Summertime Madness

Ah, summer. How I loathe you.

I grew up in Chennai, a city that witnesses summer year-round – the heat a sort of clingy, constant companion that you can never evade. We dealt with it using artificial, environmentally unfriendly methods to ease our suffering, shuffling from one air-conditioned environment to the next in an air-conditioned car.

A decade later, I found myself living and studying in Germany. But alas, my hope of gaining respite from the heat for a good portion of the year was not realized. The last few winters were barely cold let alone freezing, but the summers were relatively brutal for the region. The Germans all reacted the same way when the sun came out – they stepped outside in minimal clothing to soak it all in, frolicking as they developed the perfect tan. Meanwhile, I remained indoors until at least 5 pm, when I could be certain that the worst of the heat had passed and it was safe to venture out.

I’m very sensitive to heat, more so than the average person. It’s an actual condition and not mere dramatics on my part, as I often tell my dismissive friends. On warmer days in Germany, I carried multiple handkerchiefs (which I’d brought over in bundles from Chennai) with me to soak up the sweat while I saw other people sauntering about, dry as a bone.

But despite my all bemoaning, I’m aware that as far as real-life problems go, this is a relatively trivial one. Over the years I’ve devised ingenious coping mechanisms to make summer just a little easier to handle. For one, my productivity seems to be directly proportional to rising temperatures as I spend 9 am to 5 pm indoors, writing or painting. And that still leaves enough time to spend the milder evenings taking a stroll or catching up with friends and not feeling like a total recluse. I also take full advantage of indoor activities during the afternoons- hitting up museums, the cinema, even sweating it out at the gym (now that kind of climate-controlled perspiration I don’t mind).

But always, the hardest part is grappling with the dreaded FOMO (or Fear of Missing Out) that inevitably strikes. Convincing yourself that you’re having a good time indoors while the entire world seems to be living it up without you can feel like a useless endeavour sometimes. I picture endless summer clichés – piña coladas, inflatable pools, shirtless lifeguards running in slow motion – until I remind myself that all I’m really missing out on is feeling like a polar bear trapped in a sauna. Besides, I live in Delhi now and the likelihood of those things happening in my neighbourhood is close to zero.

As always in life, there are some things you can control and others that you’ve simply got to roll with. And so, as we hurtle towards the hottest months of the year, I put away my favourite trench coat wistfully. Until next time!

A slightly modified version of this piece was originally featured on The Hindu’s Open Page.

Dispatches: Delhi’s Neglected Urban Villages

The area beneath the Barapullah flyover, just behind South Delhi’s INA metro station, is congested, with vehicles, cows and pedestrians colliding as they make their way through the chaos. The honking is incessant; cows are sprawled on the middle of the road, with motorists often pushing them out of their way. Nearby, a sea of bricks and an excavator marks ongoing construction, while the air is pungent with the smell of sewage.

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On days when the city experiences heavy rainfall, crowds of people take cover underneath the flyover, further narrowing the pathway and causing traffic jams. This junction remains busy throughout the day, frequently used by residents of surrounding areas to access the arterial Aurobindo Marg.

A Brand New Flyover

The Barapullah elevated flyover stretches across the city of Delhi, improving connectivity between East and South Delhi as well as Noida, and significantly reducing congestion on the city’s main roads. This particular segment – Barapullah Phase II – is a 2 km stretch that links Jawaharlal Nehru (JLN) Stadium with INA market and was inaugurated by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in July 2018 following a three-year delay. However, right beside this newly-inaugurated structure lies a dilapidated village that is the symbol of neglect.

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Pilanji village, whose inhabitants primarily hail from the Gujjar community, is characterised by narrow streets, overcrowded buildings and poor sanitation. It is just a stone’s throw away from the upscale apartments and bungalows of Delhi’s South Extension neighbourhood.

The streets are packed with several pottery shops, vegetable carts, butchers’, grocers’ and barbershops. Animal husbandry constitutes an important source of income for the community, and stray cows in the area are aplenty as are dairies – including illegal ones – that have sprouted up in the region. With no open spaces in sight anywhere in the vicinity, the cows are let loose on the streets. Apart from disrupting traffic, this creates a stressful environment for the animals as well.

The Rise of Urban Villages

The long-standing problem of Delhi’s urban villages is a complex one. Over a century ago, when Delhi was established as the capital of India, land was acquired from various villages across the city to make way for urbanisation. But ineffectual development – and rising unemployment resulting from a loss of sustainable livelihood for farmers after land acquisitions – has led to unchecked construction and rampant commercialization as a means of coping in many of these areas. In Pilanji village alone, which is said to be over 600 years old, the population has since swelled to over five times its original size.

Pilanji isn’t the only proposed model village in Delhi where plans for development have gone awry, however. Scattered across the city are numerous other urbanised villages that exist side-by-side amidst upmarket neighbourhoods but remain in a state of disarray.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY) scheme which urged MPs to adopt and develop at least one model village in their constituency. Under this scheme, New Delhi MP Meenakshi Lekhi adopted the village of Pilanji, declaring the intention of turning it into a model urban village through the implementation of proper drainage and waste disposal systems, curbing of irregular construction and building of toilets. However, far from being the vision of an ideal urban village, Pilanji continues to grapple with civic issues including but not limited to illegal construction, the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, hazardously low-hanging electrical wires and overflowing garbage. Following initial contact, MP Lekhi’s office stopped responding to further questions regarding the project.

The SAGY scheme has been generally criticised by MPs for being impractical, with many refusing to adopt villages and pointing out the lack of funds allotted for the project.

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In addition to these issues, prolonged construction of the Barapullah Phase II elevated road, which was originally scheduled to open in 2015 and was delayed due to technical reasons, has worsened traffic, dust and noise pollution in the surrounding areas. Shop owners have had their businesses suffer due to the construction work. Marianne, a resident in nearby Amrit Nagar colony, says that since the start of the Barapullah Phase II construction and its inauguration, congestion has worsened in the area, making rush-hour commutes difficult.

“As the focus remains on motor vehicles, the pedestrians and residents are totally ignored in most city road projects In India. Crossing the roads, accessing bus stops, drop-offs of school buses becomes a challenge,” Jasmine, an urban planner from Delhi currently based in Hyderabad, tells me. “How effective this would be for the city needs to be also examined. I’m not sure whether congestion is actually reduced, as by the time these projects are commissioned the traffic grows manifold.”

Presently, construction of Phase III of the Barapullah elevated corridor is underway. Initially expected to open in 2017, it has been delayed until 2020 for reasons including problems with land acquisition from local farmers. Once opened, the flyover is expected to further ease congestion on Delhi’s main roads. But the congestion within the city’s urbanised villages, however, is not expected to be alleviated anytime soon.

In Photos: Dusty Delhi Days

Back in September, I moved to New Delhi. Over these six months, the weather has gone from sweltering to frigid to- presently- clear skies and a gentle breeze. And with that, the air quality has dramatically improved. (In Delhi, that means it’s no longer hazardous like in the winter months, just plain unhealthy.) My own feelings towards the city have oscillated between fascination and exasperation – apart from the absence of fresh air, there’s also the relentless honking, the inexplicably high prices, the disproportionate concentration of assholes – and yet, it’s been good to be here. Delhi is steeped in history, and the chaos fuels the writing somehow.

I learned things from my time at The Caravan and was especially happy to be part of the #metoo issue- the movement only taking off in India towards the end of last year.

Being the capital, Delhi also hosts numerous events – lectures, art shows, special film screenings – throughout the year. In September, the farmer’s march drew over a hundred thousand workers from across the country, and the Queer Pride Parade took place in November, the first one since the Supreme Court’s decision to finally rid the country of Section 377.

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On Raisina road, with the Rashtrapati Bhawan (President’s Estate) in the distance

 

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Delhi Queer Pride Parade, November 2018

 

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Farmers travelled across India to the capital to participate in the protests, September 2018

 

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The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Khan Market

 

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Evenings at Lodhi Garden

 

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Old Delhi

 

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Daryaganj Book Market

 

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Safdarjung’s Tomb

 

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Delite cinema, founded in the 1950s

 

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Afternoon slumber, Old Delhi

 

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Jama Masjid

 

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United Coffee House, Nehru Place

 

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The Leela Palace, Chanakyapuri

 

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Sunlight, winter afternoon

Visual Diary: A Winter’s Night on Shimla’s Mall Road

Earlier this month, I ran for the hills – quite literally – fleeing Delhi (and its toxic Diwali smog) for Shimla. The crisp winter air was invigorating as I walked along Mall Road and the Ridge, taking in the surroundings. People gathered outside popular local eateries, busied themselves with shopping, gazed at watercolour paintings displayed at the Gaiety and enjoyed late-night strolls around Christ Church. Continue reading “Visual Diary: A Winter’s Night on Shimla’s Mall Road”