Saturday, 16 July 2011


It is a pastoral idyll within the squalor of East Delhi: a cool lake, patches of purple water hyacinth, ferny leaves overhead and twisted fingers of keekar below. An egret contemplates its dinner on a little island halfway across. On the other bank, a line of full moons have dipped from the sky to the ground. Except that the full moons have trousers bunched below them and what they are doing is releasing into the water the odoriferous still-lifeform known as Turdus giganticus.

Delhi has the overwrought elegance of Nehru Park and the ancient stone grandeur of Lodi Gardens. And far away from the bureaucrats and embassies, it has Sanjay Gandhi Park. This is a seven kilometre park that begins in Mayur Vihar and ends in Trilokpuri, linking middle-class Delhi with the urban badlands that terrify the middle-class.

I began going to the park when a curly-tailed puppy adopted me. The park was an enormous stretch of wilderness from which paths were being hacked out. It had a sparkling lake shadowed by trees and bulrushes. In winter the water was noisy with ducks, painted storks and cormorants. In summer boys fished and swam in it. My puppy ran about as puppies do, chasing squirrels. Apart from workmen building boundary walls, there were no other people.

Once the paths were ready, the matrons and pensioners of Mayur Vihar discovered it. Things began to change. My pup became a pariah. The average Dilliwala knows from birth that while every dog is a leopard in disguise, a dark dog is a man-eater. White poms and golden labradors are acceptable. But a dark brown mongrel is evil incarnate: not of good family, nor fair, and therefore not lovely. One day, as my puppy was discreetly disbursing her own Turdus minuticus beneath a secluded bush, a group of passing elders observed, not without hostility: ‘Fine place you’ve chosen to make your dog shit.’ To which my companion suggested, ‘Why don’t you join her?’

Because by now, the park was the extension of the neighbouring slum’s communal toilet (which drains into the lake). Many spurn that toilet in favour of multi-tasking: taking in the air while answering nature’s call and gossiping (for this is a group activity). The real birds have long fled, replaced by Delhi Tourism’s swan-headed boats. As the turds plop into the lake, lovers whisper to each other downstream in lurid bird-boats,trailing their hands in the water. When it rains, and the water becomes a steaming brown broth, women swathe their faces with dupattas as they sail, trying not to retch between their flirty giggles.

The stretch near middle-class Mayur Vihar has rock and cement grottoes, a squeaking windmill and a bridge across the lake. There are benches, warped and limbless now, exhausted with vandalism, so most people sit on the grass. On hot summer days the grassy patches fill with people from the slums in search of air and it becomes one of the few places in Delhi where the affluent and the wretchedly deprived share the same air, sky and grass. Nearby are herds of grazing cows as well as goats who skip around unaware they are being fatted for rogan josh. Women from the slums forage for edible weeds. In winter they scour the woodland areas of the park for twigs and strip bark from trees for fuel. The brick-dust pathways are tramped by determined lines of walkers dodging cricket balls. Teenaged boys thunder past them on motorbikes, brandishing bats and wickets. The meadows have turned into quadrangles of baked earth packed with screaming young cricketers: all boys, because Indian girls don’t get to play.  In the monsoon even the boys stay home as their pitches are flooded with black sewage from the overflowing lake.

My dog, now six, rolls about with boundless joy in the stench-filled mud. A kind-hearted man who has a shanty in the park unleashes a waterpipe for a tenner so that we can wash her.

Delhi, 2006

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