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July 7, 1997


Farzana Versey

India Gate, New Delhi Chalo Delhi?

Desmond Moris may have tried to reassure us that the city is not a concrete jungle; rather, it is a human zoo. But, when you are in Delhi, the confusion increases for humans, in that city are... well… scarce.

If Delhi were an acronym, its full form would read: Dreadful Egoists Louts and Hams Incorporated. The sandbags are not only in the streets, they are in the heads of the denizens too. Since it is the country's capital, every citizen thinks he is a politician either in the government arena or in relationships. In Delhi, you do not ask a person if he is a patriot; you presume he is one unless it is the BJP asking Shahabuddin.

I have a ready list of definitions for Delhi -- dull, exasperating, lumpen, holier-than-thou and incendiary. And I have reasons for every adjective.

Take dull, for example. Delhi is dull. The air is fetid with ennui, mosquitoes die from the sheer boredom of sucking blood, beers go flat and dosas droop with the north Indian assault. The fate of people is far worse. They begin to enjoy their enervation. Bombay's bureaucrat, for all his negative qualities, is at least seen to be doing nothing. Delhi has no babu culture simply because its babus have no culture.

Can you imagine the fate of its lesser citizens then? Upward mobility rests solely on the strength of your residential address. So you could be a golgappewala operating from Chanakyapuri and your stock will go up, but if you have a little hole in Subzi Mandi, even if it is lined with gold biscuits, no one will notice you.

Yet, it must be said to the credit of the dull ones: at least they save you the trouble of having an opinion to express. Which cannot be said about the exasperating, beautiful people of the capital. They all look like Hauz Khas village by day and Chandni Chowk by twilight.

Their idea of material interest centres around seeking the right crepe de chine and their version of nirvana is contemplating somebody else's navel. The major difference between the two metros is that while the Bombay la-di-dah madame knows the price of everything and the value of none, her Delhi counterpart successfully bargain for everything, including ethics.

Another exasperating aspect are the common folk. You meet them for the first time and they start talking about Bombay's gutters, forgetting that the worms have somehow chosen to settle in their fair land. Then, in a bland voice, they will proceed to hold an emotionally charged conversion about the shape of your nose and the health of your buaji (aunt) and her bhatiji (niece) and the babuas (children) around.

But they are no lumpens, unlike the politicians who are an amazing lot. Considering that they spew Sanskrit shlokas and Urdu couplets, they completely lack nazakat (delicacy). It is either our previous bad karma or their good one that has brought things to such a pass. Compared to them, the autowalas and cabbies and truck drivers look like meek little sheep.

Social workers are no lambs, either, but they are very Mary-centered, in that most of them are either women or would like to be one. Moses-like, they often pronounce the Ten Commandments, the last of which is to eschew all labels. But, very conveniently, it is the labels, and not the literary geocentricism of hunger from the point of view of the belly button, that will get them into the next conference.

They will then proceed to talk about the breakdown of civilization and, before you can rue the destiny of society and our ancient culture, you find them complaining to the bell-captain about soggy canapés. Surely, it is the end of Harrappa, Mohenjodaro and the Indus valley in bite-sized bits.

These people do make Delhi but, without the incendiary, the capital would just go to pieces. I am not talking about the terrorist but the journalist. While Arun Shourie may quote Faiz copiously to appease his Hindutva guilt, the smaller fry merely quote their demands. "Ek patiala (one large)! " is the war cry at the Press Club where, once the ghanta (bell) announces a stop to the flow of liquor, the melee at the bartender's is like a troop of scribes chasing a scoop.

But that's exactly what Delhi's journos don't do. They get called at all odd hours to be told wonderful things. Which, of course, is enough meat to fill a skeletal imagination. Politicos and journalists fight for the same things -- housing, telephones, gas connections. And assembly seats.

So, chalo Delhi?

Montage: Sumit Patel

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Farzana Versey