Some cities share their stories with us so fiercely that when we leave, we don’t miss them anymore because their stories quietly replace them.
For the longest time, Delhi was lived quite precariously within the strong red walls of Karnataka Bhavan and its sombre neighbour, Ansal Plaza. This was where we headed to for a stroll, for pizza and to generally avoid the vacuum of living in a strange city and yet living outside of it.
Early this year in Ansal Plaza, I found Hi Seoul, and I allowed myself to feel less tortured about not having the courage to explore Dilli. Finding Hi Seoul was the result of some form of exploration, I told myself. So as my parents and aunt trundled to Dominos’; the sister, the brother, and I walked to Hi Seoul.
The next day, we caught our early morning flight to Manali. Delhi safely went back to being the building we stopped at before resuming the actual journey.
When I stepped out to go to Daryaganj, my phone was recovering from the heavy-duty Delhi Metro apps I’d just downloaded. Daryaganj, as my app pointed out, was squeezed between Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk. The Chandni Chowk of Kajol from K3G’s galli, of delicious jelebis and cheap clothes that cousins talked about always a little breathlessly, and of the way my mother’s eyes turned suddenly soft and then shy when she recounted her second trip with dad there.
I cursed all my well-wishers back home who told me that I’d die if I didn’t take warm clothes and wear two socks and two bras in Delhi. I was baking – bra, body warmer, a full sleeved cotton shirt with frills, my brown jacket, socks and warm crocs.
I climbed out of the Chawri Bazaar Metro station and saw a line of cycle-rickshaws. My Google maps said walk 20 minutes to reach Daryaganj. I said chalo, why not and as I walked towards the footpath, one of my legs stood firmly in front of the cycle-rickshaw and refused to move. It all had to happen fast so obviously I went to the nearest cycle-rickshaw and looked inside. The last time I had seen one was in Band Baaja Baraat where Bittu and Shruti do their Shaadi Mubarak business phone call in a cycle rickshaw. Daryaganj jaana hai, I told my man. He nodded and I hopped inside.
My rucksack and I hugged each other as we sat because we were happy and didn’t want anyone or anything else in life. Except maybe some jelebis. Jelebis, yes. And as I sat there, bobbing up and down, I dreamt about a magic camera that could show you what all your friends were doing in that moment and then I imagined all my friends staring into my moment and feeling very happy for me. My father’s disapproving face appeared and I felt happier.
The cycle-rickshaw braked and I fell, face -first on my man’s back. My rucksack fell and along with it, all my camera fantasies and hopes. My father’s face erupted into raucous laughter and I sobered down. I had arrived in Dilli. I held on tightly to the sides of my cycle-rickshaw and felt a little afraid for my life. My man was humming and braking and screaming at bike/car walas and jumping in and out of potholes with very little effort.
The road suddenly sprung to life and all the vehicles jammed on the lane started screeching away. There was no trace of a footpath — all the cycle-rickshaws had pulled closed to one another and were honking in unison. We were now on a two way road with a serious monopoly issue. Our side had colonised half the road.
When we hadn’t moved for a while, I paid up and squeezed myself out and stood on no man’s land. I was trapped. There was no room for my rucksack and me to stand, let alone move. My man took pity and offered to drop me to the end of the road. I looked around to see various no man’s land people offering 100 bucks to just sit in the cycle-rickshaw.
The metro quickly became something I looked forward to travelling in everyday with a mild jouissance. Imagining my body and the bodies of many other women in the metro, lolling freely in the comfort of the ladies compartment made me want to know them differently.
A woman was reading a text book by the door – her lips pouting in enviable concentration, her eyelashes barely visible and her posture so confident, I wondered if she did this every day. Another wriggled into the space between two large women and apologized for her huge Mega Mart bag even as the women dutifully ignored her and went back to sleep.
On my last day in Dilli, two women asked me for directions and one of them enquired if I took the metro regularly. I shamelessly said yes and smiled like a maniac for the rest of the journey.
Monica James writes in Invisible Libraries that today, the library of Daryaganj contains the city. ‘A walk through the library of Daryaganj is also a walk through the city and in your wanderings books become your guides.’
There were various kinds of libraries here: deodorants, clothes, sweaters, track pants, spiral-bound books, diaries, but mostly more books. They were pouring out of the pavements. Lines and lines of massive books in all sizes displayed on thick, plastic blue covers. I scored two Judy Moodys here for Rs 10 each and a moth-eaten copy of Austen’s Sanditon for Rs 30 which I bought only for the inscription I found inside:
A mean sized auto pulled up at one of the pavements and a lean, short man wearing green chappals slowly started shutting down business for the day and arranging it in the back of the auto. Everywhere else, books were being returned to humongous plastic covers, rags and travel bags. One such pile was being stuffed in when I noticed a bent copy of Blankets. 200 Rs. I decided against it because by now my rucksack was threatening to burst. I still regret not buying it.
On the way back – the rush from before was gone and Meena Bazaar had fallen to a quiet mist. Shop after shop selling meat had their showcases filled to the brim with kebabs and sheeks. On the other side, boxes of sweet smelling fruits were piled on top of each other. At Jama Masjid, I cut into a galli full of weddingy shops: Invitation cards, tent works, plumbing, bride and groom clothes, and travel agents selling exclusive honeymoon deals.
In the corner, a thin man with a big scar on his forehead sat with his knees pressed to the chest – he was getting a shave from a large man dexterously waving his knife. All the top-half of the buildings in Chawri bazaar were blackened, dusty and closed. The lower half of the buildings flourished with activity. I walked on and on, realizing that in a parallel universe, I am sitting in one of the many balconies at Karnataka Bhavan gazing down at red brick walls.