My host in Delhi is Mr Sharma, retired as Director General from Defence R&D under Abdul Kalam. He has a big comfortable house near the Metro station of Kohat Enclave, something that would cost a couple of crores today. He shows me my room, a spacious room with an attached bathroom and hot water. After almost ten weeks on the rough road of travel this is a luxury.
‘Indigenously made they say,’ he comments on missiles developed by Indian research labs. He adds, ‘Bloody hell, all they have done is to put together bits and pieces. They cannot make high precision guidance systems which are always imported. You must understand, that is the brain.’
‘Surely, we have many good scientists and engineers?’ I ask but I know quite well that he is right.
‘Oh yes. Our departments are full of PhDs who can calculate how much metal is required, how much thrust should be generated and at what level the ignition systems should kick in,’ he replies. ‘It’s all on paper. Ask them to make something that works, they just cannot do it.
‘You see, in other countries people have invested in years of research. We are babies in this matter. Yet we say we did this, we did that.’
I agree that we are good at vainglorious self-accolades but just for the sake of argument I press him, ‘What about ancient India and its discoveries? We invented the zero, they say.’
‘You remain at zero. You say ancient India had everything but where are the books? Can you take those books and make a missile?’
At a walkable distance is Dilli Haat at Pitampura. There is another more famous Dilli Haat in Central Delhi but this suits me just fine. I see that most of the shops are closed. The few that are open display textiles, handicrafts and pottery from different parts of India. There are no interesting food stalls. The place lacks vibe and action. It’s actually quite boring if you are not looking for something specific to buy. As I step out of Dilli Haat, a security guard stops me. He calls out to me impolitely but it will be unbecoming of me to stoop to his level and pick up a fight. He is simply not trained properly. All he really wants me to do is to a fill up a feedback form.
Across the road is Netaji Subhash Place. The buildings here are so different from Old Delhi. Skyscrapers, landscaped parks, open arenas, posh shops and pricey restaurants are really a copy of similar stuff found in cities in developed nations. Here again business seems dull. Is it my mood or is this place really this boring always? The fountains are silent. The pools and water channels are dry. I wonder when Indian architects will ever learn from such repeated mistakes. Use of water in architectural designs is a nice thing for countries that can afford to waste water in this manner. It is simply not meant to be for Indian conditions. Today we have parks and gardens from Barbar’s Ram Bagh at Agra to Netaji Subash Place in Delhi looking dead because the channels have all run dry.
A few kids are playing cricket here. In a green lawn by the dried up channels are cattle grazing. In the background are the modern skyscrapers and high-rise office spaces. India here has the pretension of progress but it really hasn’t. The disparity between the rich and the poor is growing. What I see today is a stark image of this disparity.
The Delhi Metro is simply marvellous as I take it often in my exploration of the city’s famous historic monuments. It is clean, comfortable and most of all quite punctual. Ticket prices are reasonable but perhaps expensive for the man at the bottom of the economic ladder. Nonetheless, it is proof that India can get things right if only there is will to do it.
The only fault with the Metro that many don’t like, including Mr Sharma, is the security checks. All passengers have walk through a scanner and their bags are put through security scans. Sometimes officers will frisk you. Surely, it makes the Metro safe but isn’t this a bit too much? After all the talk about Truth and Gandhi’s legacy, our systems don’t believe in them. The Indian public cannot trusted. This is exactly what happens when economic progress is not all inclusive.
This fact can be seen easily from the Metro. As I fly smoothly across the city on a higher level, I see the city’s failures spread out below me. Shanty towns are everywhere. People are wading through gutters. People are washing their clothes by canals. Some are bathing in the cleanest margin pools that they can find. The shocking fact is that I am sitting on a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned cabin that is spotlessly clean.
The other day I walked into a restaurant run by Haldiram’s. I was not dressed to kill but neither was I shabby. While others walked in freely, I was stopped by the security guard and asked to open my bag. It was just too much of a bother. I just went elsewhere for dinner, a nice meal of rajma-chawal with quick and courteous service. It’s not even a proper restaurant, just a food outlet. I stand outside and eat. The best service is often in such unpretentious places.
I am quite impressed by Delhi’s infrastructure. It is the sort of thing you wish for in a small city like Bangalore. Bangalore has grown more than it can sustain. In Delhi, the roads are wide. Traffic may be slow in some parts but in most cases I see that it flows alright. Public buses are frequent and together with the Metro they provide good connections. When you step out of a Metro, rickshaw wallahs will slap their cushioned seats hard to get your attention. These old rickshaws still operate as the final connections to your doorstep. But there is a problem.
If you walk through modern Delhi, like I like to do in any city I visit, you will find that no thought has been given to pedestrians. After all, most pedestrians belong to a lower socio-economic order. Why build a city for their needs? To take a bus, I have to cross the Ring Road to the other side. There is no overhead bridge anywhere in sight. There are no helpful traffic lights. I am forced to do a dangerous crossing, climb over iron dividers and walk to my bus stop. I see others doing it out of regular practice. Drivers have no regard for pedestrians who have every chance of getting mowed down by a passing Toyota Innova or a Scorpio. Delhi is a dangerous place for walking.
‘Kaise jeete ho?’ cries out a young woman. She looks every bit a homeless rag picker. Her clothes are sooty and tattered. Her voice is weak and full of anguish. There is pain in her eyes. Her face is grimaced in agony. I will never forget these words. It sounded like her soul crying out and there is no way out.
This happened on a bright day at about noon as I was walking around the Red Fort. A group of rag pickers were loitering nearby. This woman walked to them and started shouting in this manner. A few minutes later another scene plays out. A man is beating another man with a wooden stick. I can’t say if he is crazy but poverty certainly has a way of taking a person to the limits.
On another day while walking along Janpath, I spot a small girl selling pencils at traffic lights. This is really a controlled area. Ministers, MPs, foreign diplomats and dignitaries pass by often. Traffic urchins give a bad image to India, as if this is not plainly gained from elsewhere in the country. A police patrol officer comes around on his bike. The girl hides behind a tree and stays still for many minutes. I stand in a corner and watch the whole thing. New Delhi in places is really a farce, just keeping up appearances. Lining Rajpath on both sides are green lawns and fountains. Workers busy digging or watering the lawns use the fountains to wash clothes and bathe.
Chandni Chowk is a dirty area. So are Mehrauli and Nizamuddin. On a walk around Nizamuddian I happen to come across a historic monument. I don’t know the name. What hits me strongly is the litter all around. Dogs are roaming freely in and out of the mausoleum. Some boys are playing cricket on the dirty lawn surrounding it. Little fires are burning in the corners. Although this monument is under archaeological protection, village people have encroached it. They can’t help it. They have nowhere else to go.
‘You should take full cream milk,’ advises my host one evening. He is an old man who cooks simple meals for himself, drinks skimmed milk and eats brown bread. The rotis he makes are simply superb.
So in the morning, I walk out to buy milk. The neighbour’s unfriendly dog barks dangerously at my feet. I watch the milk tempo pull up at a store, unload a few cartons of milk and move on. It is about half seven and even at this hour the air isn’t pleasant. I can sense that it’s going to be a hot uncomfortable day. Mothers and fathers hurry to a school next door with their kids. Within the premises of the D.A.V Public School the morning assembly has already started. For some parents and their children, coming late is perhaps a habit. They walk leisurely to the entrance and wait. They know that once you are late, there is no use hurrying.
At breakfast, I watch some cricket news and Mr Sharma is quick to comment, ‘Look at all these people going crazy over these cricketers. They get paid huge sums of money. Researchers work day and night. What do they get? Nothing.
‘Who is this bloody Sehwag? Is he God? Bunch of loafers and lafungas. He flashes his bat and all the half-naked dancing girls come out grinning. We have become a nation of fun-seekers. Hard work is out of the door.’
I can tell that Mr Sharma is in good spirits this morning. I admire him for speaking his mind. Though not all of us may agree with his opinions, there is clarity in his thought.
While he goes out to attend to some errands, I stay indoors to escape from the outside heat. I drink lots of water which Mr Sharma stores in an earthern pot. According to him, the porous nature of the pot allows heat exchange and naturally cools the water. That’s ancient Indian technology for you, precursor to the modern day refrigerator.