Choosing between Mumbai and Delhi is like picking between two opinionated best friends. It’s really tough
R Swaminathan | January 4, 2017
I am made of both Delhi and Mumbai. Intellect will tell you sharply that Mumbai and Delhi are two cities. Nothing more and nothing less. Instinct will whisper softly that Mumbai and Delhi are two beings caught in a passionate embrace that’s part love, part hatred and fully visceral. Always more and never less. I am made of both Mumbai and Delhi.
To visualise a city as a tightly knit amalgamation of buildings, roads, private and public spaces fostering different kinds of socio-economic, political and cultural activities is an urban purist’s good dream. It makes the city almost systemic: planned, rational, predictable and ordered. Such a conceptualisation has its obvious advantages: cities can be managed, administered, governed, taxes can be collected, economies can be built and, why, even cultural milieus can be seeded and a unique character injected, like some planned genetic mutation. In short, the city is always malleable to human intent and enterprise. It’s intellect in full flow.
Ascribing emotions to a city is an urban purist’s bad dream. It makes the city almost human: messy, vague, irrational, moody and unpredictable. For all its human characteristics, ascription of emotions is still a conscious being’s deliberate act of pinning feelings to an inanimate object. The logic of subject-object dichotomy is not violated for a moment either in letter or spirit. At the end of it all, there is no confusion that a city is still part of a rational world bound inextricably to the laws of physics, engineering equations and mathematics. It’s still intellect, but tempered by some ounces of instinct.
But to contend that a city has its own emotions is an urban purist’s nightmare. It makes the city specifically human: funny, witty, dark, warm and cold in equal measure, and liberally peppered with infuriating idiosyncrasies. There is no element of ascription here: the city itself is a sentient being with its own emotions and awareness. Emotions can explain everything from city’s wrinkles and warts to its rustic gaudiness and urbane sophistication. Emotions, after all, are bound neither by the norms of scientific spirit and the strict rules of laboratory conditions nor to the scholarly pillars of rationality. Emotions are unhinged from the limits set by the mathematical world. Two plus two can be seven, or if you wish four. It is pure instinct.
The fine-tooth comb of intellect has often been used on Mumbai and Delhi in bid to unlock the secrets of their embrace that’s as historical as it is never-ending. That faculty has taken the shape of history, political economy, cultural anthropology, sociology and economics.
Academicians, think-tankers, consultants, thought leaders, each fashioning a customised lens as per their training and proclivities. Such efforts have often led to interesting insights into the cities, and really useful ones at that, but have never unraveled the raw bond that ties up the two cities. Think dense academic tomes. Think consultancy reports. Think think-tankers, think-pieces.
Sometimes intellect has been liberally peppered with instinct, in the hope that the concoction will uncover the secrets of why both cities cannot be talked about for too long without bringing in the other into the conversation. Yet, for all its success in spicing and flavouring the blandness of intellect, the hope largely lies belied. Intellect pushes instinct beyond a certain threshold into the realm of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, keeping instinct out of mainstream academic discourse. Fantastic works on each of the cities have resulted from this. Think Kiran Nagarkar. Think Salman Rushdie. Think Rohinton Mistry. Think William Dalrymple. The list is as long as it is illustrious.
But the embrace has remained bereft of any meaningful touch. Ironically it is acknowledged, but more in a manner of a careless caress than a serious enquiry resulting in comparisons dominated by clearly unanswerable questions of which city is better than the other. Unanswerable, because intellect, even if peppered with instinct, will in the ultimate analysis reduce the cities to a bunch of numbers and statistics, much like a modelling agency will look at men and women.
Numbers and statistics, however, do tell a certain useful version of the truth. Delhi has improved in the last two decades in almost every single parameter as the Oxford Economics Future Cities 2030 report indicates. Bus transportation. Check. Infrastructure. Check. Connectivity. Check. Power supply. Check. Road network. Check. Metro. A big, big check. Ease of doing business. A big check. Gurgaon and Noida. Check, even if with reservations.
Mumbai has regressed or stagnated on most parameters. Bus transportation. Regressed. Infrastructure. Regressed. Road network. Regressed. Power supply. Status quo. Metro. Regressed. Ease of doing business. Regressed. Vashi and Thane. Status quo. It’s hard to dispute the conclusion, statistically at least, that Delhi is going to be sundry monetary and economic gods and goddesses’ favourite child in the years to come, a place once proudly occupied by Mumbai. Intellect agrees readily.
Instinct doesn’t. Delhi feeds you aggressive energy in large doses. Mumbai stuffs you with an ambitious soul in equally big mouthfuls. Delhi fills you up with incredible and unaffected warmth. Mumbai percolates its functional, but not effusive, warmth like a strong decoction of filter coffee. Delhi sends you to the school of hard knocks to teach you how to deal (or not) with wanton power. Mumbai sends you to an equally tough school to learn how to (or not) handle unbridled money. Delhi tells you jugaad. Mumbai says bindaas. Till now, instinct says that there is nothing to choose. If Delhi clenches its fists and shouts “take that”, Mumbai grits its teeth and screams “move on”.
Mumbai loves what it offers and hates what Delhi doesn’t. Delhi loves what it offers and hates what Mumbai doesn’t: part love, part hatred and fully visceral. Yet, instinct has an inbuilt evaluating system, one that’s easier recognised than deciphered. There are two instinctive characteristics that Mumbai has that Delhi doesn’t. Both are connected and it isn’t Delhi’s fault, as much it is Mumbai’s good fortune. Delhi deals with power of a particular kind, one that emanates from bureaucratic leverage and position rather than any social or economic foundation. Such power is all about hierarchy, enforcement and a certain sense of superiority. A Delhi small-time businessman’s ‘instinctual preference’ for a car, rather than a metro train ride is a symptom of this emotional characteristic.
Mumbai deals with money, money of a particular kind that emanates from entrepreneurship and an innate desire to make it big. Such money is about, well, making more money and it doesn’t distinguish between people. All it cares about is whether the deal is a win-win for both parties involved. It’s an equaliser. Mumbaikars refer to it as dhandho, a term that now epitomises the Mumbai spirit despite its obvious Gujarati origins. A diamond merchant’s instinctual preference for travelling from Kandivali to Charni Road in a local suburban train is a symptom of this emotional characteristic.
Delhi’s relationship with women is one tinged with a certain fixed understanding of hierarchy, a lot of which can be traced to the mind maps that power creates. A stereotypical Delhi male’s gaze that ‘fixes’ a woman to a mother, daughter, commodity, wife, sister, lover, client, bhabhi is as much a symptom of an emotion as it is a deep-rooted problem. An average Delhi’s woman’s instinctual preference to get home before it’s too dark is a trait indicative of the status that city bestows on her.
Mumbai’s immediate relationship with women is one tinted by entrepreneurship and partnership where everyone is an equal opportunity earner. Of course, much of that opportunity comes because everything in the city, especially a roof over your head, is extremely expensive. It’s tough to get by if the women of the household don’t work. A stereotypical Mumbaikar’s gaze that doesn’t fix a woman to a mother, daughter, sister, commodity, wife, lover, client or bhabhi is as much a symptom as it’s a deep-rooted solution. An average Mumbai woman’s instinctual preference to lead her life her way even after dark is indicative of the status the city bestows on her.
I am made by both Mumbai and Delhi. Two cities. Nothing more and nothing less. True. The two are also sentient beings caught in a passionate embrace where the one loves what the other hates simply because the other loves to hate it. Or vice versa. Completely visceral, like two abrasive star-crossed lovers. True. Yet, despite numbers and parameters instinct prefer one over the other. I am made by both Delhi and Mumbai.
Swaminathan spent his childhood and youth in Delhi, his adulthood in Mumbai. He is hopelessly, madly in love with both.
(The column appears in the January 1-15, 2016 issue)