A grandma and a girl collect firewood for their chulha (a traditional Indian cooking stove) and ask me to keep an eye on it as they catch up with friends. They’re from the neighboring Rangpuri Pahaadi, which houses the workers who hold up my suburban neighborhood. I spend the time listening to a picnicking family, children leaving the cluster to chase each other. Every day is a picnic day because the park is where they eat lunch. Boys who deliver groceries from the shop to the homes let loose in a game of cricket, wary of my dog, who never lets the ball loose once he’s caught it. The drooping leaves of old peepal and palaash trees cave in around benches, where a group of men spends the afternoon playing cards. Sometimes, they complain about the terms of their work, rude and capricious bosses, and having to work at all even during a pandemic.
By night, the benches turn to lovers’ nests, perhaps their only reprieve with strict family and stricter work hours. The eastern corner of the park is overrun with the winding roots of a willow tree and the stench of piss. Women and men, though men more, come here to relieve themselves. I don’t blame them- there aren’t public loos for them around. Some of the men snooze, newspapers, or cardboard shielding their faces from the sun. The women can’t do that.
I live in a suburb in Delhi. I come to the park for it is an oasis among concrete buildings and pavements. It turns out, the park is liberating for reasons other than a cool breeze and the scent of soil. My neighborhood is populated less by residents than a burgeoning working class supporting them, whose members live nearby. Gardeners, drivers, maids, cooks, deliverers, counter workers, and waiters at the fancy new Blue Tokai coffee shop around the corner. It cannot be denied that class and caste divides are the central organizing forces of New Delhi’s urban milieu, nor that there are at all times, tensions between the rich or upper-middle-class few and the working classes. The capital’s non-cognition of rural life as a whole, which is 70% of the life in the country, betrays its apathy to those in the city who migrate from villages for work.
The daughter of an English schoolteacher, I wield considerable social capital, and in case I ever forget, my mother chides me for sharing my water bottle with ‘those people’, or more aggressively, ‘fourth class employees’. These barriers cripple any authentic understanding or curiosity about what life is like for most people. For the most part, the interaction between the privileged and the workers is heavily tempered. The latter call the former ‘madam’ or ‘sir’ in tribute to the birth lottery. A veil of distance and deference shrouds all meetings; the dogma of ‘the customer is always right’ bends shoulders in resignation to the frustrating shackles of service.
Something changes in the park. It is often compulsion that drives people there: there are no other spaces in which to gather and relax, not even piss, apparently, as the residents and shop owners don’t let their workers use their loos or don’t think to construct any. Yet, once there, the relations of the market fall off like the overripe figs littering the see-saws. Leisure takes over, and the belittling identities of the market are shed. Human beings stop being workers and become human beings, for a while. With this tag goes the paralyzing hierarchy of relations otherwise dominated by market roles. The old man convening the game of cards feels free to discuss my dog’s grass munching habit with me- my dear icebreaker. The women who gathered the firewood can expect me to keep an eye on it: reversing how favors usually flow between the classes. When my dog runs away with the cricketers’ ball, they get angry freely instead of masking their feelings in resenting respect. I cherish it.
It took me some time to realize that even the parks in the neighborhood are class-marked: there is a bigger one frequented by the residents for walks and football in the evening, and the smaller park I go to with my dog is used in greater, vibrant versatility. This park at once reveals a tragic order and offers a rare respite from it.