Struggling to call it her own, Abhilasha Kumar writes about her complicated relationship with that most exasperating and endearing of cities: Delhi.
The first time I lost myself in Delhi, I was seven. I stood at the gates of the Lotus Temple, convinced that my parents had left me behind. Thirty minutes later, my mother rushed towards me and enveloped me in her arms, allaying my fears and quieting my demons. But in retrospect, the feeling of sheer helplessness and fear that had consumed me at the age of seven came to define my relationship with Delhi—my poison, my panacea.
I’m the average girl from Delhi, the one you make YouTube videos about, fool around with, stereotype, mock and judge but never understand. I grew up in a modest DDA flat in Vikas Puri, where rooms were small and means limited. It is a part of Delhi that lies in the western fringe, and thus escapes the attention of most biographers of the city. I spent my childhood running through its narrow streets and playing sun-moon-water-land on the dimly lit steps in the corridor of my building. Little did I know in those years of heedless frolicking, that with me, an idea had been born, one which had to be nurtured, incubated, perfected and eventually sent away. The project greatly busied my parents.
There was a strange sexual energy that everyone sensed but refused to openly acknowledge in those times.
I was sent to a girls-only convent school in south Delhi, because to be convent-educated was deemed respectable for a girl. I studied amidst fairly rich girls who flaunted their lunch money in the canteen and ogled the gardener, the new PT teacher and the lonesome boy from St Columba’s or Mount Saint Mary’s, who for some reason stood at the gates every afternoon and enjoyed the unrestrained adulation of the entire school in his acne-infested adolescent years. I battled through uncomfortable sex education classes, where girls were judged for paying too much attention or volunteering to demonstrate how to use a condom. There was a strange sexual energy that everyone sensed but refused to openly acknowledge in those times. That I was not speaking to a boy on the landline after school and nobody’s cycle or bike followed my school bus meant that boys didn’t like me, or so I was told by my friends. I grew up feeling extremely insecure and worried that I would die alone.
My school years gave way to a college that was, for better or worse, also in Delhi. So, even as I moved houses and shifted to the upcoming suburb of Dwarka in the south-western end of the city, my education necessitated that I travel a lot. Delhi had always been home, but I fell in love with it only when I shifted to the hostel in my first year of college.
Very few people understand Delhi, mostly because they are so eager to confine it. The way they have slotted Bombay as the city of dreams, Kolkata as the city of culture and Hyderabad as the city of nawabs, they crave to find the right words to describe Delhi. But Delhi escapes a singular definition—it is both terrible and tantalising, exasperating and endearing, ruthless and ravishing. It is not a friendly city, but it grows on you, like wine. In sweet little ways, it finds a place inside you that is its own. As I explored its little alleys, beautiful monuments and secret hideouts, and let Delhi become the backdrop of every memory of mine, I became one with it. Delhi seemed beautiful because I was; it seemed difficult because I was.
My city was like a person in many ways, because loving it didn’t come too easily. After the initial fascination wore off, its flaws emerged and made a home for themselves on my skin. I wore Delhi like a badge of honour, and thus its warts shone like the glossed rim. When I was in college, I started to like a boy and I told him that I did. I didn’t know that girls aren’t supposed to tell too early. It kills the suspense, it makes you look easy and then you’ve lost him. I did. Scarred by the experience, I learnt to play along. Life started to fall in place because I started to prance inside the circle the world had drawn for me in white chalk. I learnt to ward off roadside Romeos, avoid the lonely roads and shady subways and reach home safely under all circumstances. Nobody kidnapped me or attacked me with acid because I stayed within my limits. Delhi behaved, because I behaved. However, my unadulterated love for the city began to dilute with every step I took.
Delhi escapes a singular definition—it is both terrible and tantalising, exasperating and endearing, ruthless and ravishing. It is not a friendly city, but it grows on you, like wine. In sweet little ways, it finds a place inside you that is its own.
Meanwhile, Delhi got itself the lovely metro. The memories of my travels to coaching classes in the Blue Line buses of Delhi, where some men would shamelessly stare at my breasts and others would “accidentally” touch my thigh, ass or waist, were only beginning to bury themselves in a corner that only Freud could reach, when the metro arrived and was heralded as the great socio-economic leveller. Men and women of all classes and castes travelled together, until DMRC realised that groping would become the norm if they did not provide a ladies’ compartment. So, in a compartment marked and indicated by pink and white flowers on the platform, I travelled safely and securely, much to the relief of my folks. I felt like an ostrich, burying my face in the sand and pretending that nobody could see me. But everyone could, and more importantly, I could. I could see my city’s hypocrisy in the pinkness of those flowers.
I was visiting Buddhist temples in Bangkok with my parents on an LTC-enabled holiday when the rape of a Delhi girl shook the nation. I came back to melted candles at India Gate; it was the aftermath of what seemed like a storm. Paranoia struck me as I read and heard the news. Suddenly, my bubble of safety broke and every auto ride that I took became a battle won against a penis. My curfews became stricter and I feared everyone—the plumber who came to unclog the sink, the electrician who repaired the geyser, the uncle who sat rather close to me, the shopkeeper who tried to make conversation, the boy who tried to flirt with me on the bus and the cab driver who drove too fast or took a different route than the one suggested by Google Maps. Every man became his organ.
It didn’t help that Delhi was slowly crumbling into a mass of insults and accusations. The city that I had loved unconditionally was suddenly under attack, and I began to fear its demise as much as my own. For what was I without Delhi? I had prided myself for belonging to a city that was progressive, heterogeneous and beautiful. Suddenly, it was none of these things. The incident and its aftermath changed me, because it changed Delhi.
I moved to the hinterland of Haryana after college, only to come to Delhi on the weekends. I had loved Delhi with all my heart for 23 years. Its little haunts in Dwarka, Chanakyapuri, Hauz Khas and North Campus, its varied people from Rajouri to GK to Punjabi Bagh, its clear and crowded mornings and its cool and comforting nights, its paneer-butter-masala and vodka golgappas, its betrayals and weaknesses, its romances and celebrations—I had loved it all. But disillusionment had crept in and poisoned both of us. I felt the need to break free from this dark city that I called home, and so I left, to find myself elsewhere.
The city that I had loved unconditionally was suddenly under attack, and I began to fear its demise as much as my own. For what was I without Delhi?
And yet, Delhi never left me. I continued to mistrust men and their intentions. Auto rides past sundown continued to fill my heart with dread. I could not survive the madness of Delhi, but I struggled to keep myself away from it. If Delhi had been a person, letting it go would have been easy. But a city runs through your veins and irrevocably registers itself into your thought process. With some effort, you can delete the memories of a person, but try as you might, the backdrop remains. Delhi is mine, warts and all.
I am now only months away from a new life, which may begin with a goodbye to Delhi. The past year has seen me discover a new self, and with it, a newer Delhi. This one is nervous but hopeful, bruised but resilient. I’m evolving, and so is Delhi. Even as I prepare myself to part from that which is a part of me, something tells me that I never will. Something tells me that we’ll be fine.