The problem

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IN the postcards they sell to tourists, the sky always looks too blue to be Delhi’s. Perhaps the rectangle of untainted azure is meant to flatter the aesthetic sensibilities of the buyer, usually a sightseer searching for the prettiest picture to send home. But it could also be that the postcard maker decided to peddle, along with his photographic images of Delhi, a retelling of the city, where the sky’s blue expanse isn’t lacerated by the exhausts of 14 million people and their acquisitions and frustrations. He may have expressed his desire for a clean and uncluttered city through the symbolism of the clear sky.

Any retelling, after all, seeks to capture a bit of the ideal. And while constructing the ideal, whatever doesn’t conform to the desired image is suppressed by the emphasis on what should be, or what used to be. Sometimes, the ideal is located in the imagination and sometimes, in memory.

Often, people who share a long and intimate relationship with Delhi refer to a past that was both ideal and idyllic. They talk gently of a time that was, letting memory sandpaper the rough edges of their experiences and film their eyes. As they dredge up the sounds, sights and smells of bygone days for a lachrymose rendition, the Delhi of the past – genteel, sedate and civil – becomes the ideal, or at least the better, city. Unstated in such a retelling is the wish to return to the ‘better’ past, or to recreate it wherever possible. While a far bigger historical past still permeates the city, it is the experiential past of a generation or two that has gone missing. It’s what old Delhiites will talk about because it is the only past they personally know.

We’re told of a city where trees lined the boulevards of Chandni Chowk, graffitied declarations of love and might hadn’t yet defaced monuments and art and culture danced minuets in the living rooms of the gentility. There is mention of a New Delhi, young and proud, which Edward Lutyens would have recognised and revelled in. Delhi was the bureaucrat’s city, well mannered and peaceable, but also grand and powerful. As the capital of India, it continues to be the seat of political power and administrative control, but apart from this continuity, Delhi’s past and present are divided by a chasm so wide and so disconsonant that memory could well be a construct of the imagination.

In the decades following independence, as New Delhi began to spread outwards slowly like a stain, the first of the fortune hunters and dreamcatchers trickled in from other parts of the country and outside, seeking power and opportunity. They tinged the city with a cosmopolitan sheen, but for the coterie that grew up in the privileged echelons of New Delhi, an idyllic home was being invaded. Old Delhi, too, was overrun by a new commerce that stamped out the unhurried way of life.

At this point, in any retelling that uses memory, the past has ascended to a pedestal and is ready to fall from grace into the cesspool of the present. Through what Delhi’s older inhabitants call ‘degeneration’, the invaders, or the ‘outsiders’ pushed the city’s past into the archives and installed a new rubric in its place. Under it, upward mobility was a direct function of money, entrepreneurial skills and proximity to power.

The newbies built houses and businesses wherever land was available. Some of them bought space in the nooks and crannies of refugee colonies. Often, they camped on the fringes of the city, and in due course, settlements sprouted and stretched the city’s circumference. Colonies of workers emerged. These were people who partook of the amenities and facilities Delhi offered and made a grab for everything on display, yet refused to have a stake in city-building. For within their bedroom walls, they still thought of themselves as outsiders.

They grouped into nativities – Bengalis, Biharis, Bangladeshis, South Indians, Northeasterners, Kashmiri Pandits and Punjabis – or sought refuge in professional identities. They were Delhiites because geography and the pursuit of common goals made them so and not because the city offered a unifying identity. Delhi now belonged to everyone who lived in it, but no one belonged to Delhi. The original Delhiites too were missing from public life – they preferred the city of memory.

As the trickle swelled into a stream, every kind of migrant came to this city in search of work and play – the moneylender and his more contemporary version, the banker, the broker, the aesthete, the unskilled labourer, the refugee, the education pilgrim, the socialite, the fashionista, the politician from the hinterland.

They attached themselves, like bloodsucking fleas, to the arteries of power. At the points of rupture, ghettoes festered. Or they unthinkingly heaved their collective weight onto the network of infrastructure, pressing it down and breaking it up. The language they spoke was brash and fast-paced. Their ablutions choked the sewers and swelled the Yamuna. They swaggered into hotel lobbies, worshipped at the temples of commerce and lived in ornate houses. They built new schools and entertainment complexes.

Poorer migrants built their shanties around the new-rich colonies, and found work as construction labourers, bellboys, chowkidars and cleaners. A new social hierarchy based on wealth came to exist, and within each rank there were people who clawed their way through the city’s fabric and claimed different shreds as their own. East and South Delhi, for instance, stood for very different classes of people. But each rank was linked by the relentless pursuit of Lakshmi.

When the sweat and dust and filth of their own trappings would not wash off their skins, the outsiders began cursing the city for its undelivered promises. They began to rue the lack of civic amenities and the paucity of water and electricity. They raged at the hair dryer blast of the sun and the ubiquity of dug-up roads. Even as they continued to suck the city dry, they moaned about the loss of faith in its provisions. Lured by the seemingly exceptional opportunities for wealth generation, creativity and entrepreneurship, they had flitted to Delhi like moths to a flame, but in the end it was their own hubris that had created the myth and was now shattering it.

Now they too have begun to reject the reality, searching instead, for an ideal. But unlike the older Delhiites, whose construct of the ideal city is supported by two frames of reference – the past and the present – the new Delhiites have no collective memory of the city. What they do have, from the jumble of frustration, dejection, impatience and intolerance that colours their interpretations of the city, are the ingredients for imagining an alternative Delhi.

In the imagination-based rhetoric of the new Delhiites, the ideal city, like the postcard maker’s blue sky, is clean and uncluttered. Housing is orderly and adequate. Vehicular and industrial pollution does not suffocate the city’s green lung. Neighbours are more than just familiar strangers while conversations between people are courteous. The Delhi Police is with you always. There is no shortfall of electricity and water. Streets are empty of garbage and begging children.

In the ideal city of the imagination, those with bureaucratic and political power do not misuse it for personal gains and transparency replaces games of intrigue. And in the final image of this slide show, the insecurity brought on by isolation – by people having to fend for themselves all the time – is effaced by the growth of a communitarian identity.

Perhaps there is already a sense, however inchoate, of what it means to be a Delhiite. The children of the outsiders have known no other city; for them, Delhi is home. They were born at a time when the process of disintegration had already begun, and they are growing up with the city’s breakdown as a given, a matter of fact. The city’s vastness, its contradictions, its buses and flyovers don’t faze them. They are unimpressed by its status in the country, and dismissive of the festooning that happens on important days. After all, how awestruck can one be by home? Homogenised as they are by a post-liberalisation culture of choice and a diet of satellite television, these children of settlers will eventually give the city its composite identity.

What that identity will be no one knows because the future, unlike the past, cannot be told. But the concept of the ideal Delhi, both imagined and remembered, can go a long way in shaping the future city. Retellings, therefore, are important. Not only do they keep a tradition of remembrance alive, but they also bequeath to the new generation cherished images of how a city should be.