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So what else is new?

The transition is a point to reflect on the newness, and if it isn't obvious, invent it., writes Varupi Jain.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2006 20:19 IST
BERLIN DIARY | Varupi Jain
BERLIN DIARY | Varupi Jain

The New Year is already old. Yet, as always, the transition is a point to reflect on the newness of things, and if it isn't obvious, invent it.

Meri Dilli, meri jaan?

Close German friends recently returned from India -- their visit to Delhi after twenty years or so. It was a journey through the new and the old -- at times surprising and saddening. For Arnulf Wirth, who was in Delhi for the first time, Delhi seemed like a 'large motor or a mighty mill, swallowing and shredding masses of people' -- powerful words those!

The British and Islamic influence in the city was obvious to them -- however in a state of pitiable neglect. The lingering feeling they associated with Delhi is one of confusion. Despite the advances vis-à-vis the Metro and swanky flyovers, Arnulf missed a Gesamtbild -- a wholesome picture of the city. The city has not yet arrived at a new synthesis, he says. And how right he is.

Given the extent of change and stagnation, the contrasts and population and everything else tumultuous Delhi has experienced in the past few decades, change has reinforced and inspired more change and this process has not yet culminated into a synthesis -- and something in me says it is too early to expect it. Too early to expect it from a city which houses thrice as many people as Berlin and at least as many motor vehicles running the streets as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai put together.

Wading through beggars, street vendours and the stench of rotting trash on the steps leading to Jama Masjid, Arnulf makes an interesting comparison. He was reminded of the images of the European industrial centres in the time of evolution from agrarian to industrial societies. He underlines that this was a long, demanding and difficult transition. Yet, he says, this is no consolation for those presently living in filth and misery.

Time forgot to tick

As Arnulf and his wife Gerlinde hop not just geographically between Europe and India but also in their historical associations, I am reminded of a recent visit to Kerala. Geographically, Kerala feels like a different planet and historically, time seems to have frozen.

Every morning shortly after sunrise, you'd find men rowing up their thinnest possible wooden rowing boats to the next bank from their village. The boats would be loaded with vegetables, fruit or whatever else the person happens to produce himself. He'd sound a blow horn as he'd approach the bank and young girls would come running up -- loaded with fresh eggs and containers full of milk which they would exchange for the boatman's produce.

The girls would run away dancing, thrilled with their new procurements. The boatman rows away towards the next village.

Village, mind you, is often supposed to mean nothing other than a strip of land piercing the backwaters. This strip is just broad enough for houses to be lined up all along and a thin path before them for the villagers to walk. A villager tells me, everyone in the village has grown along this strip of land. There is a school at the other end of the village and children, on their way to adulthood, walk this strip many million times.

Everything happens on this strip. A villager returns with his herd of ducks. The ducks make for a sight as though on a planet still undiscovered -- lining up in queues neater than humans could ever accomplish. Another villager comes with a bottle like structure slung around him and climbs up an elegant, picture perfect coconut tree as though it were the most obvious thing to do. He uncovers a mysterious covering around a few selected coconuts and beating the coconuts with a ladle, collects a liquid in his container. It is a form of alcohol, I am told.

Sunset is approaching. The ducks have returned. A father has collected enough alcohol to sell in the market the next day and secure sustenance for his kids. The mother is lining the roof of her cowshed with old, dry coconut leaves. The hens have retired; the eggs will be there just in time for breakfast. The kids are sharing fried bananas with their friends. Bliss -- indeed this is.

Hey Ram!

January is not just the month of the Republic but also of Martyr's Day. To finish, here are Arnulf's words on the Rajghat -- "a special place which radiates a profound sort of peace, strength and a sense of direction. But apparently India's ever-increasing nouveau riche draws its orientation elsewhere".

First Published: Jan 18, 2006 18:40 IST