Les misérables in a cold, dark city



It’s not only the women in India’s capital who are ill-fated, although society has often dished out the cruelest circumstances to them. Actually, none of us are worse than all of us in this city. We are all les misérables, the wretched, unfortunate ones, to paraphrase the title of Victor Hugo’s novel. This collective quandary has to do with the delusions we have, as we often do, that we live in a great city called Delhi.

A brutal rape earlier this month prompted widespread rage, its bestial nature wrenching our guts. But we have yet to voice our concerns about sundry everyday quibbles in a churlish city: ruffians who could beat you up if you told them they had better queued up before boarding Metro trains; motorists who think traffic lights are a waste of time, speedsters menacingly weaving through the roads, policemen who don’t speak a sentence with courtesy, young people whose lingo is abusive, and men always ready to pick their battles. All of these instances, you will note, stem from a natural proclivity to crime and lawlessness.

Delhi has had a historical allure, a mystical place of choice for many royals to pitch the tents of their kingdoms, despite the lack of a friendly climate. This pull-factor has only grown. Now scores of young men and women from all over India move in every day. The city soon grows on them. So they decide to stay on. We know about the seven cities that came to be built and erased over this present one on the southern fringes of the upper Gangetic Doab.

Historical accounts, such as the Imperial Gazetteer of India, attribute the foundations of Delhi to its first king Anangpal I (A.D 736), but it was the British Empire’s transfer of the capital, bag and baggage, from Calcutta on December 12, 1911 that sealed Delhi’s destiny as the nation’s first city.

Save its old quarters, Delhi was, until the 1980s, a city without a beating-heart middle-class. Townspeople mostly meant bureaucrats, politicians and shopkeepers. The first two groups had no natural affinities to the third.

Monuments, wide leafy roads, bungalows from a colonial past and spunky urban infrastructure today make Delhi one of the better cities, when most others are bursting at the seams.

As any visitor will notice, the nation’s capital isn’t contiguously populated. Drive around, and you’ll see pockets of urban razzmatazz spring to life, after long, lonely patches of woodlands. What would you call such forlorn geography where criminals can lurk? A quirk of fate, perhaps.

Round this austere landscape are Delhi’s bucolic backyards of hinterland communities and clans. Much like the many societies down the Khyber, these are often steeped in feudal legacies and show classic characteristic of kinship. Clan membership, as happens, is invoked for mutual support and defence, as well as for resolution of disputes. A perfect pre-condition for aloofness from the law.

Alongside, as the capital of a rapidly growing economy, a whole new class structure has struck roots – chefs, students, journalists, writers, software professionals and bankers, you name it.

Therefore, we see frequent conflicts between two social categories: the clan-based feudal gentry and the upper middle-class. As labour markets expand and professionals pour in, the middle-class would possibly render the old landed gentry redundant, buying up their land and pushing them further out.

A law-abiding society requires its people to either fear the law or respect it. The latter requires a more mature citizenry. Delhi has neither. Gentility is a long way off. So, it will need policing with a heavy hand, if not a police state. Until then, we’ll be wretched and miserable.

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