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New Delhi Image Credit: File photo

Of late, apart from COVID, it seems that our newspapers are full of the Central Vista in New Delhi: Plans, opinions judgements, praise, criticism. I read some and skip others because with the pandemic raging, I cannot see myself emerging through the gates of our residential area, much less making a trip to the capital to see the new Central Vista, once it is done, to bear witness to its grandeur/appropriateness/whatever.

Instead I am content to go back in my mind to the mid-1960s when we first went to Delhi: Our initial glimpse of India Gate and the lush lawns along the avenue leading to Rashtrapati Bhavan; the many Republic Day parades we shivered through (in excitement, patriotic fervour and the winter chill); the summer evening picnics as we enjoyed the breeze and chased ice cream vendors, hoping for our favourite flavours at affordable prices.

That area of New Delhi was just a picnic spot for us and the name “Central Vista” meant the Central Vista Officers Mess where my best friend lived. Her army officer father was posted to a non-family station, so she and her mother and her siblings had temporary residence at this mess. Naturally, given its name, it was around this central area, but the significance of the name never established itself in our minds.

For us, the Central Vista accommodation was ideal. It meant that my friend was relatively close to our school and I could sometimes accompany her home for lunch and afternoon play (school timings were from 8am to 1pm), and then Father, whose office was thereabouts, would pick me up and take me home.

Our routine at the Central Vista was more or less set: A gobbled lunch, of which I cannot recall a single dish, and then we would rush out onto the open corridors, and with barely any planning, we would form groups with other kids and engage in a strenuous game of cops and robbers. Naturally, all of us laid claim to being the good guys, but we didn’t spend much time quarrelling over that.

What was more important was for each team to corner every available “weapon”: broken branches, dried bean pods, pebbles, marbles, rubber bands and tightly folded paper that could really sting when launched accurately; and then find cover among the crates and trunks that lined the corridors or climb onto the roof and disappear until everyone else was “shot down”. Sometimes, we spilt out of a side gate into the public spaces near India Gate, never for a moment thinking of the august surroundings, just desperately trying to locate — or avoid — our opponents.

We had no idea that just a stone’s throw away lay the cultural treasures of our country. Why would we give a thought to museums and centres for the arts, where we would certainly have to behave decorously, when we had much more fun running and screaming along these corridors, never getting caught because we were long gone by the time anyone enjoying their afternoon siesta emerged from their rooms to nab us!

In too short a time, my friend and her family emigrated to Australia, and I, heart-broken, convinced that I would never see her again and our friendship had forever ended, never went anywhere near the Central Vista Mess again, despite having a few acquaintances still living there.

Much later, when she did return to India as an adult, I was far away from Delhi and we never got to visit the capital and her old home together. Instead (now culturally inclined), we went to museums and forts in other towns, catching up on history while celebrating a friendship that found its beginnings in our “Central Vista” of New Delhi — and survived and thrived for over half a century without returning to it.

— Cheryl Rao is a writer based in India