My beloved monarch butterflies,
Home is a two bedroom apartment. It has been for the past five years. It belongs to us, no landlord’s whims, no ditching it as soon as a paint job or plumbing repair needs to be done. It has two bedrooms, one small ante-room built off the living room which serves as my study, a living room and a kitchen.
I’m divided about which my favourite part is: is it the bedroom, flooded with natural light which I keep out with black out blinds, a bed as wide as a ship, a mattress topper on top of the already thick mattress, so I am like the princess from The Princess And The Pea? Is it my study—frequently out of commission, last year because the monsoon made a large chunk of the ceiling fall down, this year because the AC repair guy did not, in fact, repair the AC and now is out of town because of all this, understandable but frustrating—my study with floor to ceiling bookshelves and every single book I’ve ever owned, only I’ve stopped using the shelves closest to the floors because the cats also love to pee on books? Often it is my balcony, we put in a hammock for K’s birthday last year, and last year we had an uninterrupted view, all the way from our terrace over the large park next door, all the way to the malls of Saket, the domed roof of Select Citywalk twinkling in the distance.
That’s been taken away from us, almost like a home invasion, and it’s almost fitting, almost poetic, that it’s all happening at the same time part of my city is being taken away from me too, by Modi and his set of… oh, what can I call them to indicate how deep my hatred is? I, who don’t normally hate, have been brought to this as well, losing a part of my personality as I lose so many other things to Modi and his government. When I think about him, my stomach churns, no, literally, as I am writing this, there is a fist and it has grabbed my stomach, and my heart rate has gone up, and my teeth are involuntarily clenching and rage is dropping like a blanket behind my eyes so I can’t be reasoned with, I just have pure undistilled hate like an essential oil, oozing from me.
Our house was perfectly cat proof before a building came up next door, now the cats hop in and out of the site, and we have to put in a fence. Our house had a window in the living room, a lovely large picture window, and that’s gone. It was hubris to build that window, no one in Delhi does on a connecting wall, but the lady who lived in the house next door said she wouldn’t sell it till she was dead, and she’s pretty young, so we thought it was a good gamble. Unfortch, the house was not hers to sell, an important detail she left out. One day the family next door was there, the next it was broken down and a four floor monstrosity came up. If this house didn’t belong to us, wedded and committed, this would be the point we’d consider leaving it. Just because of the view, you’re asking, shaking your head at me, and I think, yes, because I am so angry, how dare they take what is mine. This is unreasonable, I know, the view was never mine, it was only on loan, but it’s surprising how fast you can get used to something, how fast now I have gotten used to only seeing the Front Small Park not the Side Huge Park, how fast I have gotten used to hating my future new neighbours, people I don’t know anything about.
Meanwhile, we are thinking of leaving this city as well, the worse it gets the more we want to leave, jump like rats from a sinking ship. The whole ship, all of India. K’s parents are in Germany and we haven’t seen them in two years, so we are trying to finagle a trip there next month. We’ve had one round of our vaccinations (luck, Max Panscheel, flu-y but no fever for 24 hours) and hopefully, by the time we leave, we can have our next jab too. (EXTREMELY UNLIKELY, given that we’ve all but run out of vaccinations and most people can’t even get their first jabs but a person can dream.)
Homes. Delhi is littered with my homes. I’ve lived away from my mother’s since I was 21, first Malviya Nagar, a “train compartment” flat, one room leading to another, then close by a few years later in Anupam Enclave (you won’t know it, it’s very small, our flat was likely illegal construction, it was on the fourth floor and swayed in the wind when anything larger than a small car drove by). Back from Bombay, I moved to a small annexe flat in GK1 (“servant’s quarters,” some people informed me wisely, but it was a nice tiny flat, just big enough for one, then Nizamuddin West—three homes—one had a bathroom on the landing, so you had to be speedy about dashing indoors with your towel wrapped around you, one had only Indian toilets and a nasty landlord (I could live with the loo, but the guy renting to me was the worst, I’m all for them leaving me alone, but he seemed to actively be impeding me. He was a traditional sort of guy, so maybe that was the problem) and a lovely “proper grown up” house we left later for this one. I’d lived alone in Delhi in Act II of my life here, K only moved in with me for the last of my Nizamuddin houses
Of all the cities in this country, Delhi is the most welcoming. Okay, I don’t mean in terms of breaking into a social circle, that can be hard to do, most Delhiites are clannish and prefer to stick to people they’ve known since school or college. But I’ve tried briefly living in Goa before, and I noticed my friends there, even people who had literally just moved two years ago, were putting on airs about how they were “more Goan” than the rest of us tourists who trooped in and out. Definitely more Goan than me, but er, the average Delhiite will still be a Delhiite, even if they spend years in Goa. Not to me, what do I care, but to the Goans definitely. In Bombay too, they judged you by how long you’d been there, where you’d come from, Delhi got a lot of flak, people liked to bitch about the city, and even though you know it isn’t personal, it feels personal, like you’re judging the city through me somehow.
Here in Delhi, sandwiched between the original urban villages that used to once be all that was here, driving past a traffic light and seeing a magnificent tomb and it isn’t even an extra-special tomb! It’s just oh another one of our artefacts from 1330, you want special, you really should check out some of the stuff they’ve refurbished. I have friends from here, like me, and I have friends who chose this city to be their home, like my parents did many decades ago, and Delhi is okay with both sets of people being like, “Yup, I’m from Delhi.”
This is, of course, if you can hack it. The city is against you from the start: if it’s not punishingly hot summers, it’s incredibly cold winters and in between, there’s so much air pollution that it was only just knocked from the “what way will Delhi kill you fastest” charts by COVID. It’s like Mad Max Fury Road, only you can’t take it personally because the city essentially hates every single one of its inhabitants. If you’re very rich, you waste a lot of the city’s water (also running out soon) on watering your lush lawn on which you will attempt to have tea at 5 pm on a summer evening only to realise it’s not actually possible to sit outside at 5 pm on a summer evening, maybe you should try for six? But oh, at six pm there are mosquitoes, some of them as large as teacups, all thirsty for your ankles, and at seven, it’s too late for tea, so you may as well sit inside and gaze at your lawn while also managing to ignore the poor people you hired to tend said lawn, some of whom have run out of water in their neighbourhoods so long ago, they no longer remember what it was like to turn a tap and have water rush out of it. So Delhi hates you, but it hates them more, and there’s nothing like everyone ignoring everyone else to make a city collapse in on itself. The rich care about other rich, the upper middle class about other upper middle class people (see thread below) and the poor, well, they care about what they can care about to stay alive.
This is probably true of the rest of the capitalist world as well, not unique to India, but what is unique to here is how large the gap is. The man watering the lawn goes home to his family in the village during India’s first lockdown because there are no jobs anymore, and on the train he’s on, several people die of dehydration because there’s no drinking water provided. The rich owners grumble about their lack of help, because they’re not used to having their houses dusty, a cobweb dares to appear in the corner, how will we cope, how will we cope?
In the last year, I, one of the Rich, had to live for the first time in my whole life without a maid. Even typing that makes me blush deeply, what kind of person admits that? What kind of person gets so frustrated with house cleaning that she leaves things to get as dirty as they can until finally, in a burst of guilt and despair, she mops (unevenly) and dusts (leaving the corners untouched) and cooks (that she’s actually discovered a small talent for)? Good practise, I told myself in December, for when we actually move abroad. We bought machines to help us, we’d always had a dishwasher and now we have a small robot vacuum cleaner that zips around the house picking up clumps of cat fur. It can also be programmed to speak in many different voices, I have chosen the English Butler because it tickles me to hear it say, “Just putting my feet up for a moment” but then it also says, “Back to the servant’s quarters” and we can laugh that a machine says it in a British accent, but we laugh with deep survivor’s guilt.
Home became not just a state of mind but an actual physical destination. These four walls, my cage, but also my haven. Home was only our apartment, nowhere else, the city might have faded in and out outside, the trees alternatively blooming and shedding and turning brown or yellow. We lost control over everything else: our plans, our lives, but home remained constant. That is until the building came up next door.
Modi is not from Delhi. He’s made that pretty clear. I loved this piece (and when I say I loved it, I mean it made me angry but also like I was seen) in the NYRB called Modi’s Folly. Why, asks the article, is he spending so much money on a project that doesn’t need to be done, a vanity project that far surpasses that infamous suit when people are dying because they don’t have enough oxygen? He’s building himself a motherfucking house, you guys, and pretending like it’s for the greater good. Or is he even pretending? This government is kind of done acting like they give a shit, isn’t that scary? What do they have planned for us next?
Toward the end of his first term, in 2019, Modi said that his only regret was that he could not make the people of Lutyens’s Delhi his own. But it was these people who found themselves displaced in Modi’s Delhi, not the other way around. Things got done the way he wanted them done. His second term has checked off items that have been on Hindu nationalism’s wish list for decades: the annexation of Kashmir, the erection of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya (on the same spot where Modi’s party had led a mob to demolish a mosque in the 1990s), the erosion of civil rights from India’s non-Hindu citizens. Now, with a rebuilt capital, Modi wants to enshrine these aspirations in concrete, to mark his conquest—much as Europe’s fascists did a century ago, the very movements that inspired Modi’s spiritual mentors in the paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to envision a Hindu India.
A patch of land that was until recently open to all Delhi’s people, where anyone could go for a stroll on a summer night, buy an ice cream from a mobile vendor and contemplate the prospect of Indian democracy, is being usurped. It will now house high temples of a Hindu state, where vacant-eyed careerists will work with great efficiency for the benefit of the Hindu volk. But Modi’s Delhi has a contradiction at its heart: while claiming to be consigning the colonial past to the museum of history, it is in fact delivering the same old imperialism in a new, homemade wrapper.
India Gate was actually taken from farmland. It used to belong to someone, all that land, when Mr Lutyen decided to turn it into something else.
These daily wagers from Pignor village near Palwal in Haryana are the fourth generation descendants of Kallu, who owned the land in Raisina village and carried out agricultural activities on it with his son Nathu, who also owned a part of the land.
Both Kallu and Nathu lost their land to government acquisition in 1911, when the British government decided to shift the Capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi.
The area comprising Raisina and Malcha village were chosen as the new administrative head as it was green and well drained. Large chunks of land were acquired and the landless farmers moved out of Delhi.
Kallu and Nathu were awarded compensation of ₹2,217 10 anna and 11 pai. They never accepted it and shifted out of Delhi to Pignor in Haryana. Travelling to and fro was not easy in those days and so, Kallu and Nathu never returned to claim an enhanced compensation. The generations that followed never had enough money to contest the same.
It was stolen land then from the farmers, it will be stolen now from the people of Delhi and of this entire country, who can also stake a claim here in this city, because it is the capital, because it belongs to you as much as it belongs to me.
All my homes were in the sky, third floors, fourth floors, one first floor, all in the sky, so while I understand legally how we can own the piece of land the foundation is built on, I don’t get it in principle. I am in the sky, do I therefore own this patch of sky in which my house stands? Does anyone own anything? I’m going to slip into a Harry Potter analogy for a second here, bear with me: the goblins think that selling goblin-made goods to a wizard should only last a wizard’s lifetime and then return to the goblins, and you know, I do not disagree. I also think we should do away with inherited wealth, even though I have benefited from it. Because there’ll come a day when there are no patches of land (or sky) left and no one will be able to inherit it anymore. Of course I don’t want to give up my house or my life, but what if that was normal, that you gave stuff up when you were done with it, that your father bought a house for him to use and then it returned to the common land once he was dead? What if hoarding homes and wealth was as bad as hoarding oxygen during an oxygen shortage? What if doing so—giving it back once you were done—was the only way to keep real estate at a price scale that you could reasonably expect to afford by the time you were old enough to own a home? What if that removed wealth snobbery entirely, you could only be snobbish if you made your own money? What if some people decided to retire from the idea of money entirely since you can’t take it with you when you die and you can’t pass it on to anyone else and this changed everything?
For my potential future home, I’m learning German. As in all languages, I’m starting with basics, I can ask how you are, and I can tell you I want something. We’ve instituted an “only speak German” rule in the kitchen, so I say, “Wash this please” and “where is the __?” In my old home, I don’t have to say “where is the” because everything is where I expect it to be, in new ones, I will have to.
I’m also seeing some plus sides to the construction site next door. It’s cooler now in afternoons, because there’s a building between us and the sun. That’s something. You learn to live with everything life throws at you after a point. One day we’ll look at Modi’s new project and we’ll struggle to remember what life was like before.
Links, links, links
I hope you are all okay, or as okay as possible. Here are some distracting (and some rage inducing) stories to read. Skip if you can’t handle it, read if you can, write back to me and let me know you’re fine.
For my latest Auth Couture column, a story about Jhumpa Lahiri and identity.
Arundhati Roy blazing in The Guardian.
The invisible struggle of registering on CoWin.
Some British royal family stuff.
What are “good” immigrant novels?
My male friends make me sad.
The weaponization of the female orgasm.
Inside an international tech support scam (originating from where else? Right here.)
Lots of love,
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
Follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. (Plus my book recommendation Instagram!)
Got sent this newsletter? Sign up here to subscribe!
Forward to your friends if you liked this and to anyone asking “if not Modi then who?” if you didn’t.
Also, write back to me! I love to hear from you.