Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Delhi vs. Bombay

Decided to weigh in on the Delhi-Bombay divide. It’s a venture fraught with danger, as I have dear, dear family and friends on both ends – although in a way that is immensely reassuring – I would never come up with hasty or hurtful stereotypes. I will keep this opinion fiercely independent of any cumbersome statistics or data, mostly out of sheer laziness, and restrict myself to anecdotes and fluff. That said, here goes.

There is something inevitable about this discussion. It seems to rear its head every time I chat with a Bombayite, and it comes up that I live in Delhi. “Oh how do you manage?!” or something like that is their retort. I have separately (and sometimes together) heard Delhi-ites being called thieves, liars, backwards-provincial-chauvinistic-pigs, stupid, vacant and the worst insult from a Bombayite – Uninteresting. All of these assertions are backed with earnest solicitude, and to none of the asserters occurs the slightest twinge of guilt that they are making a dramatic stereotype of some 1.5 crore human beings.

The strange thing is that when confronted with these assertions, Delhi-ites are strangely undefensive. Not even upset. The answer is a collective shrug, perhaps a chuckle – “Ah those Bombayites…” followed with, and this is the most shocking thing, a wistful look of assent. Bombay is lovely, if a bit crowded, they volunteer helpfully. Very sophisticated, very progressive, very vibrant.

Now this either means that Delhi-ites are far more gracious than their Bombay brethren, or all of this is true. I am inclined to believe all of the above, and here’s why. First, hardly anyone in Bombay, while on their rants, mentions the redeeming qualities of Delhi – the infrastructure, Sheila Dikshit, and the incredibly layered history of its greatness. Today Delhi is seriously well on its way to being a city that is truly responsive to the needs of its citizens – clean, green, fantastic public transportation (built on time, and on budget, no less), and great roads. Perhaps even a clean river in the next few years. Delhi-ites could do some obnoxiously triumphal tribalism and horn-blowing of their own, but I’ve never mentioned it brought up. The few Bombayites that do stoop to acknowledge the progress in Delhi usually say it in the context of “Yes, the city is nice, but the people…” The head will shake; the exaggerated shudder will pass across their face.

And that brings me to the second point. The people. I grudgingly concede that Bombayites may actually have a point here. Delhi is far more old-fashioned – far fewer women work, drink, and show skin in any kind of interesting manner. Far more joint families (sometimes a positive thing), far more female foeticides, far less individuality. These are (with the one ambivalent exception noted) bad things. But Delhi, as its population currently stands, is a very young city. There is no old elite guard that could define the culture, progress the thinking, set an example. You know, the way the old money of Bombay – the gymkhanna lot – do. There used to be a substantial elite in Delhi, but they mostly relocated, and not exactly voluntarily, to Karachi. The current lot, the ones that form opinions and reign over dinner parties are a more cerebral, transplanted lot – professors, writers, artists, activists – not usually rooted in the city well enough to help contribute in a substantial manner to the progress of its thinking. The very rich, property-developer-types, are best not mentioned. And so the evolution is slow, as more neighborhoods turn inwards in a self-congratulatory reinforcement of their traditional ways. But the progress will happen. The third generation of the new-moneyed class is now entering their twenties and thirties. They look to Bombay, and the West, for inspiration; they tend to be far less tied down in caste-creed distinctions, they like a night out on the town, they take gender equality for granted, and they are far more likely to take risks and shape their own unique identities. Another decade or so, when these kids start to take over the decision-making and shaping-of-the-identity of the city, I predict that the landscape of the Delhi population will be vastly improved. And then there are the mistaken stereotypes – I was warned countless times when I got here that women could not walk/take buses/drive alone in Delhi, yet I’ve been out and about for more than a year without incident. Almost disappointingly so – I quite look forward to unleashing my tongue (and a nearby policeman) on a hapless eve-teaser.

Now I know that all this is dreadfully condescending to Delhi-ites. I am a Bombayite after all, inherently biased, although I suppose I do have some criticizing-credibility. For one thing, I have a husband that is a rare proud (and need I say, very progressive) Delhi-ite who is always pointing out the good things about Delhi, while acknowledging its shortcomings. Additionally, I also have heard these very things from the mouths of almost all Delhi-ites I have encountered. So I’ll end with an anecdote. I recently met a Delhi girl at a party who roundly criticized her city and its culture, or lack thereof. I remarked that it was very cool that she could introspect in such a candid manner, and she said of course I can – I just don’t do it around Bombayites. As soon as she was told by my giggling husband that I was one, she squealed in good humour, and promptly took back everything she had said and enumerated all the good qualities of Delhi. So that’s where Delhi stands for me – a bit self-conscious, very gracious; while silently but surely heading towards reclaiming its greatness.

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