“Look, Papa, Gandhiji’s glasses!”
“Very good, Mili! Can you tell what’s written under it?”
“Swachh Bharat. It means ‘Clean India’”
“But they forgot to fill in the red colour completely!”
“Ugh, no, that’s a paan stain!” Ashutosh recoiled when he, too, saw it. “Someone ate paan and spit it out on the wall. That’s a very dirty thing to do. Do you understand, beta?”
Five-year-old Mili was enjoying a Sunday outing with her father, Ashutosh. They had not come to Connaught Place since before the pandemic, and Ashutosh was keen to see how things were. Mili’s mother chose to rest at home after a working Saturday.
Mili and her father walked around the inner circle, looking at everything with wonder. CP was practically dead during the pandemic. Shops had closed and shoppers took time to come back after the restrictions lifted. But now, the market looked like it was back to normal. There were new retail outlets and new bars and restaurants. The place was buzzing.
While crossing from D block to E block, Mili spied something in the distance.
“Nirulas! Nirulas!” squealed Mili. “Papa, ice cream!”
Ashutosh smiled and nodded. He didn’t mind having one either. Looking left and right for traffic, they walked diagonally across to M block.
As soon as they entered the outlet, Mili ran to the counter and articulated her order clearly: “Delhi Delight! Two scoops!”
Ashutosh caught up with Mili and said, “No, Mili, only one scoop. Your tummy will hurt if you have two.”
“Nooo … please, Papa … two scoops.”
“Okay, you can have two scoops in a regular cone or one scoop in a waffle cone. Which one do you want?”
Mili looked back at her father with eyes wide and fists firmly on her waist. “Why can’t I have two scoops in a waffle cone?”
“You can’t have everything you want, beta.”
“Why can you have everything you want but not I?”
“Did Mumma let me have the extra gulab jamun last night?”
Mili paused and shook her head.
“See! So, what’ll it be?”
Mili considered the deal for a while.
“One scoop in a waffle cone!” She decided that was the best deal—for now.
“Very good! I’ll also have the same,” said Ashutosh, turning to the server, who was smiling and waiting patiently for the negotiation to end.
“No, Papa, you’ll have Jamoca Almond Fudge. In a waffle cone!” That was Mili’s second-most-favourite flavour at Nirulas.
Mili and Ashutosh exited the Nirulas happily licking their ice creams. They crossed over to Block L, outer circle, where it was less crowded.
As they walked through the curving corridors, they crossed dilapidated offices, fancy restaurants, and paan-cigarette kiosks. It was a strange but utterly Indian coexistence of the old and the new, the clean and the dirty, the mediocre and the excellent. In one bend, away from the public eye, sat a bunch of shaggy, destitute men. They were hunched over a silver foil, and one of them held a lit match. Burnt-out matchsticks were littered all around them. Ashutosh grabbed Mili’s hand and began walking faster. But Mili had already seen the men.
“What are they doing, Papa?”
“Nothing … they’re lost … they’re looking for a way out.”
“Like Google Maps?”
“Yes, something like that.”
Further ahead, the corridors got more populated. People were crossing over to and from the Railway Hospital side. Ashutosh and Mili sauntered along checking out the shops, sights, and citizenry. Their ice creams were almost over.
“Look, Papa, paan stains. Dirty, dirty!”
Ashutosh sighed at the familiar sight. Nothing had changed since they’d last been to CP. Almost every pillar’s base had red streaks of paan and guthka spit. The grand white pillars soiled by the cruel disregard of, ironically, those whose ancestors’ sweat and blood built them—they stood as a metaphor for an ancient civilization looking for a way out of a maze, a Chakravyuh.
Soon, they reached the end of the G block and took a left towards Central Park. As soon as they reached the inner circle, Mili saw the colossal flag that seemed to lord over everyone and everything. They quickened their pace and reached the entrance of Palika Bazar. A couple of dozen people sat or strolled on the granite promenade. Hawkers sold counterfeit sunglasses, faux-leather belts, and chana jor garam. Someone’s boombox blared out a popular patriotic song. Mili ran and climbed up a platform right in front of the flag, which was planted across the road in Central Park. Ashutosh joined her.
The flag looked resplendent in the afternoon sun. Its colours vivid, its gentle but full flutter majestic. It was a sight to behold irrespective of one’s nationality. And if you were an Indian, your heart swelled with an instinctive, tribal pride that’s deeper than the realm of thoughts.
Mili had tilted her head up fully to see the top of the sky-high flagpole. She was squinting and shielding her eyes with her little hands like a cap as she intently studied the flag. Ashutosh watched her, half amused, half concerned.
“What happened, beta?”
Mili didn’t hear him.
Ashutosh asked again, “What happened, Mili? Why are you squinting?”
“It’s so bright, Papa!”
Ashutosh smiled at her and said, “Yes, sometimes colours can be so dazzling that they can blind you, and songs can be so loud that they can make you go deaf.”
Mili turned to her father, alarmed. “Then what can I do, Papa, so that I don’t go blind or deaf?”
Ashutosh looked at the flag and whispered, “May the words of the wise, be your ears and your eyes.”
Mili didn’t quite hear him. “What, Papa?”
“Read books, honey, read books,” Ashutosh said reassuringly.
After a few more minutes of admiring the flag and taking selfies, the father–daughter duo proceeded towards Janpath, where they had parked their car. On the way, they crossed a footpath vendor selling books. The paperbacks were wrapped in transparent plastic and laid neatly on the dusty ground by the roadside, like tombs in a crowded graveyard. Ashutosh looked at them wistfully and walked on.