March 12, 2013

On my love/hate relationship with Delhi

For years I have moved around the world, a veritable nomad, heading to the next location that work, love or whimsy will take me. And for years, while others have easily spoken of a hometown that they love or a place that they can call home, I have always shied away from the topic, sometimes avoided and often been aggressively vehement about not actually caring about having a home.

And yet all the time, I know that I have been incredibly conflicted about loving or even showing a smidgen of caring or emotion for a city that I have probably spent the largest portion of my life in.

As a military brat, one never really feels that one has a home; your parents move every two years and you move on to the next base. However, in my case, because of my father’s postings to Delhi and then my choice to stay on and work in Delhi, I have spent over seventeen years, most of them as a young adult and older in the city. The other years have been divided across the country between various naval bases and atleast ten years abroad. For someone like me, seventeen years in one place is almost a lifetime.

Most of my teenage and adult relationships and friendships were formed in that city, most of my earliest crushes were felt in Delhi and all of my closest friends have some connection or another with that city (even in my life abroad, some of my closest friends are from Delhi; it’s a shared memory and nostalgia for childhood and college activities that keeps us connected despite completely different lives). Much of my family still lives in Delhi and it is probably the only city that I can navigate even today without a map. And yet, I have never been able to say that Delhi was ever my hometown, or that Delhi has ever been home to me or that it will ever be a city that I love. I have always struggled with this emotion but never really dealt with the question head-on.

It has only been in December, 2012, with the attention on the rape in Delhi that I have finally been able to articulate the emotions that I have always had about the city.

My relationship with Delhi will always be one of love and hate. Like an old lover, I will always appreciate the sheer beauty of the city, the incredible teachers that the city availed to me, the culture and architecture that were at my doorstep and the incredibly accomplished set of friends and people that I have come to know in that city. And then I will also always remember the ugliness and comments made as my sister and I, freshly arrived from Bombay, caught an auto rickshaw, wearing shorts: something we had never thought twice about in Bombay. Nor will I forget the story of the lovers who were lynched in a village in the outskirts of the city, in Haryana, and the daily harassment in the buses that I took to college. I will always remember the complete desexualisation that I managed to achieve, to be able to catch public buses in Delhi. My uniform of short hair, dark high-neck t- shirts and loose jeans was an incredibly effective way of completely camouflaging me from the entire male sex and even then, the harassment was daily and constant.

One did not complain about these events, because quite frankly, there was no one to complain to and even if you did, you only caused more attention to be drawn towards yourself. So, one just struggled on and the status quo and harassment continued. When I went back to work in the city, I found myself negotiating the roads of Delhi again but this time as a driver and often alone. Travelling alone at night was always an unnerving experience, making sure that all doors were locked, calling hosts before leaving for a party (often even calling my parents in Goa to tell them I was back home) and trying to outmanoeuvre the aggressive male drivers that would constantly harass me. Aggression was the only way to survive the city and then when I found myself becoming more aggressive than I ever thought I could become, I left, hoping to return to some semblance of the human being that I thought I was and hoping never to return to Delhi alone.

As a woman in that city, I had never ever felt safe alone; I always felt that I needed a male escort, or atleast some sort of protection. Hardly a city to call home. To me, Delhi would always be an overgrown, male-centric, patriarchal, unsafe, power-hungry village. The rape in Delhi last December only highlighted all the reasons I hate to acknowledge as to why I can never love that city.

But ironically, love it, I do. I was ‘home’ in Delhi in October for Durga Puja and for a family wedding for barely a week and I found myself falling in love with the city, despite its increased traffic and dust-laden haze, all over again. How can one not love the majesty of Raj Path, the dreariness of Motibagh, the chaos of Gurgaon and the hustle and bustle of Greater Kailash? The wonderful October weather and the festive spirit of an approaching Diwali helped imbue the atmosphere with the possibility of renewed love.

I have no solutions to or a stance on the events of last December, except for a profound sense of sadness and loss. I grieve for the young woman and the young man assaulted in the bus but also have a sense of sadness for the perpetrators, who thought that a city that looks the other way when women, minorities, people from other states and those with darker skin are harassed, would allow them to get away scot free. I grieve for the women in Mizoram, in Kashmir and all those women mistreated in their own families.

Hopefully, Delhi has finally woken up and will engage in a little soul searching and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to feel safer in the city in the future.

9 comments to On my love/hate relationship with Delhi

  • Jaspal

    Yeah, I feel you. Thanks for sharing. As an immigrant from Burma, I arrived in Delhi at the age of 16. My older sisters had the hardest time in Delhi as they were constantly teased by boys, and I, as a young girl, learned to defend them from harassment. I was the one to beat up guys or yell at them when my shy sisters will stand quietly, cringing, tears in their eyes, in the buses or on the streets. Yet, there is so much about Delhi that I loved–so much to do, so many things to see, art, culture, food, and so forth! yes, after the Delhi rape, I had to renegotiate my relationship with the city and its people. Hopefully, with the tragedy, people are finally waking up and hopefully, Delhiiets can reclaim the city and make us love it without reservations–sometime in the near future.
    BTW: I am a friend of your cousin, Sohini. What a delight she is! She shared the post.

    • Shreya

      thanks for your comments, jaspal….hopefully, enough voices saying the same thing will make people in Delhi change:) and yes, Sohini is a delight:)

  • geetika tandon

    So well articulated Shreya. So well said! How you not love Delhi – a city that has the backdrop of some of the beautiful monuments in the history of India, a veritable treasury of monuments and architecture. Its a city that has survived more than a thousand years of battles, invasions and conflicts. A city that has been home to asylum seekers and let them grow and prosper. And yet, I understand the what you mean when you say that it is hard to fall in love with it. That you have to leave the city to keep some semblance of humanity within you because living there makes you so heartless. I love Delhi and yet I wonder if the years and years of aggressive behavior have hardened it beyond repair?………

  • Tania Bhatia

    Hey Shreya,
    An extremly well written and touching piece….
    Something most of us totally relate to.

  • Inês

    Thank you Shreya for sharing with us your thoughts about that big and difficult city.
    In city evolution, problems have to be thought and talked out, for Dehli improvement.
    For sure India is able to do that… taking time, own time… as all of us.
    But that time is our work on it.
    Thank you for your beautiful prose and good company!

  • Shubha Shrivastava

    Thanks for articulating this “want to love but can’t help hate” relationship with Delhi. Being a fellow urban planner and a former Delhiite I can relate to the desire of loving my homecity but despising the memory of daily harrassment on Delhi’s roads and other public places. Only when I started living in the US, I realized how girls can actually breathe and not have their life revolve around safety concerns.
    I used to think Delhi is simply representative of Indian society — slums and squatter settlements supporting daily chores of the neighboring rich and ultra rich (but living rural, feudal lives); position of women is either on a pedestal (President, goddess) or the most uncared for but never equal; glitzy and glamorous malls in the name of “development” but socially struggling with dowry, no respect for people if they are poor/weak/disabled in any way; and an attitude of selfishness (I just care about me being Ok); and a growing feeling of lack of safety and security.
    But the Dec rape made me think that Delhi might really be worse than the rest of the country; especially in women’s safety.
    Either way since Dec I’m ashamed of Delhi (wee bit more than rest of Indian society on this issue) and desperately want things to change….

  • Minal

    Shreya, very well said! Exactly,my emotions..
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Saraswathi

    Hi Shreya, very well written article..We always thought that stalking and harassing of women, happen only in smaller places like Chennai and Madurai and that Delhi is a very safe place, being the capital city..It was a rude shock to know that Delhi is worse than the smaller cities in terms of safety for women..It’s an eye opener..Thanks for sharing.

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