Quiet City Breaks: Find Your Spot of Calm in Urban India

Perfect solitude in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata.  
Dalhousie Square Kolkata
The thrust of city life is keenly felt at Kolkata’s Dalhousie Square. Photo: Bhaswaran Bhattacharya

Most of us secretly hope to travel to a place without mental clutter, where stillness replaces the noise of the city. We can find quiet zones in different ways. For some, it is the absence of sound, the silencing of car horns and human voices. For others, it is to be found in the anonymity of the crowd that throngs a market place. For those who cannot leave the city, we suggest places to travel to within the four metros in order to find a spot of quietude.

Kolkata/Calcutta

Looking for a quiet place in Calcutta is like looking for bhel puri in Berlin—right thing, wrong place. I guess a lot of people conjure up the idea of silence with an image of pastoral landscapes—valleys, mountains or forests. I am more a seeker of urban quiet. Where silence is not a given but has to be carved from the general din.

Often walking in the by-lanes of north Calcutta puts one in a magical, trance-like state. The hushed sound of the radio coming from hidden inner courtyards seems to amplify this sense of disquiet.

I like looking for silence in places where they don’t seem to exist. I find myself drawn to abandoned industrial landscapes, shrinking towns and off-season beaches.

These places bear the feeling that the circus has just left and the action is elsewhere. My work derives from the inner workings and the chaos of everyday life, whether it is Calcutta or São Paulo. Even late evenings, walking in the Fort area of Bombay can give one a very deep and satisfying sense of silence.

This is why I love going to Dalhousie Square, the office district of Calcutta. But I like going there well after office hours. The pavements feel warm from the footsteps that have beaten them all day. The atmosphere bears a faint trace of the day—the hectic activity of the traders, brokers and clerks. The air is heavy with the remains of scattered hopes and shattered dreams, even after the last tram carries the last passengers home. An eerie calm settles over the place, it feels dangerous.

Gradually, I see the night creatures coming out of their dark corners—prostitutes, touts, dealers, watchmen, night shifters—I feel a strange communion with fellow night crawlers. I hear a sound, a happy sound of some drunken office-goers who stayed late to have a drink-up with their cronies in a Chinese resto-bar. Then silence—a very pure, crystalline form of silence, even better quality than can be found in the British Library.

It is then that the city transforms into anything that I want it to be. Sometimes I have sat in the abandoned tram depot and listened to the quietness of Esplanade, and felt the thrill of my surroundings. I stay there till it gets creepy.

My parents live in a quiet suburb of Calcutta, where every ritual is aimed towards peace of mind. I enjoy that too. As I grow older I feel that I find it more and more difficult to deal with the main city. I live in a very quiet neighborhood in West Berlin and mostly, I like it, but sometimes the dull silence brings out the beast in me.

Sarnath Bannerjee, graphic novelist

Other spots for a quiet time: The Maidan; the area around Rabindra Sarovar (Dhakuria Lake) including the Japanese Buddhist Temple; Sector V, an IT hub in Salt Lake City which transforms once offices close; the unused Park Street.


 

Mumbai/Bombay

Sewri Fort Mumbai

Sewri Fort, Mumbai. Photo: Ashima Narain

Mumbaikars love to boast that they live in a city of superlatives. Everything here is bolder, bigger and brasher. So it’s no surprise that even in the matter of sound, Mumbai roars along on the crest of the wave. The police claim that the city’s traffic noise levels are the third-highest in the world: standing on a busy Mumbai street is like being 15 feet away from a freight train hurtling by a station, experts say. Even mirth can be dangerously raucous in Mumbai, so dangerous that the High Court had to order members of a laughter yoga club in the Kurla neighbourhood to pipe down after a resident complained that their full-throated chortling was causing “mental agony, pain and public nuisance”.

Quiet, of course, is as rare as an empty seat on the Virar fast at rush hour. No matter where you go, the cacophony of car horns is never out of ear-shot. Never, it would seem, except at the very edge of the island-city, atop the low hill housing the Sewri Fort. Situated on a desolate stretch of dockland on the city’s eastern coast, the recently renovated fort is a sound-proof shell amidst the madness of the metropolis.

Kanheri Caves Sanjay Gandhi National Park Mumbai

Kanheri Caves at Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai. Photo: Nickolay Stanev/Shutterstock

It wasn’t always like this. In 1710, when Britisher John Burnell visited, the fort was manned by eight sepoys and equipped with four noisy brass guns “fixt with swivels” and “eight ounce shot”. Still, Burnell was impressed by views from the fort, which started life as a guardhouse in 1682 but had been expanded to include a large gateway, round bulwarks and solid ramparts. The panorama that Burnell described included “the Island of Elephants”, as he knew Elephanta, and “Mowl” or modern-day Mahul. The “charming grove of coconut trees” that flourished at the foot of the hill in the sailor’s time has long been replaced by a housing colony, but the prospect on the seaward side has only got more spectacular.

Over the last 15 years or so, the Sewri mudflats have become the preferred winter home of tens of thousands of flamingos. They arrive around October and, a few weeks later, the view from the fort is a patchwork of pink and angry orange. Visitors see the surreal spectacle of rosy-coloured lesser flamingos bobbing along the bay against the backdrop of the glowing industrial flares of petrochemical factories. Adding to the phantasmagoric scenery is the soundtrack—or rather, the absence of one. There are no automobile claxons here, no festive loudspeakers, no clamorous laughter yoga practitioners. Inside the Sewri Fort, Maximum City is on mute.

Naresh Fernandes, author and Editor, Scroll.in.

Other spots for a quiet time: Banganga tank at sunrise; Afghan Church when no service is on; Kanheri Caves (the highest ones) at Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Borivali; Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Kala Ghoda in the afternoon.


 

Bengaluru/Bangalore

NGMA Banglore

NGMA grounds, Bengaluru. Photo: Sowmya HS/letteredfeelings.blogspot.com

The Someshwara Temple is tucked away in a side-street in the heart of Ulsoor, an area overrun with shrines and places of worship of different faiths. It’s hard to find, unless you know what you’re looking for—the temple looks like any other one from the street, with a gopuram painted in bright, florid colours and a water tank that has turned into a communal waste-dump. But this temple renders in stone and concrete, the layers and shifts in Bangalore’s history—the main structure, with its sinuous carvings and sculptures, dates back to the Chola Period. The gopuram is of a more recent vintage—supposedly built by Bangalore’s founder, Kempe Gowda I. The Hoysalas, too, have left their mark on this structure. Even now, the temple is being added to.

I first came across the Someshwara Temple during the week leading up to poo pallaki, the festival of flowers. On the penultimate night of the festival, the gods of various temples of the Ulsoor area are brought out in chariots festooned with jasmine strands wrought in creative, fantastic shapes. There are jasmine garudas with wings spread aloft, chandeliers of jasmine, jasmine nimbuses sprouting like halos behind sumptuously-dressed idols. Crowds dance wildly, as the temple chariots parade through the narrow streets of Ulsoor, to celebrate the marriage of Lord Someshwara with his wife Kamakshamma.

In the days leading up to the poo pallaki, each of the numerous temples in the Ulsoor area are sites of frenzied garland making. It was on such a day, three years back that I first stepped into the courtyard of the Someshwara temple. After the heat, dust and traffic of Bangalore, the temple was an oasis of quiet. Elderly women, basking in the mid-morning sun, were stitching strands of jasmine and dexterously twisting these strands together, in restful, companionable silence. Just as I sat down, next to an old woman—the call to prayer burst forth from a neighboring mosque, whose minaret overlooks the temple courtyard. As the imam’s voice, swelling with the wind, lilting and soaring, filled the courtyard—the grandmother next to me looked up from the strands of jasmine in her lap, lifting her face to the sound. And she smiled.

Whenever I visit this temple, I remember that smile. It’s that moment, and the temple itself, with its varied architectural styles, that seems to me to string together, harmoniously, histories and communities, and holds the promise for all kinds of peace.

Samhita Arni, Bangalore-based writer and author.

Other spots for a quiet time: Cubbon Park and the Public Library; the grounds around the NGMA; the IAS campus that has recently banned cars; and Puttenhalli Lake.


 

Delhi

Begumpur Masjid Dlehi

Begumpur Masjid, Delhi. Photo: Akshay Mahajan

In the heavy monsoon that drenched Delhi last year, the Begumpur Masjid’s stone courtyard filled with rainwater. It was like a looking-glass in a cupped hand, and the gate of the mosque, its arches, and the sky were twinned above and below. It was the most that the mosque had held in a while—still nothing but an illusion.

The path to the masjid is a special passage, a sort of departure from the city. First you cross the housing colony of Sarvapriya Vihar, on streets lined with expensive cars; then you cross the urban village of Begumpur, through gallis blocked by horse-drawn vegetable carts. Then you step around a corner, through a metal gate, and ascend the stairs to where there is nothing but a huge courtyard. The courtyard—nearly a hundred metres on each side—lies open, quiet, filled only with breeze. The place holds a century-deep breath of silence, which seems to deter both locals and travellers from stepping in. Kids fly kites sometimes, or thwack around a tennis ball, but there are no prayers, no plaques.

Humayun's Tomb Delhi

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi. Photo: Anne Rippy/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images

Narrow staircases burrow into the masjid walls, and you can climb to the top of the prayer gate at the far end. Below, the square of sun-hot stone might be the largest empty area in Delhi—truly empty, without any purpose or proprietorship. Beyond, the view over the low, jagged city gives you horizontal vertigo. On a clear day, you can see from Rastrapathi Bhavan to the Qutab Minar.

In the fourteenth century, this was the largest mosque in Delhi, and the holy heart of the medieval metropolis Jahanpanah. (Its political counterpart, the Tughlaq palace, squats in ruin next door.) Jahanpanah stretched south as far as Mehrauli, north at least to Siri Fort, and its centre was right here. Every day, the mosque must have held an awesome congregation of the Tughlaq elite. Four hundred years later, that city was gone, and the view from atop the masjid was farms, villages and marshland. Two hundred years after that, the city had returned to besiege Begumpur, and it was called New Delhi. As Jahanpanah must have been, New Delhi is powerful, congested, noisy, urbane and proud. In every respect, it is full: full of people, full of action, full of car horns, full of itself. When you look outward from the top of the prayer gate, its fullness fills the world. Only here, inside the courtyard walls, is it empty. The old city is forgotten, and the new city never entered. Only the long silence between them is held—and sometimes a mirror of rain, inviting you to wonder whether the illusion is what lies below you, or what you see beyond.

Raghu Karnad, former editor, TimeOut Delhi

Other spots for a quiet time: Early morning at the Garden of Five Senses; afternoon at Humayun’s Tomb; a quiet corner of Lodhi Garden on a winter afternoon; early evening at India Habitat Centre (when there’s no event).

Appeared in the August 2012 issue as part of “Quiet Places”.

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