Delhi & Mumbai – two definitions of what it means to be me. Maybe even what it means to be Indian.
Are we the centuries of history, the legacy of many feudal kingdoms & power struggles? Or are we the new upshot rags-to-riches renegade, discarding identities the minute they become chains? It’s a long-running debate. You might say it dates back to the very creation of this country, given that one city created the identity of this country and the other was home to the founder of our most acrimonious foe. I carry the struggles of both, having entered the world in one and built my life in another. Mumbai to Delhi and back unravels my own conflicted identity between two cities.
It’s debatable whether you’ve ever been dear to me. Your people have this uncomfortable habit of shoving in ‘dear’ before any stranger’s name or worse still, at the end of a ‘hello’. (but somehow you think Mumbaikers saying ‘tu’ over ‘aap’ is bad). Derision for you is ingrained in my Mumbaiker genes. Yet, I came from you. I entered the world and started life in you. Dear or not, you’ll always be important in my question of where I am from. It’s not easy to belong to many places simultaneously, even harder if two of those places can’t stand each other. It’s a custody battle inside my mind. Mumbai will always win. It is my annadaata, my home, the place that feeds my stomach, my tongue and my soul. You may not refer to me as dear. Mumbai won’t because it doesn’t need to.
Every visit to the capital rings up parallel voices in me. Conflicting, contradicting and highlighting the differences within me. A neon light goes on in my head with blaring foghorns. I’m a Mumbai girl in Delhi. If a city could be a motherland, I am the proverbial Krishna, originating in one & flowering in another. That’s my recessive Delhi gene speaking, over-romanticising a simple quest for more money. There Mumbai kicks in the dhanda-hain-sab-ganda-hain practicality. No time for bakwaas, no stomach for Delhi belly. Yet, Dilli whispers its hidden influences in my intellectualizing, my politics & my poetry. It even shows up in the debts I want to collect from you some day. Mumbai’s got no time for legacy & history, having so little of its own.
Let’s talk about what you owe me. My grandfather fought your wars & later your fires. Twenty years later, he died of the one thing other than fire that kills firefighters – cancer. He gave his life to protecting your people. Delhi, you owe my family. And you owe me for the abusive boyfriend & the years I spent imagining my kaali surat was ugly. You owe me for the confusion when your other men continued to and still do pursue me. At this point I know, your people love as trauma reactions, chasing what will hurt them. And therein, you imprint your mark on me. Mumbai has more resilience, less yearning. Yet I return to you again and again. Stockholm Syndrome. Moth to the flame. A return to the womb. Who knows? I was born at the very heart of Delhi, Connaught Place after all. It makes some poetic sense that I feel the tug.
Shopping is always a great experience in Delhi, even for shop-a-phobics like me. I love the colour, the ‘arty’ look, kurtas, jholas, mojris and trinkets. Idly I muse that I’ve never seen Delhiites wear any of this, though it is considered the ‘Delhi look’. Oddly enough I’ve only seen all of this stuff on Mumbaikers who proudly say “I picked it up on my last visit to Delhi”. The people in Delhi look different from back home; even their skin ailments look different. I can’t see any of the familiar pimples and acne that adorn Mumbai faces. There are instead, red splotches and little bumps which I assume must be a combination of colder weather and skins endowed with far less melanin. Every single person I arrange to meet offers to pick me up or drop me back or both. Hmm, I think, I can’t imagine my Mumbaiker friends doing that any more than I can imagine my permitting them to. As always I hate not being able to travel around freely but I take note of the solicitousness it seems to invoke in people here.
No trip to Delhi is complete without the mandatory visit to the chaatwala. Yum, yum I drool as I watch potatoes and unidentified stuff being mauled in as unhygenic conditions as possible. Oh, to hell with hygeiene I tell that nagging voice and tuck into the ‘halka masala mixed fruit chaat’. My mouth was on fire for an hour afterward. Grr, Delhiites must have cast-iron cauldrons for stomachs.
Books, books, BOOOOOKS!!!!! I’ll never be able to hate Delhi so long as it has its books. Mumbai’s workaholism drowns out any possibility of culture appreciation. If Mumbai is the place to make money, Delhi’s the place to spend it. I once saw a band playing in a corner of Connaught Place. Intrigued I stood and listened to the music belting out of the makeshift speakers. How wonderful, the drummer’s a girl! I can’t imagine amateur musicians making music at street corners like this. Come to think of it, where would they play….Churchgate station? Storytelling is a business in Mumbai. Culture is monetized, not cultivated.
Delhi, you want to claim me as you do every culture, language & people of this nation, in the name of capital city. You want to erase me but it must really hurt that I went to your most inexplicable foe, a city that doesn’t care that you exist but floats regardless, on its own politics & economy & feeds the nation too. Your complaints come loud & frequent about the lack of space & time here. Yet, your Delhi people flock in to Mumbai by the droves. They fire up our modest pohe & idlis with the fire of your cuisine. It irritates us and now it amuses us that you don’t recognise your own mark here. Mumbai is a city of immigrants, after all. And its most famous names all came from you – Bollywood. Financial capital. Mumbai spirit. Yes, these have been gifts to your frenemy over the years.
As the years go by, I see how your people have grown as have I. Some of your men actually think about feminism. Your women are speaking up. Or maybe a Mumbaiker in Delhi just learns to defend herself better than an island city girl ever had to and that means appreciating my less fortunate sisters. You don’t know how to treat women. But then you don’t even know how to treat yourself as human. Perhaps history has ravaged you too much with intergenerational trauma. Maybe that’s why you are drawn to Mumbai. It is a city in the embrace of the mother source – the sea, after all. It is a place rich with the blessings of life, regeneration & survival. Maybe my home city can teach yours how to resurrect from the wounds that life places on us all. Maybe that lesson will happen in me. Maybe those lessons will happen through me.
I write a lot of poetry now. Yes, that’s undeniably your mark. Your people bring me poetry, they bring me appreciation of my writing, validation of my politics. I’m also very political, a thing I’m only noticing now. Middle age is when you start to retrace your history after all, and acknowledge things that you didn’t want to recognise earlier. My Mumbai has very little room for anything. Yet, I’d be a poor Mumbaiker if I didn’t know how to stretch an inch, a minute or indeed, my own self to accommodate just one more. Mumbai has never been apolitical. It is an act of politics to survive & live on in peace to the next day in a society governed by rage & turmoil. It is political to value safety & community even as the chase for the rupee governs the clock. It is political to welcome the people from states of hatred & still hold our language, our dignity. Standing one’s ground is both Delhi and Mumbai. Doing so with dignity, pride & peace – let this be just me.
This is not a love letter the way I’m told love letters are written. But you are both, the rape capital and the sheher dilwaalon ka. So it seems fitting, that my love would be full of rage & swordplay and equal parts longing & disdain. Delhi, my brutish love, this will be long-distance all the way. I came from you but to Mumbai I belong. Like the women you keep leaving behind, I’ll find my way to dignity with or without you. And sometimes love will be part of that equation.
As the capital gears up for a weekend (what’s a weekend to a city that seems to be either lazing or partying during the week?), I pack my bags. I’m taking the journey back from Delhi to Mumbai. I’m so relieved, so relieved, so utterly delirious to be returning to a place where I know my place and my identity is not under such excruciating reflection. On my train home, I’m glad that the family across from me is from Mumbai and I won’t have to endure declarations of ‘Dilli sabse number one city‘. I spend the journey reclaiming my Mumbainess. I take a devilish delight in graphic details of Mumbai trains to a group of youngsters on their first trip. I see one gulp and I smirk. I chase every stereotypical notion of Mumbai and wear it almost desperately to prove my origins. As the train whizzes into Borivili, I sigh, home sweet home. Nothing reminds me more about how much I belong here, than a visit to Delhi. Yeah, Delhi does that. It’s never very far away and I’m afraid it’ll claim me someday. But for now, my Island City holds me safe.
A child of two cities