Mihir S Sharma: Time immemorial

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 22, 2012 05:02 hrs

I’m just unable to bring myself to write about it. There’s a lot that could and should be said, but so awful and soul-crushing are the details of what happened in a white bus with tinted screens in South Delhi last week that I just can’t do it.

So, I’ll talk instead about our urban public spaces. In some ways, a related subject. In many of India’s towns, boys and girls walk holding hands, something quite impossible when I was younger. Yet, even so, our cities aren’t exactly overflowing with open, safe spaces where young people can go without being judged, without feeling insecure, and without feeling oppressed by the awful aesthetic judgement of Bharat sarkar.

In Central Delhi, there are three: Nehru Park, Lodhi Gardens and, most importantly, the lawns around India Gate. Yes, at this time of year, Lodhi Gardens is a wonderfully inclusive space, where couples stroll past rose bushes, yelling teenagers throw frisbees, plainclothes policemen skulk unobtrusively, tired workmen loll in the sun, diplomats quietly uncork expensive wine, and joint families of all classes noisily quarrel over who gets the last parantha in the foil wrapper. (The eldest boy.) But it is when fog shrouds Rajpath in winter’s cold mornings that the glorious centre of our capital, the lawns around India Gate, really come into their own. When the sun finally breaks through, they’re packed with families, tourists and so many many young people looking up at India Gate and the vista to Raisina Hill.

And what a vista! Rashtrapati Bhavan just visible, with the two blocks — what’s that you say? You can’t see it? Oh dear. You’re right. Hideous green things saying “Ministry of Defence” are in your way. Come to think of it, they seem to cover more than half of the lawn, squeezing every claustrophobic Delhiite into the little patch of green that remains.

This ugliness is, of course, in a good cause. It always is, in India. It is necessary, apparently, to prepare properly for the Republic Day parade. Republic Day, let me remind you, is in end January. Our “efficient” armed forces need to take over and render unappealing half of Delhi’s most iconic open space two whole months beforehand. The very two months, let me add, when everyone wants to go there and sit in the sun.

Tragically, we live in a country rife with the sort of stupidity where criticism of the military’s entitled attitude to prime land is likely to lead shrieking accusations of treason, but still, I have to ask: What is it about our armed forces and open spaces? In Kolkata, where I am at the moment, there is a folk memory of a time when we had not one but two maidans. Not just the vast grassy stretch by Chowringhee where we all learned to hold a bat, but also the one in Ballygunge. Once it was open to the public; but some time in the 1960s, the military exercised its rights, and now this broad green space is off-limits.

So, perhaps, I am treasonous when I think about public spaces and sarkari entitlement as I hear proposals that a new military memorial be erected at India Gate — further shrinking the area available to us, introducing further pointless security to the area that would oppress rather than protect us. I will note in passing that I view this sad belief that India needs a “new” memorial in the area around India Gate, itself a memorial built first to the many forgotten Indian soldiers who perished in the First World War, something of an insult to their memory. Across the world, the sombre cenotaphs and arches that commemorate the dead of that horribly destructive war that launched the mass killings of the twentieth century are the focal points for all sorts of remembrance of military sacrifice, just as the day the armistice ending that war was signed is dedicated to the memory of veterans. But India Gate is not about wars against Pakistan, and not triumphal enough, so it must be disrespected in this manner. The Indian military, I always thought, had a healthier view of its continuity from colonial times than the rest of us. How disappointing to discover I was wrong.

Yes, memorials are vexed questions. The city that Bal Thackeray renamed Mumbai has somehow escaped having its sole public green north of Churchgate, Shivaji Maidan, taken over in the late demagogue’s memory. Sachin Tendulkar may still wear the India blazer, but I would like to imagine that the makeshift pitches that gave him to us will still be capable of producing his replacement when he finally – many decades from now, hopefully – decides to spend more time with his endorsements. In this, as in so many things, Mumbai is more pragmatic than Delhi. Or, perhaps, Delhi carries a deeper burden of representation.

Anyway, as you gather at India Gate to express your anger about the thing that happened in Delhi last week, look up and remember those who died. And look around and remember the need for secure public spaces.

And to those, especially our pampered top brass, who insist that New Delhi really, really needs another and more recent memorial to remind those in power of the sacrifices our soldiers have made. I have a suggestion, one that dismantles a problematic colonial legacy in the bargain. Build a new memorial on that huge military golf course that speads extravagantly across the centre of town. It’s right across from Race Course Road. A pretty good address, no?


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