I usually enjoy my trips to Delhi. I put up at the company guest house near Connaught Place and gape at the city on my way from the airport. I goggle at the wide tree-lined roads, the unending flyovers, the imposing buildings and sigh with immense satisfaction. This is what our capital city should look like, I think, this is a place fit for the rulers of a billion people.
But my heart really swells with pride when I pass by the president’s estate. I am filled with admiration at its size. Only the names of old movie halls — Majestic, Regal — can adequately describe its magnificence. I am overcome with patriotic fervour when I think of its 340 rooms.
Unfortunately, the guest house wasn’t available the last time I visited Delhi and I had to stay with a cousin who had made his home — God knows why — in Ghaziabad, on the city’s outskirts. He had a dark and dank flat in a narrow unpainted building in an area smothered with dust. The power went off for hours. We had a spine-jarring, bone-dislocating ride to the Delhi office. This is how, explained the cousin, the aam aadmi lived in the capital. Two days in that place were enough to convince me its name was originally Ghastly-abad, glossed over the years to Ghaziabad, in order to hoodwink people into its jaws.
Perhaps that was the reason why, when I passed the presidential estate on my way back, I cursed the damn thing. Why on earth did the president require 320 acres? Ashamed, I tried to curb such uncharitable thoughts. I tried to picture Pratibha Patil in her cute helmet when she flew in a Sukhoi fighter plane, to stoke up my nationalist feelings. It didn’t help.
Subversive thoughts filled my mind. What if the presidential estate was limited to 20 acres or so and the rest sold off? Many of those poor guys who booked flats at Noida Extension and my cousin from Ghastly-abad could get homes if they built high-rises there. It would lower the price of land and the fiscal deficit at one stroke. It would, of course, be against the Master Plan for Delhi. But perhaps the Master Plan had been designed for a Master Race? Despite my best efforts, in my mind Pratibha Patil transformed herself into a giant rubber stamp, housed in 320 acres of prime land. Smaller rubber stamps, I couldn’t help noticing, are satisfied with merely a desk drawer or a cupboard for accommodation.
My flight was late, which made things worse. I googled a bit and found that the White House, the residence of the most powerful person on earth, stood on grounds measuring a measly 18 acres. Buckingham Palace was on 42 acres. The Kremlin took up all of 68 acres. Even Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, the abode of the Son of Heaven, had just 282 acres.
My feelings became more and more seditious. Why not sell off the Raj Bhavans in the states? Why did the babus or MPs need those huge bungalows with vast lawns? Have we merely exchanged white sahibs for brown?
I stopped myself just in time from succumbing to these communist thoughts — I must have been infected during a trip to Kolkata. I will, of course, try my best to suppress them, but it would help if the guest house near Connaught Place is available on my next trip. Or, who knows, the presidential heart may bleed for her loyal subject and I could get a guest room at Rashtrapati Bhavan?
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal