The possibilities of writing about the city in Delhi are many. The city provides innumerable subjects for creating fiction and non-fiction, and, over time, it trains the writer to seek experiences that can inspire stories.
I began writing in the beginning of 2010s. Delhi was being transformed quickly then as it was the decade of city-wide beautification and landscaping drives. The coming Commonwealth Games had thrown the government into a frenzy, and there was endless construction leading up to the Games. After the event, there was a whole phase of corrective construction as some of the projects were redone or undone.
For at least five or six years at that time, it seemed like the construction would never end and the roads would never be clear of debris. , India gained quite a reputation for being a problematic developing nation at that time. I went to study Contemporary Literature at Loyola University, Chicago in 2012, where we discussed precisely this in class while studying The White Tiger.
The professor had brought a news article on a six-hour traffic jam in Mumbai. I was the only Indian in class and was exceedingly uncomfortable with this notion of India abroad (back then, there seemed to be some sort of general animosity towards Adiga for portraying India the way he did and then winning the Booker for it). It seemed that for some years, India’s disrepute kept growing internationally, exacerbated by the CWG fiascos and the subsequent revelations of various scams.
The city, however, slowly emerge from that state. Or so I felt. And now, during the pandemic, things seem calmer than ever, with most of the construction seemingly completed. When you go towards IIT in south Delhi, all the criss-crossing metro stations seemed to have been finally built, the roads broadened enough, and the underpass problems resolved at last. But back then, that wasn’t the case.
I recall how they had suddenly begun constructing around the Mandi House station, upsetting the whole ambience of the small metro station there. A new line was being created and Mandi House was going to become another Rajiv Chowk. I was a regular at Sahitya Akademi and it deeply upset me to realise there was more construction, as indeed de-construction, spoiling the mostly calm roads. But the city was going to be in that state of flux for several years to come. The changes in the landscape seem to be taking place endlessly.
When you live your whole life in one city, you irrevocably become part of it. As an aspiring writer, I was always seeking inspiration in city spaces. I was aware that even though writing around the city was difficult, because of the nature of urban spaces, writing the city was possible only by trying to write in the city, in the middle of the busy and noisy action.
It was important for me to gain that stimulus to be able to effectively write later in seclusion. My journeys around the city have therefore always been impelled by my desire to find that stimulus, that absurdity and bizarreness which can be written about. After all, the city is made entirely of stories. And the idea was always to discover them in the chaos.
Those were the days when the metro culture was beginning to develop. I used to take the metro frequently, and a couple of coffee shops became extremely popular on either sides of the Rajiv Chowk Blue Line. One of the Cafe Coffee Day outlets was always filled with people taking breaks while in transit. I frequently saw people working there, in different corners, immersed in their laptops.
I tried it a few times too, but in vain. The café was always too noisy and crowded, and the music too loud. How were people able to concentrate in those places? I have wondered the same thing every time I have seen people on their laptops in cafes. Do they really work or do they do it only to partake of the same fantasy of the “coffee-house culture” that seemed to afflict me chronically? Were we all poseurs in the end, trying to create a world in our imaginations, finding the realities too perplexing?
Since I was a student of literature, I began reading on the coffee house culture around that time. It was also the time when I made multiple trips to Kolkata within a span of a couple of years. It was the first time I had paid a visit to the Coffee House on College Street as an adult. Somehow, my experience of the coffee house was disappointing.
Most people seemed to be engaged in irrelevant adda, drinking endless cups of coffee, but not working or writing per se. I was there with my notebook every time, but there never seemed to be the luxury of sitting by the windows and writing at a leisurely pace. The din of the café was more cacophonic than stimulating. Where were the picturesque roadside coffee shops with those round tables like in Midnight in Paris? If they weren’t in Delhi, and they weren’t in Kolkata – the major cities that had very deliberately constructed cultures in nostalgia – then where were they?
Coffee shop quests
As a city-bred writer, I realise that I have always unconsciously attempted to find that perfect blend of sounds – a stimulating din of people’s conversations in coffee shops that would stir creativity in me. Those days I had the time, and I was in my pursuit of that one place that could become my “haunt”, where I could sit for hours and write while surrounded by people, like writers did in my fanciful imagination.
There was a famous hippie café at Hauz Khas near my college, called Kumzum Café, where you could sit and work for hours on their low cushions and mattresses, drink free coffee, and even use their Wi-Fi. Paying was optional. I remember going there with my friends just for the heck of taking in the coffee house culture that Hauz Khas seemed to be cultivating. It was all very fresh and new back then after all.
Hauz Khas Village wasn’t as crowded then as it is now. There were quite a few reasonable cafes there, and it seemed like the place for college students and writers looking for cheap nooks in pretty marketplaces. It was before Hauz Khas Social opened, when everything suddenly became expensive. But just within a couple of years, it seemed, multiple bars and pubs had sprung up, and the scene changed drastically. The place echoed with loud music at all times.
Social, however, brought in the concept of working in cafes for long hours, but now only the rich could do it. Kumzum closed down soon enough, and then one day, we couldn’t find our favourite terrace café overlooking the lake (which served excellent cheese Maggi). Cha Bar in Connaught Place too closed down briefly before opening its new branch. The dreamy, moderately crowded coffee shops where you could sit and think for hours and order refills seemed a wholly alien idea in Delhi during those years. The city was too commercial, and all too filled with pesky partiers.
I was fortunate, however, for having access to campus areas through those years, so I managed to find my haunts throughout my student and researcher life. My exploration of the coffee house culture nearly ended during my Masters because in JNU, at 24*7, with its machine made cheap coffee that you couldn’t keep count of when you sat in the corner to write or read, seemed like the best place to work in. And although it was no coffee house, the space represented what I had been trying to find all over Delhi for so long.
The coffee house culture, in the meantime, seemed like it would die down. But it boomed suddenly as Starbucks came to India, in 2012. All of a sudden the Fab India and Starbucks culture ballooned until that was all that the artsy intellectual and Humanities and Social Sciences crowds in general seemed to aspire to frequenting. It became the Jaipur Litfest of coffee shops. I was just a student then and every time I went there, I overheard conversations about manuscripts and publishers, etc. To my mind, it was the site where writers and editors were conceiving great books over Venti-sized lattes.
Almost at the same time, I discovered Café Turtle in Khan Market, which too seemed to be the favourite of some writerly crowds, so I somehow gravitated to it almost every time I paid a visit to Bahrisons or Faqirchand bookshops. It was the place to be, according to Delhi bloggers and the who’s who of literary circles.
Somehow, I hated their cold coffee and their pretentious coconut water which they served with the coconut – like on the streets. Still, it was irresistible because it represented that world of literariness that I wanted to be a part of as a university student.
It was during my graduation that I was introduced to the idea of freelancing. Being an Englishwallah, I was told freelancing would come to me easily. It was supposed to set the base for becoming a writer later. I was never able to do it for different reasons, but I was regularly informed about opportunities by friends, colleagues, and now, students. Some of the stories were, and are, worrisome – the compensation is rarely appealing. In fact, the earnings can be paltry if you don’t obtain the right projects.
Besides, writing for others in a way that did not give any satisfaction sounded like a heavy price to pay to follow your passion and pursue your art. It quickly became apparent that money was the greatest impediment in pursuing a career in writing in the city.
I met a friend recently who recently moved back into the city after briefly living in the UK. He is a writer, and was looking for a suitable flat – his only prerequisite being a window with a good view. He informed me that finding such a place at a decent price was exceedingly complicated, because there were very few options, and hardly any picturesque neighbourhoods. But having been moved between neighbourhoods around campuses for nearly a decade, and being more or less comfortable in his hippy state, this time, he wanted something spacious and overlooking lush greens, perhaps around Hauz Khas and Green Park.
In Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. Where were these rent-controlled flats with easy access to important areas and good views of the streets? Ultimately, her character had to get a proper job when she lost the spacious rent-controlled apartment. Is Delhi also failing countless struggling writers every day?
How many writers had compromised on their writing because of the lack of financial stability in a city where decent and affordable housing is a major problem? Talking to my friend through his hunt for an apartment with a view made me realise how two very irreconcilable things, real estate and writing, come together in the city, but often don’t go together.
Search for an address
The city has for long attempted to devise ways to accommodate the rising population within it. Paradoxically, the city is inclusive, so that migrants come into the capital in great numbers every year. However, it is extremely alienating because spaces remain inaccessible and inhabitable. Housing, in fact, remains an issue despite the government’s efforts to expand, develop, and accommodate the increasing numbers.
During my Masters’ programme, I would cross Munirka on my way to campus every day. It was the most affordable neighbourhood for scholars at JNU, as places could be rented at under Rs 10,000 a month. Near Jamia, you could find a studio for Rs 7,000-10,000 a month circa 2015. These were one room establishments in the inner interstices of the neighbourhoods, behind shops and storehouses.
Those cramped, poorly ventilated, and mostly unsafe houses were the best options for a young researcher, freelance worker or writer, still in the initial years of their career. Up north, the options were wider, sometimes better. But the problem of poor housing, high rents, brokerage, unfriendly landlords, etc, seemed to be persist in every part of the city.
I was in school when they were talking about the increase in property rates in East Delhi, where I lived, because the Metro had finally come Jumna-paar. Over the next ten years, property rates climbed steadily, and with rapid urbanisation, coupled with the influx of migrants every year, the city was bursting at the seams. Sheila Dixit, who was the Chief Minister back then, continually expressed concern over the rising population. It caused a severe shortage in housing, and sent real estate prices shooting up across the city.
The suburbs didn’t look very pleasing in those days: Dwarka seemed like arid grounds, Rohini was far away, Noida was not appealing, Greater Noida was completely alien, and to many, even East Delhi seemed disconnected. Of course, Gurgaon was another world altogether.
Back then, the government initiated some measures, however insubstantial, given the need of the hour. Lower-cost housing projects were introduced, but they were talking about the outskirts – Bawana, Narela, etc – places nobody had heard of back then. Those places were understood to be industrial areas and slum settlements. The middle-class wanted nothing to do with it. And the struggling artist did not have the means to afford even those places, leave alone travel to and fro.
Room for artists?
Think about the narrator in In Custody by Anita Desai. His writing project makes him travel around in Delhi several times, much to his dismay. Besides, he must teach alongside working on his book, to be able to afford an existence while he pursues his writing career. Is that the present reality for writers in the city? Is it impossible to live the life of purely and solely a writer, without ensuring another source of income?
I am reminded of some other literary and cinematic representations of the writer in the city. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, the narrator who is a struggling writer manages to find a brownstone apartment in Manhattan. What happened to that ideal? The idea in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society of becoming rich by writing, and earning enough to afford a good establishment, seems to be wholly elusive in the city, especially for those starting out.
Is writing then a moribund occupation because it is not sufficient to eke out a living in modern times? Must every writer today first find a secure source of income and then consider pursuing their writing on the side?
The problem of proper spaces is a real problem today. In fact, art and spaces seem to be linked inextricably. My friend says it is impossible to write without the city, and to write with the city, in the city, it becomes impossible to do so only through that. Is the fate of writers today really dependent on such sundries?
Delhi can be so compelling for the writers – it is the city to be in, and yet, ironically, it excludes them too. If the city does not find ways to accommodate the artist and protect their right to the city, it will continue to take a toll on writing, or any art for that matter.
And if housing itself is a problem, how then how can a city host a coffee house culture when the places remain expensive and mostly inaccessible? The concept of intellectual discussions and writing taking place in bustling cafes seems to have dissipated with Fitzgerald and Hemingway in Paris. What does that say about the treatment of art in society today?
Is this age then really the end of the bohemian writer-by-profession writing in the city? And what = happens to the writer in Delhi in spaces that consistently exclude and even expel them? Are we facing the same state that Stephen Daedalus was in when he rejected the city for not accepting him as an artist?
Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at University of Delhi. She is the author of The Rickshaw Reveries.