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Reading Rebecca West, Delhi Metro & KG Marg

Originally published in The Delhiwalla

City Life - Reading Rebecca West, Delhi Metro & KG MargAt 1,200 pages in tiny ant-lettering, it was an unwieldy choice for Metro commute reading. More than once during the course of the month I spent reading it, I questioned this decision. And yet there she was, bulging out of my old black leather bag, in her own black cage and cover, telling anyone in the women’s coach of the Delhi Metro who bent their heads to peek, that I was spending August on a vicarious journey through a country that did not exist anymore.

“To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.”

This epigraph to Rebecca West’s travel writing tome, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, haunts the narrative that describes the six weeks she spent in the Balkan region in 1937. As she played that time in history with what went before it, I dove right in beside her, even as the monsoon played hide and seek in August 2014 in Delhi. Shielding her and myself from the rains, I jostled with ever increasing commuters on the one and half hour Metro ride each morning and returned to her on my way back as I traveled home. Time stood divided to the before and after I was last with her.

Only once did a fellow passenger, perhaps watching me mark my reading presence by underlining a line in the book, ask, “What are you reading?” Caught as if in the celebratory light of a red carpet, I first showed her the cover and then responded, hardly masking my excitement, “I discovered her while reading another book, Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts years ago. He carried this book around during his journey.” And now I was carrying her, not on a journey through a forgotten world, but to partake in the joys of reading that flow sparingly in the slivers of everyday life in the city. Surrounded by the muscular Shiva display on the latest Amish book or the runny hand of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend, I played the fool, balancing the shifting sands of Yugoslav time in one hand and the jolting motions of Delhi’s lifeline in the other.

A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s Paris parlance, may have been a fitter choice for these environs, slipping in deftly between moving fingers and barely hanging purse. But Rebecca West’s is a far removed world that casts a spell that only arrival station announcements can break. Dead kings die again, heirs are thrown off balconies and before the sun has set on countries and borders that no longer exist, she has managed to turn Delhi into Dalmatia. As my eyes darted to the end, I was intensely aware that despite how heavily her world sat on a dangling wrist, I had discovered and devoured a treasure.

Tip-toeing through a ravenous coach in the Delhi Metro, clutching another printed and bound life in my hand, I often turn back to that time with West. Her words rush back amidst the cacophony of the commute and I yearn to journey with her all over again.

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Redemption Ride

I am in love with the Delhi Metro. For one, I get to read (or watch Suits on my phone. Aha). Mothers who (can make time to) read is a group with fewer members than the Micronesian Parliament. And I refuse to be thrown off it. The metro also provides the best alternative to moving my feet vigorously on the pedal without getting anywhere. So everyday I shove, race and celebrate the acquisition of a seat, at best, and a space to place stationery feet at the very least.

On most days my head is bowed in reverence to the words in my hands. But often the action around is engaging enough to invite a look or disturbing enough to dread. While I’m almost always in the “women’s coach”, sometimes an empty seat in the “general compartment” draws me in. In the former, I have seen and heard (not eavesdropped but God some people are loud) enough life histories to feed a potboiler. Women have fainted, howled, offered a seat to heavy-set women thinking they were pregnant, proclaimed their love for possibly dubious men and first-rate rum.

Being part of a “general”-anything is sure to be fraught with mediocrity and the thus-named metro compartments come with their own share of debased drama. Nose-in-book is a cure for many things but is a meek defense against crotch-in-face. Especially, if said crotch is riddled with a fidgety hand that you want to smack with aforementioned book. A hardbound copy of Proust would be a possible weapon for it. But with only the last two volumes of In Search of Lost Time remaining to be devoured, I’ve placed Paris aside for the moment and am on a most fascinating journey with Rebecca West through (erstwhile) Yugoslavia. However, my copy of her tome is a paperback and hence ill-placed to combat a denim-dressed crotch.

Despite curious distractions we continue our journey, Rebecca and I, in Herzegovina, Dalmatia, Kosovo and beyond, past garish Turkish remnants and ruined cathedrals, with history dancing forever beside us. In the haze of a garrulous metro ride, the sights, scents and sounds of her world meet mine, ensuring that 2014 Delhi can be 1931 Balkans and our lot in life can truly seek redemption through reading.