As we exit Delhi airport, my eyes spot a pink ‘Women on Wheels’ board. There is no queue in front of it, and I prefer to book a cab there. The heavy suitcases I am carrying squeeze into the taxi with much difficulty. I’m here for the next half of the year and I need my things. Google Maps helps the driver to reach our destination. What a blessing technology is, I think. But as always, two minutes before the final drop-off, Google Maps messes up and takes an unwanted detour.
We enter what looks like a narrow slum lane. Valmiki Basti. The driver says the car can’t go ahead. A frown begins to line my forehead. There is no way I can walk with that luggage. A thela wala insists that the car will go through. So she drives ahead. And then she comments: “Kya sochkar aapne yahan ghar liya madam?” (What were you thinking when you rented a house here, madam?). The frown on my forehead deepens. Then we see a gated community. A guard stops the car. He asks us to call the house owner and asks him for some documents. Then he lets the cab through. But a few metres ahead, the taxi stops again, refusing to go further.
I needn’t have worried. In a moment, there are four people around me. The hospital lab manager who helped me find the place, another staff member, the broker who fixed the deal, and his son. Before I know it, they have taken care of my bags, and are showing me the way to my rented house.
We seem to be entering narrower and narrower lanes. Some strange walls seem to divide the houses into sections. I look at the entangled ugly electric wires criss-crossing between the houses and I remember the beginning scenes of Delhi-6. My heart is beating faster. For someone used to airy and open spaces, these cramped gullies remind me of the sets of Buniyaad. I half expect Haveliram and Laajoji to pop out of some random door.
A minute later a very warm lady welcomes me with a smile. She is the land lady. I climb up the stairs, and reach a neat and well-furnished house. The interiors are nice and spacious. But will I be safe? “Don’t you worry, every tenant here is either a doctor or a medical student,” assures the broker. He mechanically forwards me a list of essential numbers: wi-fi connection, mineral water, cable connection, tiffin services. And then he leaves. I look around the house and notice a strange wall blocking the view outside my bedroom window. It looks like a fortress.
The hospital manager lingers on, and sees the frown on my forehead. “Come out and I will show you the way to the hospital.” As I walk out into the sun, I realize that the correct way is a lot neater and cleaner. The land lady comes over and gives us all the keys, and treats us to tea. She makes me feel secure and safe.
That afternoon, as we take a rickshaw to buy some kitchen essentials, the rickshaw wala turns into an instant tourist guide. “This park to your right is Arun Jaitley park,” he says. We spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Daryaganj. Where books are sold by the kilo! By evening, the land lady has sent a smart young lady to help me with the cleaning. She stays in the Basti. I hire her. She says she had to drop out after tenth standard, as she was married off early.
Early next morning, before the sun is out, we reach the park and begin walking. In the dark, we encounter a spectacled statue which we presume is Arun Jaitley, post his bariatric surgery. And a few rounds later, another statue in a dhoti, which turns out to be Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Three rounds of the green park and we are tired. The sun is just beginning to peep out. We reach the spectacled statue again. And decide to climb up the stairs to get a closer look. It turns out to be a statue of Jayprakash Narayan! Can’t trust rickshaw wallas and their geographical knowledge, can you? Google Maps tells us this is Jayprakash Narayan Park. Obviously. The hospital ahead is also named after the Lok Nayak. And before you wonder why the rickshaw wala named Jaitley, I am staying right next to the Firozshah Kotla stadium, which is presently renamed Arun Jaitley stadium.
As we return back, the sun is bright and clear, and we encounter the ruined walls of the Kotla. Kotla—meaning fortress or citadel. An online payment of Rs 20 allows us entry into the ruins. Green, grassy and glorious. It is like walking into another era altogether. And then it occurs to me. Post-independence, refugees from Pakistan were housed at Kotla. In camps. And eventually people occupied the houses and built more in that area. And the walls that I see everywhere are remnants of Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s impressive city by the banks of the Yamuna. That explains everything: the planning, the architecture and the people.
Suddenly I am all excited. I am living in historical Delhi. Mornings will be spent with JP and I will cross the Khooni Darwaza on my way to work daily. Weekends will be spent exploring the sights, sounds and food of Puraani Dilli. It doesn’t seem scary anymore.
Valmiki Basti is forgotten in a jiffy. Quite like the politicians do.