On a sweltering April day in New Delhi spring is hard to imagine. Heat is cruel, somewhat like the tropical African heat Kapuscinski talks about in the ‘Shadow of the Sun’ during his travels to Africa. As I begin my day, walking down the shimmering asphalt, heat weighs heavy on my will and in my memory I am taken back to my days of childhood on the banks of river Jehlum at the historic Verinag in Kashmir. I force myself to dwell little longer in the thought of pine and soothing breeze, cold waters of Jehlum and bloom of nature. Suddenly the shriek of car passing by brings me back to the real milieu and I begin to wipe sweat off my temple.
Across the developing world from Beijing to Rio and from to Mumbai to New Delhi, the character of big cities is defined by contradictions. Delhi is a classic example of these visible and glaring contrasts; one moment you are passing by a giant shopping mall or a towering skyscraper and next moment you stumble into a slum where you find bare feet children in rags rummaging through discarded trash for something of any value. The rush of development and modernization across the developing world has almost led to a same reality everywhere; one class making the other pay for what it calls growth. Be it Delhi or Rio or Mumbai there are millions whose existence has been almost cramped into ghettoes; trampled upon by the rush of development. In Mumbai 10 million people live in slums and as recently mentioned by a reporter in The Nation, “Their lives are literally mired in shit.” In Delhi the rush has picked up a new pace in the last couple of years. As the city gets ready to host the Commonwealth games, the chaos has reached a new level. Hastily erected buildings and flyovers have changed the face of city. There is digging going on all around; dust and heat mired into lives. There are thousands if not millions bearing the cost of this frenzied growth of structures. Poor and poorest pushed out and cramped in, states told to take their beggars back; Delhi is in the mad rush of being another Shanghai.
I lived here for about six years, changing rooms and corners every now and then. There is always a danger of one getting absorbed in its hidden corners, flowing with the fluidity of time and pressures generated by the pace of everyday life one tends to forget the originality of one’s being. Having grown up in the landscapes of Kashmir it was always hard to get used to cramped walls and windowless rooms. There was a need of painful effort to keep the memory at bay and this very action threatens to distort the original self that you posses when you first come to this city. I faced a similar phenomenon, a wrestle with the past and present, but somehow I have come out with my memory intact though not the same self.
I always felt that cities like Delhi teach you how to ignore; not just the everyday chaos but things which as a human being you have a moral obligation to acknowledge and act upon. A glaring but a masked reality of Delhi is its poverty and the cruellest face of it is naked children begging on its roads under the burning sun. All day they bang the doors of plush cars for a coin or two, some throw a coin and some don’t; day passes heedless to their suffering. These extreme situations of human helplessness draw a demand on ones moral consciousness but as you live on in this city you learn to vindicate yourself that you really don’t know what this is all about; ignorance of the highest state.
Years have passed since I first arrived here. Kashmir was never far, news of death and pillage continued to come all the time. I realised it pains you more from a distance than when you are close to it. However, the rush of life in this city acted as a cushion; news from home sometimes dissolved in the pace of things though it never left the conscience, home was were the reality was. There are no comparisons between this city and Kashmir, the absolute lack of them makes it more difficult to adapt. Most stark of the differences is the change of seasons. There is no yellow during autumn and no scent of jasmine during spring here; the colour of air remains same almost throughout. After all these years I still don’t know much of the city, I never tried to know it. It was hard to relate and therefore to develop any form of intimacy. It was not just the seasons but the situations of life which were more out of place; Kashmir a theatre of war and Delhi a buzzing capital city, two different perceptions and outlooks of life.
Living between these two realities over past more than six years, Delhi has also contributed to my outlook and attitude. If the contrasts and pace are glaring they also demand a stronger self from you to deal with them. Slowly you are moulded into a new being, sometimes a machine like character moving from one point to another. As a Kashmiri one had to be more cautious with questions and answers. There was fear in the mind, built in during years in Kashmir; fear of uniformed men shouting from every direction. It took time to overcome that fear and accept things as normal in this city. Ever since it has created a new problem: when back home how do you deal with that old fear?