By Sadiq Zafar
On a Sunday morning in Delhi, I took an auto rickshaw to visit a photographic exhibition on Sufi shrines of Delhi by Prof. Iqtedar Alam of Jamia Millia Islamia. The exhibition space within the Rabindra Bhawan, designed by the legendary architect Habib Rahman and located near the bureaucrats’ den in central Delhi, has seen much change in recent times, resulting in a loss of its originality. The design which became an embodiment of Nehruvian modern architecture, showcasing the liberation of architecture in India, has been revamped under the veil of functionality and modernity. It is now symptomatic of the skyline of Delhi and its NCR region, where commercialisation has resulted in glass-enveloped spaces.
Alterations in the building, which was designed in the memory of the legendary thinker, Rabindranath Tagore, make evident the disrespectful behaviour of decision makers towards an architectural entity. A recent plan is to redevelop the Hall of Nations. This plan proposes the demolition of a landmark monument in Delhi to make space for a convention centre. The pyramidal architectural form of the monument, built to celebrate India’s 25th independence, portrays India’s pyramidal growth and the lattice structure highlights the intrinsic social fabric, symbolising strength. But the plan to demolish such a structure, which has been a part of the skyline of Delhi, shows that architecture today is capital centric where there are no values for such landmark monuments of modernity.
The auto rickshaw stopped at a traffic signal and the auto driver pulled out an Urdu daily. I usually interact with people with whom I travel. The Urdu daily gave me a hint that I didn’t need to hesitate much, as the language was not alien to me. At our urban planning studio at the School of Planning and Architecture, we’ve studied about the migrants’ behaviour and their influx in Delhi. When I asked the driver where he has come from, he responded, “Bihar, Motihari in Bihar.” The man on the driving seat was from the renowned journalist Ravish Kumar’s place. An economically stagnant part in the east Champaran district of Bihar, Motihari has been fulfilling the void created in the services sector of the metropolitan cities of India. Delhi is one such destination, where dreams are sold.
I asked the auto driver for how long he has been living in Delhi. He replied, “A year and a half.” There on a story of hard work and struggle unravelled.
“Where did you learn to read Urdu?”
As we passed by a Mercedes Benz, he replied, “I’m a graduate.”
Yes, a graduate in geography from Bihar was driving an auto rickshaw to make his living and survive in Okhla, Delhi’s largest Muslim ghetto.
“No, actually, I’ve a dream to chase,” he said.
I was curious to know what exactly he was chasing.
During the early hours of the day, he reads and prepares himself for his post-graduate studies. At other times, he drives the auto rickshaw for his survival in Delhi. From whatever he earns, he has to pay off five hundred rupees to the owner of the vehicle. His mother had died while he was still young. Under the guidance and supervision of his father, who worked hard to earn for the family, the young man completed his schooling. Due to lack of finance, his father asked him to drop the dream of pursuing medicine. He took up the humanities and went on to complete his bachelor’s degree in the arts, with a specialization in geography.
He left Bihar and moved to Delhi after struggling for months in order to achieve a better quality of life and for employment opportunities. His eyes became moist as he remembered his early days in the capital. He could hardly speak Hindi. This became a hindrance to land a respectable job in Delhi. After many failed attempts, he decided to start driving an auto rickshaw, a profession which has earned him abuse and indignity. “No matter whether you’re right or wrong, since you’re an auto rickshaw driver, you’re assumed to be wrong. They don’t know but even a downtrodden entity like an auto rickshaw driver gets hurt,” he complains.
He’s preparing for his higher studies in order to get a respectable job. He wants to overcome the abusive environment and lead a dignified life.
From an architectural entity to an auto rickshaw driver, there’s one thing in common everywhere in Delhi. The bourgeoisie and the rulers of the city abuse the proletariat and spaces of the city. The cleansing of cultural history by destroying structures of architectural importance and the abuse of the poor illustrate that the usurpers in Delhi are those people in power.
Sadiq Zafar completed his urban planning thesis on ‘Sustainable Development of the Yamuna Floodplain in Delhi’ at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Urdu in Contemporary India: Predicaments and Promises’, edited by Fahad Hashmi, Independent Scholar, Delhi, India.