My love story with Delhi is rather cliched. It began as all such stories do — girl meets city, girl absolutely detests it before she realises that it does have its charm. Then, grudgingly, and over time, she awards it the status of “home”.
It’s been 10 years since my 15-year-old self set foot in Dilli. Or rather it’s next-door neighbour, Gurgaon. I disliked this brash north Indian city the minute I set foot on it. I disliked how everything here moved at lightning speed. The people were always in a hurry to go somewhere and, god forbid, if they were behind the wheel — driving etiquette seemed wholly absent from the lexicon of this half of the country.
I was born and brought up in Chennai, a city that is cheerful and bustling and not in a tearing hurry to be somewhere. I was a lot like my hometown — peace-loving and quiet. So when my parents told me we’d be moving to the other part of the country, I looked at them in shock.
I arrived in Gurgaon on a hot summer night in 2008. As we drove from the airport along the NH-8, all I saw were steel and concrete buildings and clouds of dust. I felt a pang of homesickness for the quiet, tree-lined street I grew up in. Daybreak brought into glaring display everything the darkness had hidden — dusty streets, straggling patches of green and wandering strays. As we drove around the city, I would sink down into my seat to avoid looking outside. The car nearly hit a stray cow that had wandered into the middle of the road and the driver cursed in Hindi. I would have given anything to hear a Tamil cuss word at that point, anything that reminded me of home. I even missed Chennai’s yellow autos, despite them charging me a kidney for a 10-minute trip.
For the next two years, I kept up a steady diatribe against the city. “Gurgaon is like a loud, drunk man, constantly trying to grab everyone’s attention with his flashy clothes,” I told a friend back home.
I felt like a small town girl lost in a big city, longing for the home I’d left far behind. The fact that I didn’t know the language didn’t help. While I had studied Hindi till Class X and could read and write with precision, I could barely string together two words to form a coherent sentence. Hindi numbers were especially a problem. Once at Sarojini Nagar, I tried haggling with a vendor over the price of a shoe. “Saade saat so, madam. Usse kam nahi karunga (Rs 750, madam, no less than that),” he’d told me. It took me a full five minutes to do the math, by which time somebody more fluent in Hindi successfully brought down the price to saade paanch so and walked away with the shoe.
Those first few months, I was a silent spectator in a sea of voices conversing in Hindi. Or, if I did attempt to speak Hindi, it would be met with, “Oh you’re south Indian? Your accent is so cute!” What accent, I always wondered. Did I sound like people who go to the US for a few years and suddenly come back sounding like Priyanka Chopra?
In school, everyone seemed to have an extra-perceptive “spot the south Indian” antenna. Back in Chennai, the three-tier steel tiffin carrier lunch-box was an integral part of school. I had discarded mine when I moved up north. My sister was less fortunate, having carted it to school. Later that day, she told me other kids in class had sniggered at her and the box like it was alien object from another planet. “You are from south India, no?” one child had sniggered at her. She never took it back to school.
But, somewhere along the way, I discovered I didn’t hate living here as much I used to. Was it because I learned to successfully haggle with street vendors? Or because I spoke Hindi better than I did Tamil or my native language, Telugu? Maybe it was because I discovered traces of home in this city, like the quiet park in the condominium I live in, a tree-lined road or the local library that reminded me of the one in Chennai? Or the joys of a smooth public transport system, a.k.a the Metro?
Or was it on that balmy August night, six years ago, eating paranthas at JNU’s Ganga dhaba? Giddy with a new-found sense of independence that came with going to college (and a bit of wine), surrounded by my best friends, Delhi finally felt like home.
It still puzzles me as to how I got over my loathing of the city. But just as I think I’ve mastered the art of living in the “naarth”, the language plays spoilsport. While booking a cab the other day, I called the driver to find out his vehicle number. “Madam, paanch so ikattar hai (It’s 571, madam),” he told me. I didn’t have the heart to ask him what “ikkatar” meant. So I took an auto instead. At least “pachas (50)” was familiar territory.