Haunted Cities

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
― Italo Calvino

Once again, I am switching cities. London for Brighton. (Many balls to you, Ben Johnson. I’m not tired of life, but I’m definitely weary of all I cannot afford in the the capital – so relentlessly, prohibitively corporate). And while Brighton is lovely, all sea-windy and crisp, perched at the end of land as though waiting to plummet into an adventure, I have Delhi on my mind.

The city I switched for ‘home,’ for Shillong.  Someone asked me in an interview whether the places I’ve lived in inform my writing and I said yes, but less so Delhi with which I share a rather troubled relationship.

Over the last few weeks, while following the news on the young girl and the rapists, there’s been a ceaseless churning of emotion – grief and shock at the brutality of the assault, her struggle to survive and her eventual death. Being a world away, I spent hours reading, watching videos about the protests, the violence of the police, the apathy of the government, the mad cries for vengeance.  And much as I tried not to let it happen, there’s been a resurgence of memories of my time in Delhi, where men and women can be infinitely cruel. They all came back like old enemies, incidents I’d tried to stow away and forget. I was a first year student at Delhi University, and making my way back to my hostel along a road in Civil Lines, when a man on a scooter drove up behind me, shoved his hand between my legs and dragged me along the pavement. Then he let go, drove ahead, looked back and laughed. Not a single passersby, and there were a few hurrying on, stopped to help. I remember walking back in a daze, unsure of what had just happened. It was lunch time, I sat at the dining table with my friends Lakyntiew and Udita and cried into my bowl of rajma-rice. A few years later I lived in a paying accommodation for girls in a posh South Delhi neighbourhood (S-Block, GK 2) and had to tape my curtains to the window to stop the landlord and his male helpers from peering into my room, especially after I’d taken a shower. Sometimes, walking back from the market, men in big cars would slow down and drive alongside, roll down their windows and hold out wads of money. Sitting in an auto, men whizzed by on their motorbikes making smoochy noises or calling out ‘Hi baby.’

In Delhi you’re penalised for being a woman, and being a woman from the ‘northeast’ is sometimes far worse. This is when members of both sex have a veritable field day. Once, I was looking to rent a barsati in Defence Colony and had to undergo an hour’s worth of interrogation from a Punjabi landlady who looked down her bejeweled nose at me and said, ‘Oh you’re from northeast. Then you’ll be bringing different different boys to your room at night.’ Or, for instance, the phone conversation I had with a young, ‘modern’, middle-class couple who lived in East of Kailash and whose first floor apartment a (girl) friend and I were keen to rent – ‘Oh, if you’re from northeast you’ll be having parties every night and having boys home.’ This is not ‘physical’ violence I know, but apart from being terribly racist, I somehow have a feeling they’d also be the type of people who are quite quick to say ‘She asked for it.’ Then once, at an utterly forgettable party, a man groped me saying since I was from where I was, I could only enjoy it.

For all these reasons and more, on this the last night of the year, I wish I could switch cities. Brighton for Delhi. I want to be there and hold a candle for the girl, for you, and me. To feel the solidity of people who care (and how many of you there are). To transform all this rage and grief into something calm and constructive, so we can unpack our memories and not have to stow them away again. The girl’s suffering and everyone else’s who has faced abuse must not have been in vain.

I will light a candle anyway. Lest we forget.

Lest we forget.

City image © Marcelo Romero

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