One night in my life: Delhi, and its history with crime

Delhi sets high, coarse standards of wealth. In this city, everyone is a hustler wrangling his way to the top. Delhi does things on a certain scale. The accidents in south Delhi involve jewellers’ sons smashing yellow Lamborghinis into dividers.

Delhi is a city of overblown lifestyles, fuelled by black money. In Delhi, everyone is a hustler wrangling his way to the top, except that there is no top to reach — the top is, at all times, spinning out of control.

One asks locals what they do and there’s no clear answer. One man told me he exports processed food to North Korea. It’s a type. The city is such that it can make an educated middle-class person feel alienated. I once went to Greater Kailash’s M Block market on a cycle rickshaw to buy an Orpat alarm clock. The rickshaw puller was abused by every lambi gaadi that passed us. I was guided to a Rado showroom.

It’s a city that sets high, coarse standards of wealth. It nurtures its own brand of criminals. Growing up, the lack of a proper Bombay-style mafia was part of Delhi’s inferiority complex. How can we be a cool city if we don’t even have a full-fledged mafia? Chicago, after all, was built by gangsters.

This hole has been filled by the land-mafia goons, often teenaged, of Gurgaon. Turf wars and enmities now spill out onto MG Road. Rivals are shot in full public view. The expanding geography of the NCR region brought in west UP, and its penchant for kidnappings. The Maruti Omni, with its sliding doors, was the vehicle of choice. Meanwhile, the Nirbhaya case solidified Delhi’s reputation as the rape capital of the country.

Delhi has its trademark crimes — domestic help clobbering their employers to death, especially old people. The master-servant relationship that exists inside luxurious Delhi houses is reminiscent of slavery. There are times the slave will snap.

Killing the DJ or bartender is another trademark Delhi crime. Earlier this year, a DJ in Punjabi Bagh stabbed revellers (who were insistent he change the track), at the club he was playing in. When the police arrived, the DJ was found standing in the middle of the dance floor, holding a kitchen knife. Sometimes, the DJ also snaps.

Delhi does things on a certain scale. The accidents in south Delhi involve jewellers’ sons smashing yellow Lamborghinis into dividers. At night, one sees rich kids pulling up on the side of the road, pulling lines, then getting back on the road, zigzagging through the traffic, tyres screeching. Similarly, the shootouts when they happen are larger than life. The Ponty Chadha shootout with his brother happened at a sprawling farmhouse. It set standards for Tarantino.

Delhi also specialises in a violent strain of road rage. Every Delhi driver carries an iron rod and a few big hammers in the car, under the driver’s seat. The tools are put to use with thrilling regularity. Consider yourself lucky if you escape with a smashed windscreen.

While poor migrants are easy to scapegoat for crime, Delhi’s crime scene often involves wealthy locals. The city’s penchant for Mughlai food and murder came together in the infamous crime-of-passion Tandoor case, where a woman’s body was chopped up and fed into an oven.

The middle class, too, is, well, in the middle of it: a jilted army officer kills a fellow officer’s wife in a love triangle, a student at a prominent women’s college is stabbed by a stalker on an overpass in broad daylight, a woman journalist is shot fatally while driving home from work, and we haven’t even got to the Arushi murders yet. The middle class might be living in gated communities, but it is not immune from the fear and actuality of violent death.

The slums are, on the whole, the safest places in Delhi. In Eunuch Park, I wrote about a Bangladeshi migrant slum: Okhla Basti. Nasir bhai was the local ganglord, who plied the cannabis trade. Soft spoken and sage-like, he became a friend. The slum no longer exists.

Back in 2000, I once got one of Nasir bhai’s wingmen home in Defence Colony, and took him to dinner at Sagar. In my room, he found the silence deafening. He yearned to go back to the thrumming cheek-by-jowl life in his shanty. He asked me: “Don’t you feel lonely here, in a room, all by yourself?” Once I was in the slum, there was a police raid on a smoking parlour. It was Nasir bhai’s wingman who heard the warning jungle drum first and bundled me into a hut. Seconds later, I heard the police storming past.

The next time I went, the wingman had been picked up by the cops. I never saw him again. But I can never forget the night I spent in the hut. A special red carpet was spread out on the floor. Nasir bhai ordered food with extra butter. Everything was paid for. I was a guest and treated as such. The chillums kept coming. I spent the night drinking Kingfisher Strong. I went to sleep to the sounds of an angry, grunting pig.

In the morning, I got up and went straight to the Imperial Hotel, where I had to meet the writer Amit Chaudhuri. He detected alcohol on my breath and immediately called my father: “I think Palash has been indulging in day-time drinking.” Sunil Dutt called me. I protested in my idealist-elitist way: “I was just trying to bridge the class divide in this city of criminal contrasts.” I still think I succeeded in doing this, just for one noirish night.

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