People ask me often why I like Delhi so much. It's been a source of amusement for my family for years, as a child, returning home from Cochin or Hyderabad where I spent my summer, I'd wake up with the early morning sounds of the train and rush to the window to see the first grey contruction sites, the yards where the big compartments with MAERSK on them were stored, the posters, fraying at the edges advertising 'Sex Doctors' and the glorious Hindi script which I had barely seen all summer. My aunts would laugh at me, "You and your Delhi!" but I couldn't explain the feeling of utter, uncontrolable joy that came out of seeing the first signs of my home.
Now people look at me sceptically. "You like Delhi? Over Mumbai? Or Bangalore?" "Yes," I say simply and most often they leave it at that, not bothering to argue with someone so clearly mentally challenged. Sometimes they argue, Mumbai-people are the worst, extolling the virtues of ANY OTHER CITY in this planet, and then I bristle and say, "Well, if Delhi's so bad, why do you live here?"
Why does anyone choose to live in Delhi? I can understand the Punjabi immigrants from Pakistan. They have fully claimed this city, it is theirs, they have made it what it is today. Even the UPites and the Jats, with their refined Hindi and their string of vernacular abuses. It is not mine in the way that it is theirs, it can never be mine, a person from the South has no connections to this soil.
In school, we all defended our original birthplaces. I got a lot of "Oh, idli-sambhar," and demands about why I wasn't dark with oily hair. "You don't look South Indian at all," Punjabi mothers used to tell me when I played with their offspring. I didn't fit the stereotype certainly, with my accent so 'pukka-Delhi' with the fact that I could speak Hindi, that we ate, yes, rajma-chawal at home most days, instead of sambhar. But I never belonged to the South either. There my halting Telegu and Malayalam was greeted with scorn, there my accent was so not theirs, there my clothes, the way I talked, the way I behaved and expected to be treated was too Delhi. My parents seemed to straddle both worlds effectively, but I guess they could. They grew up in the South, their roots were there and at the end of the day, that's where they belonged more than Delhi. People referred to us as 'Madrassis' no matter how often I corrected them. I wanted an identity of my own. Something that didn't have to do with my distant Southern roots, something that would be tied up with this city that I belonged in, that I had been conceived in (but not born. Few people are born in Delhi from my generation. Most people's mothers, like mine, returned to the place they truly called home) and that I had grown up in. But no one was willing to give me that.
Delhi can never be a 'motherland' in the way some places are. It belongs truly to itself, the National Capital Region, not part of a state, independant and floating along happily. And no one can truly belong to Delhi. If someone asks me where I'm from, I know they're asking where my anscetors are from. I say, "My mother is from Andhra Pradesh and my father is from Kerala." Most people stop there, but some, curious or trying to make a point say, "And where are you from?" And then I say proudly, "Delhi." They laugh at that, some smile, no one really believes it.
No, Delhi isn't a motherland. It's more like a cool big sister. Or a favourite aunt. Someone you know isn't going to pick you up and kiss your wounds away, but who will show you a good time. And let you be independant. Someone who will give you your first lessons with reality and temper that with perfumed air-kisses. Maybe there's something wrong with me for warming to that rather than something you can always depend on. But Delhi's selfish little soul draws my own, and there are some things which are familiar. There's bhutta for instance in the rainy season and the sharp woodsmoke smell of the winter and there's Daryagunj with it's second-hand pavement bookstores and tonga wallahs and there's the green corridors of the posh India Gate colonies. There's memories everywhere I look, a restaurant where my parents trysted, Priya cinema complex, way back, when it was the only place that showed English movies and where my classmates and I went for our first movie on our own (Jurassic Park), and there's the schools I went to, and Khan Market where we made our first attempts at dating and so many things.
I don't think it's something I can explain, the way ex-pats from Mumbai or Calcutta or Bangalore or wherever can. They have fixed reasons, concrete reasons for hating my city and loving their own. But what other city would take them in? Sure, it won't mollycoddle you, it'll leave you alone to learn your own lessons, the rough men on the road might bother you a little, but I know that at the end of a year, or six months or whatever, it'll be hard for those people to return to their own (rather wussy) hometowns. Delhi spoils you for other places. I can now confidentally manage in any other part of this country. I am, after all, a Dilli-wallah, someone your mother warned you about. :)