They say distance gives you perspective. It’s only when you move away from your parents, do you really start appreciating them. You discover your Mom’s quirks, your Dad’s annoying habits and start looking at everything you took for granted through a different pair of eyes – that of an outsider. Likewise, it was when I spent a summer in the serene suburbs of Chicago, that I realised how chaotic and crazy my life was back in India. Sounds of hawkers selling their wares, kids playing noisily in the neighbourhood, cars honking, ladies gossiping, and Mathur Aunty trying to buy veggies from the 3rd floor of her kothi. These were de rigueur till I encountered the silence of the suburbs. It took me some time to recalibrate myself when I came back to Delhi.
I lived in Delhi almost all my life, discovering the city through its many neighbourhoods we lived in. Each had its distinct charm, confused architecture, a Shambhu bhaiya (the much in demand MTLNL linesman) and a dusty kirana store – the favourite haunt of local kids for lozenges, nimbu soda and potato crisps.
In Delhi, you can calculate the middle class factor of each locality simply by observing its residents. The posher the locality, the rarer the sighting of their inhabitants who are either too busy or bored to be seen outside mixing with the hoi polloi. Hoi polloi are usually the ayahs huddled together at parks while the kids in their care scream like banshees. On their way back they will stop at Super Max grocers to pick up Quinoa for memsahib who’s always on a diet, unlike her middle class counterpart, a queer combination of fed-up and well-fed.
The avenues are wide yet empty. Each house grand and impeccably decorated and maintained by the many servants. Yet its occupants preferring to spend time outside its comforts either earning money or spending it.
The cattle class of Delhi doesn’t let its cramped accommodation deter it from enjoying life to the fullest and loves spreading itself out in the lanes and by-lanes outside their houses. It’s here you get to witness the true spirit of Delhi in its thriving gali culture. As you meander through narrow passages, hopping adroitly over puddles of water and narrowly missing stepping on dog poop, you see elderly ladies sunning themselves on charpais, gossiping while shelling peas with practised ease. Their daughters-in-law keeping the house spic and span by emptying all the rubbish outside. One look at the balcony and the rows of drying clothes vying for space with huge vats of pickles and you know the colours Sharma jee prefers for his undies.
Every hour of the day has its novelty. The loud clanging of the spatula on the iron griddle announces the arrival of the chhole bhature wala. The sing-song tune of Ramu sabziwala is the cue for the ladies to come rushing out in their nightie chunnies and start haggling aggressively. Come evening and it’s time for chaat. The men stare enviously at the gol-gappe wala surrounded by a bevy of women of all shapes and sizes screaming, bhaiya, aur aur aur!
The air outside is a heady mix of whistling pressure cookers, blaring televisions and impatient hormones exchanging furtive glances as they pace up and down their verandas clutching on to their textbook for safety from Mom’s inquisitiveness.
Even though the labyrinth of lanes and by lanes have no names, you can always trust your local taxi to find its way. Why bother naming roads when they can take on the personality of their quirky residents and acquire weird titles. All you need to say is Gol Aunty wali gali (the lady famous for her weight and her fetish for cleaning her courtyard with a hosepipe twice a day) and the driver will be there honking right outside your door.
The residents get to hone their warfare skills by fighting over the limited parking spots, their sleuthing skills by investigating whose rubbish landed with a loud thwack at their doorstep and their competitive spirit by comparing their child’s exam scores with any kid who ever sat for an exam.
Yet, during festivals and occasions of joy everyone gets together to celebrate in their shiniest best, putting aside past differences.
Having lived in one such locality, I learnt to pronounce water-tank as tunkee and added oye, abbe, and jee to my vocabulary. Before I could graduate to, hore, kee haal hai, I fled to Gurgaon, the city of high-rises and higher aspirations, where everyone is distanced from everybody else’s reality. A coldness we willingly embraced for the sake of upward mobility.
It’s been over a decade now but I still recall with gratitude the compassion and warmth I got from my neighbours when my husband had to be hospitalised. Or the time when he was posted overseas for nearly a year. I had to juggle far too many responsibilities on my own, being also a working mom to a young child, yet I never felt alone or short of offers to help.
Delhi neighbourhoods may no longer be a ghetto for displaced refugees but your typical Delhi neighbour hasn’t changed much. Loud, boisterous, nosy and appallingly demonstrative of his wealth, anger and affection. You can expect a person you barely know to ask you your age, salary, income tax returns and details of your ancestral property without a hint of embarrassment because it helps them relegate you to your assigned place in their hierarchy of aukad. Your business is their business, so are your sorrows and joys. You can always depend on them to rally together in times of need, and overwhelm you with their generosity.
The south Delhi bitch continues to cock a snook at those West Delhi types and has yet to respond to Lucky from Ramesh Nagar’s friend request. The West Delhi types insist that the best market in the world is Rajouri Garden. And a newcomer to the city keeps getting lost between Tagore Garden and Tagore Park, which incidentally are at polar ends of the city.
Despite its many shortcomings, each neighbourhood is as colourful, posh, aloof, elitist and crass as its residents, unlike its western counterparts, where you can’t make out one suburb from the other. It’s in India you realize that a large heart has very little to do with the number of digits in the bank balance. You don’t need a bigger house, a more expensive car to be happier. Happiness lies in shared camaraderie among strangers who become friends and end up as bonds that last a lifetime. You learn that it’s love and understanding, not pricey artefacts, that make a house a home.