Cross posted from my blog: http://johnpmathew.blogspot.com
So final isn't final anymore. I have decided to extend my impressions of Delhi in a blog diary. How does it sound? Web log diary? Not nice, eh? But that's it what I want to call this series. I am writing this on the train back to Bombay in between reading Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss," as the coach has a socket to recharge laptops. Thank God!
I look outside the window and see the areas of the city that had remained shrouded till now. It is actually floating on a sea of multi-colored plastic. Plastic, plastic is everywhere. I see the equivalents of the slums of Bombay, juggies, they are called here. The masses living in them have come out to sun themselves and stand in circles, or huddle around a fire.
On the final day in Delhi I have lunch with the pretty and smiling Smita (I bought her lunch when I was in Delhi last, so it's her turn), or "one who smiles," or, smilestop (her blog name), or, land of the smiling sun, a utopian land of her own creation. Verily, knowing her is like being a citizen of a land where there are lots of infectious smiles. I am a great smiler myself, and have found true friendship in this amazing woman. I owe a lot to her, and she is, in fact, all of friend, philosopher and guide.
It was she who offered to edit my novel when nobody would even look at it, teaching me the tricks of the book-editing trade. She is the one who helped me when I visited in May 2006, and again this time. This time she introduced me to her friend Asheeth who also has her quality of genuine concern and camaraderie. This is what Delhi is all about, I think, this lack of hypocrisy, this complete trust, this age-old mehman navazi. I may be wrong because I have seen only the kind and gentle members of the ryze.com community so far, except for my nephew Tommy (who, I am proud to say, has gone through a lot of deprivations in life and is now managing director of a multinational publishing house and drives a Chevrolet Optra), who is family.
Smita has found a job she genuinely likes and is so confident she will do well in it that I am truly pleased. The job involves, she tells me animatedly, in between her captivating smiles, as we have lunch, telecommunication projects, writing interesting content, giving presentations, which have made her super-confident, liberated, independent, and a new woman. I wonder why I don't meet her likes in Bombay. Or, may be I move around in the wrong circles. But there are Anita, Rekha, Sairee, Asmita, Annie, all making waves in their own ways. How do I classify and stereotype these new women? I can't. These women who are aggressively pursuing their careers and dreams defy stereotyping, and speak their mind which men tend to avoid. How does Smita manage to juggle a high-profile job, a family, a circle of friends? She says Buddhism has helped her to deal with the hurly-burly of life. I can see that it has from the glow on her face when she smiles. She really believes and practices what she says.
Asheeth, a friend I made through Smita, made sure I would attend the TC do on my first day in Delhi by picking me up from Connaught Place and dropping me back to my hotel. There I had the first karaoke experience of my life singing "Break out to the other side" and "Wonderful Tonight." I had arrived tired from my journey from Bombay and wanted sleep badly after sharing a seat with an underworld don, whose wild-eyed minions stood guard outside the door of the compartment and would touch his feet repeatedly to show their obsequiousness. They, the underlings, gave me a fright by their constant watchfulness and their distrust of all who were seated near their boss, the don.
On the day I leave, I catch a taxi to Nizamuddin station. When I arrive there the cold is unbearable, seeping into my five layers of clothes like the tentacles of some cold, shivery sea animal. The station is swarming with people, the sort I have seen pulling cycle rickshaws that I had mentioned earlier. They have a variety of jackets, sweaters, mufflers, hoods, etc. on them. It all looks so surreal and Kafkaesque.
There are these incandescent lamps that shed their pale glow on a huddling mass, as if one big greyish black chunk of humanity, breathing stolidly, mothers pulling their children into the warmth of their bosoms, men shivering, teeth chattering, a few shouts, "Yeh, laundiye," don't know what that means. I also hear the mother profanity, but said in such low-key tenor as if it were a compliment.
What I think about is migration. Migration as from Pakistan to India, Bangla Desh to India, Central Asia to India, India to the US. They have these huge polythene sacks filled with their things, may be, pots and pans and even bedding. The floor is littered with tea and coffee cups, dirt hangs even on the incandescent lamps and no one is there to man the enquiry counter where I have to enquire which platform the Sampark Kranti Express would arrive. There are these eerie sounding announcements on the smallish public address system which instead of informing adds an amount of absurdity to the whole situation.
I ask a porter. Yes, they know such things. He directs me to platform number seven. Here the sense of migration is even more stark. People with their huge bundles cling to the doors as if for their lives. I think of the pictures of the partition of India and Pakistan where people are seen travelling on the top of trains. Hasn't anything changed? A wild-eyed man, his body covered in a bedsheet, only his eyes, nose and mouth showing asks a neatly dressed man whether the train stops at Mathura. They ignore him. Then he asks me. I don't know and say as much. It's his type that Lalloo should be helping not me. I can open my laptop log in to http://indianrail.gov.in and immediately find whether I have been allotted a seat, or, even make alternate bookings then and there on http://irctc.co.in.
True the new railway minister has brought improvements in tickets bookings, upgrades similar to airlines, facile changes, but is this still what it is like? Where are the courteous public relations staff to help the illiterate masses who do not know how to book a ticket on the computer? In this respect Lallooji's initiatives have failed. There is not an inch of spare space on platform seven. The whole place is littered with huddling masses of grey and black, a huge shivering protoplasm distinguished only by the moisture that wafts from their mouths.
I ask a porter to be shown where the two-tier air-conditioned coach would be. He takes me to the other end of the platform and deserts me pocketing the twenty rupees I give him. When the train comes, I find to my dismay that the two-tier air-conditioned coach is at the other end! So I have to lug my luggage back across the entire platform.
The cold is so unyielding that thought deserts me. I try to make notes about the great hulking mass that disappears into the maw of the train compartments. But the scene is so rife with the shouts of people, the wailing of children, the eerie announcements, the signature tune that goes "trrring tooong" after the announcements that I am thoroughly disoriented. I withdraw. I give up. No thought is possible in these circumstances.
Yesterday after having lunch with Smita, I had walked in the environs of the colonial Connaught Place, eaten in Kentucky Fried Chicken (as I had done in Jeddah, when I had worked there), shopped, drank coffee at Cafe Coffee Day (where I did some of the writing of this blog post) and looked at the well-fed children of, may be, bureaucrats businessmen and executives. They seemed a different world than those that I saw on platform number seven. These people were very unlike the rickshaw pullers from whom the educated classes keep a distance, and only come together in the great equalizer of Indian Railways.
Shubhra, who has started writing poetry after nine years messages me to see if I am gone. I message back saying I am at Connaught Place and; can we meet? The reason is this poem (permanent link "To a Reluctant Writer") which I wrote to encourage a reluctant writer, which has inspired her to write after nine years. I am so glad I could help her. All my time on the networks is rewarded by the email she wrote me thanking me. She heads the human resource function of a large television network. She can't make it as it is a very busy day. This is what I mean. People in Delhi really care, and as Smita put it once, "It's our culture."
The poverty of the people I saw at Nizamuddin is amazing. They have no fancy branded suitcases. They use plastic sacks. And they carry their entire household utensils with them fearing that if they leave even their pots and pans in their hovels it would get stolen. Then it also comes handy for cooking in the villages to which they are migrating back, disillusion by the city. These are subsistence level laborers who dig the ditches, mend the pipes, make the furniture, and lay the bricks. I have worked with them in the construction projects in the Persian Gulf and their lot hasn't improved for thousands of years. They are people who lead lives of loss, I think, as I am reading Kiran Desai's, "The Inheritance of Loss." Many of them, with whom I had worked, had lost their everything in the process of emigrating to the Persian Gulf. This forms a constant leit motif of my novel (www.johnwriter.com). And they are still undergoing the pangs of the age-old system of migration, of armies invading, one people subjugating the other, the victors taking over the possessions of the vanquished. It's still going on. I am shocked and amazed no less.
This time the armies taking over surreptitiously are the internet-savvy, technophiles with their laptops like me. In Cafe Coffee Day I network with my friends on ryze.com and I can see another bunch on a computer with orkut.com on their screen. This online tribe can network as I have done in Delhi. In this city of the Mughals, because of my network contacts I could meet a lot of friends and even extend my agenda and my goals. They work in new economies like I do - telecommunications, Internet, financial services, ATM-driven banks. Yet they are a minority of the people of this nation, and this is the case of the minority taking over the majority.
The clothes the passengers that crowd Nizamuddin wear are probably the only ones they have, a polyester make that can be easily washed and used again. Where has Laloo Yadav's superfast trains and upgrades benefited them? Where are the clean toilets, clean services he promised? Yes, the two-tier air-conditioned compartment is clean and a fellow traveller lambasts the attendant who has given him a dirty towel. "They are all together, sab mile huye hain," he says meaning this is a result of corruption. But the sleeper and unreserved compartments which I have travelled often are dirty, stinking and waterless. On my way to Delhi a group of people, irate that their compartment didn't have water, had accosted the ticket checker, who showed his indifference.
There is pain here, there is dispossession, there is dissipation and loss of faith in democracy and democratic process. What is democracy if the huge changes that the government envisages cannot benefit these people? They don't even know what booking tickets on the Internet means, and if they go to the station to buy tickets they are told that the tickets are sold out, over the Internet, over computer terminals, by ticketing agents. So they don't bother to book tickets, they hang on for dear life, cling to the doors with big plastic bags full of their precious pots and pans.
As the train moves smoothly over the rails, I think of these things, write them on my laptop. My job is to record and I am recording what I think is a crucial aspect of life that I discovered, rather epiphanically during my visit to Delhi. They say travelling broadens the mind. But if it also does broaden the minds of those poor huddling masses with their blankets around their heads and shoulders, who are indistinguishable from the floor on which they huddle, I would be more than happy.