I moved to Mumbai from Delhi last year. A New Delhi-born-and-bred friend, who is now my flatmate, followed shortly after. “I love Delhi,” she said, as people began to tell her she would fall in love with the chaotic charms of India’s would-be Shanghai. She raved about the Capital’s glorious roads, she defended its pubs and its sorry nightlife and, in that mood, she may even have said nice things about New Delhi’s autowalas. “I’m going back at the end of the year,” she promised everyone. “I belong there.”
I didn’t know what I would do. I’m a small town boy from Shillong, a descendant of grandparents displaced by Partition. I’m less rooted. New Delhi, Mumbai, New York—heck, who cares? None of them is home, so any of them can be home.
It has been seven months, and my flatmate doesn’t want to go back to New Delhi any more—but I do. Not quite yet, but eventually.
I like Mumbai. The city seems to me rather like a teenager: youthful and exuberant. The streets and railway lines that are its arteries pulsate with life. And yet, it is laid-back, warm, friendly, almost easy-going. It’s easy to like Mumbai.
And yet, I don’t know how long this liking will last. I have a feeling that it might peter out like a teenage crush that has run its course. I might grow up.
Then I would have to go back to New Delhi.
When I first reached that ancient—and modern—city, it had shown only its worst to me. The usual things happened: Autowalas cheated me, houseowners didn’t want to rent out their houses to me, I didn’t know anyone in the city of 14 million, everyone was rude and loud, snooty Delhiites looked down upon me because I was a middle-class boy from a small town, the roundabouts confused me. I was lost.
It took months of pain to work through the city’s hard shell, to find my way in that rough city. It took months to build my own little cocoon of comfort, without which life in New Delhi is a nightmare.
By the time I left New Delhi, seven years later, I had grown to love the place.
It is India’s culture capital. On almost any evening, if you walk into the India International Centre, or the India Habitat Centre, or the city’s many auditoriums, you will usually find something interesting going on—a dance recital, a musical performance, a play, a film screening, a talk on an important issue. Chances are, it will be of high standard, and open to all. With a bit of luck, it might even be a world-class performance by an international artist some embassy has flown in. Best of all: You can actually get there in time by just hopping into an autorickshaw.
Mumbai doesn’t seem to have as much of this. Here, it’s more about glitz. Its few true cultural spaces are scattered around the city. Getting to any of them is a challenge. You can’t just drop in to watch a play on the way home—it’s an expedition that needs to be planned. And traffic strangles most plans.
The island city is also more cut-off from the rest of the country. It is self-absorbed, almost self-obsessed. Mumbai cares only about Bollywood, money and itself. Events in the rest of the country are of no apparent concern to its citizens. “No one here has the time,” Mumbaikars will tell you. They are always in a rush, getting and spending.
In New Delhi, at least you still know there’s a country out there. I dislike its infamous ‘big brother’ attitude, but it seems preferable to Mumbai’s ‘no relation’ attitude.
Mumbai likes pub-hopping, shopping and fashion. Like any teenager, it is excited about partying and looking good. It is fun, but finally, it is frivolous and too full of itself.
I think I will go back, eventually, to the more grown-up charms of New Delhi.
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