SUCH FREQUENT efforts to gain entry into the capital or other mega cities are global. New York’s ‘Occupy Wall Street’ the anti-capitalist sit-in can be seen as a similar attempt by the excluded to re-enter the realm of power and affluence. Kanishk Tharoor, in a brilliant book review essay in Guernica magazine, quotes David Harvey, the author of Rebel Cities to ask who should have access to a city and should only doyens of the market (or in Delhi’s case the power wielders and babus) have the power to decide the structure of urban life? Mirroring the New Delhi reality, Tharoor states that in New York “it is almost impossible for a humble middle class, never mind working class family to live anywhere south of 125th street.”
This exclusive nature of the big city is the stuff of literature and poetry. Against the glowing eulogies of the elite Parsis to their glorious Bombay, NRI academic Gyan Prakash in his masterly study Mumbai Fables, quotes from a Dalit writer Daya Pawar, to prove how cities offer a huge only a dream for the underprivileged. Pawar says, “A mad attraction for Bombay was deeply entrenched in my blood,” but wonders what the city has done for him, after confining those like him to the distant chawls. “As I seek a place to merely rest my heart at the end of a hard day all that I have to come back to is a wretch hell… The life of indulgence I see from a distance is different. It dazzles me, beckons me, but I can never escape the realisation that this dazzling ruby has eluded me.’
It must be admitted that Delhi because of its governmental nature has not totally kept away the underprivileged like Mumbai has. Within its many bungalows and quarters reside both legally and illegally the hangers-on, the peons, the gardeners and drivers of the elite trying to make the most of it. The Pandara Park babus, who along with the elite class having got a strong foothold in this city within a city, have also appropriated many public spaces like the Lodhi Gardens. Such elitist hang-outs are preserved with a passion with even a Delhi court finding it important enough to intervene and ordering that bandicoots and stray dogs should be ejected from that precious land. Of course, the bandicoots of the elite class, can literally have a free run.
Delhi, unlike consumerist New York is overtly political in its logic as is evident in the many rallies and assaults on the citadels of power. Some have yielded results, most others are just water cannons. The continuing attempt from the motley IAC, now the Aam Admi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, the frequent marches to Parliament by farmers, the pot-breaking rallies led by women against water shortage and price rise, are all attempts to conquer the city just as the rich guys try to buy out lush green patches without dirtying their feet.
NEW DELHI then almost fully belongs to the State and the elite and its immigrants are pushed to live on the fringes while working in the sweat shops of Seelampur and Badarpur. Whatever was left of the poor in the city was wiped out during the overhaul of the city for the Commonwealth Games.
But those people at the fringes too have an eye on New Delhi and the corridors of power. BSP chief Mayawati’s building of a grand memorial to Babasaheb Ambedkar, just 15 kms outside Lutyens Delhi is a chilling reminder to the Capital’s ruling elite of the huge memorials to Nehru and others inside the Capital. What she is pointing to is the appropriation of New Delhi by certain classes. She, like her Dalit and other underprivileged followers, remain hopeful that their assault on Lutyens Delhi will soon be complete. Mayawati has already bought one bungalow in this sublime metropolis signifying how much a foothold in Delhi means to her. To her million followers the bungalow is a matter of pride as well as an indication that the real assault is only a matter of time. And at least she is not a squatter like the shameless Shastri family and some other political clans.
Binoo K John is an author based in New Delhi