As the aircraft from Srinagar to Delhi veered downward and the pilot made the landing announcement, Delhi glittered through the smog from above. The vehicular and commercial traffic that snaked through and over Delhi’s roads and motorways rendered Delhi almost like a bride adorned with lights of various hues and colors. It was a different sight from Kashmir where, around this time, life would actually be dead with people ensconced in their homes. I braced myself as the aircraft screeched to a halt, unfastened my seat belt, lugged my hand baggage from the chamber and de-boarded the plane and collected the rest of my luggage from the conveyor belt. I wandered to a Taxi stall, enquired from a person manning it about the putative fare; it seemed reasonable. He gave me a receipt and pointed out toward a taxi and its driver.
As, I clambered into the taxi, making myself comfortable, I struck a conversation with the driver of the MERU cab service. The driver began with crime without actually any prompting. “Sahib, there is a lot of crime in Delhi”. “Where are you from I asked him?”. Bihar, he responded. “Is the crime in Delhi more than in Bihar”. “Oh, Sir, there is very little crime there but Delhi is different. Lot of crime here…”. What is the nature of crime here? I pressed the driver”. “ Rapes, knifings, money snatching and so on
“, he said”.
Where do you get this information from?” “The Newspapers”. “Sahib, where at the DLF do you have to go?”, the driver asked suddenly. I sensed the reason of his query but was rather helpless given that night had fallen and I was reorienting myself to the new environs. I told the driver brusquely, “Don’t take circuitous routes. Take me to my destination directly”. “Arrey, Sir, I don’t do that type of stuff. Whatever is in my kismet (destiny) will come to me”. This was only half assuring to me, as I sensed and then actually experienced that the driver was taking me for a ride (both in the literal and the figurative sense). I stopped the cab driver a couple of times and asked commuters where I could find the address where I was crashing for the night. But, invariably, except for once, all pleaded ignorance. The cab driver pretended to seek help from Google maps, fed the wrong destination and then blamed Google Maps for this. He meandered round and round till we reached my destination. The sum that he charged me was not too exorbitant but nonetheless, he did over charge me.
Now, if a parallel is drawn with Kashmir, the comparison with Delhi, is a study in contrasts. Admittedly, it (Delhi) is a metropolitan city with a huge population (floating and otherwise) and the cab driver’s impressions about the place are largely anecdotal but, the fact of the matter is that Delhi is a city without any character. The essence of Delhi is that of a commercial, capitalist hub where people, or most of them, are out to make money. But, the nature of Delhi’s capitalism is warped- right from crony capitalism at high places to cheating of the prosaic variety. Having said this, Delhi is a place where people look for and, generally find opportunity- at different levels and scales. But, Delhi is also Delhi. There is a dark side to it, like I guess, most metropolitan cities. It, given its nature, changes the nature of people like my cab driver- a rustic from Bihar, who tried his luck in Delhi, and is now a contractor with MERU cabs. The man sensed I was an outsider and basically cheated me, just because I was unsure of the direction(s) to my destination. I took the rather unpleasant experience in my stride but it, in many ways, is emblematic of Delhi.
The ruthless character or characterless(ness) of Delhi and its nature is a sharp and stark contrast to Kashmir, which despite being a conflict zone where the conflict has been militarized since the past few decades, is a crime free city (of course, in relative terms). If I extend the parallel, while our auto wallahs or cab drivers, might seem aggressive and even nonchalant, but I have yet to experience one who would take a circuitous route to eke out more monies from me. Yes, I am a native of Kashmir, but I am not familiar with all locales and places, so I too could be taken for a ride in Kashmir but has not happened till now. Moreover, a woman can walk the streets- crowded or deserted- of Kashmir without fear of molestation and assault of a sexual nature. There’s no real “no go” places in Kashmir for natives and outsiders alike. I have travelled almost across the Western world and barring a few places, I have been advised not to venture to certain places, even in broad day light. Examples galore can be cited in favor of Kashmir’s what may be called its innocent nature despite the militarization of the conflict which has not brutalized the sensibilities of Kashmiris- generally speaking. I am not, I may hasten to add, stating or even implying that Kashmir is perfect. Yes, we have issues at social, cultural and economic levels and yes, we have multiple flaws- strong prejudices, restricted world views, weird business practices and so on-, but Kashmir and its people have a lot going for it and there’s many levels that one can speak highly of Kashmir. Let us then get a real and grounded perspective on Kashmir, defined by a sense of proportion and sobriety. And, let us endeavor to not allow the place lose its innocence.
All in all, warts and all, I love my Kashmir. To get a taste of the place in Delhi, a characterless city, that never really grew on me where I always felt like an outsider, I am about to ask Gan Kaak, the housekeeper at the place where I am staying, to make a cup of Nun chai for me, listen to and regale in his yearnings and love for Kashmir!
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org