Metronama is the culmination of years of research by Rashmi Sadana, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Virginia’s George Mason University. Comprising interviews, research, and personal observations, it lays bare the relationship the Delhi metro shares with the city and its people.
What Sadana has mapped rather presciently is how the metro dwarfs, draws attention to, unites and others, depending on where an individual falls on the socio-economic index. For some, the imposing pillars and elevated tracks are a daily reminder of what the public will is capable of achieving and those it fails to include; a painful memory of a shiny part of the city that lies beyond their grasp; a project dedicated to making the already mobile and comfortable even more so.
Mapping the ever-changing relationship between the metro and the city of Delhi, Sadana’s work is analogous to the idea of simulations and simulacra. Jean Baudrillard proposed these terms as ways of charting relationships between reality and its representations. The Delhi metro is, in parts, a simulation or an accurate representation of the city and, in parts, a simulacrum – a copy with no original; it has become its own truth, bearing no relation to the real Delhi whatsoever.
Sadana measures how well the metro is integrated into the city through its ability to function as a public space; as an extension of the streets itself via its function as a site for political gatherings. She chronicles her run-ins in the metro with Anna Hazare supporters in 2011 during the protests against corruption. She writes of the metro stations within old Delhi where local shops have become “inquiry counters”, of the Chandni Chowk exit that opens up into a temple; where station interiors play up the facades of the old city.
While the exteriors meld into their environments, the interiors of the metro are in stark contrast to the streets of Delhi. They are sanitized, almost hospital-like with a silent hum, subdued announcements, vast spaces, and people queued up in orderly lines. What Sadana tackles head-on is the rather elitist form of contempt masked in the argument that the metro is a civilising force. Its ordered spaces and bright, gleaming surfaces are somehow to turn the ordinary Indian into a more sophisticated version of themselves. She speaks to Dunu Roy, the head of NGO Hazards Centre, who remarks on the spatial struggle in the city. A peculiar inversion of the reality of city life, the metro is clean and green but the city bus is dirty diesel. The city is being shaped in the image of the few and those it deems dirty are being moved off the map. Over a thousand families were displaced due to the metro, perhaps more.
Metronama also takes a broader look at the architecture of Delhi and it is a treat to read AG Krishna Menon’s criticism on conservation as an attempt to beautify. He vehemently opposes the New Delhi Municipal Corporation’s plans to change the iconic pillars at Connaught Place from sandstone to marble, to gentrify the Gole Market with a glass dome and a museum. He argues that these changes are more for outsiders than those who come to work in the market. Among the many questions Sadana asks within the book, there is none as crucial as, “Whose Delhi, is it? And exactly which parts of the city does the metro serve?”
Sadana’s meeting with architect Preeti Bahadur, whose firm designed one of the early metro stations, is of particular interest. Bahadur speaks of the complicated tendering process involved in the design and construction of the stations. She speaks of international designs that envision metro stations with motifs of peacocks, diamonds, and temples; of the symbolism that is clichéd when it comes to representing India and the gap between those designs and Indian realities.
While these macro arguments frame a large part of the book, Sadana also dives into the lives of city dwellers. She offers snapshots of areas like Seelampur where residents just want to be left alone by the government, and of the role of the metro in urban imaginations with each individual imagining the narrative of fellow travellers. She delves into accounts of navigating the personal and political in the women’s coach and the gap that exists between it and the general compartments. She chronicles stories of the metro bringing together lovers and helping them escape their families.
The book covers fascinating bits of trivia about metro employees going through training sessions including yoga, and of the list of items that cannot be carried on the metro – it includes dried human blood and animal carcasses. I looked at the list and contemplated the distances the metro traverses, right to the borders of the hinterland.
Sardana also chronicles the sheer effort of will that was required to bring the project into existence. It is an extremely detailed look at the nature of the complicated partnerships between government bodies and the people, and the dedication of several government agencies.
For those already familiar with the Delhi metro, the descriptions of those who travel on it might be of little interest. There are also a few vignettes that end rather abruptly and offer little insight. These are perhaps the only parts where the book falters.
But what Metronama does very well is look at mobility as an experience rather than as a process even as it provides a moving portrait of Delhi life. Here, as the metro runs in an infinite loop, its windows turn into frames, capturing quick chapters of individual lives. Sadana shows us that the metro isn’t just its structures or its technology. It is more than the sum of the experiences of the people travelling in it; a part of the city and yet distinct; it is its own medium and its own message.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha