It has been about seven months since a slender 90-page Hindi paperback, Ishq Mein Sheher Hona, landed in bookstores. In its third reprint already, it is now racing towards a fourth. The book is unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, it has the rather intriguing title of Laprek (short for Laghu Prem Katha), and is part of Rajkamal Prakashan’s Facebook Fiction Series. But more importantly, it is authored by one of India’s best – or some would argue, the best – television journalist, Ravish Kumar.
But to say that Ravish’s name alone boosted sales would be a disservice to Ishq Mein Sheher Hona, a collection of very short love stories set in Delhi. Because this Delhi is not the Delhi of Ghalib’s couplets or Lutyens’ tranquil bungalows or of rich farmhouses. It is the Delhi of colonies like Seelampur, Sangam Vihar and Karawal Nagar and their intersection with posher counterparts like South Extension or Greater Kailash.
Some of the stories in the book are Ravish’s own – drawn from the 24 years he has now spent in the city. “I always thought I would go back to Bihar,” he says. “But I never did.” When Ravish first came to Delhi from Patna in 1990 to study in college, the only ‘big’ cities he had seen were Lucknow, Jamshedpur and Ranikhet.
He is originally from Jitvarpur village in Motihari, and had gone to Patna for his schooling. There was an immediate village versus city faceoff. "The village was apne log," laughs Ravish. "And the sheher was paraya. Sheher bigaad dega tumhe, was the way of thinking. If we didn’t go to the village for Holi or Chhat, it was considered no less than a crime." In fact, when he started speaking Hindi (not spoken in his village), he was sternly told "zyada angrezi na bolo."
School was all very well but when it came to college, it was a different story altogether. Patna University had collapsed and young boys from Bihar arrived in Delhi in trainloads. "It was like Partition," says Ravish. "It seemed as if all of Patna was here."
Ravish ended up studying History in Deshbandhu College. But this prosaic statement hides within it the pain, trauma and confusion of a huge dislocation. "It was an emotional breakdown for all of us," says Ravish. Many of the boys from Bihar found it extraordinarily difficult to adjust to the freedom and anonymity when they first came to Delhi. "Romantic relationships would get formed, then fall apart," he says. "Because unlike in Delhi, love was viewed differently back home in Bihar, where issues like caste were the breaking point."
The sheher provided for azadi but confusion dominated. Ravish was told that if he wanted to "look at girls," he should head to the M Block GK I market. (In Patna, he recalls, boys used to check out trains at the railway station to "see" girls. The Magadha Express, which connects Delhi to Bihar, was a particular favourite).
He didn’t know much English and to hear everyone around him speaking so much English filled him with terror. Fear of English drove him to colonies shut away from ‘English-speaking zones.’ His first home was a barsati in the bylanes of Govindpuri and his landlord, ‘Sharmaji’ to Ravish, advised him to improve his English by reading the editorials in the Hindustan Times. Ravish did so dutifully without understanding much, but would meekly tell Sharmaji that they were very well written.
Luckily, Deshbandhu had lecturers like Anil Sethi and Rana Bahal, who became his mentors, encouraging and helping him in myriad ways. “They taught me English, how to eat at a table, how to talk to girls, how to wear a tie,” laughs Ravish. “By the end of my BA, I was still not good in English, but I went on to enroll for an MA in History.”
He was profoundly influenced by the brilliant Delhi University History professor, the late Parthasarathi Gupta, affectionately known to his students as PSG, whose lectures on urbanisation became like a guide for him. They changed the way Ravish viewed the city.
That was also the time he met his future wife, Nayana, who was in Indraprastha College. Ravish says she was the one who taught him ‘how’ to read a book – to look at the theme, the background, the story and so on. “Even today when I do my TV show Ravish Ki Report, I think the viewer is like me – that he doesn’t know anything,” he says. “I don’t go for the smart, informed viewer.”
Ravish and Nayana “went around” for seven-odd years. He never had enough money, so they would visit coffee houses and go for long walks. His own love story unfolded against the sheher he had adopted as his own by now. In the anonymity of Delhi, romance blossomed.
His observant eye and his own experiences came into play when, four years ago, he began writing really short love stories on Facebook, which ended up becoming all the rage as Laprek. These stories didn’t fit into any grand narrative of love but dwelt on little moments: A girl leaving her mohalla with her dupatta wrapped around her face like a naqab for a rendezvous in a far-off mall. Or a girl waiting at a metro pillar for her boyfriend. Couples hiding from intrusive stares under the AIIMS flyover, or huddling together in the back seat of an auto with the driver peering at them in his rearview mirror.
When you’re in love, you seek out anonymous corners of the city. These short stories are an urban document, says Ravish. “They’re not literature. I never wrote them for fun or a lark. They were written in days of tension and pain.”
But the stories bring Delhi to vivid life. The little squashed balconies in Pushp Vihar, the DND flyover arching towards Sarai Kale Khan, a crowded bus hurtling from Khanpur to Badarpur, holding hands under the Moolchand flyover, the dhin-chak music in cars streaming out of Khalsa College, the one-hour metro journey from Malviya Nagar to Model Town, a girl resting her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder in the back seat of the Minus Mudrika as it rattles its way from Ashram all the way to Jubilee Hostel, getting attracted to each other while raising slogans at Jantar Mantar…
Discovery of a city
Ravish looks at living and loving in the unlikeliest corners of Delhi. As he says, when it rains in Delhi and newspapers carry the mandatory pictures of people getting wet in the rain, why is it always girls in India Gate? Don’t girls get drenched in Ghaziabad? Or Indira Nagar?
It is the stories of these invisible parts of the city that Ravish tries to tell in his TV show too. The first Ravish Ki Report was on Paharganj and how it was perceived by Delhiwallahs. He met a chaakuwallah who had never stepped out of Paharganj. In Sanjay Colony, he saw women rolling drums in which they had filled water. Madanpur Khadar had ACs but no sewage system. When he first wandered into the gallis of Bhajanpura, he was taken aback by its cottage industry: men making bras out of bales of cloth.
These are also Delhi narratives, but narratives no one seems interested in. But it is not as if love can’t grow in the faultlines – say, between a South Ex girl and a Karawal Nagar boy. Or a Patna boy and a Delhi girl.
Ravish never thought he’d end up living in Delhi for over two decades. Today he is attached to the city. But he can’t get lost in Delhi any more. Because the city has made him its own.
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From HT Brunch, September 6
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