Saturday, November 03, 2007

coincidental cities

'Everybody in Delhi seems to know everyone else.' I hear this often from people in New York when I tell them where I'm from. Among those who've been there, or know expat Dilliwallahs, it's said with a sense of awe. In the stories I'm told, Dilliwallahs meet not randomly, but are drawn to each other like magnets, lines of force that intersect, say on the corner of Bleecker and Sullivan. Then, to the consternation of their non desi friends who happen to be along; they meet like long lost friends (which they are), discover at least ten people they know in common currently in the city, and ....

Well, you know the rest. It probably happens to you in Delhi all the time. I know it happens to me. I've run into a friend at Humayun's Tomb, perched atop a ruined gateway. I've met friends while wandering in aimless circles in CP. In Def Col and Khan Markets, I am virtually assured of meeting people out of my little black book. And as my friend AK says, 'Manhattan is like Khan Market for five hundred blocks.'

It's a little disconcerting how easily the Khan Market janta (me included) fits into rapidly gentrifying Manhattan. Manhattan seems nearer than the back of Khan Market, where other Dilliwallas, other in all the valences of that term, live their lives in slums and shoddy government allotments. For a city of fourteen plus million people, Delhi is a very small place. If you're reading this issue of Time Out, I'll wager you're connected to every other reader by a maximum of say, two degrees of separation. That's how small the English speaking Delhi educated upper to upper-middle class elite is. Is it a wonder then, that it's the same few hundred people who keep meeting each other over and over again in Delhi, and at the same places? At book launches, at bars, in protest marches; occasionally even when slumming it in Nizamuddin or the Old City (but only after the Metro)? No wonder Delhi is the world capital of coincidence, but what is the value of the coincidence if it is not chance, but almost, in a sense, pre-ordained?

New York is a city of eight million, almost half Delhi, but the chances of meeting the same person twice, in just wandering the city, are infinitesimally less. Yes, that makes New York a lonely city, a city of 'missed connections' on Craigslist. But then the value of meeting someone again, on a subway line you wouldn't normally take, for example, feels like a sign from God.

One evening recently I was in Washington Square Park after many months, waiting for a friend, listening to wafting music and conversations being made by hundreds of strangers. Someone called my name, and it was another friend, a Nigerian writer I'd met only a week ago. He had no idea that I'd be there, or that I was meeting S, who we both knew. An evening of two then became and evening of four, and carried on well past midnight, and then into further evenings. At some point I remember saying, happy but disbelieving, 'This is just like being in Delhi.'

Written for
Time Out, Delhi.

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