Falling in love with Delhi is a bit of a clichéd exercise. It seems to happen, but mostly to young, fresh-off-the boat foreign correspondents, who are enchanted by the narrow alleys of Old Delhi, by the quiet excitement of finding ancient monuments scattered in their neighbourhoods and by their encounters with wizened men who share with them stories of the days of the Raj.
It all makes for a great book, especially for the next, fresh-off- the-boat foreign correspondent.
But, if you are like me, one of the several lakhs of non-Delhiite Indians who’ve moved here because of a job, Delhi’s charms wear thin soon. Old Delhi looks a lot like Lucknow, India Gate a lot like the Gateway of India and Karim’s is just another restaurant that makes biryani. Falling in love is difficult, especially when the autowallah wants Rs50 to go just around the corner and bars shut at midnight.
But, perhaps, most importantly, it’s tough because the city never loves you back. Every year, migrants flow into the city and one of the first questions they learn to answer is, “Where are you from?” Years into their new lives here, that question is repeated at parties and at job interviews, a constant reminder of their otherness.
It’s not that the city isn’t welcoming. Delhi isn’t any ruder than Mumbai, or any more cliquish than Kolkata. But, like a beautiful and polite girl at a party, she will tolerate your attempts to get to know her better—she just won’t give you her phone number.
It might be because so much of the city vanished in 1947, in the months leading up to Partition, replaced with so many strangers that the city suddenly had to find itself a new identity. Suddenly, it meant something to be a Dilli-wallah—it meant you were there before it became another Delhi.
It might be something simpler—the city is big and complex and for many migrants, Hindi is almost a foreign language, and a Dilli-wallah’s Hindi, adulterated by Punjabi or Urdu, nearly incomprehensible.
It explains why migrants to the city have to find comfort amongst their own—the Bengalis in Chittaranjan Park, the Punjabis in Rajouri Garden, the south Indians in R.K. Puram and Mayur Vihar.
I consider myself a Kolkatan, having moved here just a few months ago. I moved to Delhi in the hope—romantic, no doubt—of finding new excitement in a grand old city. I thought I would find, as I have in cities all over the world, the quiet astonishments of urban life—an abandoned cemetery in the heart of town, a neighbourhood untouched by development, a vibrant arts neighbourhood where artists aren’t millionaires. Instead, I find German dogs barking at me as I walk along Prithviraj Road, staring at the ministerial bungalows that line the wide roads of New Delhi. I find the gates of neighbourhoods such as Defence Colony, Sunder Nagar and Nizamuddin locked past 10pm, and security guards asking me questions when I get too close to India Gate. I ask people where to catch a whiff of the real Delhi and they tell me to go to Old Delhi—Shahar. But once there, I look around, and tourists outnumber the locals.
There are, of course, the little delights. Leaping over the wall around the tomb of Khan-I-Khan Abdur Rahim Khan on Mathura Road, soaking up the moonlight in Lodhi Gardens, realizing that nowhere else in the world can you find such moist, rich Afghani chicken. They are tantalizing, these glimpses of a city that pulls away from me the harder I look, promises of a romance that is not yet ripe.
At the same time, I worry constantly that each glimpse will be the last, that with the next experience I will exhaust all that I, an outsider, am allowed to taste of the city.
Then, at a party, when the third person asks me where I am from, I realize that perhaps I have been trying too hard. To be a Dilli-wallah, it seems, you have to be a Dilli-wallah. You can never become one.