What does the Delhi Metro mean to the city and its people? Is it a space where everyone is an ‘equal’? Can everyone afford and access it? How much queerness can a Metro tolerate? Were the world-class transit models that it takes inspiration from contextualised to fit the Indian conditions? Or were they summarily rejected in favour of the home-grown solutions? Is Metro yet another symbol of the ‘India Shining’ rhetoric?
Depending on who gets to answer these volley of questions above, the answers vary wildly.
Over a decade ago, Rashmi Sadana, Associate Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University, started making research trips to Delhi to find the “social and historical meaning” of the Delhi Metro. She posed various versions of the questions above to Delhi Metro’s users, nonusers, planners, consultants, employees, bureaucrats, and the then chief minister Sheila Dikshit. The result is this book of “interlinked ethnographic vignettes,” a collection of micro-stories called Metronama: Scenes from the Delhi Metro.
Sadana’s book is divided into three parts. The network of chapters allows you to navigate it starting wherever you want—kind of like how some destinations can be reached by choosing different combinations of Delhi Metro lines.
The book begins by offering readers a glimpse of the city’s past efforts at transport management: the failure of the bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor. It then goes on to tell stories that not only offer insights into how planning in India has been a misguided borrowing of the West but also how the city, its space, and aesthetics are “managed by its class interests”.
Owing to their varying socio-political identities, the everyday conflicts of these riders and nonriders result in the stories that Sadana mines to present cartographies of inequalities, caste-class divide, women’s safety, desire, and sexuality.
She meticulously weaves in the gaze of other observers and ethnographers in these vignettes, too, offering specific vantage points to understand and explore the city and its beloved transportation system.
There’s one where playwright Neel Chaudhuri’s desire to map how much “people kind of invest in crossing space to be with each other” is documented; and another where she mentions a documentary Please Mind the Gap (2018, Mitali Trivedi and Gagandeep Singh), in which a transgender person’s experiences—anxieties and motivations while navigating the gendered and highly policed space of the Delhi Metro—are recorded.
Though it may be aspirational to many, for it offers speed, efficiency, and an image of progress, the Delhi Metro is far from being economical. A 2018 study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) finds Delhi Metro rides to be the world’s second-most unaffordable.
Metronama is told in measured poetic-prose—its empathetic assessment shines out in its rather fluid framework, making it far more accessible than any other collection of urban stories in the recent past, for example Mind the Gap: Walking Delhi with the Metro (Manjul Publishing House, 2013) by Wilson John.
By presenting an array of socioeconomic findings what Sadana seems to be doing with Metronama: Scenes from the Delhi Metro, is that she’s establishing a “relationship” between what architect Rahul Mehrotra calls the ‘static’ and ‘kinetic’ qualities of Indian cities, “a meeting of multiple mobilities”. She’s also reminding us that though the Delhi Metro had already “recodified” the city, it’s the people’s experiences that helps the city get mapped on the Delhi Metro, not vice versa.
Saurabh Sharma is a Delhi-based queer writer. On Instagram and Twitter as @writerly_life