Sunday, April 23, 2006

Kiwis versus Mangoes, or Delhi rocks anyway

K has asked me to write on his continuing theme of comparing Dilli to Bombay, so here goes, even though I’m really not qualified in comparing the two cities – being that I’ve lived in Delhi for nearly eight years, and spent only a grand total of about two weeks in Bombay in all that time. So this would be like sort of like comparing comfort food to exotic cuisine, mangoes to kiwis. So I won’t. I won't compare the cities foodwise at any rate, that's K's (horrendously difficult) job...

(Of course, all of this is from the perspective of the middle class world which I inhabit. Delhi, like Bombay, is increasingly unkind to its lower/working classes.)

Much of the time I have spent in Bombay I have loved (barring that first time, five years ago, when I spent three days of sheer misery hanging out in monsoon flooded Andheri East). Much of that has to do with K, and Café Mondegar, and midnight rambles through the late nineteenth century buildings of Colaba and Fort. Much of that also has to do with a frenetic sleepless week of Bombay in January 2004, World Social Forum, where the days were an endless carnival and the nights were an endless party, in a different bar each night, and with a different set of people… So my Bombay, distilled in memory, is a Bombay of endless nights, of frenetic partying, the performance of ‘having fun’. (Remember that night outside Toto’s, K? The sudden drunken chorus with that other bunch of drunks in singing ‘This will be the day that I die’, and all the autowallahs and taxi drivers clapped?) The Bombay I know is an endlessly performative city, where everyone (and I mean EVERYONE), is always peforming ‘being Mumbaiyya’, from the auto-driver to the vada pav seller to the wannabe film-star. Isn’t Maximum City the most performative book? I think it would have improved drastically as literature if the prose hadn’t been so obsessed with proving Suketu Mehta’s Mumbaiyya credentials.

So Bombay I love to visit, but I don’t think I could live there. It lives too much in singular time. All space in the city is about ‘doing something’ all the time. The space/time of Bombay is colonized by constant productivity. This is reflected in the argot – where there are no benign verbs in the everyday, just an endless action movie. So they’ll won’t ‘give’ you water in a restaurant in Bombay, they’ll hit you with it. ‘Paani do’ versus ‘Paani maaro.’

In Delhi, even the most casual observer will notice the existence, or at least the possibility, of many times. Whether it is the roundabouts of central Delhi where you have government servants taking extended lunch breaks of playing cards right next to the swirling traffic, or whether it is the empty, echoing spaces of the monuments that dot the busiest localities of South Delhi; Delhi is filled with the juxtaposition of many times at once. And the public space to ‘do nothing’ if you so wish. No, I’m not just trying to say that Delhi is full of lazy buggers like me. It is just that all time here is not the constant present.

Of course, the fact that Delhi is at least a thousand years old, and that the ruins of the past abound everywhere is just one reason for this. The other is that the ruins and monuments of Delhi are only among the vast amounts of public space that the city has. Lodi Gardens is just one example that brings together the monuments and public spaces of the city wonderfully – there are far more public spaces. Spaces to do nothing if you wish but ‘hang around’. The lawns around India Gate, The vast Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Nehru Park in Chanakya Puri and its open air concerts, the vast courtyard of the Jama Masjid . Right next to Delhi University stretches the forested Delhi Ridge.

Much of my first years in Delhi were spent in wandering through far flung ruins, and lying down undisturbed for hours in the cool shade of thick domes. Isa Khan’s Tomb was one of my favourite haunts, where I would use my bag as a pillow on hot afternoons, if I was early to meet friends at Nizamuddin Station.

Delhi abounds in space-time – not for metaphorical reasons alone. Including the space to be oneself, perhaps? Delhi does not have one unifying accent/lingo (except, perhaps the distressingly frequent use of the term Behenchod) which can be identified as ‘Dilli-ya’ to coin a distressingly bad term… there are broad accents, Jat, Purabiya, Punjabi, Malayalee… people keep saying that no one feels like they ‘belong’ to Delhi… why do they need to? Delhi gives you the space to not belong, I think, or feel the need to… there is room for disagreement here, and arguement, and conversations.

Delhi is the city of conversations. This is Rana Dasgupta’s point, who moved to Delhi to write his book, and says that he thrives on the conversations this city has to offer. Whether because of the generosity of funding and patronage in the capital city, because of the fact that we three central universities, because of the archives, the embassies, all the infrastructure of a grand capital, in short – Delhi is swarming with academics and writers and other frighteningly erudite intellectual types and other interesting people who have things to say, and no hesitations in saying them. There is no dearth of conversation. But it’s not just among the eggheads. My own wanderings have taken me to different parts of the city, to Jat landowners, to eunuchs, to car part dealers, cinema hall owners, architects, parking attendants, rickshaw-wallahs, guards, Sufis. Everyone loves to talk. And they make the time for you to sit and talk to them. Not perform their selves, but engage with what you have to say. And this is important. Delhi may be only waking up to a Bombay style ‘night life’ now, but that doesn’t mean that in people’s homes till three in the morning, people didn’t talk and think and drink. And dance.

And of course, being the centre of power of north India for easily about seven centuries or so, Delhi abounds in truly beautiful buildings. And truly eccentric ones.
In which other city do people worship a lakh and a quarter djinns?
And live in graveyards?

And the clincher? Dilli has Jangpura. Beat that.

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