The Travel Issue 2018

Dilli Darshan with Virginia Woolf

Saurabh Singh
Page 1 of 1

Women writers as city guides

ONE WINTER AFTERNOON I reach the Anand Vihar Inter State Bus Terminal, located in East Delhi. En route, the cab driver asks me, more than once, if I am going to disembark at the bus station itself. He has no wish to cross the border from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh, he warns. Anand Vihar is the port of departure for buses to UP and Uttarakhand. As I wander the well-ordered lanes, announcements—for buses heading to Etah, Etawah and Meerut, Kotdwar, Ram Nagar and Shamli— punctuate the air. Unlike those with buses to catch and destinations to arrive at, I had a different mission: I wanted a ‘Dilli darshan’. And for my circumnavigation, what better vehicle of choice than the Delhi Mudrika? With a route of 105 km around the Outer Ring Road, completed in over six hours, the 44-year-old Mudrika seva is the perfect Delhi Eye. The Mudrika is typically used by those going short distances, but in its perambulation it encompasses the countless Delhis. To ride the Mudrika is to realise not just the vastness of this city, but its unknowability.

Ensconced in a seat behind the driver (best vantage point), the conductor comes up and asks where I want a ticket for. I ask for the maximum amount (Rs 15) and inform him I am here for a ‘chakkar’, from start to end. He is confounded. “Aapko uttarna nahin hai (You don’t plan to get off)?” I am here from depot to depot, I assure him. He calls on the driver, cracking up with amusement, “Madam time pass ke liye aayeen hain (Madam is here for leisure).” This is a first for them, as it is for me.

I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s 1930 essay, Street Haunting: A London Adventure. She leaves home to buy a pencil, but it is really just an excuse to traverse the city. Like Woolf on a street in London, in a bus in Delhi, I am content with ‘surfaces only’. Staring out of the window, ‘the brain sleeps as it looks’, I see everything, but I watch nothing. I pay little heed to what we pass, as there is no question of missing my stop. I’ll disembark when the ride is done. Completing the ride, like buying the pencil for Woolf, is not really the point of the journey. The goal, if there must be one, is simply street haunting. Foot is the best way to do it, but in a pedestrian-unfriendly mega-city like Delhi, one shall make do with a bus. Not the travel of planes and jetlag for us, but simply the tour that makes you step out of the house. Woolf says it best: ‘to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures.’

Delhi winters beseech you to leave home and hug the dappled sun (meh to the pollution). It is the one time we are not scurrying from shade to shelter, we revel in the outs. Woolf finds relief in leaving her room, as there we are surrounded by ‘objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience’. To leave home is also to spurn our neighbourhoods, those paths and vistas that we know so well, but which are weighed down by associations and remembrances.

To exit the familiar is to become lighter. ‘We shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers’. Woolf’s choice of the word ‘army’ leads me to Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), where she writes the word ‘lost’ comes from ‘the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world’. To be a wanderer, a loiterer in a city is to willingly disband from the army of the familiar and to embrace the unknown trampers instead.

In anonymity Woolf finds liberation, an opportunity to reinvent herself and interpret those around her. I do the same in the bus. At first the crowd is thin and the conductor chatty. He tells me the driver and he have already completed one half of the circle this morning, Uttam Nagar to Anand Vihar, traversing Janakpuri, Dhaula Kuan, RK Puram, Ashram, Patpar Ganj, ending at Anand Vihar. Over the next three hours, I’ll get to see the remaining roughly 40 km circuit. He asks where I work, I tell him Shahpur Jat. They have never heard of it. The driver has been plying DTC buses for eight years, (interrupted by a hiatus to drive Ola cabs) and it is terra incognita even to him. We realise our Delhis are foreign to each other.

I think of Lauren Elkin’s book, Flâneuse; Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (2016). Elkin’s travelogue is a wonderful meditation on women in public spaces across the world. The dictionary meaning of flâneur is ‘a man who saunters around observing society’. Her work takes the sexist cliché, and asks what it means to be a woman loitering and watching society.

In a city like Delhi, one can live 20 years and still be an outsider. There are still locations which are alien to you and where you stand out, even when you try to fit in

I wonder why all my references lead to ‘women writers’ (an unnecessary category), but then the experience of cities, of space, of emptiness is a gendered experience. As Elkin writes, ‘And it’s the centre of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out of your front door.’

Sitting at a café in Paris, she talks of the infraordinary or ‘what happens when nothing is happening’. She observes: ‘The city turns you on, gets you going, moving, thinking, wanting, engaging. The city is life itself.’

Over the next few hours, the scenes in the bus play out like a sitcom, like life itself. For regular passengers, all of this must be mundane, but it is hard to not find the ‘unexpected beauty of the quotidian’. If I came looking for characters, drama and plot twists, I found it here. The driver chooses to take the flyover or spurn it, depending on his reading of the traffic. An ample woman and I on the two-seater are joined by a third woman, who squelches us to the side, and says, “Yeh toh comfortable hai.” She makes conversation with the driver about the weather, and then asks no one in particular, “Aurangabad gaye ho? Wahaan itna bheed hai. (Have you been to Aurangabad? It is so crowded there.)”

As we hit Yamuna Vihar, the role of the conductor enlarges from ticket collector to crowd manager. He packs the passengers into a serried mass. The driver scolds those near the door and windows, “Koi marega, meri galti hogi (If someone dies, I’ll be blamed).” An old couple enter, the man’s knees buckle under him (I fear he is having a heart attack), but water is passed to him from a passenger (the driver refuses to part with his bottle), and the journey continues without interruption. A ‘hakim’ boards, intoning the virtues of leaves and plants, “Mooli ka ek ek patta injection jaisa hai. (A leaf of a radish has the medical properties of an injection.)” He disembarks leaving pamphlets and without a ticket. The woman sitting near me turns and asks, “Aap yahaan naye aayein hain (You are new here)?”

And therein lies the rub. In a city like Delhi, one can live 20 years, and still be perceived as an outsider. There are still locations and settings which are alien to you and where you stand out, even when you try to fit in. Great cities, I realised on that Mudrika, are like lovers— you know them intimately, but you will never know them entirely. You will be well-versed with certain terrains and landscapes, and one day, the unforeseen raises its head.

But that unknowing is also what keeps life interesting. Elkin writes how hope is ‘never knowing what’s around the next corner’; and that is terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. We spend decades in these metropolises, and carve out our own mudrika journeys; from home to office and just beyond. Yet Delhi, we know, is illimitable, we will never truly know what is around the next corner. Dare we say, one can find hope in Delhi?

MY ‘OUTSIDER’ STATUS is established not only because when passengers eye my seat and ask where I’m getting off, I mumble ‘nowhere’, or ‘when the bus stops’, but because this is not my usual route or mode of transport. I become self-conscious as I check my phone or watch, aware that most people around me have neither. I am aware that what is routine for these passengers is novel to me.

But this novelty—which a new setting and all of travel allows—is ‘the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others’. If Woolf could briefly ‘become’ the washerwoman or the street singer, I now have the chance to ‘be’ the bus driver or hakim. ‘And what greater delight and wonder can there be,’ writes Woolf, ‘than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?’

The names of our stops snag on my tongue—Surya Nagar; Seema Puri; Anand Gram; TT Post; Yamuna Vihar; Bhajanpura; Nanak Sar; Jagat Pur; Burari Crossing; Mukand Pur; GTK Bypass; Haider Pur Water Works; Uttari Pitam Pura; Saraswati Vihar; Mangol Pur; Peera Garhi Depot; Sunder Vihar; Major Bhupinder Singh Nagar; Janakpuri District Center; Uttam Nagar.

I’ve only covered half of the 100-plus km route, but I feel oddly diminished and expanded by the vastness of this city, and my own ignorance of it. I find myself returning to Elkin, ‘…it is in the practice of the city that we have the best chance of making a just world. Freedom of movement is an intrinsic part of that’.

I turn to one of the most poignant books I have recently read, The Lonely City; Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. She moves to New York in her mid- thirties and builds a map of the ‘complex relationship between loneliness and art’. Through the works and lives of artists like Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol, she tells the stories of those who are ‘hyper-alert to the gulfs between people, to how it can feel to be islanded amid a crowd’. Like the artists whose lives she investigates, Laing too is hyper-alert to what living in a city can do to our interior lives. While Woolf writes about the ‘inner loneliness’ in London, Laing’s canvas is Manhattan.

It is in cities, in the vortex of crowds that one feels most alien. ‘Loneliness, I began to realise,’ Laing writes, ‘was a populated place; a city in itself. And when one inhabits a city, even a city as rigorously and logically constructed as Manhattan, one starts by getting lost.’

Like Woolf, Solnit, Laing and Elkin, one starts by getting lost, and one ends by reaching home. Near the Uttar Nagar bus depot, I find comfort in the signs leading to the Metro. I know this system; I know the hub and lines that will bring me home. We return home, as Woolf writes, and are comforted ‘to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round’ and the self once again becomes ‘sheltered and enclosed’. Woolf’s only ‘spoil from all the treasures’ of London is a lead pencil, and from all of Delhi, mine is a ticket stub.