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Abhimanyu Bishnu

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A tale of two cities

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Great cities are made by great people. Delhi and Mumbai/Bombay are supposedly two of our most prominent cities. In the course of one week, I had the chance to visit both these cities. Having lived in Delhi for nearly four years and now living at Pune, in close proximity to its bigger cousin, Mumbai, I have had a chance to study both these places to some detail.

A few years back, the Outlook magazine had carried an article on how the denizens of these two metropolises supposedly hated each other, and how the rest of India hated both. Partially true, yes, but with the persistent movement of people across these two metropolises (despite the protestations of the Shiv Sena and MNS), the lines have become somewhat blurred. But certain characteristics, however clichéd, remain.

Humming on a Shivneri Volvo, in great mood since it was a Sunday, I reached Mumbai to witness the Kala Ghoda festival. I had been there just a week back for some work, and here I was, back to the metropolis which symbolizes India like no other- riches and poverty existing side by side, like cousins who despise each other, but had to depend on each other all the same.

The entry to Mumbai, through Panvel and Navi Mumbai, is always smooth. And as one passes over the bridge on the Vashi Creek, the mood remains upbeat. One sees a hit of the sea in the distance, the saline winds almost come and caress you, you enjoy the serenity of the creek with migratory birds flying about and the sun shining brightly on the surface of the water . Then , you enter Mankhurd, then Sion, and the scene changes thereafter, from the congestion of Chembur , the crowded madness old Dadar to the dereliction of the inner city passing through Chinchpokhali, where you see crumbing mansions, crowded lanes, stinking vats and wonder what all this hype about the “ city of gold” is all about.

And then you finally reach Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the erstwhile “Victoria Terminus” (the change of nomenclature from VT to CST was nicknamed “the sex-change of the century”).If you ask a bus conductor for a ticket to VT today, he will dutifully inform that the ticket is for CST, his nationalism and pride at work. But if you ask me, I think VT was just fine. Imagine what would have happened if we had renamed “ Victoria Memorial” in Calcutta to “ Rabindranath Tagore Smriti Sthapak ” or “ Vivekananda Smriti Sthapak” , or something equally ludicrous- the results would have been hilarious !

The building itself is a marvel. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and when you look at the external façade, where the Indian tiger meets the British lion, and the walls are a veritable riot of peacocks, monkeys and intrepid British characters who probably ventured into this part of the world, you feel overawed. The amalgamation of European turrets and pillars, Indian arches and domes and the assortment of animal and human figures that adorn the building makes you wonder that this is all about. Probably that is the magic of Bombay- amalgamation.

That magic of cosmopolitanism still remains, despite the persistent attempts to bulldoze residents in the name of “Marathi Manoos.” You have a Banarasi fellow selling excellent paan within stone’s throw of VT- the photograph of the “ Governor saab” who had once visited his corner stall still proudly adorning its walls, you come across the Bengali professional who has lived here for the better part of his life and practically settled down here, you meet a British lady who has lived in Bombay for 40 years and knows no other home today, you come across the Punjabi family which has settled here and has opened a sweet shop somewhere on the busy thoroughfare- the picture of the deceased Sardarji adorned with flowers, and then you meet a Muslim fellow who asserts that Mumbai is actually “ the place to live in.” Bombay still rocks- this melting pot of Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Parsis, Muslims, Jews, Punjabis, Sindhis , South Indians, Bengalis and others, including the expats, is what gives this city its flavour.

The Kala Ghoda festival itself is a revelation. Organized every year in February, this festival is an amazing outpouring of creativity in the form of open air art, live performances, heritage tours, theatre, music, literature, poetry workshops, food and virtually every genre of art and creativity conceivable. This area, “Kala Ghoda” , to the south of VT and just short of the Gateway of India gets its name from the erstwhile statue of British Emperor Edward VII , whose statue, mounted on a black steed ( hence the name Kala Ghoda) was prominently installed in the heart of Bombay in the days of the Bombay Presidency. The statue has since been removed in a fit of nationalistic fervour, but the name still remains. This area, which contains historical heritage buildings, art galleries, boutiques, fine shops, restaurants, parks, libraries and public institutions, is the cultural heart of Bombay/ Mumbai. During this time of the year, the Kala Ghoda area is transformed into a living, breathing hub of public art. The daily urban grind finds expression in amazing art forms. A huge sculpture of a crow, with several smaller ones hovering around its feet, reminds one of “moksha” in Hindu mythology. A “maze” made of Bisleri bottles reminds us that life is, after all, a bhul-bhulaiya. Folk artists gather from across the country, as do talented literary minds. Handicraft stores show off their ware. Culinary expressions find their way here. All the while, the city enjoys just being itself, in the words of the Bombayite, “bindass.”

That is exactly the nature of the Mumbaikar/ Bombayite. Hold up your chin through all your travails and brush it all off. I had asked a business associate from Mumbai about the bomb blasts which happened last year (2011). He passed it off derisively as merely some pre- Diwali “pataka show “.

You wonder whether such resilience lasts. Apparently, it doesn’t. After the terrorist attacks of 2008, the city actually went into a shell for two days, where, for the first time in its living memory, people refused to come out on the roads. The resilient Mumbaikar had had enough.

Floods, bomb blasts, terrorist attacks, riots. The daily grind on the local trains. Astronomical house rents and property prices. Enormous pressure on land, leading to the sprouting of slums left, right and centre. The daily race to reach here, there and everywhere. Entertainment in the form of bhelpuri on a crowded, polluted Chowpatti beach. Filth and garbage everywhere. No other city gives so much to the nation, being the financial capital of the nation as it is, but gets so little in return in the form of a good life for its average citizen. Looking at life in Mumbai, with the crowd always checking the watch and running, one almost feels life is a picnic in other cities.

The blemishes persist. I am reminded of my trip here six years back, when I had come to visit a relative, and the sordid living conditions of the city, with its one-room flats rented out at exorbitant rates, had horrified me. As one goes around from place to place and comes across endless tenements and slums, sometimes perched on hillocks as one sees near Ghatkopar. Indeed, as aircrafts land at the airport, one is greeted by the not-so- wholesome spectacle of row upon row of slums, arguably not a very welcoming entry into the city. One prominent author had commented o arriving at Bombay that the city smelt as if a baby’s diaper had been flung into one’s face, not a very charitable comment indeed.

However, in spite of everything, one has to give these people the credit of being professional, courteous and helpful to the fullest extent possible. No haggling on autos or taxis – they go strictly by the meter. Even in the long serpentine lines for the local train tickets, there is a sense of some discipline. People are helpful with directions. You meet awesomely talented and culture- conscious people. And the theatre, art and culture scene rocks.

That is exactly where Mumbai scores- on the people factor. No matter how harried, stressed-out the people are, they maintain their decency, and enjoy life to the fullest extent possible in the way only they can. And so you have the spectacular Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, outpourings of creativity like the Kala Ghoda festival, concerts and shows around the year. This is the city of Bollywood, with its constant regurgitation of commercial, not-so-commercial and at times utterly nonsensical films. Along with being the financial capital of India, the city also has also garnered a fair share of the cultural activity in the country.

The best part of this cultural activity is that it is amazingly cosmopolitan. And so, on a balmy evening during the Kala Ghoda festival , at the lawns of the David Sassoon library, itself a cultural icon in the city, I listen to a presenter narrating the growth of the jazz movement in the city, through American “ cultural exchanges in the 1950s and 60s. “ This is precisely the city where Western bands make their first stop during India, yet it has also hosted Pandit Ravi Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan and virtually every Indian artist possible. This is the city where Rudyard Kipling was born, as were Salman Rushdie and Nissim Ezekiel. Bombay is nothing if not a pot-pourri where everything fits, from the sublime to the blasé’.

Later in the week, I catch a plane for Delhi, from Pune. It is a retracing of the journey I had made more than a year back, when I had relocated from Delhi in 2010. I feel a bit sentimental, it having been quite sometime since I had been to the city where I have spent the better part of my professional life.

The flight lands at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, and the cabin attendant dutifully announces that it is 4 degrees Celsius outside. A gasp goes around the plane, many of those who have not been to Delhi before simply not comprehending it. It seems like déjà vu to me. But even as I get down, the chill, even at nine in the morning, hits me, like a blast from the arctic. Dillli ki Sardi!

I collect my baggage. A co-passenger chats with me good-naturedly and gives me his business card. He runs a restaurant in Pune, but from his card, seems North Indian. Probably back for his yearly homecoming.

I take a pre-paid taxi coupon (such mercies exist and actually function in Delhi, unlike many other places), come out of the spanking clean and efficient arrival terminal, and board the taxi. Familiar sights and sounds assail me, and it feels good……so far. As the taxi moves out on the highway, moving towards Mahipalpur, I see an argument on the streets, with a man shouting furiously at a driver over some traffic issue, and the latter dutifully responding in a similarly belligerent fashion. It almost seems they will come to blows with each other, but the taxi moves on and I have no chance to see the rest of the raucous encounter. Déjà vu! That’s when I feel, “Welcome to Delhi.”

At the time of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the Delhi government had invited suggestions on how to make Delhi a more welcoming and enticing place for the tourists who would supposedly come (most of whom never turned up eventually). The suggestion that had caught my imagination the most was – “Put Delhiites on flights and trains out of Delhi for the duration of the Games. It will be a better place.”

Shocking, but true. Whether it is North Indian bravado/machismo , effects of extreme weather, a bloated sense of importance at being the capital of India, high testosterone levels or whatever, one doesn’t know, but Delhi is truly the land of “howl and brawl”. Nothing of much importance gets done if you don’t shout or at least speak rudely, at times with the choicest expletives. Once you live here for some time, it gets into you and transforms you from a normal human being to a hormone- charged raging bull, what they probably call “macho.” An ex-colleague had postulated that it was the long history of invasion and plunder, with the power situation changing hands regularly over the centuries that made the inhabitants believe in the doctrine of “hit at sight”, and in some cases actually “shoot at sight”, such as in the instance where a person shot his neighbour simply because the latter had parked his car in his parking lot. This invasion theory may be one of the causes of this unruly behaviour seen so regularly, and public behavior in Delhi could definitely make an interesting case study some day for sociologists.

It is time to meet old friends and new, when I am in Delhi. And so I head off to the latest headline-grabber of Delhi/NCR, Medanta “the medicity.” Having heard of this institution ad nauseum for the past two years, I am curious to see how it is, whether it is one of those “white elephants” one hears about.

The healthcare field has certainly grown very fast in Delhi/NCR, and these spanking new hospitals may be called its new temples. Efficient and clean environments backed up by good medical facilities leave the days of crowded government hospitals and dingy nursing homes far behind, at least for the middle and upper classes. Not to mention the fact that it burns a fat hole in the pocket.

The spanking clean metro coaches are a welcome relief from the decrepit blueline buses of yore. Yes, I hear the “killer” bluelines have been finally taken off the roads. In their place, the Delhi Transport Corporation has introduced comfortable new buses. All thanks to the Commonwealth Games, which became a spectacle of money-guzzling accompanied by some mediocre sportsmanship.

Some things still remain, and will remain. Like the haggling with autorickshaws (indeed haggling over every thing, a hallmark of Delhi) I am actually surprised when one rare auto driver actually wants to go by the meter. God bless his kind and may they flourish in the city of Delhi!

It is always difficult to write objectively about a place one has lived in for some time. Some amount of emotions invariably creep in. This was the city where I lived, loved and flourished. Yet, it was here that I faced some of the toughest phases of my life. Delhi makes one tougher, undoubtedly, a fact that I had readily understood when I had moved here five years back. The adage “life is a race” fits in very well here, and everything is virtually a race, from career to family life and personal life.

In the midst of all this “hit and run”, what soothes the mind is the perennial green cover of Delhi, which, at 18%, is the highest among the Indian metros. Every residential colony has a playground or garden nearby, and the DDA (Delhi Developmental Authority) has done a good job of building sports facilities across the city. And then, there are the ancient buildings. Suddenly, before understanding it, one is driving past a thousand years of history. Beyond the well-known landmarks such as the Lal Qila, Qutab Minar and Humayun’s Tomb, there are old monuments in virtually every nook and corner of the city, which are revealing and a virtual treasure trove for history buffs, very often in the “villages”of Delhi.

Delhi still lives in its villages. Within the city, there are the former rural areas which have now been rurbanised. Hauz Khas, Chirag Delhi, Mohammedpur, Munirka- there are 250 plus “ villages” in this city, in reality today concrete jungles with more often than not the rule of the jungle prevailing, where citizens at times refuse to pay municipal taxes, water and power supply can be erratic, the buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with serpentine electrical lines connecting them and a narrow strip of lane separating them, through which pass an endless stream of bikes, cycles, scooters, vegetable vendors, cars and even the occasional BMW !

For, Delhi remains the land of riches. Rapidly escalating property prices have turned sections of the erstwhile landowners rich beyond their comprehension and ability, with result that they do not know what to do with the new-found wealth. A downside of the outpouring of wealth that the city has seen in the last three decades, with the economy often giving Mumbai a tough competition, has been the criminalization of the city. It is the most violent and crime-prone city of the nation, where women fear to tread out after dark, and those brave women who travel alone, often carry pepper spray cans with them to ward off any potential attackers. Delhi has the ignominous distinction of being the “rape capital” of India.

It didn’t have to be this way. Delhi has a long history and culture, but probably it is the migratory nature of its population that has prevented the slogan “Saddi Delhi “(My Delhi) from being as potent and meaningful as” Aamchi Mumbai” (My Mumbai) or “Aamar Kolkata” (My Kolkata). Somewhere, in the midst of all its wealth and prosperity, the soul is missing somewhere, which is surprising for an ancient and historical city which has supposedly existed since mythological times as the city of “ Indraprastha.”

But then, there are brilliant pockets of culture. The National School of Drama, the crucible of the theatre scene in the country, which churns out excellent productions throughout the year. The India Habitat Centre and India International Centre, which see year-round cultural activities. The various cultural clubs across the city, the literature groups. I remember being part of a drama group which had put up an excellent show at the Shreeram Centre. I remember the salubrious environments of the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) campus, supposedly one of the best educational institutes in the country. The well-maintained campus of IIT Delhi. And I remember meeting many witty, lively, talented, decent, culturally-conscious people. The city of Mirza Ghalib can never be devoid of life, living and loving.

Therein lies the fascinating paradigm of Delhi. The mix of Mammon and higher pursuits. The mix of crass MCBC language on the streets and sublime ghazals at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in the evenings. The contrast between the drab grey opulence of Western Delhi and the soothing green opulence of the India Gate lawns. The feeling that whatever happens in India, whether it is the Asiad or Commonwealth Games, F1 Racing or prominent political events, even political assassinations, has to happen here. However tough it might be, however one may want to throw in the towel due to the combination of bad behaviour and merciless weather which alternately freezes and burns the body, one must live here for at least a few years, for an experience one never forgets in his lifetime. Delhi has some of the best educational institutes and career opportunities in the country, in all sectors of the economy. Due to this reason, it is also a pot pourri of Punjabis, Haryanvis, UPites, Biharis, Northeasterners, South Indians, Bengalis and expats, which has place for all, giving the city a cosmopolitan culture. Only, do not expect kindness or consideration in this city- it is “dog eat dog” all the way. And many sensibilities, which we would otherwise take for granted, be damned, except for certain sane pockets.

One of these sane pockets is Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi, where I spent some of my best times with friends during my Delhi years. It being a predominantly Bengali area, settled initially by the East Bengali displaced population from the Partition years, maintains a distinct cultural flavour that is decidedly less ” macho” and more cerebral. So you have people actually greeting each other, cultural events that are oriented towards the Bengali population but which are inclusive and open for all. The Durga Puja festival is a virtual mela in which all of Delhi comes over to have a look. Most importantly, the law and order situation is distinctly better here, with the result that, these days, a lot of non-Bengalis actually prefer to reside in this locality. This mini- Bengal in the heart of Delhi is a fasciating example of how people hold on to their roots even when they are away from their birthplace.

I take the metro from Sarita Vihar to Connaught Place, having met my ex-colleagues at my former office. It is déjà vu as I board the train which I used to catch not so long ago. I settle in, among the crowd.

To my right, a bearded elderly man in a cap mumbles something. And then the outpour starts. First, he shouts on the cellphone, using murderous, bastardized English. And then, as the gang of guys in front of us make fun of him, he starts off. He is apparently ( according to him) the “ fourth Lal” of Haryana, after Devi Lal, Bansi Lal et al. He challenges the guys, “ agar maa ka dudh piya hai to” ( if they have drunk their mother’s milk) to an- arm wrestling competition ( the guy must be drunk). The other chaps are equally raucous and pass comments. A lively diatribe ensues, and the crowd enjoys every bit of it. The scene carries on, till they get down at their destination, but not before a lot of Haryanvi dialects and mannerisms have been interchanged. It is reassuring to see that Delhi remains the same boisterous city. This sudden burst of “machismo” is unique to this place.

The Metro has transformed Delhi and NCR, crisscrossing the city and its suburbs and connecting the miles. Public transport seems to have improved since I was last here. But the haggling with the autorickshaws remain. As do the serpentine traffic jams, not unusual in a city where it is considered normal to have two, three or four cars in the family and parking space wars take on the shape of the third world war! I remember the fracas I had with my drunk Sardarji neighbour years back, after which I had to call the police to rein him in. Aggressiveness and the tendency to show off are often the pitfalls to which one is often exposed.

But then, there’s the old city of Delhi, where the echoes of tehzeeb (culture) still remain. It has been nearly a thousand years since Delhi’s recorded history begins, and a tumultuous three hundred and seventy years since ” Purani Dilli” (Old Delhi-also called Shahjahanabad), was founded. The reign of Shahjahan and Aurangzeb, then that of the lesser Mughals like Shah Alam, later the sunset of the Mughal empire during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar , the eventual transfer of power to the Britishers, existence in a neglected state thereafter , and finally, the stab of Partition which saw large-scale migration from the area- all have affected the spirit of this old place, these few square miles of area which have had a profound effect on Indian history. This area take one on a walk down history, with the Lal Qila, Gurudwara Shishgunj, Chandni Chowk market, Paranthe wali Galli , Jumma Masjid and the haveli of Mirza Ghalib. Undoubtedly, it is one of my favourite parts of Delhi, where the people even help you out with directions!

Undoubtedly, if one asks me what the pitfalls of Delhi are, I would say- weather and behaviour. Weather cannot be changed. But if public behaviour was better, Delhi would be a much better place to live in, probably the best in India. This is the single factor that often slides the city away from the higher end of the liveability index, as in a recent survey in which Ahmedabad and Pune were judged to be the best cities to live in.One wonders- has this city really changed so much over the years? For as old- timers say, it was a different, much gentler place in the years bygone. This is the city of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Ghalib, Zauq and other luminaries. Can it become a more considerate city someday in the future? I keep hoping.

Ultimately, which is better- Mumbai or Delhi? I don’t know, and don’t want to know. Just as “The East is East and the West is West and the twain shall never meet”, both these cities will always be fundamentally different, unique in their own ways. I prefer to enjoy the best aspects of both, ignore their not-so –enjoyable aspects and live in neither of these two cities. May both Aamchi Mumbai and Saddi Delhi flourish and prosper.

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