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An urban refuge.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A smoggy traffic square that was once dreaded by commuters for its long jams has become an unlikely urban haven. On one grassy slope, a group of women is playing kabaddi. On another, a cricket match is on. A few furlongs away, a badminton game is nearing its end. Across the road, the electric signboard of All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) is blinking red and green. Meanwhile, cars are speeding in all four directions - Dhaula Kuan, Ashram, INA Market and Green Park. It’s just another late summer night in Rajiv Gandhi Setu.
Popularly known as the AIIMS flyover, the nine-lane signal-free traffic interchange on the Ring Road is now also a place for Delhiites to unwind. “It’s so green,” says Yogesh Verma, a college student, who comes here daily from Kidwai Nagar West, a nearby neighbourhood.
Opened in 2003, Rajiv Gandhi Setu, named after a former Prime Minister, was a hideout for sex workers and drug addicts. Completely sanitized of the low life, the place now pulls in family crowd – from cousins and aunties to grannies and pet dogs - making it an open-sky social beach in night-time Delhi.
There are hardly such spaces in the city. Most parks close their gates by 9 pm. Of course, that doesn’t make the slopes of the Setu comparable to the sprawling expanse of India Gate, which too remains alive till late hours. The AIIMS flyover will never attract people from all over Delhi. The gardens here are not large and being at the centre of the traffic intersection, there is no parking facility. Almost all the late-night regulars live in the vicinity and they come here rather casually - as part of their after-dinner evening walk.
“It’s very open here and you feel less hot,” says Uma Kumari, a Kidwai Nagar housewife, taking a break from the kabaddi match. Most people here come from Kidwai Nagar, though The Delhi Walla also met five young wall-painters from Kalu Sarai Village, two miles away, near IIT flyover. “We boys live together and when we come to this park and sit among the families here, we think of our people back home,” says Mohammad Ramzan, one of the painters.
Amid a network of flyovers, loops and slip roads crisscrossing the area, the hillocks in the traffic intersection have been landscaped with grass, flowers and plants, so that you don’t feel the smog. By 9 pm, the evening rush hour thins to a trickle and the temperature drops. The water sprinklers keep the grass wet and the air fragrant with the scent of damp earth.
The Setu’s popularity also indicates the lack of open gardens in the city’s nighbourhoods, which is why residents choose to take the risk of crossing busy highways to reach a place such as this.
“When there was no park here, we would hang out around a gumbad (a domed monument) in Kidwai Nagar,” says Yogesh. “But there was no place to sit. We couldn’t lie down on the grass like we do here.”
As part of the landscape, the gardens also have a couple of ‘steel sprouts’ installations that have been criticized on grounds of aesthetics. The regulars don’t mind. Children love climbing the long ‘stalks’ of these sprouts. “But we have some demands,” says housewife Saroj Kumari. “We want at least one security guard and four dustbins.” Also a few ice-cream wallas, please.
Where Near AIIMS Best time 9 pm to 11 pm
On the crossroads
Green and open
Aunty's night out
Band of brothers
The homesick painters from Kalu Sarai
Bye bye, brother