Not that long ago, on the Monday after Diwali, Bibi finds herself running late for work. It is November. Winter fog, troubling situations and disorienting dreams are yet to come as she skips breakfast, rushing helter-skelter along the alleyways of Munirka. Buildings jostle around her like men at a queue, leering at the tiny courtyards edged with refuse. Dark, intestinally tangled electrical lines loom overhead. The stores that are open are small, mean and dimly lit, the eyes of a young Jat shopkeeper blank as they follow the clothes spinning endlessly in the washing machines set up in his tiny laundry.
The magenta line of the Delhi Metro is down for undisclosed reasons, and so she must take an autorickshaw to the Hauz Khas station and then the yellow line to Rajiv Chowk. Already, there is a text from SS, her boss, sitting on her phone. Where u at? Need to talk ASAP. Bibi keeps going, tall even without heels on, tall even though she has a tendency to stoop. A half-built wall materialises where there was a short cut just the day before. Hastily, she backtracks. A test subject in a labyrinth, a rat in a maze.
When she emerges from the village into the messy sprawl of businesses that is Rama Market, it is hard to spot an autorickshaw. The air around her is yellow, an uncanny haze dense and heavy with the smoke of Diwali firecrackers, brick kilns, steel furnaces, power plants, carbon-fuelled automobiles and distant fields that have been burnt to clear land for a winter crop that will still not save the farmers from destitution. She finds an auto, its dashboard festooned with plastic Hanuman stickers, sitting exactly in the middle to avoid the cold drafts attacking down both flanks.
“Hauz Khas?” she asks.
The driver shakes his head. “Too much traffic.”
His face projects indifference and exhaustion in equal measure as he bargains, asking her if she’s willing to take the auto farther, up to the Dilli Haat stop on the yellow line. She has no choice but to agree.
The names of the roads around her evoke the 20th-century ruins of non-alignment, of Third Worldism, of Bandung, as the auto adds its emissions to the yellow haze. Behind her sprawls Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU, a dying bastion of leftism wrapped in the embrace of Nelson Mandela Marg and Aruna Asaf Ali Marg. In front of her stretches Olof Palme Marg and then, as they turn left, Africa Avenue. Children with bloodshot eyes cluster around her auto as it stops at the traffic signal near Bhikaji Cama Place, an agglomeration of hideous concrete buildings named after the woman who, at the Second Communist International, raised a new flag, designed for a future nation called India.
The auto takes forever, crawling past endless, unpainted, unnamed flyovers that add to the claustrophobia, bullied by hulking SUVs with tinted windows and yellow licence plates all the way to the metro station. There are more traffic lights, more emaciated, glue-sniffing children holding up glossy magazines encased in transparent plastic sleeves. On their covers, Bibi sees faces replicating themselves like viruses. Men in suits and men in saffron robes. The occasional woman, light-skinned, power dressing, leaning in. Men with Gucci glasses and men with knotted ties. Men with rudraksha beads and men with dead eyes. It is only when Bibi is underground, waiting for the northbound train on the yellow line, that she finally feels that she has some air.
Akanksha, the baby-faced receptionist, begins babbling as soon as Bibi walks in. Something about Bibi’s time sheets, something about the man from accounts wanting to talk to her. Bibi is unable to give her attention to Akanksha, a girl from small-town Meerut carrying on a deliriously happy affair with Veer, the staff artist who commutes from the suburban township of Dwarka and who shares his lunch, packed in a stainless steel tiffin carrier by his wife, with Akanksha.
Everything in Veer’s lunch – the parathas folded into little triangles, the collage of mixed vegetables, the lumpy dahi, the pickles in their fiery red oil slick – is home-made, or, as Bibi should really say, wife-made. After Veer and Akanksha have finished eating the wife-made lunch at Veer’s desk, he teaches Akanksha to draw, holding her small, soft hand in his as he guides it over the sketchbook he has bought for her from the stationery shop downstairs.
Not so different from her, Akanksha, apart from her youth and her excitement with love. Just one more provincial afloat in the big city, trying to contain in her shifting, sliding self those terribly opposed realms – loneliness against attention, work versus art. Bibi has been there herself, in Calcutta, in Delhi, in all these years of drift punctuated by brief, concentrated moments of joy. She remembers, if only faintly, what it is like when, in the constant flow of strangers indifferent or hostile, in the maddening flow of atomised traffic and fragmented presences, amid the overwhelming sense that this life is going nowhere and that all options have been foreclosed, someone arrives, someone whose fingers intertwine with yours, someone in whose company the city tilts on its axis.
It is the city then suddenly become different, housed on a planet in whose sky float two crescent moons, where the sun, every day, rises in the south and sets in the north. Then, one morning, the beloved is gone, and it is the same old city once again, squatting on an aged, abused planet spinning along a shop-soiled, familiar axis, a city that seems more worn and rundown than ever.
Excerpted with permission from The Light at the End of the World, Siddhartha Deb, Context.