It must all have been a big, colorful, long-running conspiracy. Several hundred years ago, a whimsical princeling must have commissioned a pot-bellied, large-mustached mastermind to organize it. Architects, poets, artists, Godmen, assorted traders and the forerunners of today’s real estate men would have sat around in a large, airy room on a sultry Delhi afternoon. Unknown to each other, they would have looked around cluelessly until the liquor and the opium would have swooped into the room. And then the mastermind would have announced the grand project these men and their coming generations would be a part of – Delhi.
Behind the confounding streets of Delhi must lie the drunken unfettered imagination, irreverent poetry and unscrupulous enterprise of these men and their progeny.
Sweat dripped down his forehead and onto the tip of his nose. There it perched precariously as his head bobbed to an unpresent rhythmic music in a way that clueless boys hope passes off at a discotheque for dancing. There it perched and then it dropped, into the batter for pooris he was rolling. On the left of his uncle’s eatery was a flower shop and on its right was a butcher’s. Sweetmeats, flowers, meat, sewage and sweat to go – you could tell that the air around was confused. How was it supposed to smell anyway?
Out of the corner of his left eye, Aseemullah could see a barber’s shop that offered Bollywood hairstyles. The wall in front of him partially blocked his view of the dome of the 16th century Moth ki Masjid. To his far right lay the imposing back walls of posh south Delhi houses. And behind the circus-like row of shops lay a cramped residential area where illegal first floors fused into illegal second floors. Also, illegal and shaky-looking balconies jutted out above narrow streets. You could poke your head out of your first floor bathroom window and catch yourself facing your neighbor, watching in mutual bemusement as he stood there in his balcony.
An expensive car playing loud music stopped at the corner of the street. Two teenage girls stepped out, blew flying kisses to the boys inside and walked off slyly towards the posh houses. Fourteen-year old Aseemullah eyed the girls dreamily. He knew he wanted them but he had no idea what he would do with them if he got them. Perhaps he could walk out of the barber’s shop at the corner into a cool Delhi evening, dressed like a Bollywood hero. The two girls could be waiting for him in his yellow, open-roof car. The girls could intersperse swooning over him with orange bar ice creams. And they could be shouting jubilantly too! They were after all with Assemullah- the hottest prize in the whole of Delhi!
The car could be decorated with Diwali lighting even. Fataak. His dream met a violent intervention. As he nursed his cheek after the slap, his uncle informed him that the poori batter wouldn’t batter itself and that the customers wouldn’t feed themselves. Since his father passed away a couple of years ago, Aseemullah had helped out at his uncle’s shop in the afternoons, after school every day.
That evening he sat on the roof of his house, the roof surrounded by a tangled web of criss-crossing electricity and telephone cables. He sometimes wondered how the cables would look from above. He wondered if there might actually be a pattern to them, if the chaos might somehow transform into order if only you looked from far enough. From where he sat, he could see the setting sun fuse with the dome of the Moth ki Masjid. He sat there outlining shapes in the mosque’s architecture; he knew all of them were the way they were for a reason. And one day, he would find out. He wanted to be an architect. Of course his uncle and his teachers thought he had little talent for anything. And sure enough, his dream was distant and things look orderly and manageable if you look from far enough. The seeming impossibility and tangle of things hit you only when you are right near them. But he was prepared for ‘Aseemullah Against the World. “Aseemullah!”, called his mother from below and he walked off towards the stairs with a smile.
Illustration by Priyadarshini Sivakumar