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Life in Metro: where to find love without being a shopper

New Delhi, Oct. 14: Suchitra comes to cook and clean in my friend’s house near the North Campus, and when she heard us talking about the Delhi Metro, she stopped swabbing the floor and, still on her haunches, started telling us about her younger sister, Alka.

Alka was in her late teens and had gone off with a Haryanvi juggler to live in the Kathputli Colony — the Wooden Puppets Colony — in West Delhi’s Shadipur. It is a slum where all sorts of itinerant performers — puppeteers, jugglers, acrobats, singers and musicians — had settled for a couple of generations.

Then, from last year, Alka and her juggler began to hear that their settlements would be taken over and razed by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). If they could provide proper identification papers, then they would be rehabilitated in a flat built by a real-estate firm on the same site as part of a makeover plan before the Commonwealth Games. While their houses were being built, they would live in temporary tents pitched by the DDA.

The two of them had no papers at all, so they bided their time, and started making plans to move back to Haryana. But while they were dilly-dallying nervously, the Shadipur Metro station opened on the Blue Line and she heard that it would take her to the Akshardham temple, right next to which the Games Village was coming up.

It would be a double pilgrimage, but what was more alluring to her was that the train that would take her there was air-conditioned “like a five-star hotel”. She decided to make the journey alone, put on her Sunday best, and braved the many technological surprises to a seat next to a fetching young man.

Masood turned out to be a cleaner at the Café Coffee Day in Rajiv Chowk station, a bustling node where the Blue and the Yellow lines crossed each other. It took him little time to persuade Alka to get off with him at Rajiv Chowk for a look-around, and from that impulsive moment, their lives changed.

Another, more compelling, love blossomed for Alka that became inseparable in her imagination from that busy new urban confluence. They had little privacy in their respective homes, so hanging out at Rajiv Chowk station or sometimes taking the trains downtown became part of their romance, somehow more exciting than loitering in a mall.

And because it was not something they could afford to do every day, it never lost its special quality. The trains and stations provided all the excitement without putting pressure on them to buy or eat anything, unlike the malls which made them feel that they were not really welcome if they did not consume.

The stations and trains were also better than the parks, where the moral police lurked, as Alka had learned during her courtship with the juggler. Alka left the juggler and married Masood, and they both now work as cleaners in another chain café in Connaught Place.

I was excited to hear Suchitra’s story about her sister because just last Sunday I was standing inside the main circle at Rajiv Chowk station, in front of the Café Coffee Day, and feeling what a difference the Metro has made to how people lived, moved about and brushed against one another in Delhi.

And standing there, surrounded by that human traffic — security personnel in many kinds of forbidding camouflage, flocks of Commonwealth Games volunteers in their red and white, huge numbers of young people meeting, waiting and benignly people-watching in a range of wardrobes from expensive New Age to imitation pin-stripe to cheap zardosi, bemused backpackers unable to decide whether they were in India or Bharat (or which of the two they preferred) — all held in the perfect air-conditioning that had bewitched Alka and surrounded by the swirling colours and lights of unabashed consumerism, I suddenly felt an urban high that I could not imagine feeling in the dank, grey, neon-lit, pre-Perestroika innards of the Calcutta Metro, riven by Rabindra-wailing or enlivened by Chaplin.

At Rajiv Chowk, even the flocks of security people had relaxed into a festive niceness. There were large contingents of startlingly attractive women in uniform, and the uniformed local men seemed utterly charmed with them.

They all hung about together, one eye on cold alert and the other roving, flirting, playing. They looked childishly gratified each time someone approached them for directions or help. Somehow, that police-state feel that the capital on high-security mode had begun to give me rather chillingly on the ground was absent down there, and for a moment, I felt that Delhi could have been any big city in the world with a Metro in it.

Metro stations in “global” cities, especially in the developed world, are supposed to be “non-places” through which people merely pass, as through airports, without quite living in them and making them their own. But that, I realised, was not going to be so in India, where life, especially the chaos of the bodily life, has always been difficult to police, much to the chagrin of the Commonwealth Games authorities and some guests.

In a city of marooning distances such as Delhi, distances that are both physical and social, the Metro, though considerably more expensive than in Calcutta, is perhaps the first modern urban system that creates a feeling of progressive unity. And because of Delhi’s unwieldy sprawl, the journeys are much longer and the differences in geography and ambience that the lines traverse far more spectacular. Hence, the impact on behaviour, appearance, perceptions, attitudes and desires is all the more noticeable.

But the differences with Calcutta are more complicated. On Gandhi’s birthday, of all days, the Delhi Metro introduced women’s-only compartments in all trains (over and above the reserved seats in the ordinary coaches). Unlike in Calcutta, where they were hooted out by the women themselves, ladies’ coaches seem to have caught on in Delhi.

I have often wondered whether there are two Delhis, one for men (that worked all day and night) and another for women (that shut down after dusk). The relief with which most female commuters, across the social spectrum, have welcomed their special coaches in Delhi, prettily marked on the platforms in pink and white and chivalrously policed by guards, confirms the Metro’s crucial role in making women feel safe in the city and in radically improving their mobility.

I also thought of Alka and how her life wouldn’t have changed if she hadn’t sat next to a man on the Metro. Her sister had giggled at the thought of a women’s coach. But I saw the stiletto-heeled south Delhi ladies with Chanel shades in their hair and Prada bags hanging from the crooks of their elbows, getting off the ladies’ coach at Khan Market station on the Violet Line, not a hair out of place and pleased as Punch, and realised that life changes in different ways for different people. But it could all happen now on the Metro.

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