Delhi has a split personality. But this little reflection is not about how there is an old Delhi and a New Delhi, or the Delhi of mausoleums and darbars, versus the Delhi of malls and PVRs, nor even the intense inequality of high rise buildings jostling for space with make-shift slums or of a brand new Ferrari awaiting a green signal beside a rusty old 90’s Suzuki 800. My lament instead is towards Delhi’s vast cultural and political capital being wasted on the vast majority of those who make up its social.
It is not that Delhi’s people are artlessly unaware of her being the epicentre of what is Indian — for that might have been charming, — it is that they appear to have a shocking disdain for her spectacular architecture, shrugging past the ghosts of Indian history seeping through the red brick and stone masterpieces that abound within her, or the political importance of being the capital city of India. As they say about ghar ki murgi, I suppose.
Delhi’s schizophrenia is manifested in her deeply cultivated few and her rabidly, enthusiastically, even chauvinistically, unreflexive multitudes. It isn’t my grouse that Delhi’s many don’t care enough about her, either the corporeal her or the symbolic her, but that they just couldn’t care less. And so Delhi overwhelmingly feels petty; her people shadow, even hollow, all bling and bang, and who cares about substance?
I have lived substantial amounts of time in Calcutta, Bangalore and Madras, and while each has its specialties and its failings, these cities have a soul, a common spirit of fellow-feeling that pervades their respective denizens. Delhi’s people, though, lack a common soul, in the absence of which her people walk each for his own — disconnected, clamorous, belligerent and angsty.
While Mumbaikars might express xenophobia towards Biharis, and Chennaiites towards Hindi-wallahs, and Bengalureans towards software engineers; Delhi looks askance at every neighbour (be it Malviya Nagar or Majnu Ka Teela, Rajiv Chowk or the Red Line). Smiles are met with indignation at their daring familiarity and strangers lending a hand are events rare enough to write home about.
How does one make sense of this xenophobia in Delhi? When Delhi is made up of strangers! Perhaps that is what it is. Delhi suffers from the absence of ownership by belonging to everyone. It is historically the refuge of refugees from India’s North-Western Partition, and it is legally the National Capital, so the home of every Indian resident who wishes to call it home. It is national and communal and isn’t allowed to be dominated by parochial interests, not overtly at least. And therein lies Delhi’s bane: anyone can stake claim over Delhi, yet no one can stake higher claim over Delhi. Its cultural sense stays in a state of nature. Aggressive possession becomes the way to establish control. Delhi’s predominant flavour becomes angst. It stays caught up in a state of perennial adolescence, as its it-ness stays undefined, forbidden from maturing by the constant contest between coequal, competing, cultural claims.