by Raju Peddada
[Author's preface: My father, Peddada Satyanarayana Murthy (1932-2007), was the quintessential traveler and city dweller. He had this paradoxical and mystifying capacity to be romantic, yet be realistic. He always celebrated the town where we lived, by photographing it in the best light and angles, but he also became excited for a new place. He simply loved movement. He was the Casanova for cities; he enjoyed them, and then moved on. In 1964, he toured Delhi alone and captured the city at its virginal best. In 2008, missing my father, I pulled out an old album full of his black and white photographs, and was stunned to see extraordinary compositions in great exposures. He had captured Delhi in a pristine state -- with an Italian rangefinder camera, ALBA, which he had acquired from his colleague, a Mr. Cavalotti, in 1960. In December of 1966, we migrated to the capital, from Patna. There, he set about introducing the capital to us in a systematic manner, by visiting a selected monument every weekend for a family picnic. One such place was the Lodi Gardens. In this letter to my father, who knew Delhi well, I would like to give a picture of what it has become, from my visit there, last fall.]
(Swans - July 14, 2014) My dear Father,
Delhi reminds me of you -- epitomized by that picture of us at the Lodi Gardens. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Delhi again. And after experiencing our old place for a month, I thought, who better than you to have this catharsis with!
The Delhi you had so fondly introduced to us in 1966 is no more. Not even the vestiges of it. What remains are only the names of places. These very names evoked some wavering memories of our picnics, at the Lodi and Buddha Jayanti Gardens, Odeon and Plaza theaters in the hunt for Oscar winners, and shopping expeditions at the INA market, followed by Madras Hotel gluttony. I still remember the fragrance of Safdarjung and Prithviraj Chauhan Boulevards -- tree-lined; draping yellow, red, and blue spring flowers. We used to stick our heads out of the car windows to get fresh air on a hot day. I still smile at how you and mother stumbled into Mr. Prasad, asking his wife, and haggling over eggplants rather lewdly, "Do you like the long ones or the wide ones?" Who became best of friends. And, how can I forget those car trips to Haridwar, Simla, and Mussouri during those years.
I am sorry for going backwards -- with the same memories you... OK, let me come back to the present, November 2013. Well, this project, a documentary anthology on ancient India that I am working on, brought me to Delhi -- which I found in a haunting state. Delhi is pathetic, dad. The beautifully planned Lutyens Delhi has now morphed to a cacophony of urban structures that have no architectural beauty or integrity, much less the language of coherence that respects and connects with the past. Architecture -- no, let's just call it structure, when speaking of Delhi -- where structure has come to mean encroachment.
How can you not notice that hideous cast-concrete eyesore? The elevated Metro that oscillates around the city, destroying the views, as well as openness. Sri Aurobindo Marg, once an emerald boulevard, is now dominated by this hulking grayness that feels like a scab on a body. The ten-year-old Metro system appears thirty-five years old. And a country that sports the largest railway system in the world imported the Metro technology and its trains from Canada's Bombardier. They have signs now, at eye level on the walls: "Spitting Prohibited," and right under those signs are red stains of the pan spit. But more than that, it's the urine stains and smells by the walls outside that overwhelms you. Everything has been reduced to the simple equation of survival; nothing can override its dominance.
Delhi and its corruption evoke that movie Brazil, that surreal miasma of corruption, obscurantism, and ambiguity. "Aapka kam hojayaga... kuch pani khracha..." or "Aapka kam garrantee se hojayaga!". what these phrases mean is that "Your work will get done -- sir, some expenses..." or after getting paid, "Sir, I'll guarantee your work will get done." In the days before leaving for India, I arranged my affairs carefully, acceding to the line-producer's requirement of funds for filming. I had transferred the agreed-to amount via banks and Western Union to them. Then, I figured we may need additional funds, but instead of carrying cash I sought a better solution -- a debit/credit MasterCard, accessing the account anywhere.
You may find this amusing, dad, but really, it was not! When I had called the New York branch of the ICICI Bank Ltd., they told me that a MasterCard cash advance is available everywhere -- and Delhi was no problem at all. Just to be sure, I called from Des Plaines, their branch in Greater Kailash, an ultra-posh locality, with millionaires pullulating, like flies over dung piles. After 14 minutes of waiting, I spoke with their branch manager, who responded almost indignantly, "Sir, this is an international bank, like Scotia -- or Citi Bank. You could draw cash up to 2,00,000 (Rupees) on MasterCard, per transaction, per day." I thought -- great, problem solved, no need to carry cash or travelers checks. Twenty days later, at the same branch, when I tried for a cash advance to cover expenses, the same branch manager, Mr. Tripati, coolly suggests, "Mr. Raju, you need to open an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) account here, with a 50,000 (Rupees) deposit..." My instinctive frustration and rage turned to a mystifying resignation -- it had dawned, as to where I was.
I said, "OK -- then let's open a account." By this time, Tripati had two assistants and a peon in the office. He responds: "We will need documents -- your passport, proof of your residence in U.S., one latest credit card statement, and the purpose for the money -- to qualify for an NRI account." I cut him off to ask, "Purpose for the money -- whose money is it?! Alright, how long to get the account set up?" "Three days, sir." I ask, "So, in three days, I could get a cash advance from my MasterCard?" He smiles, looks up at the assistant, as if to ask where this nutcase had dropped in from. "Sir, you will have to transfer money from your MasterCard account there into this new account here. When it is cleared we can release it -- we cannot give cash advances." I was red in the face, "Mr. Tripati, three weeks ago, you reassured me twice that cash advances are no problem!" I recall you saying, "We are an international bank like Scotia -- Visa-MasterCard cash advances are guaranteed." After saying this, I realized the futility of it. I excused myself and walked out, strangely, amused at this. Was it like this in the 1960s and ;70s?
This money hunt dragged me innocuously into the labyrinthine world of surreptitious transactions.
The peon from the bank flags me down as I step out, and whispers to me, "Sir, money-changers in Karol Bagh can help you -- go there." Karol Bagh is a marketplace so dense, it defies logic. Well, I found out that these moneychangers are shops that change your foreign currency without any record keeping nor reporting. You give them $100 and they'll dole out 63 Rupees, actually better than any bank, no questions asked. So I took the Metro, changed at Rajiv Chowk for Karol Bagh. My god! I thought -- this is the place mother and her friends craved every weekend?! It was a swarming and sweltering. People, falling over each other for a transaction, exactly like maggots on a carcass. I had to keep a hand on my wallet at all times.
The moneychanger I went to said, "Mister, we are not a bank that advances cash, but, I could arrange for any amount of cash the next day for a 5% fee, if you charged it as if you had purchased some jewelry." It was fishy, yet I asked, "How can that be done?" He responds, yawning, "We have a jewelry store where you can charge any amount. We'll get you a receipt for it, once the charge is cleared, you get your money, minus our fee. We do this everyday for visitors -- don't worry, we're not a fly-by-night operation, we'll be here long after everyone's gone." This assurance did not make me feel any better. I felt queasy, but was desperate for cash, as our actress-narrator would only agree to a COD (cash on delivery) arrangement -- in other words, after her shoot, she wanted her fee in cash. I suppose, to avoid taxes. So, despite the knots in my stomach, I charged 2,25,000 Rupees. Well, I got the money the next day, but this experience takes on another twist.
Later that day, I gave my line-producers 200,000, in two stacks of 1000 Rupee bills, counted and wrapped by the State Bank of India. Ten hours later, I got a call from our line-producer. "Sir, we have 3 fake bills in one stack, and 5 fake in the other -- we need to get them changed." I was flabbergasted at this; I fell silent for seconds, and thought eight-grand fake! I asked, "How's that possible -- the stacks were prepared by State Bank?!" He responded calmly, "It happens here, nothing out of the ordinary." So, I called the moneychanger immediately. He's giggling, as he responds nonchalantly, "Come back with them, we'll have them changed." When I saw the bills, 4 of them were stamped "fake" by the bank, yet they found their way into the stack -- and 4 were wonderful montages of 100 Rupee bills, taped so well that you had to look closely to see that it was not a 1000 bill. I just stood there, staring at these bills, and shaking my head -- at the state of the country.
We had corruption in the 1960s and '70s, but was it so apparent, or endemic? There were always the corrupt, mostly underpaid bureaucrats, but now that is reversed -- everyone's on the take, with a handful of exceptions. Supplementing low income had been replaced by avarice. Another phrase that made my skin crawl is "Bhai-sahib -- sab chalta hai!" Meaning "Brother -- everything goes." It's frightening, because it's not some existential hypothesis, worthy of Sartre -- this is nihilism, in it's purest form.
Here's another transaction -- I'm sure you would grind your teeth at this. You remember Nehru Place, how pristine and prestigious the complex was in 1976? Well, today it looks worse than that Jama Masjid bazaar. I was at Modcare Enterprises, for an external hard drive. A computer store, in the middle of steaming and smoking plaza vendors, with many drifters and vagrants, a shocking panorama of refuse and neglect. The first person I saw was this man who behaved like the owner. When I mentioned what I was looking for, he whispers to the store clerk "Sony 500GB." This store clerk then barks at the stockist "Sony-500-4th aisle, left!" Who fetches it. All three men stare at me, trying to figure out if I was a hit-and-run artist, or a real buyer. The box was scuffed, but the drive looked OK. "How much?" I ask. "3,750, sir -- including taxes." I respond, "OK, I'll take it -- but, if I take and it doesn't work, can I bring it back?" The clerk looks at the owner, who responds: "If there's a defect -- we can't do anything, you'll have to take it to Sony." Then it clicks: Roulette wheel!
The stockist motions to a teenager standing in the shadows. I suppose he's the delivery boy, who takes the package and delivers it on the other side of the store -- about 25 feet away. I saunter over to see what takes place there. The man who receives it is a receivables clerk, who gives it to the accountant, who then jots down the package specifics in his ledger. Then, he cuts a transaction tab and hands it to me, motioning me to the cashier. A real economy of words and motion. I pull out my wallet and give the cashier 4,000 Rupees. He enters the data on his grimy terminal, gesticulates to the receivables clerk for the printout. After getting it, he stamps it two times: first, the disclaimer: "Our responsibility ceases when goods leave our premises -- goods once sold are not returnable." The second stamp is the business seal, over which he scratches his signature -- and returns it to me with the change, and never once did he lift his face to acknowledge the transaction.
What takes less than 30 seconds at Radio Shack, with one employee manning the store, took 27 minutes at Modcare. Seven men attending to one transaction. I was the only one there that morning, and not once did anyone smile, or be courteous. On my way out the door, a gust of urinal wind greeted me, depositing fine grit on my sweating face. Here, you open your mouth a few seconds, and you receive a fine amount -- that you could rub over your teeth, and voila! You are clean without toothpaste or a brush! Rub you face without washing it, your old skin cells would be shed instantly, and you are renewed. All humor aside, the dust is the code for something far more profound and ominous.
Everything, eventually is dust. But here, dust is not an eventuality, it's the harbinger. A deliberate, inexorable, and succinct messenger, blowing the past into the present, and signaling a portentous future. You know, it occurred to me that the dust here is far less gritty than most people. And in the romantic tier of my contemplation, and perversely hallucinogenic as it may be, the dust in my face today is all that remains of those legendary kings and their sprawling kingdoms -- that I will shed and drain off in some sink this evening. On the other hand, some dust, that is the ancient Rajput kings of Delhi, in recognition of my assignment, had mysteriously coalesced, to welcome me. Dad, there is a lot that I felt and experienced that I want to share, but it'll be too long and tedious. Why don't I write another one after a fortnight -- this way, we can sustain our humor a bit longer. So long, dad -- lovingly, R.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)