"The Dhaula Kuan flyover woke one morning from uneasy dreams to find itself transformed into a gigantic pretzel."
-- Jabberwock, paraphrasing Franz K
There was something in the papers about the Dhaula Kuan flyover (a ridiculously simple word for such a complicated structure) being, at long last, fully operational, or close enough (11 lanes functional instead of 12, who cares). Good. Now if the other 40-odd works in progress were miraculously completed we would have ourselves an actual city, not a network of roads punctuated at every second traffic light by elevated heaps of rubble. Understand that I’m not complaining about flyovers as a concept but about the hitch that they have to be built, and this takes time.
I often wonder if a time will come when we no longer have constructions, only completed flyovers – and if, when it happens, I’ll still be sprightly enough to drive a car, or to travel by one, or to care about travelling anywhere. (The Spirit of Optimism informs me that most of it has to be done by the Commonwealth Games 2010, so must live on that hope.)
As a Delhi-ite born and bred, and one who’s seen the city’s character and landscape change in remarkable ways in the past few years, I think of flyovers as significant markers of modern Delhi. The first time I thought consciously about them was as the result of an unsettling encounter; unsettling because it seemed to make nonsense of one of my earliest childhood memories. It was when I saw the Chiragh Dilli flyover for the first time.
The background is, when I was growing up in Panchshila Park, a well-heeled colony in south Delhi, we would sometimes travel along the Outer Ring Road to the Savitri cinema hall. It was barely a kilometre-and-a-half from our house and – most importantly – the route was, back then, one straight, flat road, from which one had to take a simple right turn at a traffic light to reach the hall. Which meant you could see the traffic lights and the right turn in the distance, from a good way off. It’s still probably my earliest memory of travelling in the city.
Anyway, time passed, we moved out and one way or another (though I still find this hard to believe) several years must have gone by before I went that side of town again. When I did, it was shortly after I had started driving myself and as I drove along the Ring Road an old childhood image clicked on in my head; I started picturing Savitri as it had been back then, almost visible in the distance from the Panchshila road. Imagine then my disorientation when I saw instead this elevated roadway that not only cut off the visibility but immutably demarcated the two colonies: Panchshila on this side of the bridge, Savitri on the other.
Of course, by now the Chiragh Dilli flyover is ancient; it’s at least 20 years old (not sure but I think it was constructed in the early 1980s as part of the renovation for the Asiad Games) and practically a historical monument compared to the elaborate flyways now rearing their concrete heads all over the city; the immediate Savitri region itself now has a much more complicated structure, one my childhood eyes would never have been able to make sense of. And across the city, things have reached a stage where every time one revisits a colony after a long time, one finds an unfamiliar panoply of roundabouts, detours and underpasses. Delhi is constantly shifting, it’s practically fluid. It’s unnerving for those of us who have fixed memories of its streets as they once used to be. And when those memories count among the earliest impressions of one’s childhood, it’s terrifying.
Often, passing by a construction site, my thoughts turn to the workers toiling night and day on these things. Perhaps, sometime in the distant future, the children or grandchildren of the luckier among them will move on to better things; maybe, 30-40 years from now, they’ll point to one of these superstructures and marvel that their parents/grandparents had a hand in building them.
And then I think: maybe the simple, flat roads that I have such strong memories of, maybe those were laid down decades ago by the ancestors of the workers now toiling on the flyovers. It’s natural enough for the future to be built on the bones of the past, but as we progress on it’s sad to think of all the people who put so much of their lives into creating roads, avenues and landscapes that today exist mainly in childhood memories.