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Reading Delhi through its Metro rail system

Rashmi Sadana's new book Metronama is a sensory journey through what this iconic infrastructure means for people, places and society.

March 05, 2022 / 05:54 PM IST
The Delhi Metro is used as a framing device in 'Metronama',  to tell the story not just of this city, but of how infrastructures reshape our urban worlds. (File image: Twitter/@OfficialDMR)

The Delhi Metro is used as a framing device in 'Metronama', to tell the story not just of this city, but of how infrastructures reshape our urban worlds. (File image: Twitter/@OfficialDMR)

Fancy taking a ride on the Delhi Metro, a stroll around its stations and conversing with planners, riders and observers without stepping out of your home?

Rashmi Sadana's new book Metronama, brought out in India by Roli Books' Lotus imprint, could be a great starting point.

For those who know Delhi, the book evokes images that are all too familiar. For those yet to visit, it is a teaser of the complex and compelling offerings of an enormous, historic metropolis that seeks, through its Metro system, to stand shoulder to shoulder with global cities like Paris, London and New York.

This pursuit of world-classness is an enduring trope of Delhi and its metro system, but Metronama does not overly burden itself with this idea. Sadana studied the Delhi Metro for over a decade. Like many anthropologists before her, she reads and narrates infrastructure in political and social terms in this book. Its short, concise chapters each tell a single story, of people, places, events and perspectives. Sensory and lyrical, the narrative yo-yos between the quotidian and discursive, at times drawing you into someone's life and at other times zooming you out towards social science theory. Much like the movements in and out of the Delhi Metro itself, from noisy, crowded, smelly streets into underground stations and tunnels where the deep rumbles lull you to much-needed sleep or help you finish that half-heard podcast.

Metronama points out some of the most striking features of Delhi's iconic infrastructure project. It teases out how the Metro represents novelty to Delhi-walas: how it helps them confront their fears, of boarding an escalator, for instance, or how it seeds the excitement of seeing new places and crossing social boundaries in conversations and friendships. The practice of rules around cleanliness and discipline within the system urges behavioural changes that no one could have anticipated from Delhi's rowdy undisciplined public.

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The city's highly gendered public space practices also reflect inside the Metro. Commuter Indrani's word - "We don't mind if ladies push into us; we don't like gents pushing us" - captures the value of the ladies only coach on the Metro. Sadana's reading of the liminal space between the ladies coach and the rest of the train, where mixed-gender groups, couples and families enact gendered relations of concern, control, submission and compromise, is typical of how Metronama opens new possibilities of analysis while describing the utterly mundane.

Reading Metronama feels quite a bit like eating a multi-course meal, each course bite-sized and full of novelty. Some courses need more chewing than others. Interviews with personalities like Sheila Dikshit, Dinesh Mohan, AGK Menon, Geetam Tewari and Anuraag Chowfla offer detailed insights into what made the Metro and what keeps it ticking. Other chapters provide a more distinct flavour, often caricatures of those typically associated with the Metro, like the story of the rickshaw-wala who makes a living ferrying people to and from the Metro but cannot afford to use it himself. Or the tale of a particular station and its life-worlds. In 'Seelampur Station', Sadana brings to life an entire gamut of sights, sounds and smells, the choices commuters face and the materiality of the infrastructure itself. Short and refreshing vignettes intersperse the main chapters, acting like palate cleaners. The one titled 'Social Space’ imbues the mundane announcements heard on the Metro with deeper meaning, in precisely four lines. Particularly thought-provoking are the last sentences of each segment, much like that lingering final burst of flavour that a really good meal leaves you with.

In Metronama, Sadana uses the Delhi Metro as a framing device to tell the story, not just of this city, but of how infrastructures reshape our urban worlds. She claims that the Metro has indeed become that framing device for residents of the city and commentators, a space for social visibility, a backdrop for the everyday experiences of those who ride it, a site of enquiry for journalists and researchers like herself. The book captures the multiple meanings riders imbue the Metro with, re-inventing the concrete and steel in myriad ways, and how the Metro features in the social and political life of Delhi. Beauty salon owner Mrs Khanna uses her Metro travel as an intrinsic part of her fitness routine, chanting her prayers an auspicious 108 times while climbing and descending steps. Men use the Metro to obfuscate spatial markers that have, until now, defined them in Delhi's class-obsessed society. Women find new freedoms that remain couched in patriarchal bargains, as families consider the Metro 'safe', in other words, a space that does not overly shake up society's inherently casteist classist and patriarchal structures. Young couples find love and adventure. The Metro carries people to protest events that transform the city's politics. Gating the Metro helps the city's security system shut down protests that they cannot control.

Evocative of that entire sub-culture of films where plots elevate the New York Metro into one of the main characters - think King Kong (1976), Ghost (1990) and Shame (2011) - Metronama offers the Delhi Metro a starring role in the capital city's screenplay. The book has a film-like quality to it. It straddles noir, satire, romance and action with ease. As you read it, you start to inhabit the pages just like you insert yourself unknowingly into an absorbing film. In direct terms, Metronama asks questions about how we choose to interact with the concrete and steel infrastructures that increasingly crowd our urbanscapes. More obliquely, Sadana urges an interrogation of how these interactions shape urban futures.
Mukta Naik is Fellow, Centre for Policy Research.
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