Here is one of my first memories of Delhi, from the time when I arrived here as a small-town guy from Nainital, seeking a future in the big city. There were scooters and motorcycles parked along the periphery of the Lodhi Gardens, with their riders on their toes, clinging on to the railings for dear life, and looking mesmerised at something I could not quite figure out. My first thought: was it a zoo?
I realised later with great interest, it was not. And the men, on their way back from work, had decided to break their journey to seek a glimpse of what they could have been: lovers holding hands, kissing, anything.
Years on, I do not see those men any more. They have gone home. The city has transformed too — lovers might choose to, but they do not have to go to the Lodhi Gardens to find spots behind trees and bushes to be in each others’ arms.
Delhi has had a change of heart. It is beginning to celebrate companionship — public display of affection (PDA) is in.
Soaking in the lazy afternoon sunlight, young couples now sit on the steps of a large amphitheatre, as elderly walkers amble past, or mothers look on. In the heart of the city in Connaught Place, a new window just opened up into Delhi’s consciousness — the beautifully landscaped Central Park that reminds those who go there of the leisurely pace of a city many thought was lost for ever.
Some are delightfully discovering they were wrong. From the colonial-era thoroughfares like CP to the modern, jazzy shopping malls, social mores of the old and new generations are rounding off their sharp edges. Yes, it has to do with western influences. But it has equally to do with what is seeping into the new urban Indian, who is celebrating the new confidence of a nation charting its own rules. As in the motorcycle commercial in which lovers respectfully let go of hands when a grandfather walks by, New Delhi seems learning to accommodate traditional values with modern sensibilities.
You can see the new face of urban companionship at Dilli Haat or at Ansal Plaza, where young lovers or married couples sit — one resting the head on the other’s shoulder. PDA is not taboo. Pedestrians often do not stare at couples walking past arm-in-arm, and couples do not think they are accountable to anyone in enjoying a moment of personal closeness.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping that the men I’d seen craning their necks at Lodhi Garden are showering attention on their own — not someone else’s — wives and girlfriends.