City Living – So Many Delhis

City Skyline

It’s too varied.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Delhi may be a city but it is as varied as any country. “We have many Delhis,” says Rakhshanda Jalil, the author of Invisible City. “You’ve these oasis of privileges as well as places that are cramped and clamorous. A cordon sanitaire (quarantine line) divides the two.”

Sometimes that divide comes in the form of railway tracks. It seperates the leafy Nizamuddin East, an upper crust colony, from the dusty Sarai Kale Khan, a low-income neighbourhood. They could as well be Monaco and Mogadishu. “I’m lucky to have a house here in Nizmuddin East,” says author Sadia Dehlvi, whose roof looks over to Humayun’s Tomb as well as the brick-and-cement skyline of Sarai Kale Khan. “Over there, it’s cluttered and unsanitary.”

Beyond Sarai Kale Khan flows the Yamuna, the Capital’s proverbial railway track. “The trans-Yamuna, in the east, is a poor cousin to the rest of the city,” says RV Smith, the famous city chronicler. “In the Mughal era, it was considered the bad borough of Delhi and till some years ago people would call east Delhiites as dull-headed peasants.”

That impression is not unanimous. In 2007, after living for 27 years in a tony New Friends Colony bungalow in south Delhi, the newly-married freelance editor Jaya Bhattacharji Rose moved to her husband’s flat in Mayur Vihar Phase I, across the river. “A few acquaintances raised their eyebrows saying how would I manage,” she says. “But I’ve fallen in love with this part of the city. There is greenery and silence. We don’t even hear the sound of the Metro running just a few metres away.” During the evenings, Rose and her husband, Jacob, sit down to watch peacocks from their balcony.

Best-selling author Anuja Chauhan, who spent her childhood in Karol Bagh in central Delhi, has no such luck. Living with her husband in highrise-happy Gurgaon (technically in Haryana), she doesn’t like the view from her window. “It’s all glass and chrome,” she says. “In Karol Bagh, the view was livelier with sights and sounds of shaadi mandaps, traffic chaos and Ajmal Khan Park.”

Is it OK for a city to have so many separate universes?

“This is an unavoidable aspect of a metropolis,” says Ranjana Sengupta, the author of Delhi Metropolitan. “But there are also things which link the various groups to a common thread.” Such as? “Well, all of us, whether we live in Sainik Farm or Sultanpuri slums, have problems with traffic jams caused by BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) corridors and that’s democratic,” she says.

Then there are those who try breaking the ‘cordon sanitaire’ to make different worlds come closer. Nizamuddin East’s Sadia Dehlvi crosses over the railway tracks to support Sarai Kale Khan’s artisans such as zardari workers and dyers. In Mayur Vihar Extension, Jaya Bhattarcharji Rose’s parents come from New Friends Colony to enjoy the company of their daughter as well as the peace of her her apartment.