Do we remember me? I won’t feel hurt if you don’t. We met a few months ago. I am writing this letter to you, to express my sincerest of apologies. I have heard you are forgiving of those who erupt spite against you and I must confess in all earnesty, that I was one of them. All my life, I had thought of you as a womanizing drug dealer. A tobacco spitting, public property damager. Or an aggressive pompous nouveau-riche businessman who never said ‘thank you’. I never understood why people loved you, a city that reported crime against women every day.
It was an August day in San Francisco, when I got an intimation that I need to be in capital of India a month later. Hush! Not a word to anyone! I wanted the visit to be quick and painless. How will I survive in this city known to be dangerous for women? Can I wear jeans? What about sleeveless tops? Will I get eve teased, abused or kidnapped? Do I really need to be back home by 7pm? Will I get anywhere without a driver? Do they have taxis or will I have to ride the municipal bus with the space-invading commoners? My mind was flooded with questions and ideas to survive. I had browsed the internet for pepper spray and chanced on a “Buy 1 get 1 Free” deal. Highly pleased with my discovery, I had messaged my Delhi bred cousin sister, told her of my secret plans and offered to get her pepper spray. She politely refused, and after a few days I dropped the pepper spray idea, as if kidnapping or abuse was imminent.
So Delhi, I packed the most conservative clothes for you. I hid my electronics at the back of my suitcase, as I was afraid. I imagined a corrupt mustachioed customs officer at the airport, tapping my luggage with the end of a stick, raising his eyebrows twice, and in a tobacco filled voice asking “issmein kya hai maadam?” (“What’s in this Madam?”). Oh Delhi, my was heart beating faster even in my thoughts, while the baggage was being stripped open and the uniformed man demanding Rs 10,000 for the phone and Rs 5,000 for the cheap chocolates one carries for their relatives and neighbours. I came up with a contingency plan, a 100 ways to deal with that situation, which included making a call to a friend who had top contacts in the Government of India and reverse-threatening the officer “Tu janta nahi hai mera friend kaun hai!” (you dont know who my friend is!)”
It was a rainy day when I landed uneventfully in Delhi. No customs officer stopped me and the corporate taxi smoothly rolled along the tree lined, 4 lane highway. Tree after tree zipped past me while I peered outside. I was waiting. Waiting for the roads to get narrower and the potholes to show up. Waiting for the deception of an organized city to reveal itself. But Delhi was solid. It’s roads, buildings, infrastructure, were all wide, tall and strong. In those 60 minutes, my surprise turned into awe. I started to feel guilty, almost the way one feels when one misunderstands your own mother. The road signs of international quality, looked at me mockingly and said ‘See, we’re organised you mistrusting visitor!”.
Delhi, I was to have dinner at your famous Connaught place area that evening. My jet lag and exhaustion did not prevent me from requesting the driver to take a small detour so that I could get a glimpse of you. I went past our magnificent parliament, our all important supreme court, our media house that we love to hate, our proud defence offices and your coveted government bungalows. Every turn took me to a place of more national significance than the other. This was it, Delhi. As a child, I used to see all this on television and now, it was right in front of me. It was all real. In my city, Pune, the most famous place nationally, is a cookie store in the cantonment area. No wonder your native people are street smart and successful. They are accustomed to seeing big and thinking big. In your arms, Delhi, nothing is too large a dream. I blame you for flooding my heart with anger against my hometown, the type of anger you feel at your parents for not teaching you a sport or musical instrument as a child. I came home that night, with a heavy heart and a regret, that I all my life, I’ve aimed too low.
When one talks of big cities, It was hard to think beyond Mumbai, which is 100KM from my hometown. All my life, I have bragged that Mumbai is the baap (father) of all big cities of the world, just as an un-aware novice might arrogantly challenge Garry Kasparov to a game of chess. Now, if anyone thinks Mumbai is a megapolis, I would say they have not been to Delhi. The map of Delhi is so deceptive, ‘How big could it possibly be?’ is a question I can guarantee you will ask yourself. Any visitor to Delhi will be forced to use the Metro, once they understand that Delhi has literally consumed its suburbs, and a “suburb” of Delhi is actually another city in its own right.
Delhi, Talking about distances, hasn’t the Metro changed your life? Can you believe I thought a rickshaw will be safer than the metro, with the logic that if someone assaulted me from one side, I could jump off the other side to run away. haha. My fastest mile has been 7 minutes 56 seconds and I thought I can outrun any assaulter you might throw at me. My fitness gave me a vague sense of self-confidence for my safety. Yes I did take the Metro, and I got addicted to it. I was so excited to see each train adorned with a separate ladies bogie, Indicated on the platform with nothing less than a pink poster and white flowers. How thoughtful of you to keep a separate compartment just for me! The mens compartment was stuffed and stuff is the right word because I saw the railwaymen push humans inside to close the door. Inspite of this chaos, there was order lingering in the air. I used to think of your people as a rowdy bunch, but no where did I see more discipline than in the ladies compartment. All instructions were followed, bags were dutifully kept out of the way, the ladies made space for the others, and some quietly sat in a corner, headphones in ear, minding their own business. I must take this chance to say that your women are so beautiful. All of them. With their flowing black hair and milky soft skin, I am confessing that I was rather jealous. Your people also speak the sweetest Hindi I have heard and I ensured I spied on every conversation I could, just to hear the local twist to a Hindi so different from mine.
My days blazed past due to my intense work schedule, but I did take time out to taste Delhi’s food, shopping and local places of interest. If one thinks India is a poor country, they must visit Delhi. Audi’s and Mercedes are aplenty, and are driven by uniformed drivers or young men with expensive sunglasses and gelled hair. Mothers have full time maids for their children, and Delhi housewives spend their afternoons purchasing expensive items from local malls. All the buildings in South-Delhi look expensively maintained with fancy railings, marble floors, cars and drivers and I hope I don’t offend anyone who owns a house in South Delhi, by saying that they are magnitudes richer than me, considering my family took months to save up for a small scooter!
Delhi, with all this praise you might wonder if I saw your dark side. Yes, In some places you did turn into an unfamiliar creature that one must not explore, like Voldemort. Three fist fights on the road I saw, already more than i’ve seen in my lifetime in Pune. But I admire you. I admire how inspite of being abhorred, feared and misunderstood by so many in the world, you’ve kept your chinup, eyes unblinking and always moving forward. Till the next time I meet you, Love, Nupur