Travelling back from the new city to the not-so-new-yet-not-quite-branded-old at the hour when some buildings glitter and others take on a cold, dank hue, I am offered unaccustomed views into the life of this predatory, leaching, leaking metropolis that my daytime commute obscures. If that is a sentence too full of qualifiers, well, sorry, that’s the nature of urban habitation these days. Or perhaps habitation anywhere on this planet.
Night has its unexpectedly revealing ways. It wakes you, when you least expect to be woken, and presents you with fears that you never knew existed. It can nudge you with a seductive brush into confusing dreams with reality. And it can render transparent the sheen (and the dust) that the day layers over the lives of others.
So it is that one evening, late out of work and wishing to beat the roadway traffic I am persuaded by a kindly colleague to take the train that passes for rapid transit. It takes the back route that ploughs through the underbelly of industrial estates, forgotten now by all except those who have made their homes along the walls and gutters and the faithful railroad that has no option but to run new cars over the old lines. A diverse array of workers—blue-collar, white-collar, collar-less—people the compartment along with a range of those who travel daily in search of diplomas and degrees…or just in search. I am fortunate to sit by the window, and I slide a sly glance over at the young man across from me. He is shut off from the sights-sounds-smells of the immediate, plugged in through shiny blue earpods to a sonic world of his choosing. Two others jostle in the single seat next to him sniggering at something on their phones, a WhatsApp forward perhaps? They look furtively at me, clearly unbelonging in my tightly clutched bag and marble-printed silk, unconvincing in my adoption of a slower, more reflective mode of travel, one that forces you to stare life in the face instead of beeping it out with impatient honks and swift overtakes. I move my gaze to the grilled window through which the peripheral city air blows in, carrying the remnants of many workdays—thing-making, metal-beating, brick-laying, beam-hauling, garbage-clearing, load-lifting, truck-driving. All the multitudinous ways in which the city makes work that makes a living—barely. Houses—homes—lie folded in untidy rows on either side of the running track, their interstices sometimes wide enough to allow a shiny bike, a resting auto, a hopeful car; at other times narrow enough for skipping children to find their way home from school.
I wonder if I can find this clutch of life on Google Maps, an old wrinkle in the young skin of Cyberabad?
At other times all it takes is a different turn, one that follows intelligent navigation instead of time-worn instinct, to find oneself in the middle of something that seems straight out of some futuristic architectural vision. Except that this is right here, right now. Steady lights on all fourteen floors, the smart set waiting on the sidewalk (yes, there actually are such things in this part of town!) for the next cab, wondering whether to go straight home or stop at some new-age adda for a drink and good natured cribbing about the tedium of coding. Across the broad avenue two large earth movers work overtime, lifting rubble and making space for more towers, more lights, more homes, more offices, more shops, more cafes.
As for this clutch of life—such as it is—I’ll have no trouble locating it on that intelligent map.
I need to get on the train more often. To see the city that I’m losing sight of, to trace its lines on a map whose features are disappearing beneath the neat, unerring stream of data that’s redrawing it anew in ahistorical clarity.