No taking the edge off: Of violence, crime and anger in Delhi

Delhi reminds us that violence is what links the mainstream to the margins, the haves to the have-nots. The beauty of the crime-scape of Delhi, though, is that it is very different from anything else.

The journey of Titli (2014) began with an article I came across in a newspaper about a gang of carjackers, who had brutalised a couple while robbing them. The extent of the violence struck me and I couldn’t get it out of my head. But I realised that I was thinking of the robbers as “them”. I had felt similar levels of emotional violence within me at various points in my life, so was I “them” and “they” me, more than I was letting on?

It became important that I didn’t “other” the perpetrator. I had to find a way to own the story I was about to write. That is when I started to explore violence as something that is endemic, trying to find the root within the individual.  That’s when the idea of a family came in.  I looked back at emotional and physical violence within families and tried to re-embed that archetype back into the story of crime. From that point on, crime became a backdrop — a canvas — to explore familial violence.

What struck me equally about the family unit and the landscape of crime in Delhi was the maleness of it, the unabashed, singular patriarchal source of it. Most crime is about power and so is the makeup of the typical Indian familial unit. And sure enough, I realised, the terrain of Delhi — its very character — is about it being the epicenter of power. All crime originates from the struggle for power; it’s a means of appropriating power. It doesn’t come from a random need to hurt people — that is what it is reduced to, so that we don’t pay attention to the more complex matrix.

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the first chapter is all about apes finding a pool of water, and two separate tribes having to feed off it. The origin of crime within the film comes from politics — the fight over who rules the right to drink from that pool.

The beauty of the crime-scape of Delhi, though, is that it is very different from anything else. It is easy to say that Delhi has never been about organised crime the way, say, Mumbai might have been. But the underworld in Mumbai was merely a bunch of violent guys with guns, getting kicks out of spreading petty terror, which is why their wiping out was swift when it was needed. Delhi’s crimescape lies — in plain view — the central hub of politics and politicians, leeching upon us, the people.

The crime narrative set in that city mirrors this in its own unusual ways. It typically revolves around a few neighbourhoods, most prominently old Delhi. Because of its history and religious make-up, it’s easy to romanticise a certain class and creed as the “faulty” part of the city. The mix of certain people and communities lends itself to established exotica in crime fiction, not least because they serve to entrench long-held stereotypes. Dilli ki Deewar, a novel by Uday Prakash comes to mind… A sweeper finds a hollow wall; breaks it and finds a room full of money. He slowly sneaks it out, all along thinking about how to deal with the unlimited wealth. His dreams and desires set up an interesting contrast between the mindsets of the haves and the have-nots. Perhaps, he doesn’t even quite know how to dream.

I grew up in east Delhi, and in those days, that part of Delhi was the fringe. The troubled abode of the have-nots. Over the years, as the city expanded, these fringes have moved further away still… Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon and so on. And will continue to move away as the power centres evolve into complex pyramids. Those at the centre are served by those in the outer circle, who are in turn served by those in the circle outside that circle. The ones excluded, and most on the outside, respond with violence and crime.

Another interesting characteristic that differentiates pockets within the city is the nature of frustrations and anger. For example, with east Delhi, I always noticed that the composition of this little cosmos made it almost like a ghetto to begin with. A bunch of uprooted were people trying to reconstruct their lives in relatively new settlements. They had a very specific anger of upheaval with them. There was a palpable, simmering quality to this anger, which is markedly distinct from, say, the anger of the people in old Delhi. The anger in old Delhi stems from being part of a defunct history; from the angst of being forgotten. It is almost a sort of nostalgic anger. Which, arguably, is not as dangerous and brutal as the pure noise that comes from facing rootlessness.

Which brings us back to the individual. Is violence structural? Or is it individual? Does it reflect the spaces that we inhabit? Or do we create spaces that mirror the times we live in? Violence is all around us in myriad forms. And it’s not going away if we don’t stare it in the face.

Perhaps, the best we can do is accept that it ties the fringe to the mainstream; keeps a relationship going between the haves and have-nots. It reminds the votaries of capitalism and those responsible for the increasing wealth gap, that human appropriation comes at a cost. Power structures can be maintained but not without bloodshed. Viva Dilli!

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