Minding The Gap: Life Without The Metro
Aritro Sarkar, UG ‘21
It’s unusual to pine for the absent, empty embrace of public transport, which is why I find it rather difficult to rationalize my disproportionate longing for the unremarkable splendour of the Delhi Metro. The last few pandemic-driven months have left a lot of us marooned in our own homes, reeling with a dangerous abundance of time: fertile ground for reminiscence of moments spent in a city we hate to love and love to hate. Our emotions towards Delhi may have changed track on occasions – mine certainly have, although I acknowledge it only begrudgingly – but none of that seems to perturb the quiet efficacy with which the city’s metro network operates in our lives. Having shut down operations on all lines due to the virus for the first time since being inaugurated to a bewildered crowd in 2002, it is only now that the ever expanding foothold of the utility becomes apparent to Delhi – and those who, in some way or the other, call it home.
In general, public transport allows one to feel the pulse of a place. Sharing the same space with a person you’ll never see again can be a rather humbling experience: there are so many faces and so many stories behind these visages worn out by the wear and tear of urban life. In the metro, one invariably gets inducted into someone else’s story, and for those three, or four or twenty seven stations, you see the same things, hear the same announcements and breathe in the same air. For that brief moment, your lives intersect and you ride to the same rhythm of Delhi, before stepping back into the anonymity the city guarantees you, like a blanket, never seeing each other again.
Indeed, the metro is the great anonymizer and the thorough democrat, offering to everyone the same seats, the same doors, the same handrails. Heavy headphones co-exist with feeble and faulty earphones here, both getting the same space. Enslaved by the unbending rigours of the uninterrupted, urban routine of the national capital, the metro lies under the city and hovers above it. All the while it offers you its broad network of services, not caring as to who you are.
For many, college offers a certain degree of independence to its students. It is an escape from the lives we have led so far, and an opportunity to start with a clean slate, with new people in a new space. This newfound autonomy only naturally also extends to all spaces associated with college too, chief among which is Delhi: the prime target for our weekend getaways. In all these adventures, the loyal and dependable co-conspirator is the metro, who is always like the one friend without whose car the whole plan falls apart. Without our realizing, the network, with all its two hundred and twenty nine stations, became an indispensable asset to our independence. Hours of strategizing over which station to get off on; calculating which train to take in order to make it to the shuttle on time; even the rather banal confusion as to which gate to exit the station premises from: all such conversation does is underline just how the metro has become the vehicle to our autonomy. That one smart card – having tested the patience of everyone in the queue behind you – really does open up turnstiles into a city waiting to be explored.
By this point, Shammi Narang’s Hindi baritone and Rini Khanna’s mildly accented English are no longer the faceless reminders of approaching stations, blaring from the public announcement systems. They are now soothing, familiar voices at critical moments of our journeys in getting to know a city, and ourselves.
It is this wonderful sensation of unmitigated independence that has entwined itself with the very tracks on which the trains buzz around. The first brush with our individual autonomies will thus perpetually have an abundant smattering of associations with the metro itself: the two second tranquility inside the carriages before a fresh crowd bursts in through the doors at Rajiv Chowk; the sheer length of the walkway while changing lines at Hauz Khas; the irresponsibly fancy and remarkably out-of-place chandeliers at Sikanderpur station, the whole lot. Without as much as blowing the horn once, the Delhi metro has crept its way into our broader college experience, right under our noses. We’ve had arguments at Central Secretariat, stolen kisses at Chhatarpur, made impromptu plans at Jama Masjid, had network issues at Kashmere Gate, attended protest marches at Patel Chowk, revelled at the prospect of a new semester on the plush airport line and enjoyed very long hugs at Jahangirpuri. We do not measure distance in kilometres or miles; our unit is the station.
To a great degree, the metro has provided many students, such as ourselves, an avenue for adventure. Despite the crowds and maybe safety concerns and even the odd snag between stations, it has come to symbolize this unprecedented ability to move around freely, and to be at one with the city we live in now. Perhaps this is why, of the many things one misses about Delhi, the sleek, reassuring hum of the metro features so heavily. Never before did the world feel so readily accessible, and never before did one feel so spoilt for choice. Never before has a whole city been lying there, waiting to be navigated and explored, before it could trust you. Only then does it draw you in with its unusual charm and its foul mouthed lingo. In many ways, if getting to know Delhi were akin to falling in love – with remarkable trepidation because the city’s reputation precedes itself – then the metro has played the most unlikely and yet the most able cupid. It has done you the ultimate service: it has taken you around the city, intimating you of the nooks and crannies where the dogs have their own orchestra; it has brought you to the leafy parks where laughter clubs reign supreme; like a good sport, it has even shown you the wide roads with which it competes for clientele everyday. Before you know it, you have learnt Delhi as if it were a language, at the hands of the metro, the city’s finest linguist.
The writer is Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Edict. All views are personal.