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18.06.2018

The man who boards at Janakpuri West has two bags: one a black laptop backpack, the other an off-white jhola. He plonks them down, props them against each other, and takes a relieved swig of some virulently orange drink. I squint at the bottle as best I can without being obvious; I'm almost sure it's called “Daiquiri.” Then my view is obscured by a man who sits down right next to me, as if he needs an anchor in the gleaming sea of empty seats. I sit for two minutes, then move to the end of the row.

It is 5.30 on a Monday evening, and I am on the newest stretch of the Delhi Metro. Running from Janakpuri West to Botanical Garden, the Magenta Line is the latest addition to the network inaugurated on Christmas day almost sixteen years ago. I remember how it felt to take the Red Line from Tis Hazari to Shahdara in that last week of 2002: families pooling at the bottom of the escalators, their nervous excitement adding to the festivity, as if the city were prepping for a picnic. Those air-conditioned trains gliding in and out of stations without so much as a whistle were, for many Delhi inhabitants, our first excursion into technological modernity.

The Delhi Metro rider of 2018 is a much more seasoned creature: edging past others to get into lifts where there are no escalators, alert to which side the train doors will open, perfectly comfortable telling an errant male rider to leave the women's compartment. Technological sophistication has reached new levels. The new line connects to IGI Terminal 1, making it a much cheaper way to catch a domestic flight than the underused and overpriced Airport Express Line, which takes Rs 60 from New Delhi Railway Station to T3. The speed at which we whoosh out of the long tunnel between Palam and Sadar Bazaar Cantonment makes a Mahipalpur bus on the road below look like it's dawdling. I must confess to a momentary anxiety: the Magenta line is, after all, driverless. No one else seems concerned in the slightest.

Yet a new route can still lead to some confusion, and curiosity. A woman in a mismatched churidar-kurta gets on at Kalkaji Mandir, where the Magenta Line connects to the Violet Line via a long covered walkway. As the train crosses Nehru Enclave, something strikes her. She looks up, searching for the familiar band with a blinking light marking where we are. It isn't there. Instead there's a new square screen, on which the current station's name appears and disappears. All very fancy, but much less stable than the printed line map. Finally she turns to the balding man two seats away from her, “Excuse me, yeh Munirka jayegi?” He shakes his head for no. She clucks in some consternation, and stays standing all the way to the next stop.

The Daiquiri drinker, meanwhile, is swaying contentedly to his headphones when he gets a call. He laughs sheepishly into his cellphone: “Maine nayi line li thhi, socha dekhoon kaisi hai. Thhoda aur time lagega, haan...”. He isn't the only one out on a joyride: the North Eastern family from Dabri Mor turns their chubby baby's face up against the glass each time we emerge into the daylight, the view successfully distracting him from trying to chew on his father's wallet.

At Dashrathpuri station, an ad for a pimple-removal cream (Acne to Flawless Face) seemed to presage the five young women of acne-prone age who got on, standing in a little security huddle close to the door, as if they're afraid to miss their stop. At RK Puram, home of mid-level bureaucrats, is another demographically appropriate advertisement. 'Hair Transplant Now Easy On Your Pocket', it reads, above an photograph of a man's head, bald but for the hair spelling out the letters 'EMI'.

The train continues on its way, a microcosm of the city. IIT Delhi (where a controversy is raging about the station being sponsored by the coaching institute FIITJEE) yields some laptop-wielding young men. Before Hauz Khas, two women move to the door as if in unison, their differences of age and style erased as they pat their hair into shape, twins in the Metro looking-glass.

Hauz Khas is the interchange for the Yellow Line, and the train fills up, emptying again by the time we cross Greater Kailash and through the orderly expanse of Jamia: the MA Ansari Auditorium, the Urdu Department. The India Art Fair will finally have its own station: Okhla NSIC.

The industrial wasteland of Okhla gives way to some of Delhi's last surviving open spaces. As we cross what's left of the Yamuna, a fetid smell creeps into the train. Past Kalindi Kunj, the old floodplain is parcelled into neat little vegetable patches. But the green cover is deceptive. The canal runs poison. At Okhla Bird Sanctuary, I look into the haze, trying to spot a single sign of avian life. None. Then a sparrow cheeps, right next to me. It's the ringtone of the man getting out. I stay on the train. You never know - there might be birds at Botanical Garden.

Trisha Gupta is an independent writer and critic. She writes a weekly column on Indian cinema for the Mumbai Mirror, and other pieces on films, books, art, photography and the city for other publications. She blogs at Chhotahazri.

Photo Credit: India Picture Hub On Instagram

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