Saturday, January 14, 2006

A dream journey

The Metro has reduced Delhi’s day-long distances to some minutes. It is surely the best thing that could have happened to the Capital, says A.J. Philip after his ride on the state-of-the-art transport

The Delhi Metro promises travel in comfort
The Delhi Metro promises travel in comfort.
— Photo by the writer

The slick and speedy Metro compares with the best such systems in the world
The slick and speedy Metro compares with the best such systems in the world.

The Yellow Line, connecting Central Secretariat with Delhi University, is fully underground
The Yellow Line, connecting Central Secretariat with Delhi University, is fully underground
Photos by Rajiv Tyagi

TWELVE years ago when we went to Dwarka in south-west Delhi to take possession of our housing society plot, the sub-city was a vast stretch of uninhabited, undulating land. It took us more than three hours to locate, first, the sector and, then, the plot.

Like Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay erecting the Tricolour and the Union Jack atop Mount Everest, we, too, erected a signboard to help us identify the plot the next time we visited it. But on Sunday last it was from the same Dwarka that we boarded an ultramodern Metro train to reach Rajiv Chowk, known otherwise as Connaught Place.

For me the Metro was a bit of a disappointment. I was under the impression that when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the Dwarka line, called the Blue Line in Metro parlance, the first phase of the Metro project was completed.

Unlike on the other two lines where work was completed before time, the Dwarka line was behind schedule. In order to overcome this embarrassment and yet to keep to the deadline, the line from Rajiv Chowk to Dwarka More was inaugurated on December 30. There are seven more stations on this line, which have not yet been connected.

Otherwise, I could have walked down from my apartment to the Metro station at Sector 10 and boarded the train. This is a privilege I would have only by the end of March when the first phase of the project would be completed.

To be fair to the Metro, a short drive to Dwarka More, where the sub-city begins, was no big hassle. The station was far from complete; work was still in progress on the lift and the escalators. A short flight of steps took me to the ticket counter. Tickets come in the form of plastic tokens, which have computer chips embedded in them.

Unlike in the Ali Baba story where the password "Open Sesame" has to be uttered to gain entry to the cave, placing the token on the specified area at the gate gives access to the station. As signboards are all in place, there is no room for confusion.

Workers were still polishing the granite floor on one side of the station. There were very few passengers on the platform. Within seconds of our arrival, a train from Barakhamba Road drove into Dwarka More. It was coruscating in the sunlight.

Within a couple of minutes a Barakhamba-bound train arrived on the platform. The doors opened automatically and we walked into the state-of-the-art train. Nobody was in a hurry to get seated, as there were more seats than the passengers. From my seat near the door, I looked up to find a poster on the wall: "Chalo condom ke saath".

Was it mandatory to travel with that piece of rubber? No, it was just an advertisement. It says the use of condom prevents 1) AIDS, 2) sexually transmitted diseases, and 3) unwanted pregnancies – in that order.

Most of the passengers were Sunday revellers or, as one of them described, "nowhere passengers". As he explained to me nowhere passengers were those who travelled by the Metro not to reach any particular place but to enjoy the ride, I realised that we, too, were in the same category.

Parv, who occupied the seat next to mine, is a student of Class IV and was travelling for the first time in a Metro train. In no time he warmed up to me. "Uncle, I used to see the Metro from my school bus everyday and I always wanted to travel by it. Today I am very happy." He was exploring the train, feeling the smoothness of the metallic seats and the glistening stainless steel vertical bars.

Large windowpanes provide a panoramic view of the outside world but, unfortunately, there is nothing worth seeing except dirty chimneys and rooftops of multi-storeyed buildings. It will, of course, provide an insight into the kind of things the Delhiites dump on the rooftops.

The train moves at a steady speed. Before it reaches the next station, there is an announcement. The recorded voice tells the passengers the name of the station and which doors — the left ones or the right ones — will open. Much to the amusement of the passengers, the announcement did not match the stoppages.

Thus when it reached Janakpuri, it said "Tilak Nagar" and when it reached Tilak Nagar it said "Rajouri Garden". Why was the announcement speedier than the train? "The train was built by the Japanese and the announcement system was designed by the Bishmapitamaha of Metro, E. Sreedharan. He is speedier than even the Metro," commented a wag.

After four or five stations, the snag was sorted out and the announcements began to match the stoppages. In times of emergency, it is possible for the passengers to speak to the driver through a public address system in the compartments, which are all vestibuled.

Soon the train was full, making it difficult for me to take photographs. A young couple courting each other, unmindful of the prying eyes on them, was occupying the seats earmarked for "senior citizens and physically challenged persons". Neither the lovers nor the graying, bearded senior citizen clutching the overhead spring handle in close proximity seemed to have seen the notice in both English and Hindi.

For most passengers it was a day of outing. Many of them travelled with their whole families. Yet, getting out or into the train posed no problem. The doors are wide, so a number of passengers can use them at a time. Once the train stops at a station, it takes five seconds to open the doors and another five to close them. In between, passengers get 20 seconds to get in or get out.

The train had passed Karol Bagh. Suddenly, I was face to face with the huge Hanuman statue at the intersection of Pusa Road and Link Road. Having lived on Pusa Road for nearly four years, I remembered looking up at the monkey God every time I passed by. I could now look into His eyes. What a change, the Metro had brought me up to Hanuman’s level!

It was a little over 30 minutes when we reached the underground Rajiv Chowk and walked out to find that the driver who dropped me at Dwarka More had still not reached Connaught Place, though it was a Sunday with lesser traffic.

"To experience the fullness of Metro, you should travel on the Yellow Line which connects Central Secretariat with Delhi University which is fully underground". My neighbour at Dwarka, who waits for the completion of the Dwarka line before he commutes daily by train, had advised me.

At Rajiv Chowk station, there are different layers of lines, all underground. For the uninitiated, it can be a breathtaking experience using the escalators to go down to the lowest platform to catch a train on the Yellow Line. Security was tougher at Rajiv Chowk. Suddenly, the policeman noticed the camera dangling from my shoulder.

"Do you know that photography is prohibited on the Metro network? There are hidden cameras everywhere and if you click, you will be caught. Cameras to catch cameras. The minimum fine is Rs 1,000. They will also destroy the film", the policeman cautioned me.

How could I tell him that I had already taken enough photographs? If photographs of Sonia Gandhi or Sheila Dikshit taking a ride in the Metro can be taken, why can’t I take pictures of my wife doing the same?

But when it comes to dealing with policemen, it is better not to be argumentative. As advised, I put the camera back in the bag.

The Yellow Line connects Rajiv Chowk with New Delhi station, Chawri Bazar, Kashmere Gate and Delhi University. There were few passengers when we boarded the train. A child was so happy that he was going round and round holding the vertical bar. "Chakkar aajayega", shouted his mother.

He did not stop. Instead, he started turning in the opposite direction till he got dizzy and took refuge in his mother’s lap. It was difficult to realise that the train was moving underground as the train and the stations were brightly lit and air-conditioned, too. We got down at Kashmere Gate to catch a train for Rithala on the Red Line.

From the station, we could see the Inter-State Bus Terminus (ISBT). As we bought a ticket for Rithala, the woman at the other counter was calling out for two girls who had just bought tokens and were running towards the platform. She kept knocking on the glass cabin with a coin to draw their attention while the girls could be seen climbing up the escalator. Honesty may be the best policy but it leaves a mark on the glass.

The train for Rithala, which arrived from Shahdra, was overcrowded. The train was spick and span but all the window panes were broken. Was it the result of an agitation? I have no clue.

The person standing next to me was leading a group of relatives on their maiden Metro journey. He had an air of confidence about him. But when the train reached Rohini West where they were to get down, he confidently told them that the right door would open when it was the left door that opened. They should have listened to the announcement rather than to him, I thought.

This is, perhaps, the only line where the passengers get some views of greenery, particularly in the Pitampura area. Soon we were in Rithala. On the return journey, we got seats as the train originated there.

As we travelled in comfort, I remembered how difficult it was to drive to Tiz Hazari in connection with a court case a few years ago. Even more difficult was finding a place to park.

The novelty had worn off and we were keen to return to Rajiv Chowk. After another change of line at Kashmere Gate, we were soon back at Connaught Place where the driver was waiting for us. I checked the watch. It took us just two hours to cover most of the Delhi Metro. In contrast, there were days when it took hours to reach Connaught Place from Dwarka.

The Metro is the best thing that could have happened to Delhi. Having travelled on such systems in Washington, London, Paris, New York and Kolkata, I am greatly impressed by what Sreedharan and his team have accomplished. If the Metro is a dream come true for Delhi, the journey on Sunday was a dream come true for me.