Delhi is a city of illusions. It titillates, seduces, tantalizes and enamors many but for most of the time, Delhi plays a conjurer’s trick on perhaps both its denizens and inhabitants and travelers. The paradox might be that the illusory nature of the city has grown more intense and potent after it has gone “global”. There’s hardly a brand that is not on display in Delhi. You name it and you have it, so to speak. The satellite cities that Delhi’s expansion has spawned, like Gurgaon, is perhaps the “back office” of the world; it gives the impression of a global city, connected to and ensconced in the economy of flows and networks. Massive(but ugly), international and local hotel chains, have established themselves in Gurgaon, to cater to the global as well as the glocal elite.
There are glittering shopping avenues and esplanades, at par, in some senses, with the best in the world. Walk into a coffee shop, and the buzz around suggests cosmopolitanism, people- both young and the elderly- wear fashionable clothing. If you strain your ears and listen(or eavesdrop), the nature of the conversations and the conversing style, is decidedly “glocal”. A man, by way of an illustration, wearing a Kashmiri shawl, makes a long, distance, international call; it’s apparently about some business deal in some faraway Western country. The man speaks excellent English, is confident, sips his Americano, bids good bye to his respondent and closes by saying “I’ll be there soon. Ciao”. Young folk saunter around the esplanades, after dusk has fallen (a time when Kashmir’s public spaces are drained of life and sparkle). All kinds of vehicles are parked in the allotted parking spaces- ranging from a Ferrari to a Volksvagen to prosaic Maruti Suzukis and what have you. Teenagers amble out of a McDonald’s outlet, giggling, perhaps priming themselves to enter one of the PVR cinemas. Ronald McDonald, the emblem of modern capitalism, watches with that typically vacuous grin.
A faraway, first time traveler to Delhi, might even be forgiven for holding Delhi to be an emblem of modernity and modernization, a place where the local melds into the global seamlessly, a locale which is defined by a buzz, ensconced in global flows, where every denizen of the city partakes of the glitter. But, he or she would actually, from a charitable perspective, be viewing a very tiny version of Delhi, or be a victim of an illusion.
There is more to Delhi than meets the eye.
The city is, in some senses, a seething cauldron of discontent, assorted frustrations of an underclass that is perhaps the dominant class of Delhi. There appears to be constant mismatch between the aspirations of Delhi and what Delhi actually offers. Being a city, where there is a flow of money and commerce, Delhi is a draw for many immigrants from rural parts and other parts of India. They come to this city with dreams and great aspirations but then settle down to and accept what the city offers. But, in the process, the city alters their personality and character. They become “Delhiized”, which I think, means the ability to pull a fast one, “smarten” up, be more competitive and even cut throat. What keeps the discontent that I have sensed here is the small joys and other frills of life that most of the underclass of Delhi cannot enjoy in their villages or small towns of origin. The financial recompense, in the form of “better” wages that members of Delhi’s underclass get in Delhi overcomes other opportunity costs. But, as my conversation with a cab driver from Madhya Pradesh revealed, the theme of return, is perhaps always resplendent in the underclass’ dreams.
As Rakesh (not his real name), fed directions into Google Maps, drove through the streets of Gurgaon and settled on the highway, I thought aloud, “Uff, what a traffic mess”. Rakesh, looked at me, through the mirror, laughed and said, “ This is Delhi”. “Where are you from, I asked?” “ Madhya Pradesh (MP), Sir”. “ How long have you been here?”. “Twenty five years”. “I actually grew up here, did odd jobs initially but am now “settled”. I have three daughters. Education is good here. But, I don’t want to live here. I am working to make money for my daughters’ dowry. After, I make about 5 lakhs for each of my daughter, who I have enrolled at skill centres, I will marry them off and return to my village in MP”. Sahib, Rakesh added, I don’t want to grow old and die in Delhi. Even if I have a small home, I’ll return to my village and die there. Life is too harsh and tough here”. “Good choice”, I validated Rakesh.
After a chit chat, and a long silence, we arrived at my destination and I clambered out of Rakesh’s proud and prized possession (an earning asset), the cab he was driving and bid him good bye. At Khan Market, where I had to buy books and meet friends, a smattering of Westerners and elite Delhiites sauntered past shops, where the underclass of the city, manned shops as guards and/ or sales persons. As the day melded into dusk and it was time for me to return to Gurgaon, I took another cab. My driver this time, a jovial faced man, Ravi (not his real name), asked me to quickly enter his cab; there was a mad traffic scramble at the Khan Market and he has being harassed by other motorists.
After a long silence, I asked Ravi, “Do you smoke?”. “Yes, Sir”, he said but I like beedi. Thank you”, he said politely declining my offer. “What do you think of Delhi?”, I asked pointedly. “I don’t like it. But, what to do, its a bread and butter issue for me”. Dilli (Delhi) is a city for the rich folk. “We, identifying himself with the poorer classes, Ravi added with a wry laugh, exist to serve them”. After chit chat, with pauses of silence, and as we arrived at the place where I am staying, the “guard bhaiyyas”- people from faraway places, who eke out a living in Delhi and its satellite cities, began emerging and manning streets of posh locales here. Most were preparing for the cold night by smoking their beedis or chit chatting with passerby acquaintances.
The portrait I have drawn of Delhi, based on a few vignettes, is a small sample size which could be critiqued for not being representative. But, while I would plead guilty to this charge, I would hasten to add that these vignettes might actually represent the distilled essence of my understanding and observations of and about Delhi. I used to visit my Grandparents in Delhi, during winter, when I was a child; I graduated from this place and visit it, time and again. My sense, understanding and observations of and about Delhi are validated to me each time I visit the city. While the façade of Delhi is an illusion and the city plays a conjurer’s trick on the observer or the outsider, there are multiple versions of the city. But, one dominant “reality” that I have culled out from my understanding of the place is that the vast, undifferentiated masses of Delhi cater to and serve the small, pretentious and vain class(es) of the place, whose sense of self is determined by the brand of shoes they wear, the “foreign” (western) location they spent their holidays in and the car that they drive. In the interstices of this vanity and the illusions created thereof, the underclass of Delhi gets a vicarious thrill (brief) but, more importantly, ekes out a living. Such is the nature of the place!
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]