The Tale of Two Cities

My flights to Delhi are usually in the evening (after a day’s work) and by the time I land and am in a cab to my destination, I am typically swearing away, cursing myself for making the same mistake again. “Why do you do this to yourself?” I ask, “Didn’t you promise yourself to land during the day or early evening?” Around me, Delhi is by 9pm a ghost town. The taxi driver is typically an illiterate smart-ass with zilch humility. He does not know his way to the most popular places though he claims to be driving for 11 years in the same city! He keeps calling Defence Colony “Difference Colony” till you give up correcting him (and no, he doesn’t shut up even after that). He swerves dangerously and cruises at speeds unheard of on Indian roads through the empty Delhi streets. But wait, your ordeal is not over yet! Because once you reach “Difference” Colony, after multiple phone calls to friends and colleagues and keeping your eyes fixed on any sign that pops up along the way, there are blocks, sectors, stages, round markets that you keep circling for 30 minutes because there is not a soul to ask, and when you find a few drunk men lounging around, all they can tell you is – “pataa nahin” (don’t know). Coming from Bombay (yes, again, I will call it Bombay. Please leave me alone!), this is almost unrealistic. When I fly back to Bombay, I ask for the latest flight of the day so I can complete all my work without rushing. I know when I land at midnight, the city will be as bustling with people, cars, vendors and shops as Cairo is on the eve of Eid. Yes, that’s true. Every day is Eid in Bombay, and every night is national mourning in Delhi. That is how far apart these two jewels of India are. They are not two different cities, they are two different worlds.

In Bombay, your worst-case taxi driver is the guy who drops hints that you should pay him Rs.50 extra for off-loading your saamaan. In Delhi, your best-case taxi driver is the guy who takes you on a ride of the city while you hide your laptop, phone and ipod into the deepest pockets of your backpack. In Delhi, I wake up on a Saturday morning at 11am to my host pleading with his plumber on the phone to PLEASE come repair the pipe in the bathroom. In Bombay, I wake up at 8am on a Sunday morning to my doorbell ringing incessantly and find my domestic helper, plumber, carpenter, presswaala waiting to do business and move on to earning more bucks. In Delhi, your best-case landlord is one who fights with you at the time of leaving the apartment for not returning a pair of scissors you borrowed six months ago. In Bombay, your worst-case landlord is one who turns up once in six months, and only when your rental cheque has bounced. In Bombay, your worst-case co-passenger does not follow the queue at the pre-paid taxi stand and hovers around you while you make your payment. In Delhi, your best-case co-passenger knocks you down when he spots his suitcase a mile away on the conveyor belt. What is it about Delhi that makes its people so naturally aggressive that even the most suave diplomat shows his rustic inner self? What is it about Bombay that makes its people so tolerant that even an uneducated auto-driver shares with you how he is struggling to pay the school fees of his children with tears in his eyes? The story goes that when a migrant worker (from wherever in India) lands in Delhi, he is constantly cheated and robbed until he is smart enough to survive, while the same migrant worker in Bombay is hosted by friends in their less-than-modest homes and served food by colleagues in the slums before he learns to survive. Interesting, isn’t it?

But then, what is it about Delhi then that every time I leave the city to come back to Bombay, instead of heaving a sigh of relief, I let out a gasp of sadness? That is because I know I’m leaving the most beautiful city of the country to go to the ugliest; I’m leaving the tree-lined margs and diving head-deep into a shit-hole; I’m trading the smells of guavas and tea leaves and mughlai chicken for the smells of smoke and dust and dirt; I’m leaving a city that has history at every corner and crossroads to go to one that is homogenously brown and dilapidated and on the verge of collapse (spare me the Victorian architecture of VT, I think we’re done with it for a lifetime).

My friend Dev once said – Bombay air smells of filth. It does! You smell it the moment you walk out into the city. You smell it on a relaxed Sunday evening while shopping in the upmarket locality of Bandra. You smell it just outside the posh Infinity mall. One evening in Delhi, my friend Rajshree-didi and I bought a box of baklavas from the Defence Colony bakery and sat in the nearby park to savor them. We couldn’t stop talking about how quaint the market and the park and the neighborhood were: individual bungalows, trees all over, people out on walks, young couples dressed in their best winter clothes, their beautifully sharp Punjabi features causing heads to turn from all around. And as if all this was not enough, Delhi sprung another pleasant surprise on us! The fountains in the park went off, and Rajshree-didi and I had to keep our sides from aching as we laughed at how a “park” in the poshest Bombay locality would mean a stretch of tired green you could walk in under 10 minutes. Funnily, when we came back to Bombay and told this story to a quintessential Bombay’ite, she remarked unperturbed – “are you sure those weren’t sprinklers?”. The idea of fountains in an urban park was too much for her to fathom, I suppose!

Both Delhi’ites and Bombay’ites will swear by their street food. When still new to Bombay, I eagerly went up to a roadside stall to try the famous vadaa pau. After much jostling and screaming and throwing my money in the guy’s face (just to make him notice me, I promise, and also because that is what everyone else was doing), the guy picked up two pieces of bread, shoved two miniscule vadaas between them, dipped his hands wrist-deep in two sauces and threw the vadaa-pau at me in projectile motion. It did taste good, but only as good as food can taste when you’ve punched 5 people, elbowed a few others, screamed yourself hoarse and hurt your feet for it. Just outside Chandni Chowk Metro Station in Delhi, I decided to try the rabri falooda. Having lived in Bombay for a few months then, I kept peeping over the counter to see why the guy was taking so long (clearly, I was looking for another projectile coming my way). Well, his annoyed look told me, I’m still preparing it. You want good food, you wait mister! So I waited while he mixed, added pistachios and almonds, gave me a little to taste and tell him if I needed a little more of anything, and finally, with a royal gesture, handed me the falooda. I still haven’t forgotten how good it tasted!

When I say Delhi has history at every corner and crossroad, I’m not exaggerating. It’s no mean feat to pull off a Humayun’s Tomb, Mirza Ghalib’s house, Nizamudin’s dargah – all reminiscent of Delhi’s rich heritage, within walking distance of each other. Nor does it happen in any other city that you can walk down by the national Parliament, past the Prime Minister’s office, right into the vast Mughal Gardens which is basically the backyard of the President’s Palace! Maybe an obvious extension of this is the culture that Delhi still breeds in its bosom. Walk into Nehru Park in Chanakyapuri on a spring weekend and watch for free one of the many celebrated Indian classical maestros performing! Wander around Connaught Place and catch the most fascinating art and photography exhibitions. Amble into Habitat Centre and right there in the amphitheater is an unknown singer whose chaitis, thumris and drupads sound so awesome that even foreigners are swooning away. A free concert by the best Odissi dancer of the country on a random Tuesday evening in Kamani auditorium. In Bombay, I’d have to pay thousands to watch these people perform, if they do, that is. But let me not make it sound like Bombay does not breed culture! The theater scene is always hot – like the weather of the city. The best actors of the country do justice to their creative juices and leave their legacies behind on the stages of Prithvi Theater and NCPA.

You are probably really confused by now, aren’t you? I haven’t been able to make a case in favor of any of these cities, and I don’t intend to. I love them both for what they are. I love Bombay for its easy-going convenience and filth. I love Delhi for its rich culture and high-handedness. I love the down-to-earth crowds of Bombay and the full-of-themselves people of Delhi. I love the endless sea in Bombay and the endless monuments of Delhi. No other city in this mammoth country of mine has as much character and covers as much range than these two do. They are the two women every man loves, and doesn’t know whom to love more. While Delhi is the cultured lady of the house, clad in her silk saris and gold jewelry, soft-spoken and appearing in front of only important guests yet very subtly wielding power over family business and politics, Bombay is the prostitute on the street, loud and outspoken, unapologetic of her lust for money, dressed in cheap fabric and tawdry trinkets, spitting out her paan as she suggestively tucks bucks away in her blouse. And just like a man needs both these women to make him feel complete, so does India need both these cities to be what it is.

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7 thoughts on “The Tale of Two Cities

  1. Dev says:

    I like the ending bits more, did not really like the beginning, it starts with too negative note. Overall nice read.

  2. TJ says:

    So true. When I’m in Delhi, I’m fighting to balance the frustration of dealing with the people with the enjoyment of the place. When I’m in Mumbai, I’m fighting to balance the frustration of dealing with the place with the enjoyment of the people! That the frustrating people are attractive and the enjoyable ones are ugly just amplifies this phenomenon 🙂

  3. Aditi says:

    Appreciate the way you’ve juggled between the imageries and experiences of the two cities. But I don’t quite agree with your last analogy of Mumbai being like the prostitute. Inspite of the city’s pace, mad-rush for survival, filth and congestion, the city boasts of discipline and honesty which is totally amiss in the cultured lady-like Delhi. Mumbai is a different league….Delhi’s momuments, swanky roads and free classical concerts appear vain against a city that is so real.

    • santanu says:

      :-). maybe I didn’t explain myself. the cultured lady is dark and conniving when she runs her business from behind the scenes. and who says a prostitute is not disciplined and responsible? complex shades!

  4. ratna bhattacharya says:

    well-written.every city has its own will be Dhrupad,not Drupad which is a form of Indian classiccal
    music.Delhi is full of monuments which attracts prople.

  5. Shrutika says: sure came across strong..I agree with Aditi on the last paragraph :).
    Well I don’t think you have been to the Kalaghoda Festival. It is awesome. So artsy and there are a lot of street plays and renditions. Also,such events are organized at Carter Road promenade every few months. Well written though. Have a nice day!

    ps. If there is a comparison note being written about Mumbai/Delhi,one must not leave out Safety for Women. Mumbai will definitely score there 😛

    • santanu says:

      haha thanks for reading. well i did know that the “prostitute” comparison is going to bring forth some reactions. but it is from the assumption that prostitutes have no culture, discipline, sense of responsibility, self-respect. these are all variables from one person to another. the only constant in her character is the fact that she is unapologetic for what she does and makes no pretense to hide, exactly like Bombay, which is so comfortable in what it is and does not hesitate to present its grimy underbelly to the outside world, but is still so endearing that people fall in love with it and live on for entire lifetimes.

      safety of women – i thought that was implied when i spoke about Delhi as a ghost town with a bunch of drunkards louting around 🙂

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