Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Column - Delhi by the Book

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Delhi by the Book

A Pakistani blogger-author is writing a travelogue on Delhi.

[Text by Lahore-based Raza Rumi; picture of the author at Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Writing about the textbook enemy, the ‘other’, is but a daunting task. Facing the grandiose Humayun’s tomb on a chilly January morning in early 2008, I decided to write a book on Delhi.

It was not before I had visited the ancient city that I knew what it symbolised. In Pakistan, we were influenced by the glories of Lahore, my beloved city. Reconstructed histories had kept Delhi invisible. The seat of the Sultans, Mughals and the Raj, precursor of the modern united India and originator of the Indo-Islamic civilization was a mere phantom, best ignored.

Over several visits to Delhi, I realised that invisibility was also a shared curse. A good number of Delhi wallas I met, had no clue where they lived or crossed the streets. Erasure, blank spaces in textbooks had rendered their own city a mythical other-world existing only in erudite books, rare cultural soirees and among the fading memories of old-Delhi.

When I looked for the house where Urdu’s legendary poet Mir Taqi Mir lived, no one knows it. Those living in Hauz Khas are unaware of what it was. There are thousands, perhaps more, who have never visited Nizamuddin Bastee let alone the dargah there. Tracing history through books resembles a two-dimensional vision. Lived histories add other dimensions to the inner kaleidoscope. But there are so few who can help me.

I am pained when I am taken to the tomb of India’s first female ruler Razia Sultana (1236 - 1240). Only centuries later another woman Indira Gandhi was to rule the Centre. Razia’s grave languishes on an abandoned, filthy cul-de-sac. Many don’t care. I wonder, should I?

As I have ventured out to write, the enormity of Delhi — the idea — haunts me. Where do I start? The layered construction of Indian, and Muslim identities in the subcontinent emanate from the ridges and Hades of Delhi. The saints buried under its red-brown earth impacted the society and culture for times to come. Now viewed as a global ‘problem’, the Muslims augmented the diversity of an already wondrous India.

What is known as the [north] Indian cuisine, albeit of the non-vegetarian variety, is a Muslim innovation and so are tunes of Hindustani, classical music, the strings of a sitar and the rhythms of tabla. Ten centuries of cultural hybridization resulted in Urdu and current day Hindustani the idiom for northern India and the much-celebrated Bollywood.

Delhi’s history also underwrites the secular tradition. Save the unsavoury and brief spells of intolerance, governance was largely a secular feat. Whilst Europe was grappling with intra-Christianity fissures, Akbar was holding inter-faith dialogues and Dara Shikoh in his Delhi library was translating the Bible and the Upanishads in Persian.

What motivates me to write? Lacking an appropriate label, a catchy boxed tag such as a historian or a sociologist, what is my locus standi? Irritated, I ignore the little demons with a single sentence: Delhi belongs to me as well. As a ‘Pakistani-South Asian’ Muslim, I share Delhi’s past and its present too. Visas and borders obfuscate my affinities; shared histories are challenged by communalists and extremists. And, I write a book to cross boundaries and tread zones that officialdom cannot appropriate.

Who said writing was not a liberating experience. What could be a better way to subvert the imposed hostilities and jingoisms — just write?

Undaunted, I am still spinning my Delhi yarn.

[This piece was earlier published in Jahane Rumi]

Monday, July 28, 2008

City Sightseeing - Heritage Tour 2008

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I’m Lovin' It

A tour of the 21st century Delhi.

[Picture and text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Delhi is more than tombs and domes. So, instead of guiding readers to those been-there-seen-that touristy sites — Qutub Minar, Safdarjang Tomb and other phalana dankaThe Delhi Walla designs his own heritage highway that respects the past and celebrates the present.

Priya cinema complex

In the beginning, there was no PVR. Only Priya. That’s why our tour bus starts from here. Basant Lok, aka Priya complex, is a hangout of historical proportions. India’s first McDonald’s was opened here — many, many years ago — in 1996 AD. It is also the site of India’s first TGIF. That, too, had opened the same year. Eleven years earlier, Ajit Vikram Singh had opened Fact & Fiction, the city’s best independently owned bookstore. It has such an eclectic collection that even those who actively despise books might find much to browse through and hence delay our tour.

Hauz Khas Village

There was every possibility that this antiquated 13th century rural hamlet would have remained quiet, sleepy and ignored. Who wants to see a reservoir built centuries ago by some ancient ruler, even if his name was Allauddin Khilji?

Enter Bina Ramani, Delhi’s original society queen, the first Indian designer to be featured on the cover of Vogue. In 1988 AD, Ramani set up Twice Upon A Time — her second boutique — at the Village. It laid the foundation of the great Hauz Khas civilisation. Every who’s who in town worth her eyeliner was drawn towards the village. The New York Times correspondent Barbara Crosette called it “the national capital of ethnic chic”. Today, Hauz Khas is a mecca for buying antique reproductions. The bus will stop for an hour. Enough time to empty your wallets.

Bukhara, Maurya Sheraton

Lunch stop. You will be served with the famous Clinton platter, the exact menu (sikandari raan, murgh tandoori, barrah kabab, murgh malai, seekh kabab, dal bukhara, raita) that Bill Clinton ordered during his state trip to India in 2000 AD. Chelsea Platter for veggies.

Safdarjung’s Tomb

This is Delhi’s best-kept secret. No, we aren’t talking of Mr Safdarjung, who had no business to be buried in Delhi. The guy was the nawab of Oudh, after all.

Let’s discourse on the life and times of the real badshah. They say that Shah Rukh Khan’s mamujaan had his canteen here. We don’t have confirmation, but many say that the place was called Khatir. When SRK became famous, the canteen walls were said to be covered with posters of his Pepsi ad. Alas, Delhi doesn’t care for its heritage. While Safdarjung’s tomb continues to stand, the great canteen has vanished.

Lodhi Garden

In the times past, there was a village called Khairpur here. In 2004 AD, Time magazine called it Asia’s Best Urban Oasis.

Originally known as Lady Willingdon Park, this Garden of Eden is an ideal place to share intimate moments with your ladylove. If you are an unlucky loner, console yourself by gazing at the ‘scenery’. After all, this place is a slap on the face of those who target India as a ‘coldbed’ of sexual repression.

See romantic declarations (Rakesh loves Manju) etched on trees or enjoy guilty glimpses of couples smooching and groping each other’s body parts behind the bushes. The bus will only stop for 20 minutes. Hurry.

MG Road

The heritage tour comes full circle and now we are driving through Delhi’s most mourned-over ruins. In 2006 AD, the dreaded sealing drive had led to the closure of various fashion stores here. In one fell swoop, the world of the Capital’s elite came crashing down. However, save your tears. Delhi is a city that has been built, destroyed, rebuilt, re-destroyed and rebuilt again. Those stores will rise from the ashes. The well-dressed will have something to wear again.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

City Life - Demolishing the Unwanted

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Two Ladies

This ain't no city for the poor.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The day when Delhi's cosmopolitan gay community was flaunting its existence in a parade, I was in a settlement that has ceased to exist.

Walking past my old office in Kailash Colony's L block, I took a turn to the right, and reached an open yard. Once a jhuggi cluster of south Indians lived here. The husbands worked as rickshaw-wallas, wives as kaam-waalis, and children lolled around in filth.

But now a graveyard-like stillness lurked. In 2006, under the orders of the Delhi High Court, MCD's demolition squad had cleaned up the slum in the course of a single afternoon. That morning I crossed the park, adjacent to that jhuggi, on my way to work, and stopped by an aunty's breakfast cart. Each morning she would sell her idli-sambar to the fellow jhuggiwallas. I didn't know it then but I had my idli sambar for the last time there.

The bulldozer arrived in the afternoon while I had a window seat view of the spectacle from my air-conditioned office.

But let's not be sentimental: facts first. The jhuggiwallas knew that their homes, more than 30-years-old, were illegal and that the authorities would be demolishing them. They had already been served a notice. However, when you are used to something as real as home, you feel — How can they destroy my home? But nothing stopped the bulldozer.

The slum-dwellers cursed and cried in Tamil, hurled stones at the cops while their houses were razed down — bedrooms, terraces, courtyards — everything. However, they soon surrendered their intifada and hurriedly rushed to salvage whatever they could — a bed sheet, a pressure cooker, a transistor. Later, they stood by and helplessly watched the demolition carried out by the MCD staff with a been-there-done-that look.

Where have those people gone? Who would parade for their right to live in the city?

The day I was there, the empty space looked squeaky clean. There were no unclean children, no squabbling women and no cursing men. Even the pavement temple had disappeared. Moss-green grass has sprung up everywhere. The former slum looked like a garden where 'People Like Us' could go for a stroll with our pomeranians. Kailash Colony had reclaimed its beauty and our aspiration for a slum-free city has grown a little more real.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

In Town - Readers of Arundhati Roy

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Reading Arundhati Roy

Possessed by The God of Small Things.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

I have tempered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much. I have crossed into forbidden territory. I love a novel. The God of Small Things.

Last night I again dreamt of Arundhati Roy even though it was Anna Karenina who was my sleeping companion. In the morning, I woke up with memories of Ayemenem, the little town in the novel, where "May is always a hot and brooding month". At this moment I’m thinking of Sophie Mol who was A Sunbeam Lent To Us Too Briefly. Later in the day, my thoughts may wander to Khan Market where Larry McLasin noticed Rahel with her “absurdly beautiful collarbones and a nice athletic run”.

No matter where I am, which novel I’m reading, whom I’m talking to, Rahel, Estha and Ammu are always in my mind. Always.

A few weeks ago I was reading Ammu’s death scene to my brother and I did what I would never dare to do in front of any other person: I cried, read, cried, read...Bhai, my brother, did not interrupt me...

The steel door of the incinerator went up and the muted hum of the eternal fire became a red roaring. The heat lunged out at them like a famished beast. Then Rahel's Ammu was fed to it. Her hair, her skin, her smile. Her voice

...Bhai looked on...

Sometimes it gets too much. Weighed down by several copies of The God of Small Things, stuffed tight in the bookshelves of my being, I imagined I could carry on. However, in vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. I must be allowed to express how ardently I admire and love The God of Small Things.

I have created a new blogsite -- Reading Arundhati Roy. While it is dedicated to all those who did Not survive (think Ammu, Velutha, Estha, Sophie Mol…), everyone’s invited. Even Baby Kochamma!

Monday, July 21, 2008

City Life - Bus No. 620

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Bus No.620

Sightseeing in Delhi's most scenic bus route.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

July 14, 2008 Headline Delhi Metro completes tunnel below railway lines at Safdarjung in just 3 days

July 14, 2050 Headline Due to lack of passengers (blame the Rs 25,000 cars and the Metro), the Delhi Government will disband DTC. Buses to stop plying from next month

Dear reader, we shall soon spot those DTC buses only in books and films, for they would be no more than a dream (or a nightmare?) remembered, a civilisation gone with the wind... the day is not far when our commute would happen under the ground and we would forget how this city looks like in different seasons.

July 14, 2000 Shivaji Stadium, Connaught Place. Rainy afternoon. No umbrella. Strong wind. Under a bus shelter. Waiting. Waiting. More waiting. Finally, 620 rumbles in. I take my place on the right. No seat here reserved for women. Four more people clamber aboard, including a young mother with two children. The journey starts.

Motoring down the Outer Circle. Its landmarks rolling past in a diesel-propelled blur: Madras Café, Mahatta Photo Studio, Nirula's, Shankar Market, Statesman Tower, Jeevan Bharti building.

The bus is turning to Parliament Street and stops at Jantar Mantar traffic light. The red stone of the 16th century observatory looks impotent. Its sundial has no use; there's no sun. The red light turns green. The bus moves.

Grrr! Sudden lightning. The wind gets fiercer. Trees swaying like sleepy djinns. Sansad Bhawan appears and disappears – in a flash. Water trickles into the bus. I close the window. Rashtrapati Bhawan coming into view. A sudden spray wets the glass. Behind the wet windows, the edifice is looking dreamy, unreal.

Now, a dilemma. To continue admiring it or look left, towards India Gate. Or just marvel at the great expanse of Rajpath. Its prospect is beautiful but too grand, too forbidding for me. However, the road ahead is more hospitable. The three guards at the Teen Murti roundabout seem friendly but we leave them behind. A car overtakes our bus. Its shrill horn, echoing in the air, soon fades.

In Shantipath, the earth is green with grass. The flowers on the hedges are nodding like ghosts. The blue dome of the Pakistan embassy soars above the trees. The bus stops. A squirrel scurries away like a midsummer's night dream.

A lady, and she alone, enters, drenched in a purple sleeveless blouse. I gaze at the mole above her lips. She grimaces. The driver switches on the 'deck' – Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai. We drive on. Past National Railway museum, through Motibagh crossing, past Sangam cinema. Hey look, there's Malai Mandir over that hilltop. Someday I will go there.

The bus stops again. My stop here.

July 14, 2070 Headline In order to introduce the history and civilisation of Delhi's dead bus culture to domestic and foreign tourists, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has decided to establish a DTC Heritage Museum and a Tourist Information Centre at Shivaji Stadium.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

City Pulse - 7pm in Khan Market

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7 pm In Khan Market

Life in Delhi's Upper East Side.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Outside a skin clinic: a freshly-Botoxed (Rs 8,000 per session) woman stepping out in Jimmy Choo evening heels (Rs 50,000). Outside a foreign magazine stall: a young man in a faded blue Ed Hardy T-shirt (Rs 12,000) asking for the latest New Yorker (Rs 450). Outside Faqir Chand bookstore: a pot-bellied guy, his spindly hairy legs slanting out of his red Puma shorts (Rs 1,200), talking into his iPhone (Rs 22,000).

Outside Khan Market's main gate: rows of Volkswagens (Rs 40 lakh), BMWs (Rs 60 lakh) and Pajeros (Rs 30 lakh) honking for parking – the only free thing here.

People in Khan Market are living the dream. Everyone is happy, handsome and rich. Inflation is just a headline in the International Herald Tribune (Rs 30). Boys are gelled, brawny and tattooed with shirt buttons open to reveal waxed chests. Girls are pretty, polished and pedigreed with waistlines properly disguised.

It seems as though every child looks naturally rich – as if they slipped out of momma's womb with platinum credit cards in their fist.

Phew, too many goras here. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… here, there, there, there, there too… 25, 26, 27… all looking first-world. All looking as if they are diplomats from West European countries. All looking very carefree.

Suddenly, a ripple in the crowd. Who is it? Whoisit? Whoissit? Rumours swimming from Good Earth to Chonas in the front lane, and from Big Chill to Khan Chacha ke Kebab in the middle lane. Sonia Gandhi? Nah. Priyanka Gandhi? Nah. It's the Prime Minister's wife!

Heads craning towards a bubble of Black Cat commandos. Nah, it's not PM's wife. It's the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir. With an air of polite reserve, Mr VIP walks into Dayal Opticals.

The greatness fades from view. People shake their heads as if emerging from a deep slumber. A silver-haired lady in a white ikat sari picks up her scattered handloom-garment dignity and carries on clutching a brown Fabindia paper bag – a style statement in itself.

Inside Bahri Booksellers: a middle-aged gentleman is asking for How to please your wife? Kapil Sibal, Chandni Chowk MP, is sitting on a low stool and saying, "This book, that book and that book, too." A not-so-selling author is complaining to the shop assistant, "Why my book is not on the window display?"

A gori flipping through Raghu Rai's coffee table book on Taj Mahal (Rs 3,000). She places the book back on the shelf and exits. Past the magazine stall, past the doggie shop, past Blanco, past the kebab corner, up the stairs, past Anokhi and into Market Café. More goras inside. One reading The Economist (Rs 150). The other working on his Apple notebook (Rs 50,000). No empty table.

She comes out, walks to the other side, enters Full Circle bookshop, and climbs up to Café Turtle. The pasta of the day is Ohsiciliai, served with a rich arrabiata sauce. Just Rs 295 plus vat. More than two-thirds of the Indian population lives on less than Rs 20 a day.

Too many rich folks, too little space

7 pm In Khan Market

Khan Market ki gori

7 pm In Khan Market

Barcoded people

7 pm In Khan Market

People Like Them

7 pm In Khan Market

In Cafe Turtle

7 pm In Khan Market

What's poverty?

7 pm In Khan Market

Million dollar smile

McDonald Beggars

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Feature - Talking Life in GB Road

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Talking Life in GB Road

Conversations with sex workers in Delhi's red-light district.

[Picture by Shashwat Saxena; text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

I have been to Garstin Bastion Road, the city's red-light district, just next to New Delhi railway station (Ajmeri Gate), more than once.

Earlier I would only walk in the streets while sex workers would aggressively beckon me from the windows of their kothas. But I was scared to go in. There have been stories about how young 'inexperienced' men were lured inside and then robbed of their mobile phones, wallets, shoes and also clothes. I was better safe outside. Sometimes, being a wannabe photographer, I would take out my digicam and then there followed a volley of maa-behen swearwords directed towards me.

However, one evening, I gathered up courage, climbed the stairs, knocked at the door and walked into a kotha -- and into a living room.

There were around half a dozen ladies, a few looked as if they were in 40s while the rest were very young. None expressed disappointment or disgust when I confessed that I was not looking for sex and had no money to offer. That I only desired a few hours of conversation.

The ladies asked me to sit down on the floor and we all gathered together. I was served with chai, namkeen and anda-bread. We then talked life. They shared their secrets with me and I shared my secrets with them. Sometimes a customer would come in and any one of them would take her leave -- without much fuss -- and re-appear after a while -- without much fuss. But such comings-and-goings did not interfere with our chat.

I soon discovered that we all there faced rather similar challenges concerning money, work and relationships. The ladies talked about their families back home in the village while I shared notes concerning my folks. In the end, all of us performed namaz and thanked Allah for the happiness we have been able to snatch from the hands of destiny.

Such is life

Talking Life in GB Road

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Feature - Delhi, the City of Villages

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Shooping Collectibles in Delhi

There are 275 of them in the metropolis.

[Text and picture of the Hauz Khas village by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Delhi is India's capital but it may as well be a separate planet. Even as the country's urban-rural divide gets wider, the city's urban sprawl is appearing to mix seamlessly with its rural backyard.

Err, backyard is not the right term. Most villages of Delhi, there are 275 'revenue villages' in all, do not lie at its periphery. They are right there in the Capital's heart.

Sometimes you don't even know you are in a village. For instance, the short walk from Kailash Colony to Zamrudpur won't propel you into a shock sight of green pastures and grazing cows; it will still be the same concrete, electric wires, internet cafes, gyms, grocery stores, though everything a bit run-down, a bit less stylish. It is only if you stumble into a street corner where old men are smoking hookah on a jute khaat that you would realise – Oh God, it's a village!

The research firm IIMS Dataworks revealed in July, 2008, that while the nation-wide proportion of urban earners in the highest income bracket rose by 3.7 percent during 2004-2007, their rural counterpart's income clambered by just 0.9 percent during the same period.

However, go to Hauz Khas village and you won't believe the urban-rural divide - everyone looks wealthy amidst the swanky art galleries and charming curio shops. Or walk into Rangpuri, a village that borders Radisson hotel where Jat kids drive flashy cars and dance in NH-8 clubs, thanks to dad's farmlands sold for a fortune.

According to the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, out of 33.60 lakh households in Delhi, 1,79 lakh live in rural areas. Once upon a time there must have been more villages in the city.

Lucky Peck, author of Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building, says that during the colonial era, the expansion of the city swallowed up nearly 50 villages and during the first decade after independence another 50 were engulfed. Some of the villages like Malcha and Raisina survive only as street names. Raisina, of course, was shifted to build Viceregal Lodge, later re-named Rashtrapati Bhawan. The exact site of the village is said to be where the Press Club sits today. Such are the vagaries of time.

But the death of certain rural hamlets hasn't led to the extinction of the city's ruralscape. Delhi's urban villages are mainly a product of the last 60 years. True quite a few could trace their origin back to several centuries when they first developed around tombs and mosques but the present edition bore no resemblance to the past, except, of course, if you are lucky to discover those ruins sweltering amidst concrete structures.

Unlike during the construction of New Delhi when the British cleared away entire villages, the era after independence saw the city being planned around these villages. The villages remained, but not their farm fields that soon sprouted residential apartments in place of sugarcanes. So there is Vasant Enclave next to Vasant Gaon, Khirki Extension next to Khirki Village and Nizamuddin West next to Nizamuddin Basti.

The villagers of Kotla Mubarakpur, next to South Ex I, once sent their cows to graze in what is now the uppity Defence Colony. The villagers of Shahpur Jat, that modern-day hub of designer boutiques and basement workshops, had their farmlands spreading from today's Hauz Khas and Andrewsganj to as far as Greater Kailash and Malviya Nagar. Unbelievable, you may say.

Though there may not be a stark difference in the distribution of wealth between Delhi's urban and rural sprawls, the starker social difference makes its presence felt in this status-driven metropolis. "I know a Miranda House graduate who refused to marry a suitable boy from a wealthy family just because he lived in Rangpuri," a friend told me.

The sassy girl should know better. In Delhi, there's no getting away from villages.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

City Notes - No Women Inside Nizamuddin Dargah

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Hazrat Nizamuddin - Hail the Sufi

Shame on the house of Delhi's best known Sufi shrine.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

What if Nobel laureate Mr. VS Naipaul goes to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya's dargah?

What would Mr. Naipaul, ever the pessimist, ever the cynic, observe in the famous south Delhi shrine? Going by his past, if he goes on to write a book, Mr. Naipaul would surely use the most elegant language to describe the filth, the stench, the beggars, the unruly crowd, the shouting, the shoving and the general hullaballoo.

He would notice all the unpleasant aspects of the dargah and ignore the beauty of it: the serenity, the peace and the Sufi ishq. Reading such an account, I would just shrug and smirk.

But what if Mr. Naipaul notices what I notice and feel ashamed of each time I visit the dargah — that women are not allowed inside the main shrine.

While men and eunuchs are privileged to go inside to pay their hajiri, our women can only pray, kneel, kiss and cling to the wall of the tomb-chamber. I have often seen women who mistakenly enter the shrine being rudely asked to leave by caretakers. As if they are herding cows or goats.

Are women inferior? Are they impure? Does the presence of a woman destroy the sanctity of the sanctum sanctorum? Curiously, Delhi boasts the shrine of a woman Sufi — Bibi Fatima's dargah at Kaka Nagar. If we can have that, why can't we let women enter the shrine of a Sufi?

Writer Ms. Sadia Dehlvi, who is working on a book on Sufism, has never been inside the dargah. "This reflects the conservative attitude of the dargah caretakers. It is a matter of culture rather than religion, for these were not rules laid down by the Sufis," she says.

Intolerance is not, of course, the official reason for barring women's entry; there are more bizarre explanations. A khadim (caretaker) at the shrine says that the inner chamber is small and everyone has to stand so close to each other that women might find it uncomfortable. So why not let the men stay outside?

These sexist discriminations are not part of the Sufi tradition. My mother has every right to enter the dargah. Till the time she's not allowed entry, I, too, should perhaps just pray by clinging to the outer wall. Meanwhile, I must take her to the shrine of Gharib Nawaz - another great Sufi saint - in Ajmer, 6-hour car-ride from Delhi. There they let the women inside.

Monday, July 07, 2008

City Life - Getaways from Middle Class Delhi

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Window View - Train to Mumbai

Save me from respectable people

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Not long ago, a particular breed of Delhiwallas went to Goa to escape the rush hours of urban living. But now as the middle classes begin to feel the pinch of rising airline ticket costs and food inflation, they have jettisoned the idea of flying, and returned to that traditional holiday hotspot - the humble, not so idyllic anymore, hill station.

So I too, pushed by the two-digit inflation, hit upon the idea of Nainital for a weekend getaway. There I discovered that the entire lake town appeared to have been invaded by Delhiwallas.

Most cars had Delhi number plates. No longer the retreat of the sahebs and the memsahibs, the Delhi's lelenge-dedenge lingo from one end of Mall Road to the other echoed in the misty air. Men with huge paunches and hanging chests wore tight tee-shirts (just as they do in Preet Vihar's malls) while their bosomy women blinded my eyes with Christmassy sarees, look-I'm-on-holiday straw hats, and cameras in place of mangalsutras. And then there were the children, playful, screaming and greedy for goodies.

Little did I know when I planned the trip, that I would find myself surrounded by the regular middle class people of Delhi, the izzatdar species, whom I have adroitly managed to avoid in the Capital. You see, I never dreamed of a moustache, a paunch, a permanent job, an overgrown wife, irksome children etc.

OK, in their defence, this chunk of the society is perhaps good for the economy and TV ratings. But spare me please. There is something about the middle class that stifles the imagination.

So it was unreal to be a part of this parivaar scene in Nainital. You had no escape.

In Delhi, there are hideouts where one can get away with anonymity. It is easy to patronise eccentric bookshops that stock no Sidney Sheldon, no Chetan Bhagat; thronged by booklovers living lives such as Anna Karenina's or Raskonlikov's. Or the seedy gardens where shy lovers trying to make the most of their privacy. Or just ramble around among the old Delhi beggars. A walk in the decidedly non-middle class GB Road, the city's red-light district, can also do the trick.

These booklovers, beggars, garden lovers and prostitutes too seek comfort in their lives. But the narrative of their existence, whether by accident or otherwise, is not plagued by ordinariness. The eccentrics of Delhi can defy expectations; their lives are edgy; and there's more art, than artifice, in how they live.

Alas, no such luxury in Nanital.

I was trapped in the melee of Mall Road, squeezed in by middle class Delhi, and there was not even one half-decent bookshop in town.

Maybe I need to come back to Nanital in ten years from now, when I'm less young, less revolutionary, and I have accepted the inevitable ordinariness of life. There we'll meet on the Mall. I'll be the one with a moustache, a paunch, a permanent job, an overgrown wife and two irksome children.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Special - Will Delhi Wake Up to its Heritage?

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Period Bedroom

Sexing up the city's ruins.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

It took 2,000 years of recorded history and more than 1,000 tombs, forts, havelis, baolis, darwazas for Delhi to emerge as India's first possible 'World heritage city'.

The city-based Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) signed a MoU with the Delhi government on July 3rd so that urban development happens in sync with the Capital's architectural marvels.

It was high time. After all, according to writer Mr. William Dalrymple, "only Rome, Istanbul and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains".

Too busy due to its national scope, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protects only 174 monuments in the city. The rest (out of an approximately 1,200 monuments), taken care of by NDMC and MCD, are gradually disappearing — blame the hoodlums and general indifference. "We drive past them, take a shortcut through them, walk our dogs on their grounds," says Ms. Rakhshanda Jalil, author of Invisible City.

Will the new tag help? I talked to Mr. AGK Menon, INTACH Delhi chapter convener. "We will consult the government on the protection of legally unprotected monuments," he says. "Heritage City status will also bring the monuments closer to the people, as in Rome and Istanbul."


Should we expect Purani Dilli, too, to soon boast chaikhanas as charming as Parisian cafés? Will we nibble on seekh kebabs while lounging on wrought iron chairs lining the traffic-free, fly-free Jama Masjid by-lanes (with no overhead wires disrupting the masjid's view)?

May be.

A special heritage corridor is mapped from Lal Qila to Humayun's Tomb. Landscape, lighting, hoarding and signage will be designed "to improve the visual literacy of the Delhiwallas towards monuments", according to Mr. Menon. Each site — Dilli Gate, Khooni Darwaza, Ferozeshah Kotla, Purana Qila and more — will dazzle and won't be just another stony dot on your commute.

However, more than anything else, the stunning settings in ruins like Purana Qila and Humayun's Tomb are great to just spend time in. Too bad they hardly see local visitors. Heritage City may bring in those missing Dilliwallas.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Special - 29/6, The Day Delhi Came Out

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The Day Delhi Came Out

Interview with Lesley Esteves, of Delhi Queer Pride Committee.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi; picture courtesy – AFP]

June 29, 2008 was a big day for gay Delhi. In a country where the existence of this community is not even acknowledged and where consensual homosexual sex is an illegal act punishable by imprisonment, a gay pride parade marched through its heart and ended in its Tiananmen Square - the Jantar Mantar.

The Delhi Walla talked to Ms. Lesley Esteves, queer activist and one of the key organisers of Delhi's first gay pride parade.

San Francisco's Castro Street came to Jantar Mantar. More than 1000 people in Delhi's first gay parade! Did you imagine such an unprecedented crowd?

I had hoped for 200, would have settled for 150. But the crowd exceeded my most optimistic expectations - maybe 10 times over!

This is a city where being openly gay remains a distant dream for many. Just what prompted the city's sexual minority to walk so openly in the capital's streets? Were all fears gone?

We marched for the people for whom being openly gay remains a dream. We marched to let them know, yes it is a crime to have gay sex in India, but it is not a crime to be gay. We marched to let them know our existence is not criminalised, and that's why we are out on the streets to proclaim we are proud of our difference and should not be criminalised for it.

Ms. Esteves, just how you folks planned the parade? Were you apprehensive of any possible trouble from any quarters?
About 40 of us queer individuals got together to plan, execute and organise the pride. There was incredible energy and enthusiasm among us, a sense of excitement that we were about to make history. And we all did, everyone who marched made history.

We, the organisers, were mildly apprehensive only because the police were warning us that we could be attacked by a right wing political outfit. But we told them that it is their duty to protect us. And we decided, even if we are attacked, we would not respond with violence and we would do our best to continue marching. We waved the apprehensions away and they proved to be unfounded. All we found on the streets was immense support.

What was the response of passers-by?

There was a lot of curiosity from the moment we began. Some joined the march for part of the way. Most asked us what the issue was. The response was mixed but friendly in all cases.

Your happiest moment during the parade?

There were many. I was so proud to march at the head of the flag alongside artist Sunil Gupta who was wearing his HIV Positive T-shirt. He is a hero to so many of us.

And when we were crossing Janpath, I turned around and saw for the first time the sheer number of people who were marching along with us. I saw my relatives, my colleagues, my straight friends. I was blown away and so proud of Delhi. But the best moment was when I got an SMS from my father congratulating me on a good show. It meant the world to me.

Any nervous moment?

None. Not a moment of nerves. I think it is true not just for me but for all of us that we marched with supreme confidence which came from the belief that it is no longer a question of if, but when, homosexuality will be decriminalised in India.

Will the parade be an annual feature now?

We will have a national parade every year henceforth. And as activist Ashok Row Kavi said, "every year there will be more Indian cities joining in".

A 2-minute silence was observed for the "victims of 377". Do you really think this law will be abolished anytime soon?

The call that rose yesterday from Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru was crystal clear - 377 has to go now. If India wants to be true to its claim of being a democracy that respects human rights, India should decriminalise consensual same-sex as soon as possible and further, introduce anti-discriminatory legislation on grounds of sexual orientation.

How did you celebrate the success of the parade?

We partied till 3 am. Mayank, I can tell you that after 29/6, there is a fabulously open gay life on the streets of Delhi. I am now so proud of my city.

Thank you, Ms. Esteves.

You're welcome, mayank