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The Filthy City

By Kartheik G Iyer

I checked my hands. Yep, two of them. Still attached. Legs? Present and accounted for, too. Torso? Still holding it all together. Other assorted appendages? Internal circulation mechanism? Ocular, acoustic and olfactory equipment? All in a working or at least workable state. So far, so good. One can never be sure with these mass manufactured goods. I then looked at the shitty cycle, wheels high on air, rust in all the right places, and checked my footwear to see if the brakes were fine. It all seemed fair enough, and I set off.

Photo credit - Chinmay Maheshwari
The city is a big place. Big, at least, for those who actually walk, or cycle, and look around you while doing it. Its Its a huge, winding, rambling, ramshackle organism filled with so many varied elements that it is impossible for a scrap of paper to describe. But then there are those who simply roll up their car windows and drive from point to point, ignoring the traffic, the crowds, the beggars and the eunuchs, the flower sellers, the kids peddling pirated copies of popular books and cheaply manufactured toys, the chana and shingdana peddlers, and the filth. To them, the city's just as big as the map tells.

To a cyclist, the city seems to be in limbo. The petrol, diesel and other decomposed animal and fart powered vehicles whoosh by, not deigning to notice the humble two wheeler. The pedestrians, on the other hand, seem to be frozen in mid stride, as you pedal past. Occassionally, you slow down, sometimes by choice, as you see the sun go down between two enormous cranes busy creating yet one more floor for a high-rise skyscraper, or a kid struggling to climb a wall with one hand, a mango in the other. 

You gaze, dumbstruck by any of the million things that make the city the place it is, a recalcitrant elephant urinating all over the sidewalk, splattering pedestrians, the poor mahout poking ineffectually at it with a blunt stick. You look at beggars pulling a rude passenger out of an autorickshaw, for in the city, they can be choosers. At a temple in the middle of a slum, surprisingly clean despite the surroundings, the idol gleaming yellow, bedecked with small sparkly scraps of colourful cloth. At the roof of the slum, where hundreds of digital television antennae receive the evening's prime time entertainment, so many, that they could all be interfaced to form a giant radio telescope, probably. At the trains. At the rains. 

Sometimes, though, the choice to slow down is taken out of your hands. The highway is treacherous, to all those who attempt it under their own steam. It goes up, and you cycle up the incline, huffing and puffing, while tempos try to run you over and bikers make weird faces. You reach the top, and gloriously start the downward journey, determined to build up speed till you can breeze by the next incline, but no, at the bottom, where you're fastest, lies a fiend, cunningly disguised to look like a signal, that waits till you coast down and then turns red. Poof goes your speed, pop goes the weasel, and you look at the next upward slope and feel like your sphincter burst. Another antagonist in the general scheme of things for a cyclist, is the bus, the great equalizer. But that's a story for another time. And there are times when pedestrians exist solely to jump at you, as if suicide was the plan, but if not, a damn good fight will do just fine.

But you sense that I'm not telling you what you need to hear. Only what you want to. I praised the city and insulted the buses, fueling your patriotic ego and giving you something to bitch about. But there's more to it, and this is the pill that's usually difficult to swallow, especially since you've got so many troubles of your own, so many worries. 

There is a point where cycling is no longer possible. When the shanties are clustered so closely together that there's barely enough space to even walk by. These are the parts that you walk by every day, the parts that you pretend do not or should not exist. For once, imagine, that you park your cycle, and go in. These are grim, gritty surroundings, and by subconscious intent, you pat your pocket just to make sure your wallet is secure. You see the piles of garbage, and imagine that there once must have been a bin underneath it, if you look hard enough you can even see a corner sticking out. Dogs and crows scavenge among the litter, unmindful of the broken bottles and other pieces of glass. If there was a walkway above, people would throw their trash right off. There are kids playing nearby. The smaller ones run after tyres and sticks, making sure they don't fall with a surprising dexterity, the slightly older ones have already begun paying homage to what will most probably be a lifelong devotion to cricket. 

Photo credit - Sahil Mehta
You go in, and a riot of smells assail your nostrils, already overloaded from the stink outside, so thick you could scoop at it with a spoon. They say, that in the really big slums, you'll be able to find anything under the sun, ranging from imported car parts to women claiming to be your grandfather, to convoluted political propaganda. I don't know which is worse. A lot of stuff is cooking, fish is being fryed in cheap reused oil, vada's emit their particular scent, so does garlic, somewhere. Someone's using some cheap cologne, clothes are drying, they've been starched too much. There are a thousand cheap television sets and transistors playing, their individual noises blending in to the combined din. Traffic blares on, unheeding. You wouldn't hear a person screaming to death in this place, you realise. The thought makes you uncomfortable, and your initial curiousity begins to fade. But you feel that this is something you have to do, and you push onwards.

Some housewives are washing clothes, and the entire ground is slippery. Others are taking a bath. The handpump has a well cared for look about it. You climb up a rickety spiral staircase, and come out on an asbestos landing, among some television satellites. You see where the cable lines are spliced together, where the phone lines are tapped from the mains running along the road, ditto for electricity. Although authorities are cracking down on this, its not really helping. Where one wire is cut off, ten others will spring, like the far reaching effects of an underground revolution. Or the hydra. 

From here, you see some of the older children from up here clustering in groups, openly suspicious of your presence, yet not with the fear of the hunted, but with the desperation of the hungry. The ones who begin to realise the effects of being born in a country like ours in a place like theirs. The rapid disillusionment setting in, the way one feels that some doors are closed before they could get a chance to even reach them. That good and evil are but words and at the end of the day, one still needs to fill one's stomach. The thought that morals are only for the rich, and the poor need to do whatever they can to get by. The thought that all the childhood ideals are precisely that, stuff for children, the thought that there's nobody out there who cares. 

There's one thing you need to realise before you get out of here, climb on your cycle, and go back to your life. This is real, all of it, and poverty is not going to go away just because you pretend it doesn't exist. But that's not even the worst part. The worst is the indifference. You may have realised a lot here, but unless you hold on to it, unless you cherish the thought of your well being, of your incredible luck, you will forget. If you do, come back and read this again.    

The city needs help. Whether you choose to help it is your decision.

About: Read more from Kartheik at -


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