Have you heard the streets speak?
Well, in my case, they have.
Whenever I return to Ghaziabad, I find the streets communicating. Settling down after a long tiresome journey, first thing I invariably do in the evenings is to take a solitary walk to catch the murmurs from the past. The street in the neighbourhood where I grew up has got plenty of such distant echoes. Although totally altered in character in the last 20 years, I still encounter vivid images on the narrow street, currently transformed into a thriving fashion bazaar for women and kids.
I visit it at least once during my annual summer stay in Ghaziabad.
It is a rejuvenating pilgrimage for the soul.
Last five years, I could not return to my birthplace. In February 2012, I had to come back suddenly. On an evening stroll on the same day, I decided to pick up old bits.It is still fresh— the leisurely visit to Turab Nagar. As I entered the crowded area, the past stood up to greet me. The floodgates opened up suddenly.
It is hardly one km. In the less commercialized early 80s, it was a slumbering stretch. Most of the modest houses were second-storied: wooden doors opening directly on the uneven road of tar; crooked houses leaning on each other on either side. If one sneezed violently, the sound could shatter the chinaware in the houses on the opposite side. But then nobody minded such minor irritants in a close community. If you are making tea and run out of milk or sugar, you take it from the neighbour—and vice versa. Even the finicky guests did not mind the public exchange—a usual scene in most middle-class households. Hot rajma daal, rice or curry was routinely bartered. Back then, it was a town where your own street was an open-air theatre or an extended outer courtyard. Folks fought bitterly over the trifles and over the kids in the afternoon and made up by the evening. Women gossiped, sitting on their verandas during sunny winter afternoons and long summer evenings. Kids played early- morning gully- badminton. Grandparents sat outside, reading, talking and drinking tea. Privacy was for the elite. Bedroom secrets were openly discussed among the blushing bhavis over knitting or pickling or cutting vegetables. Ma-in-law and sis-in-law were common discussion. In fact, personal was public way back in the 80s on that street. Your neighbour was a trusted friend and kin and the street, your territory.
Over the early two decades of my life, I had seen a lot of drama on this unremarkable street…riots, fights, love and longing, weddings and funerals.
On this street, my Punjabi friend Suresh found love.
The tall and strapping Suresh was a typical late- 70s style-dandy: black hair swept back and gelled, side-burns, a thin moustache, platform shoes, yellow bell bottoms and flared red shirts half-open to reveal glossy chest hair, goggles and cheap perfume, well-toned body. He loved good things. Love and romance was one of them. His classmate lived on the street and he courted her almost daily. Since I lived nearby, he would drop in and we would pace up and down, near the house of his ladylove, pretending to be two friends meeting by chance. It was a necessary ruse for survival. Regular sightings of Romeos were routinely picked up by the vigilant aunties and uncles and reported to the families of the Juliets. Family pride, mohalla honour prompted brothers, fathers and moral-custodians of the area to take up the issue of transgression seriously and often resulted in the collective beatings of the Romeos in full public view. Even the curious passers-by, once told of the wrong done to the family honour, would join the severe thrashing of the hapless victim. Ladki ched raha tha was a common line that attracted swift retribution from every member of the milling crowd and complete strangers joined the beatings as eve teasing was a sin none could go unpunished. It was fun and a grand spectacle for the public and sheer hell for the boys caught in the mob fury. Love, indeed, was perilous path. The drama would not end simply. Some of the badly-thrashed boys would return with their members of family and mohalla-members and there would be further clashes and sometimes, even bloody riots, if the two lovers belonged to different faiths. North India was a costly place to fall in love. The youth knew this. So, we kept up the pretense of causal meeting. We would shake hands and remain engrossed rooted to the spot outside her home, till the doors would open up at the fixed hour. Suresh would eye the doors of the two-storied house where Uma lived. At 6.30 pm, she would come out, looking freshly-laundered and perfumed—a dark-skinned, tiny girl with protruding teeth and small forehead, a turn-off for others. “Always better to have an ugly GF rather than having none. She remains devoted and makes you feel manly,” said Suresh. For him, every GF was a trophy, a conquest. Suresh spent money on them and took them on a ride on a scooter borrowed from his elder brother. Both professed undying love for the other. They said things they never meant. It was all a game being played skillfully by the flippant lovers. After pursuing Uma for four years and spending lot of money, Suresh abandoned her for another GF, finally marrying somebody else from a neighbouring town, a rich Punjabi girl and lived happily after. Uma, too, got married off to a rich businessman who got a fat dowry. Money dictated romance, love and marriages. It was a money transaction only—love or wedding. It has become worse now.
Living on the street, in a place where everybody knew everybody was different from living in high-rise where everybody pretends not to see you. The bonds were deep. I would go to a friend’s house and eat dinner; everything was so informal and homely. After returning from short summer vacations, I would feel happy, seeing the old streets and familiar sights of my hometown. Even, occasionally late, the dark streets held no terror. You knew you were safe. Once there was a purse snatching and we youngsters had given chase and caught the thin bearded guy who ran like wind. We thrashed him badly and then, let the man go with a warning that if found again in the area, he would be handed over to the cops. The thief never returned. In our compound, there were a few good-for-nothings as well with police records but they were very nice with us and never did any hooliganism within the community. They were a terror outside and in a way; no outside nuisance ever entered our locality due to their presence. Ghaziabad was peaceful town, largely middle-class with low crime. I would go on long evening walks in the newly-developing colonies of flats and bungalows, the roads there talking to me. I had lost my pa recently and as a young 19-something was completely shattered by death of a man whom I loved so much. The funeral of this teacher was attended by persons who knew him casually. There were hundreds of people—fellow teachers, students, friends, neighbours. Death was experienced communally and was a sad event that brought out strangers from their homes for the funeral. It was a social obligation to attend a funeral in a neighbourhood. Things are changed now. These days, you do not find even five people!
Walking in the crowded Turab Nagar is extremely difficult now. All house fronts have turned into shops tiny or big. Old house-owners have moved on to swankier localities. The place has become a teeming bazaar. There are rickshaws and scooters threading their way in this mêlée. Commerce rules. Lightings are fancy. The shops are bristling with women and bored kids. There is no breath of fresh wind due to the rush of bodies in such a narrow and packed place. I start sweating and noise levels are deafening. I vainly search for some familiar faces or bits but the topography has changed beyond recognition. Along the entire route and outside, there are only shops. You feel bewildered by the regularity of shops in this once-sleepy town on the periphery of Delhi. There are no homes—only shops.
I feel like fleeing from this huge bazaar. From the maddening cacophony. From the confusing variety of shops. Everywhere, the fronts of houses have been turned into shops with fancy lightings and glass doors. I see no person relaxing on a quaint veranda; in fact, there are no verandas left. The whole Ghaziabad has become a large-scale frightening bazaar and residents, shopkeepers. No sunsets, only smog; No empty streets; only screaming fancy cars and bikes and hour-long traffic jams.
My city has lost its initial innocence and charm.
I find the community of merchants monopolizing my pet street. Old ties are lost forever. People have become atomized. There are no neighbours. Only competitors. Streets have been muted slowly.
There is a sudden fight in front of me.
A scene not seen earlier. A teenager gets brushed by a rickshaw; catches hold of the thin rickshaw- puller, a wheezing hungry man; starts beating him and gives choicest expletives, while two women quiver sitting on the hard seat, while rest of the crowd watches the scene as fun.
“These pullers are like that only. Give him a hard slap,” shouts a man. The puller pleads with the well-dressed teen who gives him a kick. The puller, in torn T-shirt and a faded trouser, doubles up in pain. Overjoyed, the teen kicks him further. A big crowd, passive, swells up. Traffic is stalled. Onlookers join. The teen is abusive, “Go back to your shitty place where you came from. I will kill you for pulling rickshaw so blindly.”
Decades ago, a similar scene erupted, on this very street, very quiet then. We beat the hell out of the local thug who was beating a defenseless poor guy pulling his rickshaw and earning his meals through a very tough job on earth. Never touch a poor man; the wrath of gods visits you for hurting a poor defenseless person. That was the message to the thug that lazy summer afternoon by us and the elders. The bleeding puller was given hot tea and some medicines and a few rupees—that was my favourite small-town, pre-globalised, pre-liberalized, pre-privatized Ghaziabad of the 70s and 80s.
I try to intervene but others dismiss me with a “Bhaisaab, why bother about the scum? They need beatings only, these poor pullers. Only violence is understood by these uncouth guys.”
Suddenly I find them all turning into a herd of predators, the street into a killing field, the houses into cavernous lairs. I see the poor and the helpless turning into preys running, running, trying to escape from the hounds that are closing in on them fast…
Ghaziabad, my old home-town, has shed its earlier character and has changed. That night, returning, first time, I heard no streets calling, old songs are lost, the roads have become bald, trees have been uprooted, only lights and loud horns and a mad traffic choking the streets and crossings everywhere, I go on mourning, and, this my requiem for my old Ghaziabad…