A reminder that the capital city was made for walking
Long before Sam Miller began exploring the streets of Delhi,another writer had measured them in steps. On one occasion in 1971,Ruskin Bond,quotes Miller,walked to his friends home in Rajouri Garden. When he told his friends family that he had walked there from Connaught Place,they greeted him with a pained and bewildered silence. Finally his friends mother,a practical Punjabi lady,asked,How did you lose your money? They had never heard of anybody walking from choice.
Miller,too,walks from choice. A tall white man with a bad knee,who often evokes as much curiosity as he displays,neither chasing pigs nor sneering butchers can keep him at home. The result is the chronicle of his walks,a warm portrait of a city in all its ordinariness and strangeness. This is a city we recognise but not always stop for. Miller,a former BBC producer who stayed on in Delhi has the advantage of being both at home here and an outsider. He observes its changing rhythms and pieces together a map of a city of ruins thats never stopped building,with its invisible but very-much-there snob divides and an energy fuelled by aspiration.
Millers Delhi is not the Delhi of emperors and colonisers. It is the Delhi of the everyday that meets him as he wanders about in a spiral,starting from Connaught Place,winding up in Gurgaon and walking over everything in between.
The author made a conscious decision to skirt most of Delhis historical crumbling monuments. On his itinerary,instead,are the modern flaky capital of jugaad (improvisation),Nehru Place,where boastful salesman claim even Microsoft employees buy pirated programmes from them,to the fallen and forgotten seat of a cold drink empire,Campa Cola,in Connaught Place and to a mountain of dirt and rubbish in east Delhi where parents dream of a better future for their children. The wars recorded here are commercial in nature and natural disasters documented are as recent as 1978 though not many know of it a torpedo that shook the heart of Delhi University,killing thirty people and injuring several hundred.
There are other smaller tragedies. One is that of Malcha Mahal,the decrepit house on the Ridge with a signboard that reads: Entry restricted. Cautious of Hound Dogs. Proclamation. Intruders shall be gundown. Inside live the members of the former royal family of Oudh,still unable to grasp their changed fortunes. Princess Sakina gives the author a 20-minute oration on the sorrows of the royal house of Oudh. It was a breathtakingly bravura performance that ended with a declaration that seemed to give a clue to the speakers hidden tragedy,Ordinariness is not a crime. Its a sin.
But royalty is not alone in being defeated by time. Many in the city,as elsewhere,are struggling to keep in step. In a park behind Birla Mandir,the proprietor of a photo stall Raman shoots the way no one does. He photographs the author,then cuts his head out from the photograph,places it in his hands and shows it being presented to the Goddess Durga. In case you have missed the point,theres a black and white photographone among in the book that shows you just how. But Raman of the bizarre composition fears being left out of the loop as photography goes digital. He frames yet another transition in the city.