A City Is A City Is A City
What if you fancy neither Mumbai nor Delhi?
Some people get terribly attached to cities.
Which is fine if cities were generally nice places. They are not. Most cities are soulless at best, vile at worst. Unless you were actually born in one and lived every moment of your life in it—at which point it becomes home, and “home” usually makes all evil more easy to live with—I fail to see how life in a city is not a compromise of some kind.
You tolerate the small flats for the big money, the terrible commute for the dream job, or the bland friendships for desperate love.
Cities are all about give and take, no?
So I get puzzled by people who are not only attached to cities, but also defend cities in the same way that other people defend—with equal lack of irony—religion.
And few such types are as militant as the Mumbai type.
I lived in Mumbai for approximately three years from 2005 to 2008. I only every stayed in one apartment in a place called Wadala East in a tall, ugly skyscraper in a flat with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a humongous living room that was too big for one airconditioner but too small for two. (Therefore the room always had three corners with humid climate and one which was ravaged by cold damp winds.)
I liked living in Mumbai. I had friends, some money, a job I liked and I eventually got married there, too. Also I managed to see a lot of the city in those three years. Both the Gateway of India and the lobby of the Taj Hotel, deep in the south, were regular haunts. That night when the terrorists attacked the hotel, I sat in that lobby until an hour before the attack. This was after I’d interviewed a CEO for my newspaper, in a room on the same sixth floor of the heritage wing that was later gutted by flames. After the interview I sat in the lobby just listening to the music and looking at the flower arrangements and quietly observing customers and staff. I’d always found the Taj lobby to be a very calming place. With excellent free air-conditioning.
In the opposite direction I’ve been all the way upto a semi-village somewhere in the outer northern wilderness of the city. One of those dusty, sweaty, hot towns that thrive off the economic rubbish flung off the Mumbai-Pune highway. I was driving with friends for a day-trip to Lonavla when the car broke down on the expressway. We’d blown a gasket and the radiator had over-heated. But like idiots we’d poured, by mistake, all our drinking water into the reservoir meant for the windshield wipers. We got towed into a workshop in this godforsaken outpost I no longer remember the name of. Our engine was blown. But we had gleaming windshields.
I liked Mumbai. I hated the traffic and the heat and the general filthiness of the place. And I was embarassed that this was the best that urban India had to offer. But I enjoyed the freedom, the choice of entertainment, the mix of people and the general sense of adventure the city had.
But two things happened in 2008 that made me move to Delhi.
On Diwali day that year the wife and I decided to go out for a drive. We left home in our car, went half-way up the bridge that connects Wadala East to the rest of the planet, and then took an illegal u-turn and came back home. We’d covered around one kilometer in approximately three hours. There was just too much traffic on the bridge.
Then a few days later my wife decided to take a suburban train to work. After being unable to get onto a single train for an hour, and being brutally pushed off three or four in the attempt, she came home in tears.
We both decided that it was time to move. Mumbai is a nice place. But everything is so hard if you are not in the right place, at the right time, with the right amount of money and the right level of disregard for other people.
We had a little chat and decided that we’d move if we ever could. In December 2008 we moved to Delhi.
Because of this transition people often ask me where I stand on the Mumbai versus Delhi debate.
Frankly speaking this is not a debate that has me up at night swallowing sedatives. They are different cities. They operate and think and talk and smell differently. You need to reach into different emotional reservoirs to survive in both. There are things to love and hate about both of them.
Delhi has somewhat wider roads, the Metro, cheaper rents and winters. And Delhi has history all over the place, albeit behind grills and bars and railings.
Mumbai is exciting and thrilling and risk-taking and welcoming and mildly hopped up on some mild drug. Mumbai also has its history, but it lives in it. There are no barriers. In Mumbai the locals live in the monuments and the tourists look at them.
In Delhi the tourists are inside all the monuments. And the locals don’t give a fuck.
For me the debate is never about Mumbai versus Delhi versus Kochi versus Doha.
I think the debate is about the city versus me. When it looks like I am no longer winning I pack up and move.
Cities rarely lose. And almost never move.
Sidin Vadukut is a columnist, blogger, and author of Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin “Einstein”.