Urban Fables 2.1: The Downpour

November 28, 2010


This is a series of new fiction pieces that accompany a longer narrative we are working on.

1. The Downpour

The seven-computer cyber cafe was housed in the smallest room possible, testifying to the words hung on the wall near a window right next to Neel’s terminal.

‘This physical world of ours is unimportant, secondary, immaterial’. The words, in golden hue, circled the image of a guru with a white beard and wise eyes.

All of them – words, guru and enlightened halo – were embossed on cheap calendar paper, laminated and given new life by Neel, the cyber cafe owner, only last week. Additional words on the image, ostensibly also voiced by the guru, claimed that the physical world is so immaterial that it can fold inside out in ways that you cant imagine, just like a flexible, lithe dancer’s body.

That part made no sense to Neel.

The guru also happened to be his grandfather, now dead. He would have been safely forgotten, if it had not been for Neel’s dad who found this particular picture attached to a 1934 calendar, tucked away in an old trunk. He insisted that his son put it up in the cyber cafe.

‘He was a real guru and his blessings will have the power to get your shop to actually make money’.

Neel in fact did make more profits last week then he had done in all of the six months since the café’s inauguration. He was now planning to reframe the image in a proper wooden picture and was even ready to build a little altar around it.

He had seen images of his grandfather before of course, but none in this glorious guru-avatar. He knew a bit of his grandfather’s story. Mainly that he had left this fishing village to build his ashram in the hills on the outskirts of the city fairly early in life.

Neel’s family, which had come to the village,when it was all mangroves, sea, ponds and coconut trees, more than four hundred years ago, never took to fishing. That was the condition they were allowed to stay on the fringes of this habitat in the first place. Consequently, every generation found something new to do. His grandfather became a guru. His dad and mom ran a pharmacy and he decided to open a cyber café the day he graduated.

The village itself had transformed beyond belief in the last forty odd years. The edge and the center were all mixed up and the city from the south had pushed itself in and around it, transforming the DNA of the whole neighborhood. It was neither village or city now but something else. Something intense and wholesome, dense and textured. Where space had danced intricately to create all kinds of patterns and sculpted unusual structures, all of them emerging from the bodies and lives of everyone who lived there.

Right now he was curled up in one cubicle, all alone, his rich blue denim shirt merging with the blue of the room, the color evoking his name, which meant blue too. The room had been freshly painted, the intense, plastic aroma overpowering the damp monsoon smell that normally hung around this time of the year.

The last user had left two hours ago, daunted by the rain, which had finally put a stop to his sex-heavy conversation with an anonymous friend. The thought of being trapped in floods had eventually managed to douse his feverish desire to continue.

The cyber cafe was ten feet long, five feet wide with a roof so low it made you duck and walk straight to your chair as soon as you climbed into the room atop an iron ladder creeping up the small two-and-a-half storey high building.

He was not worried about the flood, as he just had to step down the ladder and into his little alcove where he slept, just below the cafe. His parents lived on the ground floor, behind the shop that now sold and repaired mobiles as well as medicines.

Through the tiny window next to the computer, he could see water falling over his neighbor’s roof and rolling down into the gutter. The rain was falling in heavy sheets providing ambient sound that was deafening. The gigantic drops fell onto the corrugated cement roofs with an aggression that threatened to blow holes like bullet shots into them.

Neel’s parents had cleaned up the drain below their house just last week, in anticipation of precisely such a downpour. If they had not, the ground floor would have been knee deep in water tonight.

The room was dark, except for the glow emanating from the sole computer switched on. It reflected right onto the laminated image placed on the wall at Neel’s elbow, making it come alive.

Neel looked into the glowing eyes of his guru grandfather.

‘Thanks for the money grandpa. If only I had known, I would have resurrected you earlier’.

His grandfather’s piercing eyes seemed to shine back approvingly.

A familiar, crunching sound pierced through the din of the rain. Of somebody stepping on and climbing up the iron ladder to the cafe.

Neel turned around in surprise. The entrance to the cyber cafe was really like an open trap door that made the visitor pop headfirst, then heave up the ladder into the room, immediately double up, and reach out to any available chair.

The woman whose face emerged startled Neel. She did not seem to be anyone he had imagined entering his little den at this time of the night. She had straight, black, thick, hair. Her face was unnervingly beautiful and impeccably made up.

In fact, Neel was so disconcerted that his mind seemed to melt in a haze. The next morning though, he remembered everything in vivid detail.

He remembered her black shirt and trousers fitting her perfectly proportioned, full, and sexy body. Of her rich, glowing olive colored skin. He remembered her walking confidently to the computer right next to his.

She placed a fifty-rupee note on the table, barely glanced at him while switching on the computer and sent text messages on her mobile while it came to life.

She then logged onto to google earth (or that’s what he imagined) and peered intently at the images, unfolding and shifting with clicks on the dirty mouse made by her slender hands.

It was because he was trying to peer at her in frank admiration of her beauty and to get a closer view of her cleavage that he managed to notice what exactly she was looking into.

She had zoomed into the country, then the state to get a birds-eye view of the city and the region around it. She was obviously on some very advanced real-time version of the site. He could see wisps of cloud layering the geological configurations and realized that the water movements on the ground were marked out with some glowing bluish green hue that pierced the thin layer of mist.

He remembered being hypnotized by the image. It made him lose all sense of proportion. He felt he was in a large dark room and the images were all around him on a gigantic wall. It was as if he could see every trickle and flow of water on the region around his city. Springs trickled into streams, which flowed into rivers. He saw the familiar dark shadowy shape of Mumbai surrounded by movements of water, as if it was trapped in a large network of rivulets. Then she zoomed in and he was seeing the city up close. There was a thickening of flows in several parts but one strand was larger and thicker than the others. She zoomed in again and he realized he was seeing his own neighborhood, Koliwada surrounded by mangroves on one side and the dense conglomeration of human structures on the other. The thick flow of water, glowing blue on the screen in his eye, was thick and ferocious and the sound of the rain in his ears made him panic. Made him feel as if the river on the computer was actually all around him.

He remembered her staring at him with a hint of a smile as she saw his eyes locked onto her computer.

He turned away embarrassed.

Then a small piece of his roof gave way and water poured inside. He yelped and ran towards it trying to pull the attacked computer away. He managed to save it, dragged out a blue plastic sheet to block the broken roof, and strung it across some nails on the wall. He then turned around, wet, but triumphant, only to see the woman do the weirdest thing possible.

She was standing near the image of his grandfather. He could not make out  her gestures entirely, but if it wasn’t for how she looked and the way she was dressed, he would have been sure her head was bowed down a bit and she was praying with folded hands.

Then she turned, smiled at him, and walked across the room and down the ladder in the most elegant way possible.

He remembered running to her computer. It was switched off. He saw the fifty rupee note. He caught hold of it and rushed to the trap door. It was way too much for the time she had spent.

It was only as he climbed down the steep ladder did he realize what exactly was wrong with her presence in his cyber café.

He nearly slipped on the wet iron railings at the realization. The rains lashed him on all sides. He barely saw her turn around the corner through the downpour and hastily returned to the cafe. Soon he was in bed in his little alcove, shivering with the cold and the layer of fear that had enveloped him. He pushed his thoughts away, not allowing them to take over his sleep.

Next morning it was still pouring. The grey, dark, wet morning did not do much to help him relax. Nothing really made sense. It was only when he went across the bustling street, dodging gigantic pools of water and sludge, to the tea-shop run by his friend, had his first smoke and morning chai, when he let loose the self-imposed barrier in his brain.

She had been bone dry. She did not have an umbrella. No raincoat. Her hair was absolutely untouched by the rain, as were her clothes. Her skin did not have a touch of moisture whatsoever. The chair she was sitting on had been dry too. The fifty-rupee note was stiff and fresh.

That was not all.

She did not seem to be particularly short but had not crouched in the cafe . She had walked across to and from the tiny room as if its size did not act like an obstruction to her elegance and gait even the tiniest bit.

The fact that she was staring at her grandfather’s picture in apparent prayer, now became the least intriguing part of her.

If it were not for the crisp fifty-rupee note in his pocket, he would have convinced himself that his imagination had conjured her up.

(to be continued…)

Khirkee, New Delhi: A short introduction

November 7, 2010

Collage produced by participants in the community arts programme initiated by KHOJ in Khirkee

The idea of the urban system as discussed by Anthony Leeds, frames Delhi’s special urban history and habitats like Khirkee, in an interesting way. He rejects the idea that such villages were ‘rural’ spaces. He sees them as functional components of political kingdoms that were ruled by powerful, urbanized centers.

If political kingdoms were urban systems, Delhi was one par excellence, way before it reinvented itself in the twenteith century as a suburb of its own past in the form of New Delhi.

Unfortunately Delhi’s dynamic urban past sits uneasily with its bureaucracy mired and aggressive modern avatar.

Khirkee village – Window village – in a literal translation (deriving its name from the Khirkee Masjid built in the sixteenth century) is a large heterogenous collection of neighbourhoods weighed down by contemporary India’s confused official stance on what its urban life should be.

You see in its present, signs of dynamic civic initiatives in the last few decades, as the older village morphed into buildings and parks and decent roads thanks to the contribution of its several dominant communities. You also see familar middle class zealousness in guarding boundaries and some contempt or pity for its poor cousin, the unauthorized Khirkee extension.

Unauthorized colonies can be so for a number of official reasons ranging from being transgressive of history (ASI, The Archaeological Survey of India,  believes that the monuments deserve more civic respect through substantial evacuation of civic life) to being hostage to local officials who find it more remunerative to keep colonies in that unstable status. They are also unauthorized since processes of authorization are slow. The gaps in time are filled in by over eager builders and local landlords who make a quick buck by pushing construction activities  through bureaucratic hurdles and then get entangled in them.

During this process, the relative depression in real estate value, makes it ideal for new migrants to come and rent and live and set up shop – or even buy. A walk down Khirkee extension makes you see global faces along with regional migrant communities making it a truly cosmopolitan neighbourhood. And yet, its unauthorized status also means living with bad civic amenities, overflowing drains, uneven and crater filled roads and diseases of all kinds.

Things simply do not have to be this way. The sincere initiatives taken by so many of the residents of the neighbourhood during the last decade do not have to end in disaster. But for things to go in any other direction we need to go beyond the obvious and we hope that the workshop, with all your inputs, can enrich and exploit our understanding of this neighbourhood, its ability of transcending an undervalued urban past, its harnessing of the regenerative potential of community art initiatives and its explorations of the most genuine processes of participation in civic life.

The Urban Typhoon Workshop 2010, in New Delhi is being co-organized between URBZ and KHOJ and will be held in Khirkee village.