Sunday, 22 April 2007

More than just home

Time and again many people ask me why I love this city and today I have been prompted to think about it once more. Once more I struggled to find the words to explain the beauty that draws me as I sat at the dinner table with a friend. “Delhi has neither the bustle of a Mumbai nor the quiet of a small city like Pune. It is somewhere in the middle and in being in the middle it is nowhere,” said my friend. To that I say a vehement “No” and am going to try and qualify that the best I can.

My love for Delhi is not just because I spent three years of college here. Three years in which I explored the city, made my memories. Yes, to me a part of the charm is that every road, every coffee shop has a day, a thought from my thirteen years in the city attached to it. Bittersweet memories that give each place character and an emotion, transforming it from a mere building or road to a moment in my life.

The charm however, goes beyond that. The charm comes from the sense of history that pervades the air of the city; the years of luxury and comfort that the city has witnessed as the capital of many a kingdom and as the capital of the world’s largest democracy today. There is a slow grace to Delhi that I find missing in a Mumbai or a Chennai or even a Bangalore; a slow grace that one might find in the palaces of Jaipur or in the old quarter of any city. That air pervades the entire city in the case of Delhi because the aura of power remains. As the national capital, Delhi exudes the same stature that is represented by the opulence of the palaces of old.

The charm comes from walking down the lanes of Chandichowk and seeing antiquity and modernity in one frame. From the little toys with neon bulbs to the signboards saying “Estb in 1860”, you can see the roots of the city much like the roots of the banyan tree – in front of your eyes. The amazing sense of the immortality of life really hits me every time I am in this so called “walled city”. On both sides of the narrow lanes stand houses that were built more than a century ago, homes that house people who have moved with the times while the buildings stand as a link to the past, as monuments to the times that gave birth to today.

The charm comes from the resilience that these same images reflect; the strength to stand through turmoil and war and still move on. It is perhaps the city that has witnessed the maximum strife – from internal to external, Delhi has been a part of every struggle waged, whether by individuals or by groups or by states within the Indian union or by countries against the nation. It has lived through these, its people have learnt to make these a part of their lives, take part in them when needed and move on once they are over.

In which other city do the public buses take a different route through the centre of the city each day from the beginning of January in preparation for Republic Day? I still remember the days when I would watch keenly out of the bus window on my way to my office waiting for the nearest spot to my usual stop to hop off, the days when I have walked kilometres to work when the diversions have led in completely opposite directions.

In which other city are the streets exciting in February because in the centre of the city each day is one group or the other conducting a demonstration to have their demands heard before the annual budget is presented in parliament? To walk through this instils me with a dynamism and life that I wonder whether I can find in any other city.

In which other city will people hold a candle light vigil for justice? In which other city are students as active and aware as they are in Delhi? I might sound boastful when I say this but there is not another university that is as politically aware and active as Delhi University is. Yes, this activism comes with its negatives of corruption and even violence, disruption of the normal academic calendar. But it has also given each of us the strength to stand up for our own cause, not for every cause, but for a cause that each of us believes in. It has exposed us to more debate and discussion and cultural interaction than any other graduate educational system. It is a greater melting pot than any other University in this country simply because it is in the national capital and is open to students from all parts of the country.

Many who come here complain of the brashness and the aggressiveness of the city. To that I say yes, the city is aggressive but before you judge it, take a look at its history, at the turbulence and pressures that it is put through every day of its life and tell me whether you can blame it. Delhi houses the largest number of refugees anywhere in the country. People who have been driven out of their homes are bound to be aggressive out of fear; people on whom demands are made by outsiders as a matter of right are bound to react aggressively. Maharashtra reserves 85% of its educational seats and jobs for Maharashtrians. Ditto is the case with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. How then can they understand the travails of a city that grapples with demands from every one.

Look at the history of the city. The violence it has witnessed. It has demanded that people stand up and fight for everything that they possess. People walked into this city at the time of independence leaving their property and hard earned belongings across the border. People walked in from Kashmir and the north-east, losing their roots to conflict. They have rebuilt their lives with a vengeance. Can you blame any of them? Can you blame the aggression of the city?

At the same time look at the cultural richness and beauty that each has brought to this city. The vibrancy that they have infused the life of the city with. The debate and involvement that they have brought with them.

Stand at the cross section of Janpath and Rajpath and look at India Gate on one side and Rashtrapati Bhavan on the other and you will perhaps see what I mean. One a monument of sacrifice, the other an edifice of power and security and you may get a sense of the love that I hold for the city.

Look at the serenity of Humayun’s tomb as it has witnessed everything that has happened here, and you may understand the peace that I find there. The vaulted ceilings that have stood firm with the march of the centuries bring a quiet calm to the rat race.

Drive down Lutyen’s Delhi with the embassies on both sides of a tree lined boulevard and you will see the grace of a city built with a purpose. Take a ride on the Metro and you will find the Delhi that is the capital of a nation of the modern world, the capital of a nation that may yet become one of the most prosperous nations of the world. Look at parliament house and you will find the hopes of one billion people encapsulated in one city!

And that perhaps is why I love Delhi beyond the memories of the times spent here, beyond the friends and beyond the comfort of a familiar life.

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