But the Delhi I dreamt of last night wasn’t the Delhi of long, unbelievably hot summers. It wasn’t the Delhi that reels from severe water shortages, where load shedding is a daily occurrence, where the rhythms of your diurnal activity revolves as much around the benediction of Delhi Vidyut Board as it does around your own schedule.
It was also not the Delhi of long, cold winters. I didn’t dream of those long, cold nights, when the roads are empty and your eyesight dimmed by the fog that comes in menacingly before midnight and stays there till late morning, when the cold settles into your bones and makes touching the bathroom tap in the morning a dreaded activity.
I dreamt of my Delhi. It was the Delhi of the lush evenings of late August & September. I dreamt of the Delhi that is found driving down the Mehrauli road, where you can look out at the Qutub Minar, warmly lit in limpid pools of amber lighting, the bright halogens refracted into an abstruse amber puddle against a warm sky by the dust and pollution thrown up by a frantically busy city. I dreamt of the craggy hillsides near Rai Pithora, where the rough red stones turn soft shades of dark brown & slate grey as your car moves past, with the camel thorn trees that in the day time stand testament to the rugged harshness of the climate mutating into dark, black etches against a night sky glowing with promise.
Delhi is the city that I went to university in, and it is the city that was my first real playground as an adult. No matter how many cities I go to, anywhere in the world, Delhi shall always remain the one indelibly etched on my mind. And more than anything else, the Delhi that I loved the most was the Delhi of the dark, when the burning sun had dropped below the horizon, the glowing grey of the evening sky had dimmed to an inky midnight blue, the street lights casting long shadows on roads, where the cool breeze would be countered by the heat that would radiate from the tarmac until the early morning. It is that Delhi that I love, and it is that Delhi that I miss the most.
There are so many memories associated with travelling along those seemingly endless roads at night, under the cover of darkness. There were endless evenings when I would drive through Lutyens Delhi. Usually a necessity of living and moving around in Delhi, driving was sometimes never the means to an end – it would often be an end in itself. There were times when we would be sitting around, bored, tired of the endless hum of air conditioners at a friends place, or the more radical, industrialised noise of air coolers (that magical sound of dripping water, the cold damp of the straw against your fingers as you ran your hands up and down that panel, the rich, wet smell of khas perfume that would be dropped into the water tanker every morning)
And when the boredom got too much, when just chilling was not enough, when TV or Barista or TGIF got too much, we’d go for a drive. Remember that scene in Monsoon Wedding, when Vasundhara Das sneaks out at night to meet her married lover? When asked where she wants to go, she says, "Just drive. I just want to go for a long drive..."
And so would we. We would just want to get out of the house, climb into our cars, and keep driving. Heading out from South Delhi, we’d drive up Shanti Path, the windows of my little Maruti 800 rolled down, music playing softly on the radio.
“You’ve got the music playing, night & day…FM is ready for you….in the morning, or late at night, wow, we’re gonna let the music play…
AIR F.M. Stereo….all the time……..on All India Radio”
Driving up Chanakyapuri, we would turn off towards Teen Murti, drive up South Avenue, until we finally hit the periphery of South Block. From there, it was a quick drive up to Rajpath, and then we’d careen down the long stretch, the proud flanks of Indian government behind us, India Gate looming large in front.
The lawns along Rajpath were always lined with families out for ice cream. There would be couples, trying to get two seconds of privacy under the trees that in the daytime provide shade for thousands. The balloon walas, Kwality Walls ice cream carts, kiosks selling ice cold Coke, Pepsi & Fanta (but nothing to beat the synthetic lemony tang of a chilled Limca on a warm sunny evening). A friend, any friend, sitting in the passenger seat, the cigarette we were sharing moving back and forth. (“Don’t drop any cinders on that dashboard or the seat – my dad’s gonna kill me”)
And then turning off at Shahjahan Road, heading down to Aurangzeb and back to Race Course, before heading back behind Chanakya Cinema to hit the end of Shanti Path and going back down Moti Bagh at the Rail Museum…the road home was equally magical.
Or if we were really bored, we’d head out of Priya and drive past Vasant Kunj, double back towards Andheria Mod and head for Gurgaon down past Qutub, Chhatarpur and Ghitorni. That road was the route to so many farmhouse parties – normal evening chillouts, more hard core scenes and the many, many music concerts that kept us occupied through long, hot summer nights.
But when we were out for a drive, the road to Gurgaon was rarely our destination. Once we went past the Delhi border (“Welcome to Haryana – jahaan doodh dahi ka khaana”) and made it through the sterile high rises of DLF, we’d head past IFFCO crossing and hit the Jaipur highway.
Oh, that great road. Long, endless stretches of highway, the dark looming trucks trundling along. The big Jaipur merchants in their fancy Mercedes and Toyotas would effortlessly cruise past our little rattling student cars – usually beat up old Marutis, or if we were lucky, a Santro or maybe even a Qualis. The wide, dusty Aravalis stretching out ahead and besides you, the ground falling away on either side, petering away into darkness. The air would always be warm – never hot, but this was Haryana, heading into Rajasthan, so there was always a flavour of desert dryness, a grainy, dusty layer on your arm where it rested on the door as you drove through the night.
Music was our constant companion. Nietzsche said that a life without music was senseless. Each of those long journeys, where the destination is meaningless and there is a quiet peace in the journey would have been incomplete without the music we played.
Our tape decks were our lifelines, as was AIR FM. When three new FM stations were launched in Delhi, our lives became fuller, richer – we were given the freedom to change music at the touch of a button without having to change tapes, fumble around the dashboard or in the glove compartment to find the right replacement. Such luxury.
But the music that sustained us, it was some of the best. We had Indian Ocean, Shaan, Strings, Junoon, Euphoria, Creed, Metallica, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, John Denver, Farida Khanum, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khaan, Adnaan Sami, A.R. Rehman, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Paul Mc Cartney – there are songs that even now I can play and I can feel the shudder of the steering wheel under my palms, the smell of nicotine and dust in my nose.
I dreamt of Delhi last night. And I hope I dream of it again.