Friday, December 9, 2011
Delhi Calling: To My Children Series 24
(Vivekanand Rock and Tiruvalluvar Statue in Kanyakumari)
Delhi or Mumbai? Sitting on the boulders at the sea shore of Kanyakumari (Cape Comerin), where the Arabian Ocean and Indian Ocean meet, against the backdrop of a setting sun and rising hopes in our minds, Mrinal and myself asked this question several times to ourselves. I had an offer from Trivandrum Fine Arts College as a temporary lecturer through a relative who wanted me to marry his daughter. Now with another girl on my left side I could not have approached the person to get that job. We were looking for a place to stay and work and one common ground on which we stood firm was that we did not want to stay in a place where either Marathi (mother tongue of Mrinal) or Malayalam (my mother tongue) was spoken as the primary language. Ideas to migrate to Mumbai were put to back burner because of Marathi language. Delhi was the other destination. It was 1995.
I had some Mumbai phobia then. Though I had never visited Mumbai at that point of time, there was something dreadful about that city in my imagination. I thought that Mumbai would gobble me up. Now looking back I could discern two or three reasons behind this special kind of urban phobia I had. First of all I was a small town boy. Trivandrum was big enough to be called a city but not huge enough to be called a metropolis. All my ideas about city were formed through literature and films. For me, Mumbai was a place where underworld dons and Shiv Sena activists ruled the streets. I thought people who had gone there to eke out a living were living under the constant threat of these two parties. In our village, there were some Shiv Sena activists. They formed their club near a temple and most of them played volley ball by evenings. They were just next door youngsters and none of them looked harmful or threatening. But the village grape vine used to inform the young kids like that they were very dangerous people and they had links in Mumbai. In those days Mumbai was called Bombay.
As a young boy I could not have escaped the political milieu of Kerala. Though I don’t claim that my home was a hub of political discussions and related events, as I have described in previous chapters, there used to be a political feel to the meetings that my father conducted at my home along with his friends. I used to work as an errand boy in these meetings, bringing tea for them and at times making some wise cracks to which my father reprimanded me sternly either by rolling his eyes or giving me a smack at my thighs with his bare hand. My father was an avid reader of newspapers and political magazines and I picked up this quality from him though my interest was more on rape cases, robberies and above all some pulp fictions and barely clad women’s photographs. From the newspapers and magazines too I had gathered that the Shiv Sena guys were really dangerous and they were terrorizing the migrant communities in Bombay though I did not know the gravity of things at that time.
(Ajay Devgun as Don)
Films were the other source through which I had formed my ideas about Bombay. In the Malayalam movies that I watched during those days, the heroes went to Bombay and fought the underworld dons there only to become more powerful underworld kings. Though they helped in pumping my adrenaline quite well I never thought of going to Bombay even for a visit thanks to the invisible fear that had roosted in my mind while watching these movies. Besides I grew up listening to the stories of those guys who tried to go to the Gulf countries via Bombay. Many of them used to fall prey to the greedy middle men who offered them visas and entry passes to these hapless guys. Mortgaging their properties and gold in banks and in the lockers of the local money lenders, these young men with dreams in their eyes took the money to these middle men who often cheated them and left them stranded in Bombay. After endless wait these young people came back to Kerala only to try their luck again with more convincing middle men.
The major reason should be lying in an incident that happened sometime in 1993. I was trying to reach home from Baroda by road. I was desperate to reach home because my girl friend of that time was under house arrest. She wanted me to go back to Kerala and take her out of her confinement. Though nothing happened even if I had rushed to Trivandrum, I had a very strange experience in Mumbai. I remember reaching there at Bombay Central railway station one early morning. I was wearing a blue shirt and a pair of blue jeans and was sporting a pretty long hair and beard. It was a time when the Indian intelligence got wind about the LTTE activists moving to Indian shores. I was stopped at the Bombay central railway station and was thoroughly frisked and cross examined. It was a very humiliating experience and I thought that I would never go to Bombay again. Though I was released from the Police custody, I was totally dazed and I do not remember how I moved from Bombay to Pune by bus and then to Kannur, a northern district in Kerala. I was almost sleep-traveling.
The sun went down in the horizon. We became two other shadows lingering on the sea shore like many strewn all over the place. The Vivekananda Rock became a silhouette occasionally washed by foam and water by the rising tidal waves. A few meters away from the Vivekananda Rock, the rock where Swami Vivekananda had done penance during his visit to South India, the government of Tamil Nadu was sponsoring a huge statue of Tiru Valluvar, a great poet who authored Thirukkural and believed to have lived between 3rd Century BC and 8th Century AD. The foundation stone and a part of the pedestal were lying there like a ruin waiting to be completed and gain the status as of one of the tallest sculptures in Asia (133 feet).
“Shall we go to Delhi?” I asked Mrinal.
(N.N.Rimzon, a still grabbed from a documentary 'Speaking Stones' directed by myself in 2009)
She looked at me and said yes. We did not know anyone in Delhi. Suddenly I remembered an offer came from an artist namely N.N.Rimzon in 1994 when I visited a sculpture camp at the Nirmithi Kendra, a government run architecture research institute in Trivandrum. I was coming back from the Cholamandal Artists Village in Chennai after doing my research for the final year dissertation and when I reached Trivandrum someone told me that there was a sculpture camp going on in Nirmithi Kendra where I could meet a few sculptors. When I reached there, N.N.Rimzon, Valsan Kolleri and K.P.Soman were doing their site specific works. Some of them knew me by name and I had an opportunity to talk to them closely. Before leaving Rimzon suggested if I had any plan to go to Delhi, visit him there as he was living there. I smiled at him, thanked him for the offer and left the place.
Now, at Kanyakumari, though the sun had gone down a hope was rising in our minds and we knew that there was at least one person who could help us if we went there. We contacted a few friends in the days followed and made sure that Rimzon was in Delhi. Some people gave us the contact address of Amit Mukhopadhyay, who was working as the editor of the Lalit Kala Contemporary, the Contemporary Art Journal, published by the Central Lalit Kala Akademy. Someone also suggested that we could live in the Lalit Kala Akademy guest house dormitory for a meager amount of fifty Rupees a week. But we just needed to get a recommendation from someone like Amit Mukhopadhyay. With two names and two suitcases full of clothes we set out for Delhi though we did not know the capital city of India would become our home soon.
It was in June 1995 we reached Delhi. The Kerala Express, the train that runs between Trivandrum and New Delhi crossed the Faridabad station after two days and two nights. It was drizzling and with widened eyes I looked at the shabby huts that had sprung up along the railway line. I saw rickety autos and buses plying on the roads that ran parallel to the railway tracks. I saw people squatting behind the bushes defecating. Women stood up with their sarees down but the legs apart when the train arrogantly rushed past. On a roughly painted white wall with a black line for a border I read, ‘Gupt Rogi Milen, Dr.Gaba’ (Meet Dr.Gaba for treating Sexually Transmitted Diseases). That was the first notice that welcomed me to Delhi. I need not have been a socio-cultural specialist or critic to understand that the people who lived in these shabby shores were prone to sexually transmitted diseases.
(New Delhi Railway station now)
Water drops fell on my face. I did not know whether I was day dreaming or thinking anxiously about our future together in a big city called Delhi. Whatever be the case, the touch of the water drop woke me up from a land where I was lost myself. Mrinal too was silent and a bit tense. She did not know what would happen to her if nothing worked out for us. We had already taken a decision not to do any other work than doing art criticism. We thought that art criticism would give us food and shelter and we were young, and we were dreaming a lot. We also had thought that we would never get married formally. We thought that we would be a revolutionary couple who would always operate from outside the mainstream life. We imagined ourselves to be an ideal couple who would defy social rules and live a life without marriage and without kids. Even if we wanted kids at some stage, we told ourselves, we would adopt them because India had so many kids who desperately wanted parental care.
Between idealism of our private lives and the city called Delhi, the Kerala Express wheezed into a stop at the 12 number platform of New Delhi Railway station. I had never seen such a big railway station in my life. Mrinal told me that she had been once here and she came with her friends to visit a Triennale conducted by the Lalit Kala Akademy. The first thing came to my mind was to turn back, run into the train and go back to Kerala. I did not want to become anything. I wanted to live a small and inconspicuous life in my village. But that was lying a neat 3000 kilometers down south. Between my village and me there was three days and two nights distance. And that distance was further made wider by the responsibilities that we had taken together on our shoulders.
We waved down an auto rickshaw and got into it. We huddled together in the backseat of that rickety vehicle that puffed and panted like a fox. We were like two puppies terrorized by invisible creatures that came around them when they mother was away. We reached the Lalit Kala Akademy premises at Mandi House. Unlike today, it was a very accessible place. None asked from where we came and why we came. Today if you go anywhere near Lalit Kala Akademy, the private security men would ask you the reason for your presence there. We asked for Amit Mukhopadhyay. Someone showed us where he sat. He was inside a room shared by two other people, Avani Kant Deo and Vikram Mehra. He was leaning against a chair, with his right hand crossing across his chest. And on his table covered with a thick glass sheet there was a packet of tobacco, cigarette paper, match box and a cup with the tea stain inside it.
Amit Mukhopadhyay welcomed us. He was happy to see a boy and a girl all determined to become art critic in a city where they did not know anyone. He was quick to patronize us. He asked us to go to the Lalit Kala Akademy guest house and keep our luggage there. We went, got freshen up and came back to Amit Mukhopadhyay’s office as if we had found someone to lean on. I was posing to be a tough guy. I still remember that I was wearing a black shirt and a pair of blue jeans. With a full grown beard and long hairs I looked more than my age. I was twenty four then and Mrinal was twenty one. She was lean and thin. When she wore skirt and blouse she looked like a school girl. When we came back to the Akademy it was already five o clock. Many eyes were staring at us. Amit Mukhopadhyay took us to the canteen behind the main building where he got us tea and some snacks. He asked more about us and we were more than willing to share our ideas and aspirations. We were not worldly wise then. So we revealed our likings and disliking so quickly. I believe, Amit Mukhopahdyay had assessed us on that very first meeting itself.
(National Lalit Kala Akademy, New Delhi)
Night came and we were left alone in the city. We did not have any place to go other than the guest house where the girls had a different dormitory and the boys had a different one. It was time for dinner and I did not know where to go. Mrinal knew that there were two different dhabas (way side eateries) where they served good food for cheap price; one was near ITO, next to Pragati Maidan famous for its industrial expositions and erstwhile theme park called Appu Ghar. Appu Ghar was named after an elephant that became the mascot of Asiad, a sport extravaganza of the commonwealth countries in 1982. This elephant had come from Kerala and its train journey from Kerala to Delhi had made news. I never knew that one day I would also take the same route and reach the same destination. This dhaba near Appu Ghar was a called Hanuman Dhaba. This was called so because it was located behind a huge statue of Lord Hanuman, the monkey God. The second dhaba was near the Bengali market where the affluent class of Delhi came for their gossips and snacks. This dhaba was rightly called ‘Refugee Dhaba’ for mostly the refugees went there to eat. Besides, the refugees from both the East and West Pakistan were once given shelters there by the government of India. While crossing Bengali market at night and heading towards the refugee market, Mrinal told me that in Bengali market Super Star Amitabh Bacchan used to come for snacks when he was studying in Delhi. I glanced the lit innards of the sweet shops on either side of the Bengali market. And I was wondering whether I would ever be able to go inside and eat one of those sweets on display.
(Asiad Appu, the mascot)
“Alooo palak, dal fry, gobhi masala, aloo paneer, palak paneer, tinda, bhindi….,” a boy who was looking elsewhere and mechanically wiping a steel plate with a piece of dirty cloth recited these words non-stop. He was responding to a query from Mrinal. I looked at Mrinal because I had not understood a word from what he said. Mrinal negotiated with boy and ordered something. After a few minutes the boy came back with a small steel plate with a few pieces of chopped onion, cucumber, radish, green chillies and a piece of lemon and threw it before us. I looked at Mrinal. She told me it was a salad. Not that I never had any experience with different kind of food. In Baroda I had feasted on a lot of potato, onion and two different types of lentil soup called, Punjabi and Gujarati. Punjabi tasted like lentil soup and the Gujarati tasted like a sweet dish. In Baroda things were simple. You could scoop up any amount of potato mash and onions. And whenever you wanted these regional lentil soups you just needed to shout either ‘Punjabi’ or ‘Gujarati’.
Finally the boy came with two oval shaped steel plates. One was filled with a steaming thick black daal and the other had a green paste where potato pieces lay dead. ‘Dal fry and Aloo Palak’, Mrinal explained to me. I nodded as if I got the meaning. Hot tandoori rotis were placed before us on steel plates as big as the rotis. In South India we eat rice from the main plate and curries from small dishes around. Here in North India people ate differently. They kept the curry before them and ate roti from side plates. They broke rotis in small pieces and made a spoon out of it, scooped the vegetable or dal in it and then pushed it into their mouth. Later on I realized that it was more a class oriented eating style. Poor people ate like that and we were sitting amongst a lot of poor people who could not afford sophisticated food from the Bengali market. The poor people ate with relish. They took the Tandoori rotis in hand and clapped them against their palms to remove the black soot from the tandoor oven and ate with a lot of festivities. It was like dumb charade. They hissed once in a while as they bit their teeth into ferocious green chillies. They gulped unfiltered water from the dirty drums covered with dirty clothes.
I was learning to eat Delhi for the first time. And Delhi ate with a passion. And I was becoming a part of the passion. I did not know there were many other eateries in the city where people ate from huge plates, in silver wares served by turbaned bearers. I knew Delhi through the refugee dhaba. Mrinal was eating silently, occasionally looking into my eyes asking whether I was enjoying it or not. I was thoroughly enjoying it because I thought at least I could grapple with Delhi in terms of food. I did not know what palak was. Mrinal told me that it was Spinach. It took me many more years to know that it was the same spinach that Pop Eye ate for all the energies. With faceless people we too sat and ate without face. Some people ogled at us because at that moment Mrinal was the only girl in that dhaba and she obviously did not look like one who frequented such places. She was more defiant than myself and with the defiance inherent in her she dared the gazes which went back in shame after sometime.
We walked back to Mandi House and then to the Akademy guest house. Night was thick. There were no familiar faces. We sat there for a while in the hall of the guest house. I did not know what I was feeling. Mrinal was tired after three days of train journey. I too was tired but I was not feeling sleepy. After chatting up for some more time, planning the next day though we did not have much to do in the city to begin with, we said good night to each other. Mrinal went to the right wing of the guest house where the girls’ dormitory was located and I went t to the left wing where boys were supposed to park themselves at night. I sat silently on the bed for some time. Some boys were on other beds. Some were sleeping and some were looking at the ceiling. Someone was rolling a few paintings. I did not know anyone of them. I was posing like a brave young man till then. Now I felt like crying. Here I was in Delhi. Alone, in the midst of hopeless strangers. Then I calmed myself down. I went out to the drawing room and made sure that Mrinal latched the room from inside for she had told me that no other girl was present there that evening. I went back to bed and stared at the ceiling for a while. All those twenty four years paraded their highlights before my eyes. I heard a vehicle screeching to halt somewhere out there. I let myself fall into a deep well that I thought was a metaphor of Delhi for that night.