By Manik Sharma Oct. 30, 2018
Delhi’s parks have often served as a haven for those marginalised by the city’s many problems – space, pollution, and security. To some, the park is just that stretch of earth that doesn’t smell of burnt rubber. To some, it’s the only place where they can take a deep breath without worrying about the air quality index.
The first time I saw a Delhi park more than a decade ago I was bemused by its gimmickry, its desperation to redeem itself within a city caustically overrun by concrete. The symmetry, the carved trees, the unnaturally curved ponds and the impossibly meandering lanes that cut through linearly planted trees felt like hapless compensations for what had come to pass as inevitability in Delhi – its overhaul. But all that changed when I set foot here not as a tourist, but a resident, someone who jostled for an ounce of fresh air and a little quiet away from the onslaught of life in this place; two things that the people of this city have found in its parks.
All the more reason that places like the Aravalli Biodiversity Park that is now under threat, should not be touched, be it for highways to Manesar or the moon. Last week, reports surfaced that a road project by the National Highways Authority of India would pass through the 380-acre park.
In the imagination of the rest of the country, Delhi is all about green spaces and parks. The city’s parks have often served as a haven for those marginalised by its many problems – space, pollution, and security. Each one of us, who frequently visits a park in Delhi, does so for his or her reasons. To some, it is just that stretch of earth that doesn’t smell of burnt rubber, a defiantly quaint leg of the day’s journey that most Dilliwalas would settle for as the answer to their existential quests – a beta place in an alpha city. To some, it’s the only place where they can take a deep breath without worrying about the air quality index, where they can take off their face masks in winters. The parks are notoriously popular for nestling couples and their near-juvenile display of affection. For a city stung by the conservatism of its alleys and the fear of walking through their shadows where else can the young, without money and social scrutiny, meet and feel oddly secure at the same time?
I first interpreted Delhi’s parks as incriminating evidence of what had transpired around them. If its illegal constructions, its scattered heart amid the heat, were sign of Delhi’s evolution, its parks stood out as apologetic pacemakers. That was until I started living next to one. For the two years that I lived near Safdarjung’s Deer Park, I found solace in its wide arms, the curated foliage of its chest against which I ran, bounced, and leaned just so I could feel the cold earth from time to time. Because like the warmth of someone’s loving touch, the eeriness of the cold earth in the middle of a city simmering and perpetually on edge, often felt soothing, reassuring. Perhaps more so because I knew I could return to it.
For years I have wondered, what Delhi’s children, who never get to see a forest while growing up, would make of the distant loss of one?
In all the years that my parents lived in Delhi, like outmoded antiques struggling to make sense of the street, the heat, and the general abrasiveness of its people, Delhi remained as much a dynasty they couldn’t conquer as much as the fortress they could not escape. While they fought many challenges between the room and the kitchen, their sweetest memories remained of their encounters in the city’s various parks. My mother celebrated her first karva chauth in Delhi in a park. Sometimes my parents would meet someone from their home, sometimes they would bond with others over the idea of one.
For those of us who have lived in cramped, rented homes, there was no other way to loosen the guardedness of social etiquette, other than under the shadow of a tree or the throw of a park’s lights.
But these parks have stood for so much more than just that outlet of personal space. For the old, they have been places to walk in hand-in-hand, for the sick the opportunity to devise unlikely returns to health, and for children to experience the first of their wildernesses. For years I have wondered, what Delhi’s children, who never get to see a forest while growing up, would make of the distant loss of one? Perhaps not much, which is why Delhi’s parks need to stay even if it means its assailants have to suffer the congestion of traffic.
As cynical and abnormal as these green patches look on maps on our phone, they represent much more than just the contrast. For a city known for its thievery and penchant for loot, its people cannot be robbed of the one thing that also stands for its resilience, its own little sanctuary. For it is not the park in Delhi… but the Delhi in the park.