The Good Life
Mumbai might have the better nightlife, but Delhi wins on quality of life.
In July 2009, I boarded a westward bound flight from Mumbai International Airport, tears in my eyes, having just spent a year in my adopted home. I had lived the life of a seconded expat banker, trudging through traffic southward to Nariman Point by day and reveling in the (mostly South) Mumbai nightlife. And in my very few visits to Delhi that year, I didn’t really get the Mumbai-Delhi debate. All I knew was mostly hearsay, the kind of banter made over a beer at Woodside Inn or Zenzi, where there’s really not much of a debate at all.
“Delhi is too spread out. Transport is difficult—it’s hard to get around.”
“Delhites are so aggressive. And they’re flashy, materialistic. Bombay is much more chilled out.”
“Bombay is way more cosmopolitan than Delhi.”
And the kicker—the line that no one would ever dare disagree with—the line that unites those who travel by chauffeur on Peddar Road and those who bargain with rickshawwallas on the Rs40 fare from Bandra to Malad: “Delhi. It has nice gardens, yeah. Butter chicken, dal makhani very tasty, yaar. Loads of cultural events, Delhi side. Winter time is quite pleasant, but dear God, Delhi is NOT safe for women at night!”
And then, whatever debate there was, whatever hint of dissension existed between friends, enemies, brothers, sisters and in-laws on this modern Indian metropolis dispute quickly fades into the muggy draft soaring over Marine Drive into the Arabian Sea. Gone forever—or at least until the next time someone brings up that hostile city in the north.
And given such strong views by my local friends in Mumbai, I was predisposed with major reluctance when offered the opportunity to return to India for another shot, this time in Delhi. I wavered back and forth, but it was August 2009, nothing was happening back home in the US, and part of me was still yearning for India. I traded in the humid, teeming and vivacious financial and entertainment capital for the more subdued, spread-out, and surprisingly green, political capital.
In my first few days as a Mumbai expat in 2008, I made dozens of new friends, excited to be away from the looming financial crisis in the US and Europe and reveling in the nonstop nightlife. With few exceptions, my friends’ circle in Mumbai was invariably connected to the party scene. Delhi would initially be much different. I was thankful for the scratch Hindi I had garnered in a year in Mumbai, and a few key friends of friends to get me started. Still, it was far more difficult to get planted and meet people in Delhi. And after at least a year in both cities, I feel adequately equipped to draw a comparison.
The Mumbai social scene is not guided by one overbearing community, rather a thali platter of local Mumbaikars living with Mom and Dad, career-focused, young professionals living on their own, and expats. The thali is served congruously, each group feeding off one another, often the kadhi mixes with the daal, but perhaps it’s better that way as the daal might be too bland or too spicy on its own.
Contrarily, the Delhi social scene reminds me of a restaurant in South Delhi’s expansive Garden of Five Senses, Fio. The place markets itself as a fusion of Indian and Italian cuisine. But if one scours the menu, it’s clearly separated—Italian and Indian cuisine on different pages. The only fusion is the ability to top off a plate of shahi paneer with tiramisu. Similarly, in Delhi, locals and foreigners go to many of the same places, but the interaction is limited.
Recently, I was out with a friend visiting from Mumbai. We went to one of Delhi’s hottest new, velvet rope clubs. The scene was classic Delhi. We only danced and chatted with our group of six people as we ogled the tall, blonde Eastern European prostitutes sipping champagne at the table of a wealthy sardar. There were many (not for sale) attractive Delhi girls in their early twenties, but we of course didn’t dare approach any of them. Because who knows where their brothers or uncles were lurking? We cringed incredulously as we watched a group of five primly dressed, young men force one another to chug straight from a bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold. That’s GOLD Mumbai, not the Black that is properly sipped from lowball glasses in Malabar Hill.
In Delhi, while there are some people who have developed a bond with the city, many more have a love-hate relationship. Artists, journalists, NGO activists, investors, environmentalists, students, and actors have come from far and wide and insofar as many dislike the rough and tumble of daily life in Delhi, they love the opportunity to be in India and use the city as a gateway.
Owing to the inherent segregation in Delhi, I have sometimes been in social situations with only expats, when the conversation naturally shifts. Instead of gushing over the latest Indian literary feat or debating which political scandal will have the harshest impact on India’s ability to attract foreign investment, the dialogue becomes a one-sided rant on the difficulty of living in Delhi—why no one is ever on time, how it’s so dirty, how Indians have no concept of personal space. It gets ugly and uncomfortable. In Mumbai, because the community is so much more integrated, I almost never found myself in a setting of only expats, and more importantly, most of the expats were simply happy to be in Mumbai, many claiming a rooted ownership to the city.
So, where do I come out?
On food: I’m going to surprise a lot of people and call a tie. This is a personal choice—while I acknowledge that Delhi has better North Indian food, better international cuisine, plenty more options and equivalent South Indian food to Mumbai, one can barely find a good place to eat khichdi and other Gujarati delicacies. And I have a soft spot for Gujju food.
On nightlife: Mumbai hands down is the winner. While Delhi has some fancy new venues such as Shiro and Hype, the scene is something to be desired. Expats who make up the minority at these establishments are typically seen as strange-looking outsiders. Mumbai’s scene is open to everyone, and people actually interact with strangers.
On people: A tie. Delhi wins on the diversity and size of the expat community, but I didn’t come to India to hang out solely with non-Indians. This one again is a toss-up, as I got to know more Indians in Mumbai.
On the quality of life: Delhi wins. This isn’t only an expat issue, but I would consider it more important than many of the other categories. Most non-Indians are accustomed to a certain quality of living conditions, space, roads, traffic, and greenery. Crowd surfing through bustling markets, avoiding ox carts on walking paths, and trying to ignore the honking gets old after a while. Of course, all of the above exist in Delhi, but they are much more easily avoided.
Final tally: Delhi 1, Mumbai 1, and 2 ties. I’m going to use my journalistic right and create my own weighting system. Quality of life is more important to me than quality nightlife, so Delhi wins. Sorry Mumbai—still love you, kabhi kabhi.
Jay Lurie is a Delhi-based banking professional who divides his time between writing, photography, travel, making small talk with taxi drivers and fruitwallahs, and developing infrastructure projects for a multilateral organisation.Expat Diaries, Jay Lurie, Mumbai vs Delhi