Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Yeh hai Dilli meri Jaan (with apologies to Rafi/Guru Dutt/Geeta Dutt etc. )

My last post mentioned people not wanting to leave Delhi inspite of their non-stop bitching about it. I, actually, am not among them: I complain, but I don't bitch. Inspite of the godawful weather for much of the year (if you're here, or have checked the temperature - it's been hovering around 45C for some weeks now - you'll know why this is uppermost in my mind) there's no other place in the world quite like this.

I guess it has a lot to do with being from here: I actually revel in many things in many things people from gentler climes (literally as well as metaphorically) find unbearable. Consider the aggression (swearing, crazy drivers, thuggish autowalas). I actually prefer the Punjabi variant of in-your-face aggressiveness to the more passive-aggressive tenor of, say, Calcutta, another city I know and love. To me, Delhi's aggression is just a facet of something that I could call drive, or chutzpah, or ambition, or just plain hustle. Sometimes (okay, often) it's crude, but it gives the place an energy that is hard to come by elsewhere.

Since I'm on the topic, I may as well finally direct you to my favourite Delhi-based blogger
  • The Compulsive Confessor
  • who recently blogged about similar matters. I think she said it all rather well (as always, as always) when she wrote about how those of us who ostensibly come from different parts of the country but have grown up in saddi Dilli feel more at home here than the places we're supposedly linked to, by language or ethnicity. In my case, aforementioned link is in any case tenuous, since we have neither ancestral homes nor relatives in the old country, and my family are older Dilliwalas than most Punjabis by at least 30 years. I guess I go through these 'senti' phases where I feel like I need to defend this city, which for all its many flaws (and here, I must confess to feeling lucky not to be a single woman here) I am fond of, as one is of a somewhat difficult friend who has lots of little habits that annoy you, but with whom you go back a long, long way.

    In the spirit of compulsive list-making, which most bloggers seem to suffer from, here are the things I love about Delhi, in no particular order.

    1. Aandhis. Nowhere else I've lived in has them. Admittedly, they're much more infrequent now than they were when I was a kid, but I guess that makes them all the more special. The clean-up afterwards is a nightmare, but the sudden whirl of dust followed by rain, then the fall in temparature ... aaaaah. Not to mention the scent of wet earth.....

    2. The non-summer part of the year. I love the monsoon here. It's probably not as impressive as other places (would love to be in Kerala for the monsoon someday) but it is wonderful, particularly coming as it does after a heat that is truly grotesque. I remember when we were kids, sometimes there'd be an unexpectedly heavy shower. Everyone would rush to the window, yelling 'it's raining! it's raining' leaving our poor class teacher to rant, ineffectually, 'Have you all never seen rain before'? But seriously, when the first monsoon rain happens, it does feel like one has never quite seen this before. Now that I'm thinking about school, I remember a lot else that's rain-related - the dash between classes, notebooks-as-umbrellas, wading through the puddles on the way home. And the smell of roasting bhutta. And this is only the monsoon. Winter's quite special in its own way. There's a certain point in the year - I wouldn't be able to say quite when - when the light suddenly mellows, and you know summer is over. Then the brief but glorious autumn, followed by the winter: razais, mellow afternoon sunshine, oranges on the terrace.

    3. Chaat. Okay, I know you get chaat everywhere, but I can still like it best here, right? Besides, have never cared all that much for the Bombay or Cal variants. Give me good old Paapri over Bhel/Jhal Muri anyday.

    4. Movies. At film festivals. I doubt anywhere else in India has the smorgasbord of foreign arthouse cinema on offer, and free at that, that Delhi does. Cinefan is probably the most fun that can be packed into ten days, and while I bemoan the absence of a regular arthouse cinema in this city, there's something special about the whole rushing-between-Habitat-and-FCC-and-IIC experience ('shall we watch the Moroccan film at Habitat at 6.30 or the Indonesian one at the FCC at 7? .. Ok, let's try the Moroccan and if it's crap we'll rush over to Augangzeb Road') is something else. Before there was Cinefan, of course, there were the various embassy-organised festivals. I think I've seen some of the best films I've ever seen at these things, and I totally love the hanging out in Habitat and catching up with people you only ever see at film festivals ('So, what is P doing now? Last Cinefan she was in publishing...') that is an integral part of the whole film festival thing.

    5. Connaught Place. Nowhere quite like it. I mean, seriously. And while I suppose that Wengers isn't that great, really, but I miss it when I'm not here. And walking around the Inner Circle, people-watching. Watching it rain through the enormous plate-glass windows of Standard Restaurant above Regal. Browsing in Cottage Industries. (When we were little, the ultimate treat, for some reason, was to be taken, after a trip to the Cottage, to eat Russian Salad and drinking cold coffee at Bankura Cafe right outside it. It's not the same anymore (for one thing, the Cottage Industries has moved), but memories are always better than the real thing anyway.) Afternoons browsing the British Council Library. Haggling at Janpath.

    6. Speaking of browsing, there are bigger and better-organised bookstores in the world, but the row of bookstores in Khan Market will always be special. Oh, and the Sunday book market in Daryaganj.

    7. Food. At Karim's. 'Nuff said? I suppose chaat is food, but Karim's deserves its own little bullet point. Actually, the nehari, sheermal and mutton 'ishtew' all deserve bullet points of their own. As, of course, does Butter Chicken, at Pandara Road and elsewhere. It's bad for you, it's not in the least 'authentic', it's laden with fat ... but it's S O G O O D!

    8. Monuments and stuff. I could go on forever, but I won't. I like the randomness of a city where a 13th-century mosque could lie around the corner from a block of flats. Or goats are tethered to the walls of a 15th-century stepwell, which abuts the busiest business district in town (anyone who guesses which one I'm referring to gets a pat on the back). I can think of nowhere else in the world, perhaps apart from Rome, where the past and the present coexist in the way that they do here.

    9. The city's unique brand of hustle, exemplified by the eternal question: 'Aapko pata hai mera baap kaun hai?' Amazingly, I've heard this being used by someone trying to get into a fashion show at Fashion Week....

    Clearly, some things never change.

    Saturday, June 18, 2005

    You Know You're In Delhi When...

    1. 'Behenchod' is routinely used by people on the street, in every sentence, almost like a puncuation symbol.
    2. Everybody honks at red lights. For the longest time, I used to think irritatedly to myself 'Can't you see it's red?', until I realised that what people were honking at was actually the light, as if the noise would make it turn green faster.
    3. Autowalas won't even consider using their meters. When you suggest using the meter, they give you this look like you just landed from another planet, and proceed to ignore you.
    4. Everybody thinks they're a VIP, or at least that pretending to be a VIP is going to make them get what they want. This manifests itself in the Dilliwala's most favoured line: 'Oy, tujhe pata hai mera baap kaun hai?'
    5. People think a place that's 15 km away is 'pretty close by'.
    6. You throw a stone, and you hit either a newly-built flyover, or one in the works.
    7. Your hairdresser's called Sylvie, and (s)he has the strongest jaw and the deepest voice of any Sylvie you've met.
    8. Straight men walk around town in tight, semi-transparent, embroidered white shirts
    9. People complain that Italian restaurants do not serve Tandoori Chicken
    10. Everybody bitches about how much they hate the city, but nobody seems to want to leave.

    Wednesday, June 15, 2005

    So once, on a Delhi road...

    I saw a sign. It was writ large across an expanse of concrete, such as I knew to be a flyover. However, the sign informed me that I was driving under what was, as such, an Upargami Setu. Not, as my autowala (considerably more sensibly than the namers-that-be, it would seem) would have it, a 'pul' (a pul, you see, is a bridge). As in the eternal autowala question in post-Shiela-aunty's flyover-building-spree Dilli, 'Bhaisaab, pul ke upar se ya neeche se'?

    No, those in charge of translating the fairly pedestrian (sic) word flyover were not satisfied with something as prosaic as pul. After all, there were already 'bridges' over the river. That, perhaps, is what they were thinking. But whatever their train of thought, it led inexorably (at least I prefer to imagine a certain unshakable certitude about the process) to an Upargami Setu. Come to think of it, the term has a certain something about it. A grandeur. No, a hauteur.

    Certainly, it seems to strive for upward mobility in a way that plain-ol' 'pul' could never do. And that is perhaps quite in tune with the mood of a city striving by the day to escape the dusty plain where it finds itself parked. What else, after all, is one to make of the mushrooming - in a place which, if one were to reverse-translate, is called 'Sugar Village' - of apartment blocks with names such as 'Beverly Place' or 'Richmond Square'? Or 'Hamilton Heights'? My favourite ad for one of these tony new escapes from relative chaos into pristine verdure (only barely, for one must negotiate quite a lot of classic desi chaos on the way to one's little piece of West LA) referred repeatedly, in tones of ever-increasing astonishment, to 'Floors from Italy! Kitchens from Germany!! Bathrooms from LA!!!' and so on. As my father put it somewhat pithily, pity the neighbours will still be from Lajpat Nagar Phase III.

    So, what's in a name? Try this next time you're in an auto: 'Bhaisaab, Upargami setu ke neeche se left'. Meanwhile, I am off to negotiate the honking and the fumes, for some Evergreen ka chaat. On the way, I will pass under some U.Setus, and drive over some of them. I'll ignore the kids begging at the lights; consider buying a gajra from one of them; wonder where the lady who sold agarbattis at the Sheikh Sarai flyover has disappeared, and so on and so forth. More tales of the city will follow: tales of this and other cities. Lots of pointless discussion of my pet peeves, rants about the latest media report to get my goat, and possibly lots of other random things I feel the need to vent about. In the meanwhile, the bus conductors continue to yell out their chant of 'South Aaax, Safdarjang, Maaadical!'. Welcome aboard.