In 2005, the euphoria surrounding the Commonwealth Games to be held in New Delhi had already set in. The media couldn’t seem to get enough stories on how the capital was on its way to becoming a ‘world-class city’. There was hope everywhere of new beginnings.
But Delhi is nothing if not a collection of neighbourhoods, many of which never intersect. Away from the world of gin drinkers and djinn seekers is the world of LNJP Colony, Dakshinpuri and Sawda-Ghevra. Which Delhi is the real Delhi? And which experience constitutes the deeper experience?
In May 2005, a group of eight writers from that ‘other’ Delhi got together to look for answers. Many of these writers — Shamsher Ali, Neelofar and Yashoda Singh — had dropped out of school. Some like Azra Tabassum and Suraj Rai managed to complete their schooling through open school. Others like Lakhmi Chand Kohli and Rakesh Khairalia had already launched creative ventures, setting up a studio where poets, writers, singers and dancers from the neighbourhood could meet and interact. All of them were in their 20s and lived in LNJP and Dakshinpuri. As the group of writers grew, one thread remained in common: all wanted to document their lives from the inside; not as adventures in a megacity but as lives lived through demolitions, evictions and resettlement and as negotiations through vulnerable relationships with neighbours, shopkeepers, butchers, maulvis and, most dangerous of all, those in authority.
Trickster City: Writings from the Belly of the Metropolis is a translation by Shveta Sarda of those stories, written originally in Hindi (Bahurupiya Shahar). This is a world where, “the moment someone buys a refrigerator, a long queue of people requesting a drink of cold water forms outside his door.” This is a world of unuttered relationships, where love can’t be anything more than anticipation at the sound of approaching anklets. This is a world so fragile that parents cling to their grown-up children’s first grade report cards as proofs of how long they’ve settled in that particular neighbourhood. Because, above all, this is a world that’s liable to be uprooted and demolished.
At the heart of this collection lies the demolition of Nangla Maanchi, on the Yamuna’s eastern bank. Watching a house that’s been painstakingly built brings with it utter heartbreak because, “demolitions snatch away from people this role they play in each other’s lives — the role of witnessing one another slowly mould time.”
Trickster City is part reportage, part travelogue and all heart. Written with a robustness that can come only from direct experience, this collection of tales, of lives lived is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand Delhi fully.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer