On the face of it, Delhi has never felt or looked better — unless you go back to the days when it was a different kind of city. Of dry hot summers and cold clear winters, acquiescing to the label of “administrative village” unkindly stuck upon it, sporting a single, really big hotel and boasting one major classical music festival.
The Commonwealth Games have spruced it up the way Asiad did in its own way over a quarter century ago. Then it got its first set of flyovers which enabled longer commutes to work — a process that has gone to insane lengths today of travelling one way 30 km or more.
Major roads have been freshly resurfaced, lines on them neatly drawn. The roadsides are sporting neat signs telling you where the “pedestrian crossing” is, where it is “no stopping no parking”, and the ultimate exhortation, “give way”. Not very many must know what it means and should the import be absorbed, it will lead to a fundamental change of character in a city where you are a wimp if you cannot shove and push your way forward, on two legs or four wheels.
Spaces at roadsides and under flyovers have grown new greenery and the most striking is NDMC’s Delhi, which, looking neat in the worst of times, is now looking picture perfect.
The other big change is in transportation, the transformation in the bus fleet. Gone are the filthy, horrendous apparitions in blue, replaced by various modern, low-floor vehicles, the queen among them the red ones offering the most comfortable rides and wider views than the eyes can take through entire glass sides.
I was so impressed on my first sighting of them, while out walking early on a Sunday morning, on reaching the Outer Ring Road next to Vasant Vihar, that I crossed over, took a ride to Nehru Place, crossed over again and rode back, all under one hour. It didn’t come cheap at Rs 20 per ride but this is precisely what you need to tempt people away from travelling in cramped cars with restricted views through what, in comparison, are mini-windows.
But it was during this first darshan of mine of the new Delhi that I found another India too. At the Nehru Place roadside, I sought out one of those tea stalls that are hardly clean but serve some of the best tea to go with the early morning chill, rich in cream and flavoured with adrak at Rs 5 or less. Next to the tea stall, a man, who was barely more than a vagrant, was dusting and seeking to fold the torn blanket with which he had covered himself on the pavement during the night. But he couldn’t, as he indulgently tried to halfheartedly shake off two roadside puppies who had taken it upon themselves to play with his blanket and tear it even more. There is no level at which man and dog are not friends, I thought.
Back at Vasant Vihar, I went looking for the morning papers, all of them, as scribes do, in one of the poshest of posh colonies’ markets. But none was to be had. There was no newspaper stall, I was told by the owner of a book and gift shop. When I observed that reading and wealth hardly went together, he vigorously nodded, bearing out what his little shop indicated, that business was none too good. Try sector one market in R K Puram, the shop owner said and I set out in an auto rickshaw in search of my daily newspaper fix. R K Puram, where middle to lower middle level government employees live, eventually obliged and I returned to where I was staying after spending Rs 30 to buy all the English language newspapers and Rs 60 for the auto ride.
Then as I kept looking for Delhi, old and new, I found bits of both, sometimes rolled into one. New little gardens have been created around roads, fenced by light wire nets supported by short poles, allowing you a good view of the plants. And there they were, the fences at places falling down and the newly planted plants wilting, for want of watering. In fairly quick time, a lot of these garden patches will be gone, overtaken by good old-fashioned dirt.
On my second morning, I again set out to locate a newspaper stall, this time at a market in the Shanti Niketan neighbourhood, with the same result. Helpful people guided me down roads behind the market, past signs reading Nanak Pura, on a down market journey through roads that quickly got dirty without a trace of any Commonwealth Games facelift. In a crumbling, refuse-strewn market I found the newspaper stall, with all the papers, including the business ones.
I again met change and continuity side by side when I arrived famished early for an appointment in Jor Bagh. So, I sought out Pigpo (there can be only one of its kind anywhere), acquired 90 grams of ham in two slices which tasted divine and I wolfed down at a speed becoming someone half my age. Then, to beat the chill of the drizzle, I looked for the halwai shop which had been there at the market corner, for a glass of tea. But the halwai shop was gone, having given way to another that generated more revenue per square foot of shop floor.
Delhi, in a small way, in bits and pieces, had become a more pleasing city. How I wish it will remain so and make life better for even those whom change has not yet touched.