Dilli Diary: The 300° theatre of life

Scootering reveals your city as an open-air theatre composed of beautiful surprises, strange acts and fleeting communities

The image shows a few bikes and cows in the background (Photo: Akhil Katyal)
The image shows a few bikes and cows in the background (Photo: Akhil Katyal)

Akhil Katyal

One evening, driving my new two-wheeler in Pitampura in northwest Delhi, I saw the most perfect sunset. Behind a boundary wall plastered with BJP election ads and miraculous cures for piles, on a large empty ground, stood a leafless peepal tree. I would have barely registered it, but the way the evening sun settled between its branches made me stop. I rode inside the plot. The peepal stood between the small Noor-e-Ilahi Jama Masjid on its left and a Ganesh mandir on the right. It held the distant sun in its arms, as if that is where it went to rest each night. I stood, transfixed.

The two-wheeler opens up an unparalleled view of the city. You float in the open. The city keeps unfolding around you. Breezier than bicycles, rangier than walking, with no fidelity to the fixed routes of buses, and without the awkwardly constricting frames of car windows or auto-rickshaw doors to look out from, you gaze at a 300° view that keeps enveloping you as you glide. Last winter, after I bought a gearless scooter, my city became a playground. I took to riding all over town, slipping into lanes on a whim. As I did, Delhi turned into a windfall of extraordinary encounters.

Image shows the city in a car's rear-view mirror (Photo: Akhil Katyal)
Image shows the city in a car's rear-view mirror (Photo: Akhil Katyal)
Akhil Katyal

Behind Lal Qila, I ran into a sudden spring burst of yellow trumpetbush flowers set in brilliant relief against the gulmohar. Off Wazirabad Road, through a narrow riverside strip, I reached the Jagat Pur Bund, where the land surrenders to the Yamuna’s calm grey waters that have not yet become the black sludge further downstream. Crossing from Noida Sector 11 to Mayur Vihar, I encountered the slightly absurd ‘Dilli Mein Aapka Swagat Hai’ (‘Welcome to Delhi’) signboard, which pompously reinvites you into the city when you haven’t really left it. Riding the two-wheeler is re-encountering your own city, seeing it in a new light with a new drifting eye—a mobile open-air theatre composed of strange and beautiful and corrosive acts.

Loitering on a scooter is one of the most enjoyable forms of therapy. You take stock of the day. You replay old conversations, make wishlists, review lines from a book, all while sailing through the city under a quarrel of saptaparni branches. Urban loitering, whether on foot or on wheels, has great precedents, among them the author Ismat Chughtai. When she lived in Bombay, she was fond of walking aimlessly, often getting lost in her city. ‘Aksar kahin ki kahin nikal jaati hoon’ (‘Often, I end up in places I hadn’t intended to visit’). Such flânerie was restorative for her: ‘I have solved the most intractable of my problems while loitering, have edited my stories, have warded off bad times.’ Like Chughtai, I rove on Delhi roads resolving bewildering days.

Getting lost in the city is also a way of belonging to it. One inhabits a place fully only when one loses one’s way in it. In Intizar Hussain’s Basti (translated by Frances W. Pritchett), the hero Zakir finds his feet in a new land, post-Partition, only by walking aimlessly through its lanes, scripting his fitful claim to his new home, Lahore. ‘Anarkali Bazaar, partly closed, partly open… crowded… He went out and came to a big road. Mall Road, horse-carts, bicycles, an occasional car, a few buses passing… As he went on, it seemed to him that he was walking on a new earth (‘ke woh kisi nayi zameen par chal raha hai’). He was enjoying this new earth… From one street to another, from the second to a third, he lost track of time as he walked on…’ I realised my two-wheeler strolling was fuelled in part by Zakir’s migrant desire to belong, in part by Chughtai’s pragmatic letting-go of each day.

All this thanks to a sense of unfetteredness, enabled by the fact that two-wheelers on Delhi roads follow the ‘water principle’. The slightest of gaps, the thinnest of openings between a car and a bus is enough— the do-pahiya vaahan will flow through. Pushing smartly past the shoulders of the road, the scooter evades the gridlocked fate of the big four-wheelers, and zig-zags through bumper jams. On most days, the scooter’s meandering personality is fairly harmless and expedient, or simply coltish, but sometimes, it can be dangerous. (Its unruliness a secret plea for better road infrastructure, maybe?) Either way, it is demonstrative of a kind of high-spirited habitation of the road, a kind of driving that is more tactical than obeisant, allowing a freer set of movements, more amenable to the impulses of the rider, even when there is no destination apart from the daydream.

Such daydreaming depends, of course, as dreams do, on the bucks in your pocket. For me, riding around, burning petrol, is enabled by a healthy public university teacher’s salary. It is a sort of ‘conspicuous leisure’ of the salaried class. Not everyone can afford to roam around after work, to go into two-wheeled reveries, in a limbo time outside labour. This easy mobility is also entailed by my social location. Being a dude, almost middle-aged, grants default respect. The unspoken Savarna confidence of inconspicuousness across spaces grants further immunity. Being dressed in the right clothes helps. You pass uninterrupted through most places. And if ever the need arises, there is the Hindu Khatri name on the ID card. None of this suggests that people outside my economic and social location do not set themselves adrift in the city by various means—far from it—but the frictions they encounter are of a different order altogether.

Finally, a slightly out-of-body experience. About the kindness between men. I remember the Facebook status of a trans male scholar, who was surprised, after his transitioning, by the default sociability men offered him in public spaces, something absent in his pre-transitioning years. As a gay man, with an instinctive suspicion of bullyish men, sensitive to the fluctuations of aggressive masculinity in any room, I was surprised by this new social contract of bonhomie on the road, by how much room men made for each other. This geniality was not class-agnostic, and was almost always offered among those who pass off as each others’ social and economic equals. A Harley Davidson doesn’t usually offer it to a moped. But broadly speaking, men on two-wheelers made way for you, offered casual solidarity by closing ranks against and taunting car-owners and bus-drivers (our common foes!), and sometimes even offered avuncular advice about road safety, or gaadi ki servicing. This new found collegiality with male strangers was registered as a surprise by my body, habituated as it was to shrinking away from the self-assured brusqueness of groups of men. My calculus of expectations was changed by the road, particularly by the fleeting communities that cluster around a two-wheeler.

I wonder what new effects the road will create in the years to come, what new ways of feeling about the city it will usher, what banalities and possibilities it might throw at me, as I continue drifting about on two wheels, being drenched by my city.

AKHIL KATYAL is a Delhi-based poet, translator and teacher

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