travelers ignore. His quest is the here and now, the unexpected, the overlooked, and the eccentric. All the obvious ports of call make appearances: the ancient monuments, the imperial buildings, and the celebrities of modern Delhi. But it is through his encounters with Delhi’s people—from a professor of astrophysics to a crematorium attendant, from ragpickers to members of a police brass band—that Miller creates this richly entertaining portrait of what Delhi means to its residents, and of what the city is becoming.
Miller, like so many of the people he meets, is a migrant in one of the world’s fastest growing megapolises, and the Delhi he depicts is one whose future concerns us all. He possesses an intense curiosity; he has an infallible eye for life’s diversities, for all the marvelous and sublime moments that illuminate people’s lives. This is a generous, original, humorous portrait of a great city; one that unerringly locates the humanity beneath the mundane, the unsung, and the unfamiliar.
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Sam Miller was born in London in 1962. He studied history at Cambridge University and politics at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, before joining the BBC. In the early nineties he was a BBC World Service correspondent in Delhi. He returned to Delhi in 2002, where he now runs media projects for the BBC World Service Trust, and also works as a TV commentator, journalist, and book reviewer. He is married to Shireen and they have two children, Zubin and Roxana.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: In which the Author is dazzled by the Metro, finds a cure for haemorrhoids and turns the tables on an unscrupulous shoeshine manI WAS STANDING in a sleepy park in the centre of Delhi, struck dumb by what I could see beneath me. My face was pressed hard against the glass of a concealed skylight and I was gawping down into what seemed to be another universe. An enormous, pulsating cavern had been cut deep into the ancient rock and soil beneath Delhi's venerable Connaught Place, at the very centre spot of the Indian capital. Beams of dust-laden natural light illuminated the glistening steel and marble concourse below me. It was a hive of hyperactivity, milling with purposeful people--like the science fiction image of a subterranean city. This, then, is the dazzling new heart of Delhi.Connaught Place, twentieth-century Delhi's commercial and geographical hub, has undergone irreversible change. It now houses a vast underground railway junction, the lynchpin of Delhi's new Metro system. The Metro is both a monument to modernity and a harbinger of change. India has ambitions of great power status, and its capital is now one of the most populous cities in the world. Once upon a time, the people of Delhi were accused of always living in the past, of romanticizing Delhi as a city of poets and courtesans; a city of empires--Mughal and British. Today, the emphasis is resolutely forward-looking. In this city of migrants, the congested, hypertensive older parts of Delhi are seen as squalid embarrassments or touristic culs-de-sac. And the new Metro, all steel, glass and concrete, is Delhi's latest offering to the gods of progress, to be placed alongside those other gifts for 'a modern future'--the convention centres, flyovers, multiplexes and shopping plazas. The Metro has become the icon of Delhi's uncertain future, carving its way above and beneath the city, overshadowing and undermining the forgotten and neglected mosques, temples, churches, forts and tombs of previous rulers.From my secret window in the station's vaulted ceiling, high above the maze of footbridges and walkways, I stare, dazzled by this new world below. I track confident commuters as they weave their way, with some irritation, through gaggles of confused tourists. There's amiasma of electronic destination signs, and neon-lit bookshops and cafes. Police officers use hand-held metal detectors on impatient passengers. A young western woman with a backpack is struggling with the ticket-less token-operated entry gate; an elderly Sikh man shows her how to use it. There are wide staircases reaching down to the deepest level of the station, where the Metro's north-south artery runs--soon this line will go all the way to Gurgaon in Delhi's Deep South. The two visible platforms are broad and clean, and sleek trains slide elegantly into the station, briefly spitting out and sucking up passengers, before smashing their way through the darkness towards a distant suburb. A pigeon, stranded inside the station, flutters high above the concourse. It flies towards me, dashing itself against the glass of the skylight. It plummets towards the concourse, apparently unconscious and then pulls itself out of its fall, just inches from the ground--and flies drunkenly away.The desperate pigeon has broken the hypnotic spell of the Metro. And I'm reminded of my purpose--that I should start my walk. As I peel myself away from the skylight, leaving a ghostly imprint of my face on the glass, there's a squirting sound behind me. A single jet of water lashes my back. Some fountains, behind which the skylight was concealed, are being turned on. I manoeuvre my way along a narrow parapet and stand, slightly damp, in the middle of Connaught Place. This is my starting point, the hub of my spiral.The centre of Connaught Place is occupied by what looks, at first sight, like a fairly innocuous, well-kept municipal park. It has manicured lawns and pink footpaths, a few newly planted shrubs, a courting couple, five men playing cards, some faux-Edwardian street lamps, a small stone-built amphitheatre, and a series of ponds and unpredictable water fountains concealing the parapet that led to my skylight. But this sleepy park is, as I discovered when I peered into cavern below, not quite what it seems. It is, in fact, a landscaped lid covering a deep hole: an entirely artificial creation perched on the roof of the subterranean Metro station.When I first lived in Delhi, in the 1990s, the centre of Connaught Place was a real park, the kind in which a dog can bury a bone, or where trees can grow roots. By my return to Delhi in 2003, it had become a huge construction site, with an enormous hole at its heart. I worked from an office which had a spectacular long-distance viewover the hole, and would watch as construction workers eviscerated the old heart of Delhi. Most days at lunch time, I would stroll around the grey tinplate fencing that ringed the hole, painted with the circular red logo of the Delhi Metro. There were no gaps in the fences, and so the hole, and the shattered earth within, was invisible to most Connaught Place flaneurs. However, I am 6'1" and by balancing on a metal bollard I could peer over the fencing, through a tangle of steel, into the gloomy darkness that now forms the multi-level Connaught Place10 Metro interchange--and try to assess how much progress had been made. Occasionally, as if by magic, the blue-white incandescent sparks of an arc-welder would briefly illuminate the bottom of the hole fifty metres below. And I would spot shadowy rebates in the levelled earth, convinced that they must be the Metro platforms of the future. And now, less than two years later, as I begin walking around the innermost circle of Connaught Place, the station is complete, and more unexpectedly, almost invisible: camouflaged from public view by the park I have just left.Connaught Place has a very deliberate geometry. 'Stamped by foreign hands, concentric,' according to the Indian poet, Tabish Khair11. A near-spiral, Connaught Place, or 'CP'12, consists of threecircles, nestled neatly inside each other, spoked by seven radial roads. CP was completed in the 1930s, in the twilight of British rule. It was carefully inserted as the capital's new commercial centre into the forests and scrub that separated the newly built government buildings of New Delhi from the old Mughal city of Old Delhi. The inspiration for the double-storyed curving colonnades13 of CP, the architectural historians tell us, was Bath's Royal Crescent and Circus, or even a decapitated, inside-out version of the Colosseum. CP still has a certain tarnished grandeur, a Palladian outpost suffering from modest urban blight. Hoardings and signboards have broken the careful lines and silhouettes of the colonnades, but the sense of circularity still exists, as anyone who has ever got lost in CP can tell you.To my left is the circular park I have just fled, and to my right is a curving colonnade in white, two storeys high, emblazoned with the signboards of multi-national brands: Pizza Hut, Benetton, Reebok, TGI Fridays, Samsonite. It's still early--shops and offices are just opening. A guard sleeps on a chair inside a sports shop, the glass façade providing no shelter from intruding eyes. Above him is a sign with a picture of a cricketer and the words 'Proud to be Indian'. I take a picture, setting off my flash by mistake and waking him. He grants me an embarrassed smile, makes himself comfortable and goes back to sleep, hand on groin. Morning cricketers--affluent teenagers, boys and girls on school holidays, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and speaking English--have taken over a parking lot; the boys titter as a girl in pink tries to bat. She is out first ball. A strutting youth with an incipient moustache and a sneer on his face then hits the ball down a Metro staircase. 'Six!' he proclaims, lifting his bat high in the air. A few seconds later, the ball returns on the same trajectory, courtesy of an unseen arm. There are more than ten such entrances to the Metro; like the station itself they are camouflaged: discrete half-hidden staircases cut into the pavement. But standing proud in the morning sun, glinting like a single silver tooth in an ancient jaw, against a backdrop of the peeling plasterwork of CP shops, is apassenger lift for 'physically challenged' Metro customers. A striped grey squirrel shimmies up a nearby gulmohar tree, and runs down a drooping branch and drops onto the roof of the lift. A pariah kite hovers and swoops above, but does not find its prey.Completing the first, innermost twist of my spiral, I veer outwards into the middle circle of CP, a service lane, a tangle of buildings and smells and autorickshaws. Steep stone stairs lead up to accountants' offices, tailors, employment bureaux and software developers. I hesitate, I can't visit them all. But one signboard intrigues me: 'Mail Massage services'. I go up. It's locked, and I peer through the glass door, discovering that the second word, not the first, was misspelled.In the narrow service lane, there are reserved parking spaces, marked out in white paint, for the chairman and the managing director of DSIDC--which reveals itself, in a much smaller font to be the Delhi State Industrial Development Corporation. This public sector company has spread its wings in unlikely directions in recent years--and has divided its offices between two sideline businesses: a cybercafé and an alcohol shop, both managed by DSIDC. I choose the cybercafé--six small shabby-brown booths, all occupied, all quiet--just the energetic tapping of keys. The booths are far from private and all the computer screens are visible. Elsewhere in Delhi and in India, Internet cafes are places with curtains, or carefully constructed so as to allow privacy. One Indian journalist told me to go into any Indian cybercafé, and press the Back button, 'Always porn, hard-core stuff, or online dating.' But the DSIDC has a noporn policy. A large notice above each computer: 'VIEWING OF OBSCENE SITES STRICTLY PROHIBITED'. I decide to wait for a machine to become free and pay for half-an-hour. I start pacing around, eyeing the users, all male Indians, and none of them looking at porn. One is writing up a CV, two others are e-mailing, one more is filling in a spreadsheet. This cybercafé is a place of work and aspiration, not pleasure. A man wearing a baby-pink tie and a maroon shirt stood up wearily and left. I plumped myself down. His seat was warm and the booth was ripe with aftershave. The Back button on his computer led me to a job recruitment site. After deleting Viagraspam from my e-mail account, I still had seventeen minutes left. Looking around for inspiration, I punched in 'Connaught Place' and 'Internet'. The second search result, Trisoft.net caught my eye.... Trisoft Systems and New Delhi Traders Association (NDTA) joining hands to host Asia's largest shopping complex, Connaught Place (CP), on the Internet ... ."www.trisoft.net/press/media/media1998.htm--18k--Cached--Similarp_agesClicking through, I was able to enter the world of India's first Internet boom of the late 1990s. Hemant Sharma, a 'cyberbrat', according to one press cutting proudly displayed on the site, had left a good job at Microsoft to return to India and set up Trisoft. Among his projects was the creation on the Internet of a 'virtual Connaught Place'. Cpmall.com was launched in 1999, and meant shoppers around the world could 'visit' and purchase from 700 stores in CP without ever having to leave their homes or offices. But cpmall.com, when I searched for it on the Internet, no longer existed, and Trisoft's site had not been updated since 2002. Had it crashed along with hundreds of other early Indian dotcoms? I looked up Trisoft's contact details and e-mailed Hemant Sharma, at his ancient Hotmail address. The headquarters of Trisoft was listed as two blocks further along my spiral at E-30 Connaught Place. It was time to continue walking.The sun was now high enough to shrink my shadow to an area no bigger than a laptop. I ploughed on in search of E-30. The wooden signboard listing the occupants of E block does not even include the number 30, let alone mention Trisoft. I drifted past a green-tiled open-air urinal, a chalk scribble showing it had last been cleaned four hours earlier. It was in use; two men, Little and Large, comically unaware of each other, but with perfectly synchronized arm movements, as they waggled their unseen penises dry.I gave up on my search for Trisoft14, and retreated to a more hospitable place. KI, the mother of a friend of mine, has lived in CP, in her current flat, for sixty-eight years. It was the first time I had seen English-style fireplaces and mantelpieces in a Delhi home. I was licked and nuzzled by KI's dogs, Inca and Khushi, as I devoured a Parsee15appetizer of Papeta-par-eeda--baked eggs and potatoes. She recalled moving into CP before it was complete, when jackals could be heard howling at night, and she said, grimly turning to her dogs, that the jackals would gobble up pets that weren't locked in. When I asked her about how CP had changed, she looked up to the heavens. She recalled the old bandstand in the central park, where a police band played every Saturday during World War Two. It was a beautiful park. 'The war years,' she began, with a nostalgic effusiveness that quickly dissipated into halting embarrassment, 'were lovely years'. Then came independence in 1947 and the partition of India. Most of the Muslims of Connaught Place, she told me, left for Pakistan. 'There was some looting', she said, 'but the army protected CP from the worst violence and there weren't killings like elsewhere.' She took me onto her balcony and pointed out a petrol pump. 'The Muslim owner asked my father for one thousand rupees for it, that's all. But he said "what would I do with a petrol pump?"'KI helped out at a nearby hospital and looked after Hindu refugees from Pakistan, women who had been separated from their menfolk, and who'd been raped. 'We tried to get them back with their husbands, to reunite them. There was something that shocked me, though. Educated men would not take their wives back, if they had been raped; but poor men, illiterate men--they would. I couldn't understand that. Still can't.'Over a rich mutton pulao, whose spices, cardamom and clove, were whirling their way out of the battered cooking pot and spinning around the room, KI continued, undeterred by my gluttony. 'Earlier, children could roam around CP freely, playing seven-tiles or rounders. Now there are so many call-girls; riff-raff, riff-raff.' Her voice trailed off. She fell silent, a trace of a tear in each eye. She sniffed, pulled her shoulders in, looked around and picked up where she had left off. Almost all the families she had known as a teenager had left; she herself had been offered a huge sum to move. But she would remain.Although CP was designed as the new commercial hub for Delhi, it was always intended that families should live there too. The upstairs floors were built as homes, with large airy rooms, fireplaces andbalconies. There were good schools nearby, and of course, the evanescent central park. There were few cars, and no high-rise buildings. CP had many of the elements of a model new development. However, Connaught Place was then on the edge of the city, which quickly encircled its circles, and grew and grew. Now Delhi stretches for many kilometres in every direction and CP shows all the symptoms of inner-city decay. In the evenings, it became the haven of the call-girl and the pimp. In the day-time, dazed backpackers still get harassed an...
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