I love Dilli, but can we be more sensitive?

When I posted pictures of an outing to celebrate 100 years of Delhi recently, I got some strong reactions from friends in Lucknow talking about how wonderful, superior, culture-soaked their city is viz-a-viz Delhi. Though I did tell them that the pictures weren’t intended to start a competition between cities, I was secretly thrilled at the fierce sense of identity, possessiveness and belonging these friends exhibited.

Delhi evokes mixed reactions. Many who grew up in the Delhi bond strongly with it (Read my mum’s evocative blog post), while many others who migrate into Delhi as adults have a more complex relationship with it (Nupur expresses this essential conflict beautifully on her blog).

I, on the other hand, have spent most of my adult life in Delhi and its environs. This city has been the backdrop for the liveliest memories and scariest encounters, many mistakes and some successes! I made many close friends here and Dilli’s spaces saw us laugh, cry, mourn, tease…ah, those carefree days. Dilli also saw my early married life, my kids being born, motherhood, career changes and all the rest…..

Here are some things I absolutely love about Dilli:

The heritage context: I was always a bit crazy about old buildings and ruins, but being an architecture student in this city really let me indulge my history freak side! In the 2nd and 3rd years of college, a group of us visited as many old monuments as we could, sketched and photographed them read about them and really came to appreciate the beauty of the city in which we live.

Its been a long-time dream to spend winter weekends taking my kids to all these wonderful places. We’ve covered some ground, but this city has so much to offer..its a long long way to go.

Its multicultural atmosphere: Despite its ‘punj’ image, Dilli is a pretty neat microcosm of India. Once you adopt the city’s casual attitude, its easy to let go and enjoy. With all its eccentricities, Delhi isn’t  judgemental and has grown large enough to be tolerant of people of different shapes, sizes and colour. Even if you get stared at, its not usually menacing, so I’ve heard from firangi friends at work!

Loads of green: We crib about the disappearing ridge and all of that, but Delhi is one of the greenest Indian cities I know. It easy to walk through many parts of central and south Delhi under a reasonably leafy canopy and its one of the most enjoyable experiences. There are still footpaths through these parts!

A soft core inside a brash exterior: Its a city that needs you to punch through the outer hard layers and embrace its softer inner being. Was in Chandni Chowk last week helping a friend buy wedding sarees. There was a sweet ‘n sour row with the shop guy over whether or not she can take pics of the sarees on her phone. The entire exchange, sharp in parts yet jovial, teasing, epitomized how Delhi is. Can be brash and aggressive, sure! But no offense meant, really! No need to take it personally, yaar!

What would make me prouder still, though, is if Dilli had more empathy, a more heightened sense of its importance and value, a more well-developed identity.

In several editorials about homeless people published recently, it struck me how few of Dilli’s charitable institutions serve the poorest of the poor. Over time, our city has developed a callous attitude. A psyche that constantly seeks upward mobility and one up-manship in the material sphere has meant that the city has developed strong boundaries between classes. Even charity and kindness become conditional to class, affluence, how you dress, who you socialize with…

Thousands flocked to show Anna Hazare support when he fasted at Ramlila ground. Many of the same Delhi folks- ordinary shopkeepers, employees, office goers- were interviewed on air and scoffed at the idea of standing in a line at a hospital, refusing an out-of-turn allotment, etc.

Duplicity and insensitivity are, to my mind, the two negative traits that undo all the charm the city holds. A die-hard city lover,I refuse to be put off by these though! I do, however, believe that citizens need to have more of a say in what their city should be like. Yay to all those forums that work to increase awareness and instill a sense of pride in Delhi’s citizens. It would be good to take these a step further to build consensus on what people want in terms of urban planning, green spaces, transport systems, governance and many other issues. Further, organizations like RWAs and other forums must use their influence to sensitize the middle class and affluent citizens about their duties towards the poor. Not just to open their purse strings and give away food and clothes, but to open up their hearts to recognize that the poor also have rights, that they too are rightful citizens of Delhi. If this divide can be bridged, at least in part, Delhi can truly aspire to be a great city for demonstrating the toughest trait of all- inclusiveness!

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