Goofy experiences aboard the Delhi Metro #iloveDilli

What are they doing? What are they doing? I looked on in disbelief as the two young men sitting opposite me in the Delhi Metro coach proceeded to be engaged in an activity that I have gladly left far behind in my childhood. Won’t keep you hanging…one of the young men was searching, with great concentration, the other young man’s head for lice! And then catching something and squishing it between his fingers!

I fought down the surge of panic. In my childhood, I had a perpetual lice problem and applying the dreaded smelly DDT and later the mild and often ineffective Mediker were Sunday rituals. I told myself these people were a full three feet away and surely, lice cannot jump that long!

Then my panic gave way to amusement. These two were oblivious of how bizarre their actions were. They were in their own world and acted as if weeding lice off each others’ hair on the Delhi Metro was the most natural thing in the world!

Just before this, an aunty had reached out on the platform and quickly pulled down my t-shirt because it had ridden up a bit; she did it as if she was personally shamed by my wardrobe mishap! Soon after the lice picking scene, two ‘senior citizen’ ladies with the blackest possible hair were discussing loudly across the aisle whether the footwear they were wearing was appropriate for the rainy weather, with one lady showing off her intelligence and pointing to her ‘boot’ repeatedly, which was in fact a rather run down sports shoe!

You want your set of goofy experiences people, just board the Delhi Metro anytime! The tickets aren’t too expensive and the entertainment is free!

Navigating cities can be hard! A Delhi Metro story

I was returning from Delhi on the metro on Friday evening. It was only four but the metro was quite packed. I got into a general compartment being quite sick of the scenario on the ladies reserved one! And I was glad. For a few stops later, an entire wedding band trooped in. They were being ushered in by a man who seemed really confident. A savvy dilliwala, I thought.
I stood all the way, but many of the bandwalas squatted on the floor of the coach. They had no idea it was not permitted and no one said anything to them either. Rather sad looking men they were, in grubby white uniforms with bright red accents. The uniform of the bandwala, another strange legacy of the Raj here in north India. Sometimes they whispered amongst themselves. But mostly they just sat and stared. I wondered about their lives. Where did they come from? Who taught them to play all these unusual instruments, the saxophone, the large drums, etc.
Once we crossed the M G Road station and the train was rather empty, I noticed the man who seemed in charge of them get rather agitated. He pulled out a piece if paper from his shirt pocket and looked around hopefully. I offered to help. On the paper I could see “park hotel” written in devnagari. I asked them to get off at huda city centre and cross the road. But I had a moment of doubt and asked to see the paper again, only to realise they needed to get to the City Park Hotel that was near the toll on NH8!
This hotel is not here, it’s on the jaipur highway, I told the man. A completely bewildered look. But this is gurgaon isn’t it? This is where we were told to go!
In the nick of time, on my insistence, they got off at Iffco Chowk, me shouting instructions to get to the highway and figure out how to reach! Poor bandwalas shuffled out with heavy feet and long faces. Another evening of escorting some happy groom and his gleeful family and perhaps drunk brethren to his wedding. I doubt it touched them, the glitz of the Great Indian Wedding, to which their jazzy red cummerbunds and gilded headgear adds south sparkle. I hope they got to the wedding in time. I hope they got paid enough. This is, after all, their time to make their bucks before they go back to languishing wherever they do for the rest of the year when not many people get married in this part if the country!
And I thought about how difficult it is for even a reasonable confident dilliwala. A guy who runs a band business or at least works as the band owners manager; if he can’t get around, what hope is there for an illiterate person, an outsider, an under confident traveller? Maybe the Delhi government should have services at bus stands and stations to help people navigate this city better. I envisage touch screens that make this networks simple to comprehend and bring smiles to those confused faces. I imagine an accessible city, a friendly city, a better city. It’s not enough to put in the infrastructure; we got to go one step further to make it usable, comprehensible, navigable to all.

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Metro musings: The gift of solitude in company

There is something hypnotic about being transported at high speed across the city crushed within a sea of human bodies. Zoom in and you see myriad expressions, people’s worries and preoccupations etched so clearly on their faces. The hassled employee late for work, the group of women armed with passes to go to the India International Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan, gloating over how they had lied to their bosses and mothers in law! College kids withdrawn into their own world, earphones welded into their ears. Groups of them yapping away, discussing boyfriends and profs and other stuff I no longer understand.

Zoom out and all the noise around subsides. All you hear is the rhythmic sound of the train on the track, the sound of comfort and excitement. The sound of motion, familiar from zillion childhood journeys and yet signifying another adventure, another destination.

It is impossible not to love this journey on the Delhi Metro. To me, it has come to mean precious time to myself. I read, I listen to music or I simply sit and imbibe the sights and sounds, the feel of Delhi citizens off to work, study or pleasure. It is a lively place, this train, despite some serious and glowering faces. Most of us seem to enjoy the status quo that comes with being on a train, suspended between somewhere and elsewhere. I see many lost in thought, one with themselves, introspective or simply dormant.

It is this opportunity that high speed travel offers that people around the world love so much. Many songs and books eulogise the metro experience in New York and the Tube in London has an iconic status for people across the works, even if they’ve never been to that city. The most bizarre scene in Skyfall, Bond’s latest, is the one jn which the train falls through a hole and crashes into the subterranean landscape of the tube. All who see it imagine the horror of being on a train that meets such a fate and we hate the bad guy who would want to go that to our beloved metro!

Indeed, I have come to love the Metro ride. I greet it as I would a dear friend and savour the experience each time. I remind myself that this is a gift we must appreciate, considering that only a few years ago we were helpless commuters with very few options.

Bumping along to Kota on half built highways- Oct 20, 2012

We are finally braving a road trip with the kids. In a Mahindra Xylo, the kids enjoying having the rear row all to themselves.
I say finally because after years of traveling with Udai, who was a placid baby and a happy traveler, Aadyaa’s restless nature was hard to deal with. She did not settle easily in the car seat as a baby and was easily bored. We stopped going anywhere by road if we could help it.
So today had been a good day with the children quite enjoying the drive, except for poor Sushma, the maid, who is motion sick every so often.
I don’t blame her. The roads have been patchy indeed. The Gurgaon to Jaipur stretch of NH8 has a series of half constructed flyovers. Traffic crawls along narrow slip roads and passengers stare at the numerous seemingly inactive work sites.
Though the latter half of this route gets better, crossing Jaipur is a challenge as well. The bypass is under construction and traffic passes a large slum area, close enough to literally glimpse the routine activities of the residents here.
The first hour on Tonk Road after Jaipur towards Kota was another stretch of road construction. Bumpy as hell. It was alarming to see how far out from the city real estate projects are bring built. Jaipur is growing fast, like many tier 2 cities across India. But we fail to grasp the ground reality of this. While the main city of Jaipur fights hard to preserve its identity and heritage, in contrast these outlying suburbs are being built with little sense of design or relevance to the context of this region, historical or climatic.
For a short while now, starting shortly before Tonk, we have the fortune of smooth roads. Here too, only two of the four lanes are operational so it’s not easy driving. Like countless infrastructure projects across India, we can only hope this will be a dream ride some day in the future. Till then, we bump along!
The funny thing is, the road expansion means all those endearing little milestones are gone, as is the quaintness of those tree lined two lane roads of yore. The pleasure of seeing the names of the places we pass and the distance remaining lost, we must resort to google maps!

Connectivity is key and transit oriented development the future- July 11, 2022

Experts tell us that many of today’s urban problems are related to the lack of connections between people and their workplaces. That makes me wonder at the relationship between reactive planning and planning for the future. In India, cities are constantly playing catch up in terms of the planning process. This is so ingrained that even new urban centres make little effort to plan ahead, assuming that corrective action can always be taken.
It surprises me that employers make the choice to locate in areas that are inaccessible. By public transport at least. In Gurgaon, certainly, employers were lured by better quality and relatively affordable commercial office space, but I doubt they exerted adequate pressure on the developers and the government to deliver on access and public transport. The dependence on automobiles, largely personal cars, is unquestioned. Not much is being said about the loss of productivity as a result of ridiculously long and stressful commutes to work. Not to mention the cascading effect on the lives of employees in terms of less family and leisure time, etc. People end up feeling ‘disconnected’ in many ways, not just in terms of access between home and work.
Does this mean cities should not permit the development of office space except along planned transit routes? In today’s urban scenario in India, this is nearly impossible. Developers will respond to the growing demand for space and governments will play catch up for many more years. But it is possible perhaps for new urban extensions to plan transit for the next couple of decades so that future development configures itself around it. This is happening to an extent in the case of the Delhi Metro. Transit oriented development is a sane choice for future and Indian cities must introspect and make it happen. In the interests of sustainability, resource management and sanity!

Renewing my resolve to use public transport to explore my city better- May 18, 2012

So many of us criticize the cities we live in. We dislike the noise, the traffic, the delays, the stress of it all. And yet, we choose to stay on. Because of the opportunities large cities offer us.

Many a times, these opportunities are real and realized by most of us. Well paying and challenging jobs, good schools, and access to good facilities for entertainment, shopping, etc. But often times, we are attracted to benefits that are at best theoretical, rarely used in practice.  How many of us fully utilize the fantastic opportunity for exposure to the arts, for instance? Scores of friends I know have never been to a museum or art gallery while living in big cities for most of their lives, missing out on one of the most enriching experiences ever. And while I understand many have no interest in art, people like me who really want to go are so bogged down by the daily routine that it’s hard to make the break and do what you want to do!

Transportation and accessibility play a key role in this. Cities that have been automobile-centric for decades are in the trap of having created a culture of driving to places. So even when public transport does come into the picture, it takes years for people who do not need to drive to use public transport.  There is no culture of walking for instance, among the car riding population. Every type of public transit needs some amount of walking and without that walking habit, transit is not considered an option.

Lack of parking is a serious deterrent for those wanting to use the car to get somewhere. I have often cried shy of visiting exciting places in my city because of my anxiety about finding safe parking for my car.

When the Delhi Metro came to Gurgaon, I envisioned these countless family trips into Delhi. I do take the Metro to work often and my kids do love it, but it’s not too often that we all ride it into town to eat out, visit someone, shop or attend an event. We usually end up taking the car, for silly reasons. Finding parking at the Metro station is a problem. Last mile connectivity in Delhi is usually not such a serious issue, but can be if it gets late or during peak traffic. Frankly, we’re just not used to lugging the kids through public transit. Happy visions of being responsible citizens and traveling by Metro melt instantly when I think of carrying my kids back from the Metro to the car park. And if you were trying to take an auto within Gurgaon, most likely your driver would be all of 16 and driving so recklessly, all you can do is pray!

Last summer, we spent a week in Barcelona and used the Metro there extensively. It was exhausting, but we got used to it by Day 2 and factored in the time it would take to use public transit into our packed touristic schedule! The Delhi Metro is certainly a lot easier to use, I can vouch for that!

Even as I write this, I am strengthening my resolve to overcome these seemingly minor obstacles and expose my family to public transport. I think it is an essential if I would like my kids to become aware, responsible and resilient enough to face the urban environment of the future, which will be a lot more challenging!

Less roads, more pavements make sustainable, workable cities- March 7, 2012

I am not a transportation planner or an out-and-out socialist, but I do understand that it is totally unfair to have auto-centric cities when the majority of citizens use public transport. It enrages me to see this happen in Indian cities, where authorities pander to the middle classes and the rich, spending massive amounts on road widening and freeway building at the cost of shrinking and disappearing pavements. Then politicians go with a begging bowl back to the common man, who takes the bus and walks and cycles, to ask for votes when election time comes round!

Governments are supposed to work for the LARGER good and take decisions for the long-term benefit of the city. Indian cities have no real sense of community and there seems to be a complete disconnect between what passes for community and the guys who decide what’s good for the city.

I came across an interesting blog that described the community-centric development of Oviedo in Spain.The city has worked with ‘equality for pedestrians’ as an objective and actually reduced the width of roads and widened pavements in the last few years. At traffic lights, the yellow light shows a pedestrian crossing, to warn motorcar drivers that they need to watch out for people still crossing the road before they press on the accelerator! Small interventions can go a long way in improving safety and quality of life!

Another really cute initiative is the biker bus that makes the journey to school a safe, fun and eco-friendly experience for Dutch kids. See the happy contraption here!

There has been a movement to remove urban freeways in the United States and other nations. Freeways, built for faster movement of cars, have sliced through communities, displacing people and destroying entire neighborhoods for decades. Some cities have chosen to close their freeways down to create walkable spaces and seen economic revitalization as a benefit. Manhattan’s West Side Highway, that collapsed in 1973, was never replaced because citizens opposed plans for a new, bigger freeway. Instead, citizens got a waterfront park and bicycle paths they value much more. No one missed the freeway; traffic actually reduced. In Seoul, South Korea, the city’s only freeway was covered up and converted into a park. Bus ways were created instead!

In India, we continue to build freeways, widen roads, swallow pavements, charge ridiculously low parking fees even in prime market areas, continue to neglect public transport- we do this at the cost of our cities and our lives! But when ‘community’ means only Facebook pages and no grassroots connect, when no one asks the ordinary man what he needs and when politicians continue to be fascinated by solutions the West has already discarded, something is super wrong! Worse, the man riding the bicycle is sent the message that he must aspire for a scooter, then a car, rather than any attempt to encourage his already eco-friendly mode of transport.

We need to make changes to our lives. We need to convert automobile trips to ones made on public transport, at an individual level. We need to demand better public transportation from our governments. We need to carpool more. We can do so much; yet we sit by and believe our small changes won’t matter, so we can continue to not try. We vote for change but we have no means to ensure our demands are met. We are a democracy without teeth not because politicians are bad (yes, they are, but that is another story), but because we have not woken up!

We need a no tolerance attitude towards bad driving- Feb 21, 2012

When you wake up to news of disastrous car crashes two days in a row, you know its time to seethe about the poor traffic sense of the average Indian. Yes, poor road sense is one of the defining features of Indian urbanity- shocking, irritating and amusing, all at the same time!

This morning, as I drove back after dropping my daughter to school, I encountered some classic cases of road misbehavior in a short 15-minute drive. A smart executive was attending to his urgent business call while behind the wheel bang in the center of the road, hogging one half of two lanes. Clearly, the call was more important than his life or other peoples’ time! Impatient drivers continued to drive across a four-way crossing long after their lights had turned red, drastically bringing the time down for our side of the traffic to cross the intersection. Clearly, they needed to get to work before all the rest of us! I could go on…you get the drift, I’m sure!

The thing is, we all condone this sort of behavior. If not indulging in it, we certainly turn a blind eye when our cabbies, drivers or colleagues do the crazy stuff on the roads. Yet, we tut-tutted for real this morning when we read the front page news about two people being run over and killed by a Swift Dezire gone nuts. The media highlighted, of course, the fact that the deed was done by a car cleaner who had driven off with his master’s car!  The fact that many of us who are masters of cars ourselves drive irresponsibly is, apparently, besides the point. Case in point: Yesterday, we read about the guy who killed himself speeding his Lamborghini on narrow, grade-separated city roads!

We need a lot more awareness, stricter licensing and policing, education about road safety and rules starting school level to make things better. But how do we address the larger malaise of impatience and irresponsibility, a feeling that there will be no consequences to bad behavior? How do we understand that on the roads, irresponsibility could mean harm and even death and that someone else may have to pay for our mistakes? And how do we stop blaming the ‘other’ and look to fix ourselves up first!

Airport diaries: IGI T3 in Delhi vs Amausi in Lucknow- Feb 13, 2012

We landed at the T3 terminal of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi yesterday. The luggage was already on the conveyor belt when we got there (that’s the real reason to build an airport so large that the walk time is more than enough for the handlers to get the baggage out!). Soon enough, people had picked up their stuff and gone. Nupur’s bag hadn’t come yet and a suspiciously similar bag was still on the belt. We got the Jet staff to figure things out and sure enough, a certain Ms Pooja Bajpai had walked off with Ms N Chaturvedi’s suitcase, completely ignoring the bright green ribbon Nupur had tied over the handle just to avoid incidents like this!

As the two of us waited for Ms Bajpai to return to the airport, we spoke about how hugely things have changed in the customer service attitudes since just a few years ago. The Jet Airways ground staff person was fairly prompt, unruffled by the situation and very polite yet firm with Ms Bajpai. He explained the situation patiently to her and insisted she turn around to return the bag immediately. Through all this, her bag stayed sort of unattended somewhere near but not inside the Jet Airways counter! We wondered who was taking responsibility for the bag! The guy’s composure stayed intact through the process of locating her as they scurried back and forth the three lanes of traffic outside the terminal, till finally the bags were exchanged and Nupur returned triumphant.

Meanwhile, I was admiring the T3 airport, its sense of busy orderliness as compared to the chaos we normally associate with airports in India. The post-paid radio cab counters operated efficiently (we were lucky to be there on a Sunday evening) and we were home bound soon!

The organized hustle bustle outside T3

A triumphant Nupur returns with her green-ribboned suitcase and an apology from Ms Bajpai :)

The entire experience was quite a contrast from the crowded Lucknow airport, where instead of making loudspeaker announcements, airline ground staff shouted at passengers to wait, board or hurry! Nobody really knew what is happening. Long lines for the security check and insufficient seating at the departure lounge ensured frayed nerves and rising tempers. But most people did not look annoyed, simply resigned and impatient to get on board and away!

Clearly, traffic at airports in India’s Tier-2 cities is far more than these airports can handle. The current terminal at Lucknow airport was built in 1986. The new 3-storey building was to be inaugurated in November 2011 way before the election, but what we used yesterday appears to be the same terminal I have used for several years now! Media reports that the new 20,000 sq ft terminal will be able to handle 750 passengers at one go. I’m hoping this will be enough. I’m also hoping they’ve found a way to manage the UP Govt white ambassadors outside the terminal to whom no rules apply!

The Delhi Metro reinforces my faith in public transport and humanity- Feb 01, 2012

As I made my way back home at peak office hours in the crowded Delhi Metro the other day, packed like a sardine among other women sardines (yes, I was in the women’s compartment where being a sardine is less smelly and far more acceptable), I was struck for the thousandth time by how much life had changed in the city since the Metro arrived.

Just for the record, the Delhi Metro had a ridership of 459.5 million passenger rides per year in 2010-2011 as per Wikipedia, and is 24th most ridden mass rapid transit system in the world!

To me, like it must have for many others, the Delhi Metro’s extension to Gurgaon gave back to me the pleasure of using public transport. I no longer feel constantly guilty about adding hogging road space or about spending the equivalent of a poor family’s weekly expenses on a single day’s fuel! Even more valuable is the sense of freedom and a sense of better connection with the urban environment I live in.

I agree, the Delhi Metro is unaffordable to the poorest sections of society, but is still quite diverse in the type of people it ferries around. On the yellow line that I take, I see many college kids, pre-occupied with texting on their mobile phones and yapping nineteen to the dozen! I see office goers galore, looking purposeful, reading, listening to music and snoozing if they are lucky enough to have a seat. I see workmen carrying tools around, runner boys checking their watches every few moments and sometimes lying to their bosses about where they’ve reached (oh, the joys of mobile telephony!); the elderly returning from a visit to a long-lost friend and kitty party returnees looking pleased as punch! Children, wide-eyed and bouncing on mothers’ laps, thoroughly enjoy the Metro too.

The Metro ride helps me retain a sense of normalcy. I feel like I’m like everyone else. In a strange sense, there is also a sense of camaraderie in riding the Metro together. Exchanged glances, smiles and even an occasional conversation with a stranger can reinforce a general faith in humanity that we seem to be losing as our lives get busier, more technology-driven, more protected. The Metro is my ticket to reality and on most days it gives me no cause to complain at all! The autos when I get off at Gurgaon’s HUDA City center…now they are a whole new story :)