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The city you hate to love

Commuting nightmares, with little flashes of relief and even joy

We all indulge in it — complaining incessantly about the city we live in. The traffic, the pollution, the uncivilised behaviour of our fellow-dwellers, are all pet peeves and sure-shot conversation inducers wherever people meet.

I complain about the traffic and yet I drive myself, braving the zig-zagging two-wheelers, smoke-belching buses and four- wheelers of all shapes, sizes and temperaments. As I pause in mid-flow to allow a sudden flurry of pedestrians who seem oblivious to both the green traffic light and the inexperienced drivers flowing around them with reckless abandon, I ponder why I do this day after day.

Then, suddenly, as I drive down New Delhi’s Janpath, I spot a colony of fruit bats hanging like little black bags in the trees above, swaying gently in the sunlight filtering through the trees that line the road. It’s in sharp contrast to and seemingly oblivious to the cacophony below.

As I cross the mayhem that is India Gate at 6 p.m. and pause near the High Court before a seemingly endless traffic light, I spot Amma, my familiar jasmine-seller, winding through the cars. And suddenly I want the red light to last longer instead of being shorter! Amma spots me and comes over, thrusting my usual (three jasmine strands for the price of two!), into my outstretched hands while asking me where I have been all these days. I pass her the change and wave off in a car now redolent with the fragrance of fresh jasmine flowers, towards the next blockage on my route home.

In the morning, during the reverse journey, I am inevitably stuck at two red lights — one as I turn onto the erstwhile BRT lane to take me to central Delhi, and the other near Jantar Mantar, the last and most irksome wait before I can clock in to work. Both stops are fraught and tense as the wait is long and the green light vanishes in a blink.

Veterans of Delhi roads will know what this means: vehicles squeezing into every conceivable and some inconceivable gap, inching forward much before the light changes colour. There will be much honking and cursing, some brush-ups and a surge to the other side. It’s an everyday miracle, indeed.

For me, the long waits are defined by two ‘regulars’ at these red lights: an English-speaking but somewhat erratic old sardar, who accepts my offering with a regal bow and a comment on the state of the world, if we happen to meet; and the other, a sad old lady who thrusts strongly scented agarbatis at me along with her latest woe: a delayed fee payment for a grand-daughter, a son who isn’t around anymore, and her own waning health.

I both dread catching up with her and notice her absence when I don’t spot her for a few mornings, hoping she hasn’t had yet another burden thrust upon her frail shoulders.

Hard-sell at the lights

Some evenings (I think I am more susceptible after an exhausting workday), when jasmines are not in season, young kids still in school uniform thrust pens in my face at ‘Amma’s crossing’. If I make eye contact I am lost: the result, every receptacle in my car is full of little ballpoint pens that I don’t need!

When as a pedestrian I try crossing a road near my house where the traffic never stops, day or night, holiday or workday, red light or green, I wonder when my luck will run out.

And again, why I am here day after day. But then I am across and into the quiet green and rain-drenched pathway, and forget that in an hour I will be back trying to cross the self-same road. The traffic madder and more murderous than earlier, as the traffic cops just give up and let the mayhem prevail.

I hear the babblers as they settle down for the night and see a flash of green as the parrots drop by for the jamuns now littering the pathways of the neighbourhood park. The fragrance of the spider lilies mingles with the frangipanis, the damp earth and the greenery, and the raucous calls of the peacock replace the car horns as I nimbly jump over muddy patches and dog poo, studiously avoiding eye contact with other walkers to sustain the feeling of quietude.

The next day as I sit in my office, with the inevitable sound of traffic and construction work filtering through the glass windows, Skyping with colleagues in far-off lands, they laugh and say, ‘Hey, I can hear the honking so clearly I feel I’m there with you!’

I laugh with them but wonder if the noise will kill me one day. Then I glance up and see a perfect ‘V’ formation of storks heading for the zoo nearby, and as I lower my gaze I spot a nest in the tree filling my window and somehow the stress wanes a little. The city I hate to love, embeds itself into my psyche yet again.

The author is managing director of a U.K.-based publishing house in India.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 1:55:01 AM |

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