Rishi Kapoor and Sridevi did it in Chandni. The gang did it, beers in hand, in Rang de Basanti. In the nearly 20 years separating the two films, how many people drove by India Gate on celluloid, curving along the lawns, jamun trees and always smoggy Rajpath? But then, pretty much everyone in Delhi drives past India Gate pretty much every day, heading north to south or east to west. So much so that the auto-driver was shocked when I suggested that we could go from Safdarjung Enclave to Civil Lines without touching India Gate. So much so that my sister’s driver picking me up at the airport to take me to Noida always wants to drive past India Gate. Why? Because it’s faster.
Maybe at 2am that makes sense. Kind of. At 10am on a weekday, it makes no sense at all. The whole city comes together into a whirling maelstrom of (mostly) clockwise traffic, rushing around India Gate, and then, miraculously, branching off in tangents from India Gate — the honking roaring swerving squealing braked mess at the heart of city. It would be so cool to have a video of this, shot from space.
The roads may have been empty and gracious when Rishi Kapoor and Sridevi did it. But that was back when Switzerland was still exotic. Two winters ago, when I used to bicycle to work from Jangpura Extension to Patel Chowk, the India Gate roundabout was neither gracious nor empty; just insane, like a crazy video game. Except you could really die, getting sideswiped by a lane-jumping Blueline. I loved every minute of it, as soon as I turned left off Zakir Husain Marg. And as the ‘stoppage times’ keep going up in the city which never tires of buying new cars, the city still never tires of driving past India Gate — as if there’s a magnet in there, along with the ever-burning Amar Jawan Jyoti. Even if we never actually look at it anymore. Or maybe we just like going around in circles.
Of course, India Gate was designed to be a centre for British New Delhi. It was the centrepiece for the processional Kingsway. It was also central to the layout of Princes’ Park, the collection of the extraordinary mansions of the biggest princes of the houses of Hyderabad, Jaipur, Patiala, Bikaner... So, yes, India Gate was kinda exclusive way back. They weren’t expecting riff-raff like you and me to drive by. And it wasn’t even India Gate. It was, and is, the War Memorial Arch, remembering the dead of the Indian Army from World War I and the two Afghan Wars, every square inch covered with the names of the dead. It wasn’t supposed to be popular, and it wasn’t supposed to be jolly. And it definitely wasn’t supposed to be a hangout for the aam janta, because New Delhi wasn’t supposed to have any to begin with. But then the sun wasn’t meant to set on the British Empire either.
Funnily, no one seems to have thought of the symbolism of this but it seems to have happened anyway. That one of the grandest monuments of Empire, at the heart of its most exclusive real estate, has become the city’s favourite summer hangout, as democratic as 10,000 plebs hanging out can be. Oh to be back in Delhi on a May night, as the baking of the day has sort of cooled, watching the kids splash into the pool around the empty canopy where King George’s statue used to be. Joining them. Eating ice cream from the thela, drinking bantas, eating bhelpuri. Looking at those weird glowing arrows shot into the sky from Chinese catapults. Watching India Gate refracted through balloons, glowing in the floodlights. Looking into the last two bioscopes in Delhi. Mehendiwallis so used to foreign tourists that they offer you ‘temporary tattoos’. Strolling with your lover along Rajpath, where even Delhi’s finest police corps seems kind of chilled out.
Maybe that’s why we love India Gate so much and can’t stop driving past it, and driving to it. Like Delhi, it’s insanely chaotic and insanely beautiful at the same time, and has way too many cops. But despite the cops and the gravitas and the road rage, it is a peaceful and whimsical place at heart. And you can’t get into this heart without going around in circles.