There’s a radio advert in Hindi. I don’t remember it perfectly, but it goes something like this:
A young married couple in Delhi are looking to buy their first house, but property prices in the city are rising and the wife is panicking, worried that, unable to afford somewhere respectable, they’ll be forced out to the margins. ‘Nahi! Nahi!’ she cries, as if in a horror film. ‘Don’t make me move to Greater Noida!’ Her husband, however, is a more sensible sort. He reassures her, and tells her he can take out a loan (this is what the advert is ultimately for). Everything will be OK. They won’t have to move to Greater Noida.
I listen to this on the expressway in the back of my mother’s car, sitting behind her driver, Dinesh, on the way to her apartment in Greater Noida.
Greater Noida is an extension of Noida. And Noida (correctly, NOIDA) stands for New Okhla Industrial Development Authority. It lies over the Yamuna River, a few kilometres east of Delhi, in the politically important, hugely populous, and often lawless state of Uttar Pradesh. Noida came into being on 17 April 1976 – forever known as Noida Day – as part of a master plan to shift industry out of the city. But Delhi’s population grew faster than expected and spilled over into Noida. This unplanned, unregulated growth put a severe strain on its infrastructure, so in 1989, to remedy this, Greater Noida was born.
Greater Noida is about thirty kilometres south-east of Noida, along the pristine tarmac of the Greater Noida Expressway. A planned city, it was zoned before anyone moved in. Its roads are abnormally wide; its cabling and piping were laid down first and hidden underground. It had sectors, and all the sectors were named after the Greek alphabet. They were given these incongruous names so as to be as neutral as possible, the ingenious thinking being that when political power inevitably changed hands, the new party wouldn’t replace one loaded set of names for another. An area named after a Dalit hero wouldn’t overnight become the sector named after an ancient Hindu king, as happens elsewhere in the country, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.
For a certain kind of Dilliwala, Greater Noida is a place of exile, as Milton Keynes might be for a certain Londoner. But for others, like my mother, who used to live in a crumbling apartment block in east Delhi – an area of the city that bears the capital’s name but few of its benefits – it holds the promise of the future.
Her children were grown up, and she had no ties to the land – my mother is a widow who lives comfortably enough on the far-sighted investments my father made – so she wanted to leave east Delhi for a nicer environment, preferably one with a swimming pool. Some years ago she discovered she could sell her drab apartment in east Delhi and buy two new luxury twelfth floor apartments in a five-star gated township in Greater Noida. The developer, ATS, was selling flats at a reduced rate before completion in order to stimulate occupancy. She needed two because she also took care of my grandmother, her mother. They needed two because they couldn’t live under the same roof without driving each other insane.
Some parts of Greater Noida already resembled a functioning city. This was not the case in the area in which my mother’s township was being built. Paradiso was in Sector Chi. The first time we went to look at the apartments, in 2010, they were part of a giant construction site, surrounded by a vast sea of fields and dirt. There were to be eighteen towers in the property; maybe half were complete that day. The thirty-two acre complex already had its name, though: ATS Greens Paradiso. Every developer uses evocative names such as this.
I remember bare walls, scaffolding, seeing the grey sky through the skeletal frames, hard hats, cranes, JCBs, labourers, stray dogs, stray children, barbed wire and an incredible number of birds. More than this, I remember the drive out there: the expressway from Noida as it plunged deeper into a desolate space, the highway that had no petrol stations, no dhabas, no people. We passed immense concrete monsters on either side of us, then miles of nothing, a dust storm, some women carrying bricks on their heads, a herd of buffalo. I thought: folly, hubris, private sector isolation. A tractor drove towards us on the wrong side of the road. The road was the only thing that felt real, and it seemed to lead into nothing. Then suddenly, near Paradiso, an oddly gleaming modern bunker-mansion sitting in the middle of everything. This was a farmer’s house.
Greater Noida was something before it was Greater Noida. It was built on farmland that was populated, for the most part, by the pastoral-agricultural Gujjar caste. This fertile, high-yield farmland had to be acquired from the farmers by the GNIDA (Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority, or simply ‘the Authority’) before the city could be built. The all-but-forced acquisition of this land was, and still is, a contentious issue: although many landowners got very rich very quick, others – the landless workers who ploughed the fields, for instance – became unemployed and poor, with no compensation. Even the farmers who got rich had problems. For one, many of them saw the way in which their land was subsequently sold on by the Authority to private developers for immense profit, and the way in which these developers in turn built luxury townships, with individual units whose sales price, when multiplied, made the land value astronomical. They soon came to believe, with justification, that the price they had been paid for their land wasn’t nearly enough.
There was another kind of problem, too: these newly rich farmers, who had previously been so occupied, now found they had nothing to do. They built their mansions and palaces, bought numerous SUVs and threw lavish weddings, but always with the awareness, acute or opaque, that they no longer had their land, they no longer had their work and that, one day, their fortune would end. The issues this provoked could have been tempered had the Authority fulfilled its promise to provide hospitals, schools, training facilities and other such community necessities. But neither the state nor the private developers wanted much to do with the locals once they had their land. The farmers, seen as a volatile, lazy and criminal bunch, weren’t even trusted to work as guards in the new residential complexes – these workers were brought in from outside.
Dinesh, my mother’s driver, is a Gujjar farmer. He was born in Greater Noida when it wasn’t Greater Noida. He lives in Imalyaka, a village about six kilometres south-east of Paradiso. His being a farmer was relayed to me when he began working for my mother, but it made no impression then. I simply thought: how nice, he’s a farmer, working the land, a son of the soil. I didn’t even bother asking why a farmer was employed as a driver. Later on I learned that he was only a farmer in name: his father, the actual farmer, died when he was a teenager, and their land was acquired soon after. He’s never done a day of farming in his life.
Now I ask the question: Why is a wealthy ex-farmer who’s had his land acquired working as a driver? And the answer is: because he’s not wealthy, not exactly. His mother, with rare good sense, put almost all the money from the land sale in the bank and told her sons they had to work. His brother is training to be a cable TV installer, because suddenly their village is full of cable TV.
Dinesh is a good man. He collects my husband and me from the airport and takes us around Delhi every time we visit. He negotiates the city’s notorious parking problems with ease. He memorises shortcuts and predicts traffic jams. He doesn’t use the horn and he doesn’t lose his temper. He’s slightly shy, he talks very softly. He has a sense of the absurd. One can tease a laugh out of him on occasion. It’s hard to know what he really thinks about anything, but once or twice I’ve impressed him, maybe earned his respect. Once: some cops tried to extort money on the highway, claiming, with no evidence, that Dinesh was an illegal taxi service. I dealt with the situation and spoke to the cops in a manner he would not have believed possible. Twice: he drove us to the south Delhi mansion of a very feared, very powerful man, famous in Uttar Pradesh. By association, I gained some of that power.
Dinesh picks us up from the airport when we arrive and drives us from Delhi to Greater Noida. Between Delhi and Noida is the DND Flyway (Delhi–Noida Direct), a 9.2 kilometre, eight-lane ‘world class expressway’ spanning the Yamuna River, curving gently away from the capital into the frontier land. As it does, property billboards begin to appear, towering out of the reeds, saying:
Urbainia. It’s All About You.
Color Homes. The Promise of an Enviable Life.
Lotus Greens. Live the Difference.
ATS Greens Paradiso is no different. Now finished, the guards salute as we enter, the gates sweep aside. Affluent teens wearing baseball caps bounce basketballs, yummy mummies go on power walks, armies of servants assiduously wash expensive cars. There are Indian Americans, British Asians, Korean businessmen from multinational corporations. There are the middle-classes of India, the professionals, the retired people, the widows, the software engineers. There are those looking for refuge from the urban grind. There are pleasant trees and lawns. There is no litter. There is a sense of decorum, an aura of peace.
But recently, things haven’t been panning out so well for Greater Noida. The economy has slowed, development has stalled and crime has noticeably increased. Days before I flew in, there was a gunpoint carjacking at a large, desolate roundabout about one kilometre from the township. It was not the first; there is a carjacking gang on the prowl. For years before this, we have been warned, when returning from weddings late at night, to lock all the jewellery in the boot of the car. This is bandit country. Late at night, Dinesh avoids a certain underpass, where they are known to prey on cars. We take the long route home. And if he finishes driving for us past midnight, Dinesh sleeps over in the servant’s room with Rajesh, my mother’s live-in domestic. It’s too dangerous for him to ride his motorbike the six kilometres to Imalyaka.
An email does the rounds in Paradiso’s intra-community Internet group. Here’s an excerpt:
After the incident around ATS, the same group moved to Eldeco Circle. They followed the same modus operandi. They blocked the Verna car driven by the victim, by suddenly overtaking and stopping in front of Car. They broke the windshield by Base Ball bat and one person pointed agun [sic] on the head of the victim. They took away his mobile, purse and the car. The victim was in sate [sic] of shock but not hurt physically. He filed the FIR today in Police Station when we all were there for a meeting with Police officials.
There are also fears within the complex: Another group email, later in December, reads:
Last night at about 12.50 am, a resident of Paradiso could not park his car in his own parking slot as somebody else’s car was parked there. He tried parking his car elsewhere. However, being a large car he was unable to do so and accidentally banged the car into the boundary wall. Angered, he called the security guard and asked him to name the owner of the car parked in his slot. The car did not have a sticker and as such, the guard expressed his inability to identify the owner. The Resident took out his revolver and put it to the chest of the guard. The petrified guard managed to escape unhurt.
Yet it isn’t always high drama. There’s also a protracted email debate about the timings for use of the tennis courts. It turns heated at one point, quite uncivilised, until sense prevails. There are other trifles: one revolves around the pool, which is closed for the winter far too early, in October, when the sun is still very hot. Residents gaze out at its glassy surface, sweating in the heat, pining for a dip.
People do not much venture beyond the township walls these days, at least on foot. They leave the compound in their cars for their work or their social engagements. Even Rajesh, my mother’s domestic, doesn’t walk outside any more. A year ago he played cricket in the nearby playing field, and went running on the highway for exercise. But one day last year his friend, another domestic, had his mobile phone taken from him in broad daylight by a bunch of goons. He agrees it has become worse recently. All the domestics say so. They say it is known far and wide that wealth resides here, wealth which has no defence.
So Rajesh makes do walking in circles inside the complex. ‘But,’ he says, ‘the residents look at me suspiciously now.’
Greater Noida is a paranoid, fractured land. One senses the residents inside ATS – the vocal, proactive ones at least – trying to build, or just hold onto, their dream. Their emails often end with positive, Obamian ‘Together we can!’ exhortations. They have a lot invested in these walls, which increasingly feel like those built around an island, buffeted by a treacherous sea.
Even the dogs aren’t safe. Tipu Sultan was the eighteenth-century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, but Tipu Sultan is also the name of a resident’s dog. He is a pug, a breed more commonly known in India as ‘the Vodafone Dog’, on account of one being used several years back in the mobile carrier’s nationwide advertising campaign. The increased popularity this engendered led to a spate of dognappings, to order and on spec. Tipu Sultan suffered the indignity of this one evening while his owner’s domestic was walking him outside the complex. Two bike-born miscreants stopped and grabbed his leash and pulled him onto the back of the bike. But by the grace of God or some other power, the criminals fumbled at the decisive moment, and Tipu leapt to freedom.
One evening, not long after this incident, I bumped into Tipu while his owner was walking him around the complex. I was granted an audience, only to be snubbed on approach by his upturned doggy nose.
(As I wrote this, a friend’s beloved pug was dognapped outside her home in Ghaziabad, not far from Noida. After negotiations with a known dognapping gang in the area, they were, thankfully, reunited.)
On this visit I am determined to know more. Not of the inside, whose gossip I pick up easily, but of the world that exists just outside. I decide to explore, to try and get a sense of this place. I decide to explore those places we choose to avoid, outside the guarded gates.
The night we landed in Delhi, Dinesh let slip he had become a father. We didn’t even know his wife was pregnant. I’d said, ‘How’s your wife, Dinesh?’ and he’d replied, ‘She’s had a doll.’ The as yet unnamed girl is now six days old. It’s the perfect excuse to go and poke around. Dinesh turns up one morning soon after, and instead of having him drive us into Delhi, we tell him we’re going to Imalyaka instead, to visit his family. He calmly nods his assent. My mother, ever curious, decides to come too. We put some money in an envelope as a gift and, as we drive out the complex, fretting that we don’t have the correct envelope with the one-rupee coin embedded into it, as tradition dictates. My mother thinks out loud. She says: ‘These things matter to these people.’
To get to Imalyaka, we have to pass through Kasna, a town one kilometre from Paradiso. Kasna is full of dust, half-finished houses of exposed brick and steel poles, loitering men, auto shops, naked bulbs that illuminate faces in the dark, piles of car tyres, veg stalls, chai shops. On the approach road, trucks with Haryana and UP plates are parked either side, forming a canyon, leaving only a small channel of road. As we emerge, rabid dogs ambush the car from the left, fangs exposed. Paradiso recedes on the horizon. We have never been this way before. There is no reason to have come: the service road to the expressway back to Noida and Delhi is in the opposite direction; the malls of Greater Noida are in the opposite direction. No resident of Paradiso has a reason to come this way.
Dinesh says Kasna is full of migrant workers. This is where the domestic staff live, the cleaners, the cooks. The population is transitory, somewhat unaccountable. A police patrol jeep is parked at one corner. On every wall of the road out of Kasna, small-scale property dealers have painted their signs and phone numbers in red and blue:
aakashganga property. jyoti prop. subham ☀ property
After Kasna, the landscape becomes blasted; it has the aspect of fired clay. Driving a short distance, we come upon what looks like a fortress, but as we near, I see guard towers along the perimeter and the tops of modern houses inside, arranged in neat rows, just like a town. Dinesh says it’s the new jail. Luksar Jail, I read later, is relieving the load of the old Dasna Jail in Ghaziabad. Sixty-seven prisoners were transferred in the first week. Over the following weeks, 1,700 more.
Whereas the roads around Paradiso are immaculate, the road to Imalyaka is, at times, barely a road at all. As we rise and fall at a crawl, I’m reminded of nature documentaries where the 4×4 looks like it’s going to topple over. It’s in no one’s interest to fix anything here. It’s easy to see how this can be bandit territory. I look out beyond the small mounds, hoping to catch a glimpse of one. A tractor passes by happily, several men clinging to its side.
Dinesh stops before we enter Imalyaka to show us his family’s few remaining fields. They are more like allotments. One has mustard. The other – still being planted, a worker out there casting seeds around – Dinesh doesn’t know.
On entering the village we’re confronted by a beast of a house with a gleaming white SUV parked outside: big gates, high, ornately decorated walls, rooms built on many levels. This is another farmer’s house.
In the past, one might feel self-conscious entering a village like this in such a nice car. Small children would have come out to stare, wave and bang at the windows, run alongside shouting, as if royalty had arrived. But now our car is run-of-the-mill here; many villagers have far fancier vehicles than ours. So we drive on unnoticed, as Dinesh navigates the right-angled corners of the narrowing lanes with remarkable skill. Finally we reach a kind of alcove, a place to park, and walk the short distance to Dinesh’s home.
His family compound is still a farmyard. Buffalo lie on straw beds, tethered to poles, children run round piles of wood. The houses are unfinished one- or two-storey brick things, with plaster and flat roofs. There are charpoys (rope beds) and cakes of dung to be burnt as fuel. We’re presented with milk fresh from the buffalo, boiled and sugared. My mother, who is suspicious of the hygiene, and I, who detest milk, find excuses not to drink it. My husband, who is of Lincolnshire farming stock, swallows two glasses, to great approval. The women come out to talk; they wear bright, traditional Gujjar clothing as opposed to the men’s dull shirts and trousers. They seem stronger than the men, bolder, more vocal, less inhibited. There’s some discussion among them about whether it would be appropriate to smoke a pipe in our presence. At first we think they’re offering it to us, so we say no. There is a small comedy of errors, but when the matter is cleared, their hookah is prepared. We hand over the envelope. We go and see mother and child, sitting in the dark inside one of the rooms. Outside again, we make small talk. I ask a casual question: ‘How often do you have power cuts?’ They say the power comes on around seven in the evening and goes off at four in the morning. Every day? Yes, every day. Later on, they complain about the jail. It has come up so close to their village, without consent or even consultation, and now the area is ruined.
Everyone says it is the local Gujjars who commit the crimes. Locals who have run out of money. Locals who never had any in the first place. Locals who are jealous of their neighbours. Locals with drug habits. But Dinesh says all the criminals come from outside, from Delhi or from other parts of Uttar Pradesh, hunting the rich people. Naturally he doesn’t want to make his community look bad.
Mr Safal Suri tells us a story. He is at the local market, the one that’s ugly and dirty and haphazard, with blocks of shabby shop buildings and too many cars and a couple of private hospitals nearby that look like giant plastic Nokia phones. There’s also a chemist in the market, which my mother uses. Mr Suri is visiting the same chemist in the night. The area is now deserted. An alcohol shop – metal-grilled so it can’t be robbed – sits next door. There is a chunky SUV parked nearby, a brand-new Scorpio, still without number plates. Four local Gujjars – ‘smart, handsome guys between the ages of 22 and 28’ – are putting cartons and cartons of whisky inside. Evidently they are planning on having a good time. Only, they need more money. Mr Suri eavesdrops on their conversation.
Man 1: You bought the car, you have the money. Where’s the money?
Man 2: We’ll get the money, don’t worry. We’ll just kidnap someone, it’s no big deal.
Man 1: OK, let’s go kidnap someone first, then we’ll get the whisky.
Man 2: No, let’s take the whisky back to the village first, then we’ll kidnap.
Man 1: OK, but where should we do it? Here, in Greater Noida?
Man 2: No! Not here. If people had money, they wouldn’t be staying out here. Let’s go somewhere in South Delhi.
In Delhi, especially south Delhi, even the auto drivers are millionaires. They pile into the SUV and drive away.
Safal Suri is a property dealer. He lives in Paradiso and often advises my mother on matters of real estate. He’s boyish, energetic, slightly tubby beneath a powerful frame, like a rugby player. We meet him in his office on a plot about two kilometres from Paradiso: a miniature version of a colonial bungalow, all red stone and small ornamental turrets, with a high-enough boundary wall to block the view from outside. On account of my husband, and the touches of his accent I’ve picked up, he mistakes me for British. I correct him, tell him I’m Indian, that I lived in east Delhi for many years, but he seems not to register this, so for the first half hour of our meeting he explains India to me. I sit patiently and listen. Eventually the good stuff comes. He has knowledge and gossip coming out of his ears.
He talks about many things: about the $100 billion Delhi–Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) project that’s coming up, which will run through Greater Noida, turning it into a logistics hub. He talks about the impending metro connection, how it was stalled by the previous, and legendarily corrupt, Congress government due to a conflict of private interests, and how it will transform the area completely when it arrives. He talks about the previous Chief Minister of UP, Mayawati, the Dalit leader who hails from these parts, and how she invested heavily, wanting to see the area prosper. He talks of the way in which she would rotate civil service and police postings every six months, not allowing anyone to be posted within three hundred kilometres of their home in order to avoid officers getting their feet under the table and turning into local goons.
He talks of the Yadavs, the father-and-son Samajwadi Party (SP) chiefs who currently rule UP, reportedly diverting funds from the Greater Noida and Noida budgets to their ancestral lands in Eastern UP, shoring up support in their traditional vote banks, looking after their own. It’s spooking investors. He says, ‘Real estate is nothing to do with reality, it’s all about sentiment.’ So everyone is praying for the BJP to come into power in the state elections. Even those who don’t support the BJP.
He talks about the proposed airport in the Yamuna Expressway region, south towards Agra. He talks about Disneyland, of how McKinsey consulted with him about the viability of opening a park here. He talks about the lawlessness of UP. He says that Punjab and Haryana have a law and order problem, but UP hasn’t even matured to that point yet. He jokes: ‘To have a problem, you have to have law and order in the first place.’
But he lauds the potential of Greater Noida, saying that, unlike anywhere else close to Delhi, it has an abundance of land. He reminds me that money will always flow to the place where free land lies in proximity to power.
At one point he brings out a map that he’s had made, and lays it on the table. It shows Greater Noida. All the sectors – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. Sector Chi, where we sit. The more recently developed land was originally designated by Mayawati to be used for industry. She went looking for investment to this end, promising sixty-year leases instead of thirty, alongside other sops. But the financial crash happened (‘America sneezed and the whole world caught a cold’) and the investment interest disappeared. The problem was, the land had already been acquired, loans had already been taken to cover these acquisitions. The government had to do something. So the industrial land was speedily converted to high-density residential and sold to developers. This is where Paradiso comes from. This is the land my mother lives in now, eerie, desolate, intended for industry, beloved of carjackers.
A few days later we drive to Delta sector, one of the first to be developed. It feels like a real suburb here. There are houses with gardens strewn with kids’ toys, and quiet leafy roads.
We are here to visit my late father’s plot, which he won in the lottery when Greater Noida was first announced all those years back. It was to be my parents’ retirement, their investment. It sat vacant for years. Almost vacant: a law was passed whereby 25 per cent of a plot had to be built on, so my mother (my father had died by then) built the most basic of houses, a brick shell. Eventually some landless people began squatting; this is a common occurrence. At first my mother tried to evict them, later it was decided they could stay. Better the devil you know.
We find the address and pull up the car, stand outside and look. A man passing on his bicycle stops to watch us watching. Inside, it’s overgrown with weeds, so much so that I can only just make out the house at the back of the plot. On the boundary wall, the black marble plaque says ‘Kapoor’s’, with an apostrophe of possession. I’ve never been here before, and I’m overcome suddenly. I feel like I’m visiting his grave.
We drive away, past newer houses, tightly packed together, more crowded. These are home to the less prosperous Gujjar farmers. They have charpoys in their concrete yards, and old women lying on them smoking hookahs. At a junction, I ask Dinesh to stop at what appears to be a mall. It has signs for luxury brands skirting the wall outside. There’s another sign that says: be seen in a world class business destination. Half the sign is obscured by shrubbery. I ask Dinesh to drive inside, and he giggles at my ignorance and tells me the mall is closed, it has been for a while. Why? I ask. He shrugs and pulls the face of a schoolboy asked an absurd question. It opens for a while, it closes again, no one knows why. That’s just how it is.
We drive on. I’ve been meaning to look at one of the new ATS projects, in the construction-site stage, named Dolce, as in La Dolce Vita. On the way, Dinesh, who is warming to this bizarre series of drives, begins to talk freely and without prompting. He points out a small cluster of village homes that seem to rise on top of one another, anachronistic among the new roads and planned colonies. He says it’s one of the original villages, which cannot be removed; no matter how much farmland is acquired, the gaons – the villages – must remain. He finds this amusing.
I push him further. I’m curious to know what he makes of the strange names the sectors have been given. He giggles some more and shakes his head, bemused. He thinks they’re silly. So what does he call these places then? He calls them by their names, of course, the names of the villages. And the roads he knows by the fields he used to play in as a boy. So what about Paradiso, what’s that called? That, he says, is Kasna.
A visit to Greater Noida is incomplete without a visit to Jaypee Greens. Jaypee Greens is a city within the city, the jewel in the real-estate crown of the Jaypee Group, a huge conglomerate with business interests everywhere you’d expect: power, cement, expressways, hospitals, hospitality etc. One hits it straight off the expressway from Noida. There’s no escaping it.
In their own words:
Jaypee Greens Greater Noida is a premium 182 Ha golf-centric real estate development with best options of properties in Greater Noida. The project is developed with the objective of integrating homes with golf course, landscaped emerald spaces, resort living and commercial developments . . . Jaypee Greens Greater Noida presents an option to live a life you’ve always cherished for . . . The flats in Greater Noida symbolize the passport to a well earned, tranquil and personally gratifying existence. It is a ‘legacy to be enjoyed from one generation to the next’.
I tell Dinesh that my husband and I are visiting Jaypee Greens today. He nods and starts to drive. But when we reach the general vicinity, the place is so big, so highly secure, with serious barrier gates at strategic points along each of its boundary walls, that it’s hard to know exactly where to go. We feel intimidated by the scale of it. We drive up to one gate, to be immediately sent elsewhere: only cars with passes may enter here.
When we pull up to the correct gate, instead of asking where we need to go, we adopt the dismissively bored attitude of the rich and powerful. The guards check the boot of the car and put the wheeled mirror underneath to make sure we’re not a bomb, then wave us through. We enter a space that feels like something inside a container ship, only with a hotel-style entrance on one side. Dinesh and the car are sent down a ramp to an underground car park. We pass through metal detectors while our bags go through an X-ray machine.
The lobby is casual corporate chic, large and hushed, now decorated for Christmas. Two businessmen sit on a sofa in a far corner, while an official Jaypee man sits at a desk on the other side. An affable, management-school type woman with a winning smile approaches. We make a show of looking around approvingly, as if we’re prospective buyers of something, and tell her we’re here to examine the golf course for my husband’s uncle, an important man and a big golfer. She seems pleased. We ask to see the course. She looks troubled. For that we have to go out and enter at another gate. Ah, so what is here? Here there are two restaurants and a bar. We look at one another, pretending we’re debating whether we have the time to spare. We do. So may we have a bite to eat in the restaurant before moving on? Certainly. We’re shown through to the All Day Dining restaurant, a generic five-star space with many tables, only two of which are occupied.
Though we both declare how agreeable the silence is, we doubt the quality of the food. The menu is continental. It says: ‘Ask your waiter for the soup of the day.’ I ask the waiter. He says: ‘Veg and Non-Veg’. I ask him to be more specific. He looks at me blankly then says he’ll find out. Of the two other tables one is an older English couple who appear to be tourists, maybe attached to a wedding; the other, a couple of young professionals who may or may not be having an affair. Part of the golf course is visible through the plate glass windows. A gaggle of female golfers in white baseball caps, possibly Korean, wander in and out of view. The waiter returns. He says the veg soup is cream of tomato, the non-veg mulligatawny. We order a chicken salad with brown bread. They have no brown bread.
As we pick at the salad, a couple enters, seemingly nouveau riche, possibly Gujjar. All body fat, bright clothes and gold. They sit down, examine the menu for a moment, get up and walk out again.
Afterwards we slip out to catch a glimpse of the golf course, but there’s a buffer zone of gardens and pathways, men watering the flowers, and we feel like we’re going to be stopped at any moment, interrogated, denounced as imposters. We catch sight of the greens. They are placid, the golfers have vanished. Jaypee apartments and towers form the hazy horizon. Directly in front of us a bush has been teased into the shape of a Formula 1 car at pit stop, complete with mechanics changing the tyre. India’s first F1 Track is not far from here. But that’s another story entirely.
Back inside, in a second lobby, a forlorn Christmas tree keeps watch over a cake and bakery stall. A display shelf on the right is bursting with loaves. I go to inspect them. The man behind the counter looks up and says: ‘They’re plastic, madam.’ He shows me the real bread. A wholemeal loaf looks nice, so I buy it. When I cut into it later, it’s dry and not very good.
Before reaching home, we stop outside Paradiso to talk to the old woman who sells vegetables in one of the neglected plots. I’ve been seeing her there every time we come back in the evening. There are many semi-derelict plots surrounding the complex, their ‘25 per cent’ houses offering shelter to the labourers who are building this land. A small community has sprung up here now. In the morning, a barber puts a chair in the earth, ties a mirror to a tree, brings out his razor; a tailor sits at a desk with his old Singer sewing machine, tailoring clothes in the sun. A fire burns in the evening chill.
I ask Dinesh, who has suddenly assumed the manner of a secret service bodyguard, if he knows who these people are. ‘Biharis,’ he sneers dismissively. He sees no value in what they have to say. As soon as I climb out of the car and walk towards the old lady, a group forms, complete with snot-nosed urchin. I ask the woman where she’s from. Is she Bihari? She scoffs at this: she’s not Bihari, she’s from UP. What does she do here? She tells me that in the daytime she works as a labourer, and in the evening she sells vegetables here. Who does she sell veg to? Do the residents of Paradiso buy from her? She shakes her head. ‘The residents of Paradiso don’t buy their vegetables from me. They go to the grocery store in the mall.’ The domestic staff, the people who work in the rich people’s houses, these are the people who buy her vegetables. I ask her where she lives now and she points to the concrete shell behind. Does she know who owns this plot? She shrugs her shoulders.
I buy half a dozen eggs before leaving. As she packs them, I ask her what she thinks of all the crime round here these days. She looks puzzled, thinks about it for a moment, and finally tells me there isn’t any crime. I hand over the money and get in the car. We drive fifty metres to the gate. At home I discover there are five eggs in the bag instead of six.
I tell everyone I meet that I don’t like this place. Still, there’s a frisson of excitement coming back at night from the city in the fog, past the dreaded circle into this no man’s land. Will we be carjacked? Part of me waits for it.
I’m exhausted by Greater Noida, that’s the truth. Exhausted by the unreality of it. By the absence of anything approaching society. By the long stretches of nothingness. By the desiccated, stark, unforgiving luxury.
Then in the daylight, seeing the residents, their children being pushed on their small bikes, the tennis players, the plastic litter-bin frogs, I think: Who am I to judge? They deserve a quiet life, a peaceful one, their utopia, their twenty-four-hour power, swimming pools, gardens, gyms, drivers, maids. They deserve the complexities of their lives that I’ll never be able to touch upon. Only, so does everyone else.
Before we fly back to Goa, I arrange to meet the ATS ‘President of Marketing and Sales Operations’, Mr Sanjeev Kathuria. The ATS office is on the Expressway between Noida and Greater Noida.
When I get there, there’s no record of my appointment. I’m asked to wait. The waiting room has several sofas around a table full of glossy magazines. Mini bottles of good mineral water are available. The office section is cut off by a frosted glass wall that has a keypad secured door. We’re surrounded by smartly dressed people, educated, professional. An inspirational video extols the virtues of ATS on a wall-mounted flat-screen TV. A modern Muslim family from the Gulf, or maybe from the UK, watches us watching them before they are ushered into a sales office. There is no old-fashioned housing-society-style exclusion here. ATS does not discriminate.
A young woman comes through the frosted glass door to tell me a meeting with Mr Kathuria will be difficult today – he’s very busy. If I want to speak to him I’ll have to wait a long time. Things don’t look promising. So I drop a name. I say I am the niece of my uncle’s, who was a very powerful bureaucrat in his time. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘You’re his niece?’ Five minutes later we’re called in.
Mr Kathuria is avuncular; he looks like a college professor, which he was before he became the President of Marketing and Sales Operations for ATS. His face inspires trust, a useful asset in this business. On his whiteboard are the words: ‘The Challenge Is To Be A Good Human Being!!!’
I congratulate him on his work. Along with Jaypee, ATS is the cream of the crop (indeed, when Jaypee conducted an inter-community sports day recently, no other property group but ATS was invited). He acknowledges their success; he’s proud. They’ve gone from 100 crore ($16 million) to 10,000 crore ($1.6 billion) in fifteen years. I tell him the reason my mother went with them was down to their attention to detail, the quality of their finishing and their maintenance. And it’s true; they really take care of their construction. So often in new developments in the country, there’s a lack of care during construction. But ATS buildings are top-notch. ‘We build everything in-house, in a very controlled atmosphere.’ He explains all this with a smile. I like him. I’d probably buy property from him.
I ask what kind of residents they have. Good people. ‘Literate, white-collar people.’ But not the locals? The Gujjars whose land was acquired? ‘No,’ he says, still smiling. ‘The Gujjars don’t go for the high-end communities.’ They build their own houses, or they go and buy in the smaller developments. I don’t bring up the Gujjar farmer Safal Suri, the property dealer, told me about earlier – the one who had bought 230 flats alone in the new ATS property, Pristine. He is probably a statistical anomaly.
What of their plans for the future? He talks about the hundred-acre integrated township in the pipeline, on the Yamuna Expressway; the super-luxury project back towards Noida, starting at five crore ($1 million) per unit, with a different architecture, ‘a different style of living, redefining luxury for the very, very elite’; an entire town parallel to Chandigarh, in Punjab, which alongside residential buildings will have schools, a golf course, hospitals and hotels.
Inevitably, we reach the matter of security. It is a concern, he admits, his voice momentarily losing its sheen. ATS advises residents not to travel outside after dark. (At home, my mother says: ‘They never said this to me when I was looking to buy.’)
‘The problem with Greater Noida,’ he goes on, ‘is that it’s still too lonely. There aren’t enough people yet. People haven’t come because the shift in offices [from other areas] hasn’t happened. But it’s getting better. Infosys has picked up land, Mahindra too.’ And of course, the metro is on its way.
But the biggest change will come when the BJP wins UP. ‘When that happens,’ he says, energised, paraphrasing an IAS officer who recently invested in an ATS property, ‘Noida and Greater Noida will be on a very different tangent. Everything will change.’ Surely ‘if’ and not ‘when’? Is he so certain the BJP will win? He smiles indulgently. He says: ‘UP put Narendra Modi where he is. UP has given a clear mandate already in the general elections.’
On 21 December, the day before we leave for home, another email is posted to the ATS group. It repeats the old familiar note of caution.
Another incident of attempted carjacking reported from more or less same spot with a resident of complex . . . Police informed.
Please avoid outbound travel in night if possible.
After the previously reported incident, a police patrol vehicle had been posted at the roundabout. It remained there for half an hour, from 9 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. While considered a good gesture, it wasn’t enough to satisfy the residents. There were suggestions for further action: surveillance cameras installed; a regular police presence at the crucial isolated spot; private sector patrols in the area; expanding the internal security force. An increase in ATS maintenance fees was regarded by some as a small price to pay for peace of mind, if only a security force could be guaranteed. It was only a matter of implementation. A sobering voice reminded the group that private security had no jurisdiction outside the complex. Nor inside, for that matter.
These are the birth pangs of a new Indian city. A period of flux, of creation; of change and loss. Omelettes and eggs. Life and death. It will settle. The question is, what will be here when it does? As we leave for the airport, the fog so thick we cannot see the car ten metres in front of us, I ask Dinesh what he thinks of it all. He shrugs.
And what of my mother? Would she have moved to Greater Noida, knowing what she knows now? I ask her these questions on the phone a couple of weeks later, standing on the balcony among palm trees in the Goan sun.
After much thought, she says yes, she probably would. She likes her life inside the campus. She has decent neighbours, young friends, an active social life. She gets to swim. She can walk around within the walls at night; in east Delhi she could walk nowhere. Of course law and order is a problem, but then, she says, that’s just one of the pitfalls of life in North India. And she reminds me of my brother’s words when she moved out there. ‘You’re moving to the jungle!’ She knew people who moved to East Delhi in ’84 and they said exactly the same thing: it was a wilderness out there. ‘But people adjust.’ And she has her property. The price has plateaued, it’s true, but everyone knows it will rise again.
Photographs courtesy of Matthew Parker