Somewhere on the ring road, between Rajghat and the Inter State Bus Terminus at Kashmiri Gate, flanking the riverside wall of the Red Fort is the zero milestone. I like to think of this as the unknown fulcrum of Delhi. Often, on my journeys out from Sarai, say into Connaught Place, I cross the zero milestone, mentally marking, "ek tihai safar", one third of my journey, as I rush past it.
Sometimes, the places you rush past in a city hold secrets and shadows that no points of departure or ports of arrival can ever hope to contain. To pause, even unwittingly is to enter their fleeting realm, to become, for a while, citizen zero.
Recently, a sudden pre-monsoon shower that brought moisture seeping into the electricals of my ageing fiat, had me stalled right next to the zero milestone. I pushed the car on to a verge close to the bridge that connects the bastions of the Salimgarh fortress with the eastern wall of the Red Fort, right at the edge of the patch of ground that comes to life as the Yamuna Bazaar on Sundays, and waited, standing under the ridge for the rain to stop so that I could go out in search of an electrician to spark some life into my car.
Huddled under the bridge were the denizens of point zero, some transients like me, (a handful of cyclists and vendors sheltering from the rain) and the more or less permanent residents of shunya nagar, or cipher-bad, - the zero district.
It was to them that I turned to try and understand what life in the fulcrum of my city meant. My companions for the course of that late afternoon shower were a madman, three street kids, a pregnant beggar, a transvestite prostitute, two unsociable smack addicts and a family of dogs.
The hiatus of the rain, and the relief it had brought from weeks of sweltering heat meant that for a while we had all ceased to perform our social functions. I have never had much of a social function; I could just stand aside and be a slightly damp version of myself. But the pregnant beggar was on a break from begging, she sat on the edge of the street and sang odd snatches from film songs - which ranged oddly from 'hai huku hai huku hai hai hai' to the slightly more contemporary "kambakht ishq". She looked twenty, but probably was seventeen, and would sometimes, just waddle into the knot of the three hyperactive street kids (to ensure her own necessary distance from adulthood) only to be splashed with muddy water from the culvert at the side of the road. When ever this happened the transvestite, who was sitting close to the family of dogs in a bright blue nylon sari smoking a 501 beedi would laugh and say "saali fir se puri geeli ho gai" (the bitch is all wet again). Once, in the course of another of her forays into the splashing street kids, he looked at me and said as if it was not obvious, "pet se hai" (she is pregnant), "par nalaayak hai, saali" (but she hasn't grow up). Then in a fit of mock rage, he said to no one in particular, the once ubiquitous slogan against teenage pregnancy - "bacchi ka baccha hona, yeh kaisa insaaf" (a child bearing children, is this
justice?). I wondered if he/she was the expecting father
Across, the madman watched the rain drip impassively. He watched the noisy transvestite make cracks, he watched the furtive smack addicts chase their stuff on silver foil, the kids splash, the woman sing and he watched when one of the puppies from the family of dogs nearly came under a truck. He sat very still, in the shadow, and it took the occasional swathe of passing car headlights (why do people switch their lights on in the day when it rains in Delhi?) to realize that he was naked. His hair had grown into dreadlocks and there were scabs on his knees that he would pick from time to time with long and what could have been beautiful hands. He wore the disturbing serenity of the insane lightly, and quietly. It was only the way in which the whites of his eyes would roll upwards from time to time that you could tell that the engine in his head had gone out of gear.
The unsociable smack addicts were a world away from us, though one of them came up to ask me for a match, and some money. I gave him a coin and I had no matches, he spat and got into a long argument with the transvestite about how matches were precious, especially in the rain, but finally got what he needed. The transvestite, I realized, was the generous centre of this little universe.
Finally when the rain stopped, the clouds thinned to make for a briefly dazzling patch of blue sky over the ramparts of the Red Fort. I went out to look for an electrician and found one in a garage next to the Nigambodh cremation ghat. Walking back to the zero milestone I passed three fresh biers, and groups of businesslike mourners, buying the ritual requirements of death. The garlands on the dead bodies, and the cotton wool on their eyelids were wet with rain. My shoes were damp and muddy, but something in me felt strangely elated, in the middle of wet death, madness, and penury, for having inhabited, however briefly, point zero.
The electrician cut a deal with the transvestite as he fixed my car, and I saw them both walk to a tryst by the riverbank as I drove on into the ring road. The pregnant beggar resumed her business and the madman curled himself into a knot of nakedness, a thickening of the shadow under the bridge. I left point zero behind me and drove through other milestones. I knew now where the city began and where the city ended.