Dilli Heart: The Capital’s Endless Romance with the Delhi Metro

Social Commentary

Dilli Heart: The Capital’s Endless Romance with the Delhi Metro

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When I first spent time in Mumbai, a crucial but oft-repeated and hoary truth about the city became apparent to me. I realised how a city’s ethos was defined by the way its people travelled. In the case of this metropolis formed by the cobbling together of seven islands, that definition rested on the Mumbai local: the city’s beating heart, its pulsing aorta.

Most of our cities are clogged, like a maze of the mind more than that of geometry. Often the straightest lines are the hardest to traverse, because they liven time like no other thing, chisel away at whatever reservoir of patience we were born with. But the little joys of the collective commute, the sharing of lives and mutual hardships lend narrative to places best known for their gallingly unimpressive statistics.

I had no idea that I might one day say the same thing about Delhi.

For the capital, so unforgiving and dispiriting in its everyday experiences, the Delhi Metro has served as a blessing, an oasis in the middle of a scummy desert. And last year, as it launched what is perhaps its most rewarding route until date – the magenta line which brought Gurgaon and Noida closer – it felt godlike, an unseemly para-human intervention of efficiency and genius we are not used to experiencing.

When I first came to Delhi, almost a decade ago, the Metro only ran the solitary route between Dwarka and Noida. The next destination was to be Gurgaon, a place where urbanity was so inbred that its margins were not merely classist but also functional. If, like me, you couldn’t or did not want to drive, you felt like the trash can unworthy of the “use me” reminder. I remember, when I visited my cousin in Gurgaon back in 2007 I stayed overnight not because I wanted to, but because the journey back into Delhi felt burdensome, almost too excruciating and scary a task to undertake. An outsider like me always put faith in the light of day, such were the stories we’d been told about Delhi.

It is now time to make place on this anvil of idolised machinery, for its youngest, most modern horse, the Delhi Metro.

The first time I took the metro to Gurgaon that burden felt like it had been lifted.

A travelogue about Mumbai would feel criminally under-reported if it did not essay a ride on the train. “Arré local pe gaya tha kya,” my friends had asked me as if it weren’t a means, but an end itself, like a museum. A token of selective memory, something so resembling of a city’s life it does its own drawings of the past. For example, the Mumbai local, despite its stunningly disastrous history, somehow seems unscathed sieving through nostalgia and its implications. In a way, it symbolises the city, its spirit, its capacity to mend its broken parts, and move forward with the heart as the guide. No other place has perhaps had more love affairs with itself than Mumbai, through the local.

It is now time to make place on this anvil of idolised machinery, for its youngest, most modern horse, the Delhi Metro.

There was a time when travel in Delhi was considered akin to testing death-traps. The dreaded Blueline buses were a menace at par with Monkey Man. Unlike Mumbai, Delhi shared its borders with two states, two apexes of culture sparring for the position of the most intimidating. While Noida played rock, Gurgaon played the hard place, and in between countless individuals – mostly young men and women – fretted, sulked, and possibly gave up on dreams less travelled.

delhi metro city

Seeing doors and gates operate on their own, so joyously relieved of responsibility, it was a rare moment.

Image Credits: Getty Images

For someone like me who had little money in his pocket, a fifty- or hundred-rupee note could neither ensure safety nor comfort in Delhi, at least not simultaneously. No wonder the sight of a metro station registers with me as the hand on the back, telling me to keep going every time I think of giving up and running away from here.

The Delhi Metro’s crowning achievement is not that it is “equalising” the way the Mumbai local or Kolkata’s ambassadors are. The Delhi Metro’s crowning achievement is that it exists at all. In a country where electrification is still a step worth faking by governments, the very idea of something as architecturally and technically humbling as the Metro feels out of place.

Yes, I’ve seen the audaciously designed airports and the state-of-art cricket stadiums, but all they do is offer, whereas the Metro provides. In summer, it provides relief; in winter it provides a quick passage home. For women it provides security and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has now, promised to further that by announcing that women can travel for free in the metro. For the young it provides that little speck of sophistications they crave, and for those worse off, it is at least something within approach – if not every day, then the day after that.

And for everyone who believes the metro doesn’t offer its moments, or isn’t cut from the same social fabric as the Mumbai local, I would offer the delight on my mother’s face when she boarded a Metro for the first time. Seeing doors and gates operate on their own, so joyously relieved of responsibility, it was a rare moment, a gleeful admission of being in awe of something that worked without flaw. In a country that is narrated through parables of failure, my mum’s lit eyes at the sight of a thing so ahead of her time, so amiable in its purpose, will remain etched in my memory.

The Delhi Metro has and will have its bad days, but no romance is complete without its tragedies. Because in a city where everything and everyone seems to be going the wrong way, for more than a decade, the Delhi Metro has felt like the only thing going right.