A tale of few cities

Start of the love affair

Just before entering the New Delhi railway station, the train passed through the Minto Bridge which treated me with the first glimpse of the iconic Connaught Place. However, a tryst with Delhi’s magnificence had started a few moments earlier.

The outskirts with the manufacturing plants, an overcrowded metro passing by in some distance and the bustling roads with the DTC buses and the posh cars—a normal sight for a lot of people but for a thirteen year old kid from an economically backward state who hadn’t travelled much, all this seemed very aspirational. It was a sight from my first visit to Delhi after developing episodic memory. The movie Delhi-6 had just released. I was already drooling over Rahman’s peppy music and Mehra’s beautiful depiction of Chandni Chowk when this journey happened. It somehow added significantly to the associated memories. But the surprising and perhaps good thing about this experience was that it engendered a feeling of hope, excitement and happiness that I have continued to associate with Delhi till this day.

The fascination stemmed from me being keen on history while growing up—kings, wars, monuments, practices and their interconnectedness particularly sparked my interest. I have always had a lot to read about Delhi simply because it has received special attention from historians and writers. Recency bias due to it being the national and to some extent, the intellectual capital of India has fuelled a rise in its prominence in matters of discourse. But to be fair, being the epicentre of a vast country like India for sustained periods since the medieval times is a testament of its perennially strong character.

Living the dream

Living in Delhi was the dream and it came true when I went there to attend college. It presented me with an opportunity to truly feel the essence of the city—to explore its lanes, to relish its authentic cuisines, to demystify the lives of its people and to find a place for myself in its big heart. I did all the typical things and more during my stay there. But there were a few that I particularly enjoyed.

The weekly metro rides to visit my close relatives for combating homesickness during the initial years of college was one such thing. It was a two-hour ride on the yellow line from Badli to Huda City Centre but it never felt like a chore.

The line spans stations with diverse characteristics which leads to people from all walks of life boarding and deboarding the train. Whether it be the workers from the industrial area of Badli, government employees heading to the Central Secretariat, students from the North and South Campus, travellers going to Old Delhi, or millennials travelling to Gurgaon—simply observing them and listening to their conversations was a grounding and often amusing experience.

Sometimes a friend and I used to quietly sit at the Malviya Nagar metro station. It is an architectural marvel because of this super cool ventilation system that it has (probably others have this as well) where a strong stream of pleasantly cool air passes through the platform every couple of minutes. There used be an eerie silence which was interrupted rhythmically by the sound of the trains arriving or departing and spending just 20 minutes there was meditatively refreshing.

Outside the metro trains and stations, I loved moving around Lutyens’ Delhi. Nothing comes close to making one realise Delhi’s importance in the grand scheme of things—it is clean, green, historic and political. Travelling around the brightly lit India Gate late at night or passing through the series of embassies in Chanakyapuri with a Prateek Kuhad, The Local Train or Ankur Tewari song playing on the stereo is an experience that has always left me craving for more. When done after having a sumptuous meal of Changezi Chicken and Khameeri Roti in Karol Bagh, life has just always felt complete. There has been a deep sense of contentment which says that this is happiness and I don’t want anything else.

A large part of my stay has been about exploring exciting eating options and unearthing the hidden gems. I have never been disappointed. Whether it be the rustic Sita Ram Diwan Chand, the quaint Indian Coffee House or the upmarket Havmore, there are innumerable options across cuisines and price range. I don’t feel that I can get the variety, the authenticity and that taste that Delhi’s food has to offer anywhere else in India. Although my sample size is small, I am pretty sure that this hypothesis is correct. For me, Delhi’s South Indian is better than South India’s South Indian. I’d rather have Dosa at Saravana Bhavan in CP than in Bangalore.

Little detours

Ahmedabad and Bangalore are the two other places where I have lived long enough to have views on. While I found Ahmedabad to be sweet, subtle and very welcoming, what I feel about Bangalore is contrary to popular belief.

Life in Ahmedabad is simple yet vibrant in almost all aspects whether it be the organisation of the city, the food or its people. It is always buzzing and extremely safe. There is economic prosperity and that is visible throughout the city but in terms of values binding the people, I felt that everyone there was quite humble and accommodating. A remarkable thing there was that a lot of their effective systems were built using common-sense which is so uncommon elsewhere. Gujarat usually does well on being low in corruption that is a big reason as to why the governance is so good.

When the city was expanding both in area and population, the government decided to build a metro-esque transport system that didn’t require a lot of investment, was efficient and did the job exceptionally well. The Ahmedabad BRTS is a pioneering model of innovation that should be replicated everywhere in my opinion. There are two lanes in the middle of the road that are meant exclusively for the buses—which means no traffic jam. Well-designed automated bus stops at regular intervals ensure connectivity.

I enjoyed my time there. It is in some way a perfect place to build a retirement home if you like peace, a strong sense of community and if you want to be a part of the civilisation because settling in the wilderness of the hills is not your cup of tea.

Bangalore, on the other hand, the city of immobile traffic, tech parks and good weather is a different story altogether. The government handed out land at cheap rates and the tech companies flocked there to set up India’s Silicon Valley however for other infrastructural development, there has been no foresight whatsoever. The result is that as the population is burgeoning, the hidden frailties are coming to the fore and I am unsure about how long can Bangalore retain its early-mover advantage.

I was very underwhelmed in the few months that I spent there. Being stuck in traffic for long hours felt claustrophobic. Although there is not much to do in the city apart from hitting the pubs or visiting some funky cafes, any plan of going out was riddled with caveats around traffic.

As for the weather which is the centre of so much attention whenever Bangalore comes up, it for sure is pleasant and allows you the freedom to not be constrained by it when doing any task. However, the unannounced incessant rain didn’t go down well with me. Not because I don’t like rain, I love it! But because of the poor transport system, rains somehow always left me stranded with the number of operational cabs decreasing and surge prices reaching exorbitant amounts.

Life felt very one-dimensional as people usually stayed near their workplace, slogged for five days, got wasted on the weekends and then repeated the drill. It is something that I can’t relate to and hence making sense of Bangalore was tough for me. But not all is bad with it though. I loved the cosy streets, the greenery, the strong law enforcement and the general upbeat vibe. Maybe I’ll get a chance to explore it at a leisurely pace sometime in the future and I hope that it forces me to change my views.

The origin

I was born and brought up in Patna and it is the place I call home. It has defined me in some ways, I have a lot of memories and it will certainly hold a special place in my heart forever but in terms of being a city that I love or admire, it has been a huge disappointment.

Unfortunately, history hasn’t been kind to this glorious city of yesteryears—the relatively recent period more so. But what breaks my heart is that there is no intention for those in power to make some progress in the right direction. The vicious cycle of impoverishment has been going on for so long and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

When you grow up with a constant threat of being kidnapped, with waterlogged homes every freaking monsoon, constricted roads and absolutely no avenues for higher education or jobs—how are you supposed to develop the feeling of endearment towards a place?

Patna for me is whatever it is because of the people. My extended family, friends, teachers and everyone who was a part of my early life made my stay there worth reminiscing. And now with everyone moving on with their lives and gradually settling elsewhere in India and abroad, the good parts of this place are slowly fading away. I do hope to remain connected to Patna in some way but it will be a difficult proposition going forward.

Back to the love affair

I am not done with Delhi yet. As I read more, I keep on discovering facets, characters and perspectives that pique my interest further. William Dalrymple, the historian, has made Delhi his home despite being Scottish and has described it in great detail in his works. Although the City of Djinns is his travelogue that I have been dying to read, I found a lot of interesting references in The Last Mughal. It introduced me to the origin of this interesting tradition called the Phool Walon ki Sair which used to give us half day off during college days. I was oblivious to its existence and was satisfied being happy about the holiday. But when I got to know about how it started during the time of the late Mughals and continues till this day, I was blown away. This is not a one-off incident. Reading about Delhi does this time and again where I keep on stumbling upon interesting pieces of information about places or practices that continue to touch our lives till this day and that keeps the excitement alive.

Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of Seven Rivers made me aware of some sites that hold a lot of significance but are lost in oblivion. Whether it be the Qila Rai Pithora which was Prithviraj Chauhan’s capital, North Ridge (near Delhi University) which is the northernmost point of the Aravallis or the Coronation Park where first Queen Victoria and then King George V were proclaimed the Empress and Emperor of India respectively—it is sad that these are being forgotten. I did not know about these places when I was there but this just proves that Delhi has enough in store for me to keep exploring for a long time.

I don’t know where life will take me in the next couple of years—maybe I’ll have more tales to tell or I’ll probably conspire with the universe to let me stay in and around Delhi. Khushwant Singh echoes my sentiments (taken from his book On India):

“The final reason for loving Delhi is that it grows on you. The longer you live in it the more difficult it is to get away from it. There are innumerable people who would rather continue living in Delhi than go elsewhere on promotion and better prospects.”

~ Khushwant Singh, On India

The title of this piece is inspired by Charles Dickens’s ‘A tale of two cities’. It had some iconic quotes including one of my favourites—’It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ……’. I hope that I develop the wisdom and the creative flair to come up with something like it in the future but till then, it is only befitting that I end this monologue with another favourite quote!

Delhi is not just a national capital, it is one of the political ultimates, one of the prime movers. It was born to power, war and glory. It rose to greatness not because holy men saw visions there but because it commanded the strategic routes from the northwest, where the conquerors came from, into the rich flatlands of the Ganges delta. Delhi is a soldiers’ town, a politicians’ town, journalists’, diplomats’ town. It is Asia’s Washington, though not so picturesque, and lives by ambition, rivalry and opportunism.” ― Jan Morris, City Improbable

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