Saturday, October 10, 2015

A City of Transformations

In Miyazaki's movie, "Howls Moving Castle", there is a little colored dial above the door. The world you want to see on the other side of the door, depends on the color you choose on this dial. Just a flick of this dial and your door could be opening either into a barren wasteland or into a neat city street.

Delhi feels a bit like Howl's Castle sometimes, without the doors and colored dials. It is quite amazing the way the city transforms from one district to another.

One of my favourite transformations is on the metro yellow-line, from Central Seretariat to Chawri Bazaar. You step down from the rolling green lawns of the central vista in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ), and emerge few minutes later from the deepest underground station in Delhi, right in the middle of one the busiest market in Old Delhi.

This is where chaos hits you like a ton of bricks. The noise of a thousand blaring horns, diesel fumes mixed with the smell of sweat, urine and cooking oil, the rush of crowds heading in all directions, and narrow alleys littered with assorted garbage. And all this packed in an area smaller than some roundabouts of central Delhi.

On a different scale such transformations can be seen within districts as well. In South Delhi, the roads that take you from Greater Kailash, to Kalkaji, and then to Govindpuri would make you feel like an explorer stepping into the urban jungles of our time. From the 'Bania-Gothic' style of architecture to entire neighborhoods created out of a seemingly haphazard of collection of bricks, mortar and garish paint.

My latest addition to this list is the Ramakrishna Mission near Paharganj. It is another of those dramatic transformation of spaces within city districts. There are two ways of getting there - a metro ride down the Blue Line, or a cycle rickshaw from New Delhi railway station. The latter is better for those who are seeking a bit of drama, shock and awe. You step out of the sprawling New Delhi Railway Station and head down Pahargunj Main Market street. This crowded throughfare not very different from the roads of Govindpuri or Chawri Bazaar but almost completely oriented towards hippies and backpackers.

You make your way down this road, past the travel-agents, money-changers, garment shops selling baggy trousers and pleated cotton skirts, past signages in Hebrew, Russian and English, kiosks selling "Smoking Accessories" with suggestive cannabis leaf imprinted outside. A slight turn to the left at the far end of this road brings you the the Ramakrishna Mission.

The first thing that strikes you here is a sense of order and purpose, centered around the domed RKM shrine. Neat pathways lined with evergreen shrubs, lead you to the other buildings in the complex - a 'show room', an office complex, a large library and two auditoriums. Every little vacant space in between the buildings is lined with  flowerbeds and rows of fuits and vegetables.

RKM seems like the antithesis of everything that exists beyond its neat whitewashed walls. On one side there is pushing and shoving, abusing and haggling, and on the other, you have the 'order of monks', silence, polite conversations and sonorous prayer songs.

It is quite amazing to see how people flit between the different worlds that exist on either side of the walls. The lady who had just been haggling at the gates with a cycle-rickshawallah over a fiver will, fall at the feet of a swami in ochre robes and drop a few ₹500 notes into the donation box, to 'serve the needy'.

The ways in which buildings and spaces transform people, is quite astounding.


* LBZ to be reduced by 5.1 sqkm, --