A Million Ways To Die In Delhi

What makes the capital a modern-day battleground?

Delhi expects you to tolerate everything, from extreme apathy to aggressive behavior to unsubtle bouts of casteism, racism and sexism. It is as if the negatives are a trait hardwired into the DNA of this megacity.

What makes the quintessential Delhi experience unnerving is the sense of fear in the air, accentuated by the element of high unpredictability and paranoia. You can die in a million unnatural ways here, and the reasons can be mind-numbing:

Teen forced to drink acid for refusing to sell paneer

Father, son shot dead after argument over who sits near the cooler

Seventeen-year-old boy in northeast Delhi shot dead for refusing to give a screwdriver

Youth shot dead after he accidentally knocked over a plate of chicken tikka

Golgappa seller stabbed to death by a group of five men after he refuses to serve them

A 20-year-old youth stabbed to death with a pair of scissors over using a comb at a barber shop

Cricket match turns bloody after fight over pitch, four stabbed

Pilot runs over restaurant manager for scratching his vehicle

Situations that would evoke mild annoyance elsewhere trigger murderous rage in Delhi, literally unleashing the killer instinct in people. Indeed, where would you find people getting killed for asking someone not to smoke or urinate in public or be thrashed for speaking fluent English?

Delhi Rage 2

Police records paint a gruesome picture: Of all murders reported in Delhi, at least 20 percent involve instant provocation. In most cases a motive is simply non-existent. Crime, in a way, has been reduced to the most basic human impulse. Try and write a Delhi-based crime fiction, there would be no layered mystery and no big reveal at the end. Actually, the mystery lies not in the motive but in the impulse driving the crime.

As someone born and brought up in Delhi, I am no stranger to the violence festering just beneath the surface of the city. The closest I ever came to understanding it was in brushes with my own mortality when I played the victim (mostly road rage incidents where I was repeatedly told who someone’s father was) and in fleeting moments when I could almost touch upon the same impulsive rage. Yet, the mystery of this disproportionate rage continues to elude me.

Situations that would evoke mild annoyance elsewhere trigger murderous rage in Delhi

Experts attribute it to Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Frankly, the medico-psychological lingo does not mean much. Yes, the rage is intermittent. Yes, it is explosive in nature. And yes, it is a disorder. But is it an explanation? Hardly.

Some say it is the heat that drives people towards it. If that were the case then Dubai, where the mercury breaches 52 degrees routinely, would report mass murders each summer. Some argue it’s the pressure of over-population, but then Delhi is not the only megacity bursting at the seams. Some academics attribute it to the bitter experience of Partition. But Kolkata also suffered similar pangs of dislocation and violence.

While it is true that all these factors could have a role in shaping human behavior, the case of Delhi is extreme and clearly more nuanced factors are at play. The city easily outstrips all other metropolitans when it comes to sudden and unprovoked violence.

Here, we need to ask a pertinent question: What is it about cities, and Delhi in particular, which seems to push people to kill at the drop of a hat? To find out, we need to delve into the heart of mega-cities and see what drives their cultural, moral and social ethos.

E‘strange’d identities

Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in his seminal work on the nature of contemporary cities, illustrates just how and why they have become like modern-day battlegrounds and what effect that has on the psyche of its inhabitants.

“Cities, and particularly mega-cities like London, are the dustbins into which problems produced by globalization are dumped. They are also laboratories in which the art of living with those problems (though not of resolving them) is experimented with, put to the test, and (hopefully, hopefully…) developed” – Zygmunt Bauman.

Those who've been born and brought up in Delhi are no strangers to the violence festering just beneath the surface of the city

He argues that city is a fluid organism in which global powers and stubbornly local meanings and identities meet, clash, struggle and seek a satisfactory, or just bearable, settlement.

Delhi, a by-product of rapid urbanisation, colonial impregnation and a symbol of globalisation has long acted as a ‘dustbin’. Year on year, the power-capital of India has attracted many towards its heterogeneity and forced many to migrate away from what from what Karl Marx called the ‘idiocy (or isolation) of rural life’.

But, as Bauman pointed out, living in cities was inherently unpredictable and as a result, stressful. The very nature of these spaces, filled as they are with ‘strangers’ – those unpredictable sources of both disquiet and promise – make city living inherently unnerving.

Delhi Rage 3

This unnerving feeling breeds a sense of paranoia that keeps its inhabitants on edge and the city in a constant state of flux. This flux, in turn, puts remarkable pressure on the sense of the self, challenging ones identity.

Such challenges manifest themselves in myriad ways. However, chillingly in Delhi they transform into something sinister – an unexplained impulse that ravages every shred of humanity (towards the victim) and overthrows even the basic need for self-preservation (of the perpetrator).

To delve deeper into this bizarre phenomena, it became imperative to approach someone who has spent the better part of his life decoding the complexities of the human mind. Dr Anup Dhar, professor (Psychology) at Ambedkar University, Delhi was quick to point out the need to reorient the research problematic.

Given that almost all modern day cities imbibe a sense of unnerving paranoia among its inhabitants, the Delhi phenomena can best be explained by the ‘addition route’ – the stupefying unexplained violence is not the result of one but a cauldron of conditions, he said.

“In Delhi’s case, we must take note of the nature of contemporary modernity prevalent in the city, marked by impersonal violence. This breeds a new kind of violence, which I’ll call causeless violence,” Dhar said.

What is it about cities, and Delhi in particular, which seems to push people to kill at the drop of a hat?

He explained how the cases which are now coming to light do not necessarily indicate personal rivalries or familial enmities. In fact, now you do not even need to know the person who is invoking the deepest rage in you before killing him.

Could this impersonal nature of violence then be attributed to the ‘stranger anxiety’ felt in mega-cities?

Dhar makes a pertinent distinction, that to have an idea of an outsider or a stranger, one needs to have a concrete idea of the self. It is precisely this idea of the self which feels challenged in a city like Delhi, which at the same time belongs to everyone and no one. “Conversely, no one belongs to Delhi and no one is an outsider in Delhi,” he added.

Since, the violence is not supported by any entrenched understanding of the self or the other, there is no enemy or a motive. “This, in addition to the power-structures amplified by the North Indian culture, makes Delhi very different from other mega-cities.”

Taboo of sexuality and violence of desire

Instant gratification. Eroding sense of the self. Identities defined by power-structures. When these become the modes of existence a curious rampage occurs, one which morphs into either sexual violence or violent sexualities.

Delhi Rage 4

“The Delhi Rape Case,” explains Dhar, “is an example of this kind of exaggerated violence. Beyond a point, there was no trace of sexual desire in the act. It transitioned into something horribly violent in its extreme disproportionality. It was as if they were just being violent for the sake of being violent. Disproportionate, unexplained, causeless violence.”

In the same vein, the other case which marked the history of Delhi in its extreme violence was the Jessica Lal murder case. The usual sense of entitlement brandished by the kith and kin of those in political power went far and beyond comprehension this time.

It is as if beyond the epidemic of gender-based violence, there is something simmering beneath the surface of those who do not find instant gratification. The challenged sense of the self cannot deal with a refusal as well as the constantly changing notions of the society and it is here that one can see how violence and sexuality converge. “They are intimately connected. We often miss this connection and think that violence is violence, while sexuality is something that is limited to the bedroom. Instead, how we experience our bodies and sexuality, affects how we also express violence.”

How we experience our bodies and sexuality, affects how we also express violence

‘Tinder violence’

Dhar raises an important observation of the present-day modernity where violence has become causeless and sexuality has as if become nameless. “There is ‘stranger sex’ now. You don’t need to know the name of the person to have sex with the person. You don’t need to know the name of the person to kill the person. I would take this as the root cause of contemporary violence,”

“This is the tinder generation. Nameless, faceless, causeless – a very different youth we are creating now. There needs to be more study on this but as of now one could speculate that this would embolden the psyche to express without identity,” he said.

Delhi Rage

During times of heightened conservatism, liberal views on sexuality can act like medicine, he said. “But like any medicine, it will also have its own side effects. Which we never consider when we discuss liberal views – we think liberal views are about great freedom. No, freedom always comes at a great cost and must be understood.”

Thus, an exercise in tracing the roots of causeless violence in Delhi reveals that the problem gets more layered and complex with each step. The reverse-engineered solutions available online, like city-wide anger management programmes, heavy fines for indulging in road rage and increased police presence, sound like stop-gaps when pitted against the depth of the issue at hand.

The only remedy, it seems, is to analyse, understand and accept the many inner complexities we go through, as individuals, when propelled into the fluidity of modern cities. Though a nuanced understanding of the self, we can perhaps stop the alienation of the other. Short of that, one can always use the ever-expanding list of ways to die in Delhi as a ‘don’t-do-it’ survival guide.

All illustrations courtesy Satwick Gade

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