I was sitting in a coffee shop in GKII with a group of friends. All of us were from Britain and had been living in Delhi for a while. “What do you miss most about England?” somebody asked, and we all came up with our list: friends, decent off-licenses, snowdrops, autumn, BBC TV drama serials… The final person’s turn came: and the answer came in a sigh that emanated from somewhere deep in his solar plexus.
“Oh,” he said, “pavements.”
Much is written about the streetlife of India – ah, Western travellers say, the streetlife; the streetfood, the roadside dhaba and the kerbstone cobbler, the rush and bustle of the weekly haat, the sabzi-vendors, the chaat-wallas, the juice-stalls, the handcarts sailing by with their merry cargos of buckles and belts, hankies and bangles… And on the other side of the world, subcontinental travellers gawp at English roads and wonder: where did everybody go?
Being a pedestrian in Delhi is something one ought to qualify for. Some basic physical, which would weed out children, the elderly, the lame, the shortsighted, the ill, the wheelchair-bound, the pregnant… in short, anyone who cannot leap nimbly as a mountain goat up cliff-like kerbs, over gaping storm drains, negotiating the rough terrain of broken cobbles, gravel, sharp-edged paving slabs, and all-pervasive rubbish.
The pavements of Delhi are what cultural theory types like to call ‘a contested site’. In this overcrowded megalopolis, the thin grey line is squeezed from all sides. To the left, the nudging choked stream of cars, trucks, scooters, buses, bicycles, motorbikes and autos; a honking, cursing, ever-widening river. To the right, consumer goods leak from storefronts into the street. Trestletables and crates creep forward laden with chocolates and biscuits, Chinese-made plastic toys, and DVD racks. During the festival season the leak becomes a flood, as shopkeepers cram the footpath with baskets of nuts and sweetmeats, glasses and jugs and mixies and shiny pots and pans, and stalls spring up overnight like mushrooms, selling diyas and bangles, or plastercast gods, parakeets and figurines painted in fluorescent pinks and reds and greens. From above, strings of marigolds and ashok leaves dangle from awnings to entice the goddess Lakshmi in, and green chili and lime pendants chase bad spirits away. And from beneath, diggers and shovellers tunnel under the city to make the new metro lines, or lay fibre-optic cables, or break and repair the creaking substructure of sewerage and water pipes.
Counter to the dictionary’s definition, the pavement – at least in this country – is not something to walk upon. The American word ‘sidewalk’ is perhaps more appropriate, since most of us guttersnipes walk along the side of the road, preferring to take our chances with the traffic than risk twisted ankles or broken necks on the pavements meant for our safety. Just pray that your destination does not involve crossing the road: jumping over or squeezing through the spiked metal fences that bisect the traffic is not for the faint-hearted. Concrete-barriered U-turns and Delhi’s cornucopia of flyovers defy human traffic all together – all in an effort to keep motorized traffic moving: a Herculean task, given that the number of motor vehicles has risen from 1.5 million in 1997 to an estimated 2.7 million in 2005.
Picking your way through the debris – mineral, vegetal, human, and animal – it is evident that beneath the skin, the city is undergoing a facelift of dramatic proportions. But what is being scoured clean – streetfood vendors, stray dogs, cows, cycle-rickshaws – are the very things that breathe life into Indian streets. But whilst the courts and municipal authorities struggle to impose a top-down order on the chaos, it’s a testament to the robustness of pavement life that their successes have been, at best, partial. It’s a strange paradox that controls seem to be aimed almost entirely at the footsoldiers in this daily battlefield, whereas the real killers – the cars (which alone account for around 70% of the air pollution) – are left to their own devices.
Along Khel Gaon Marg, the road-workers drafted in to widen the already eight-lane road to accommodate a high-capacity bus lane, have colonized the pavements, eking out shelters and living quarters in the carboniferous slipstream of one of the city’s busiest throughways. Pavements in Delhi are not simply walkways; the pavement is home, bathroom, barbershop, dining room, kitchen, playground, deathbed, for the city’s 140,000 homeless.
The seismic convulsions of Delhi rebirthing itself as a ‘world class city’ underline the instability and fragility of this project, revealing the ground beneath our feet as not solid earth, but a thin crust. On the sidewalk lies a man, mottled with sores and dirt – asleep, or worse – just the latest and most visible of those who, daily, fall through the cracks.