On 17 February 2008, India’s first amusement park, Appu Ghar, breathed its last. According to a report in The Hindustan Times, the India Trade Promotion Organisation did not renew the lease for the land where it had been standing since 1984. A wing of the Supreme Court is expected to come up on this spot.
Many years ago, during our regular visits to the Capital (to get our dose of this strange and amusing big city), my dad and I would visit the New Delhi railway station and Appu Ghar. I thought of the railway station as a tourist spot, standing patiently on the overhead bridge, watching teeming crowds head off in disparate directions. As for Appu Ghar, I remember the excitement of being perched precariously on a giant ship—inside the park—as it oscillated wildly in a pendulum, or of a journey into the dark chambers of the Bhoot Bangla, where skeletons would suddenly drop down in front of your cart, and fluorescent-coloured monsters would gesticulate at you frantically.
On the last day that Appu Ghar is open to the public, I take the metro to Pragati Maidan, hoping to catch the final few hours in this common man’s Disneyland. I am not a big fan of amusement parks (travelling by New Delhi buses is scary enough). But as I approach the entrance of Appu Ghar this Sunday afternoon, I am transported to a world of vibrant fantasies—as they say, in India, wherever 10 people assemble, there is a spectacle. Tiny bubbles floating out of plastic spouts; candy sellers flashing pink blobs of sugary strands; baanta sellers with their pink and green stacks of straws; chaat wallas; ice cream wallas; and amid all of these, a strange board that sentimentally proclaims in red letters: “We part farewell with tears in our heart and sincerely look forward to entertain you again in the near future.” Newspaper reports say the Supreme Court has given local authorities a deadline of 27 March to respond to the amusement park’s owners’ demand for an alternative piece of land.
I beckon a scrubby middle-aged man, with paan-stained lips and a beedi in his mouth. He has been selling chips outside these gates since 1984, right from the days when urban India woke up to this new phenomenon. Satyanarayan, 46, says he has 10 people to feed in his family, and does not know what he is going to do now. “Maalik gave employment to 1,000 people, and now the government has snatched it,” he says. Lemon-soda seller Mahesh Chand Gupta, 45, is furious. “Why does the Supreme Court want this place only? And why can’t Appu Ghar remain when there’s so much space here,” he says, pointing towards the parking area.
At the ticket counter, I strike up a conversation with one of the ticket sellers. Om Bir Singh, 44, wears the baby elephant, Appu (the park borrowed the mascot of the 1982 Asian Games), proudly on the pocket of his shirt. He says most of the staff at Appu Ghar has been here right from the time Indira Gandhi’s government got this seemingly utopian idea, and hence are in their 40s—and that leaves them with little hope of finding new avenues for employment.
It is obvious from what Singh says that Appu Ghar’s death had been more of a slow degeneration than a sudden closure. For the past three or four years, patronage had been ebbing, losing out to the more upmarket counterparts (Noida’s Worlds of Wonder is part of a 147 acre entertainment hub; Adventure Island in Rohini has a 3.5 acre artificial lagoon). In short, Appu Ghar is a relic in this world. As I continue to chat with some of its oldest workers, a sudden pandemonium breaks out at the entrance. The security guard won’t let anyone in without a wristband. Visitors need to buy this Rs250 band that entitles them to unlimited rides, except the ropeway and go-karting. “What the hell have we paid 20 bucks entry fee for?” yells a frustrated visitor. As I walk in, I notice the change that has ravaged this place over the last 10 years. The concrete metro station has claimed its share of the land, and a Reebok showroom in the park proclaims a “Sale”. In many ways, this change embodies what India has gone through since the time my father and I last sat on the roller coaster—from the pubescent economic naïveté of the mid-1990s to comfortable consumerism. At an open-air dance floor called “Snow Dance” (which now reads “ow dance”), young visitors move wildly to the tunes of the hit song Jhalak Dhikhlaja— mimicking the steps to meticulous perfection. A flurry of white flakes fall over them, while a metro train whizzes by above their heads.
I finally join the queue for one of Appu Ghar’s famous rides, “The Space Orbit”. In 45 minutes (yes, it’s quicker to get a railway reservation), my turn arrives, and I am hoisted to the top of the giant wheel. As it starts spinning, my stomach sinks and legs become weightless, and images of the changing face of the Capital roll by—the metro station, the red carriages of a Rajdhani Express, the dome of the Supreme Court, a DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus depot, and my office building. “Arre, haath andar karo (keep your hands inside the cart),” I hear the operator scream to the bespectacled young man sitting next to me, who can barely stop himself from jumping off in excitement.
On my way to the exit, I meet an old gentleman wearing an elegant jacket and an English cap. “I came yesterday for the first time but couldn’t do all the rides,” he says. “So what have you come for again today?” I ask him. “Bhoot Bangla,” he says.