Saturday, 7 February 2009

CITIES WITHIN CITY







CITIES WITHIN CITY

With the Connaught Place or CP at the centre, it began as a ‘spiral through Delhi’ that would give Sam Miller a ‘loose framework’ for his wanderings. As he walked through the avenues, streets and lanes of the metropolis between the years 2005 and 2008, Miller noted down almost everything that caught his attention, but were often missed by all those who frequented the areas. The result of all those walks, notes and numerous photographs is the recently published book titled Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity.

“Why Delhi? Why not Kolkata…” Miller repeats my question and laughs. “Kolkata is a wonderful city and I wrote a short piece on that city’s underground railways in the collection The Weekenders — Adventures in Calcutta. But, Delhi is where I have been living since the 1990s, and more importantly, the city has changed beyond recognition, so I chose to write about this city,” he replies.

And I chose to find more from this veteran journalist of British origin, who is married to an Indian and calls Delhi his “hometown”. Miller has been associated with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as its correspondent and managing editor for the South Asia region, and currently runs media training projects in the subcontinent for the BBC World Service Trust.

Divided into chapters based on the routes he took through the city, the book vividly describes Miller’s impression of Delhi (old and new) as well as adjoining areas in the National Capital Region (NCR). “I love writing, and began writing about the city and the people for myself,” Miller says. So, every evening he would write whatever he saw of the city during his long walks in the mornings or at other times. “Gradually, the possibility of a book out of these writings emerged,” Miller adds. Along with descriptions of some of the least-visited locations of the city, Miller’s humane ways and his ability to observe keenly come across clearly.

Did he write about Delhi as a journalist or as a British expatriate, I ask. “I definitely did not come to India with the baggage of being someone of British origin and the same spirit holds true for my book as well,” he affirms. “I began writing this book as a journalist. But, we journalists are always keen to think in terms of news values. We haven’t found ways of storytelling for the common man, from a common man’s perspective. I am a migrant here and I have written about Delhi from a migrant’s point of view,” he explains.

So, the dedication of the Poorvanchalis or the migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who worship the sun during Chhath Puja and cause traffic snarls on Delhi roads leading to Noida, as also the disgruntled businessmen stuck in their cars in the snarl and feeling harassed by the Chhath processions, find place in Miller’s book. For him, the event is “visually exciting”. But, beyond the visuals, he also refers in the book to the difficulties, like the lack of affordable education for the children of these migrant families.

In fact, throughout the book there are stories within each story. “I did not want to write a dispassionate account of the city and the NCR,” Miller explains as I refer to several other touching stories that he has portrayed lucidly.

Thus, the fussy Israeli tourist at a Paharganj restaurant, the office complexes in and around CP, agitating employees of a closed soft drinks company, the joy of locating the Zeenat Mosque, and the building and the same wardrobe seen in the film The Householder (starring Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu), the deserted historical forts, the guide at the Agarsen’s Baoli (water reservoir) who was once photographed by Raghu Rai, plus the gory account of a cow slaughter house in Sadar Bazaar, the ruthlessness of policemen beating an alleged drug peddler, the attitude of denial of members of Oudh royal family who lead lives of near-penury in a ramshackle hunting lodge called Malcha Mahal on the Delhi Ridge, the air of indifference in the blood donation room of a well-known Delhi hospital, the anxiety of a tea shop owner over displacement due to Delhi’s Metro Railway, the mild humour attached to the location of the embassy of Togo and consulate of Nauru, the cemetery-like coldness of the bungalow zone — they all depict the city with a realism that is removed from the “elite English-speaking residents of South Delhi”.

‘So which is the real Delhi’, I wonder. “Very difficult for me to say that. With almost 20 million people jostling in this enormous city, each one has his or her own Delhi,” Miller sounds a little hesitant.

For him, the discovery of the wardrobe used in the film The Householder or the “scary atmosphere of the slaughter house” stand out among his experiences in the city that is an “interesting place to live in”. No wonder then Miller was “never bored” as he explored the city. “There’s a story everywhere”.

Besides the narration, Miller has provided several background information and news relevant to a particular place or an event. I ask him about the research that he did for the book. “As a trained journalist, that comes naturally. I also talked to ordinary people who have been incredibly friendly and they all helped me to get involved with this city. I cannot complain,” he informs. “Possibly, ordinary people were excited to see a foreigner speaking in Hindi”.

During his earlier posting in Delhi, Miller did not like the city. Emperor Humayun’s Tomb was the only place of his solace. In 2002, when he went back to Delhi, things had changed in the city and Miller began to like the city. How much has Delhi changed him, I probe a little. “The city has made me more relaxed and I have become less fussy,” he replies. “I like to be different, and Delhi has offered me that space to be ‘distinctive’,” Miller adds.

The book carries numerous black-and-white photographs that will offer “a sense of the textual description”. The original colour photographs were turned to greyscale, perhaps to add credibility to glossless shades of the city we read in the book. “Colour photographs would have been garish,” Miller explains.

Having written a book with an intention to make Delhi residents more aware of their city, Miller hopes that the book will be an interesting read. “I am a little nervous though, in case there are mistakes in the book,” he says jokingly.