Back when I lived in Delhi, everyone who had any connection with the city was terribly apologetic about it. If you said you loved Delhi, then essentially you were wearing your sleaze upon your sleeve. Because Delhi, for all the gorgeous monuments scattered along its wide avenues and the leafy cool of the Lutyens area, was a city of gropers, cheats and other low life. The only good thing anyone could say about the capital was that it didn’t have traffic jams. Much of this is still somewhat true but some things have changed. For one, traffic jams are becoming increasingly the norm in Delhi. More importantly, having been made hyper-aware of the barbaric nature of the average Delhiite, there’s a cluster of the capital’s residents who have belligerently decided that the city will have an arty subculture. What began as a rag-tag group has now become a bona fide intelligentsia that organises and attends book readings, talks, theatre, art performances and, of course, superbly drunken parties. Initiative is a wonderful thing and so, while there are the stereotypical yelling sardarjis and the cussing jats, there’s also a thriving subculture of polysyllables and artsy experiments in Delhi.
But wonderful as all this enthusiasm is, the joy of Delhi lies in the fact that it is the political capital and the best entertainment comes from politics and the whispers that surround the bungalows of power. Delhi is the city of rumours. Nothing is specific, everything is salacious and nowhere in the world is eavesdropping as much fun. One dinner at India International Centre and I heard from the table to my left that Rahul Gandhi was gay while the table to my right creaked with the excitement that Rahul Gandhi was apparently seeing a half-Bengali “girl”. While I ogled at books in Bahri and Sons in Khan Market, I learnt that Pranab Mukherjee works till about 2am and in his office, two photographs occupy pride of place: one of Indira Gandhi and another of Sanjay Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee. Sonia Gandhi’s photograph sulks in a corner. “Whatever you say, making no secret of his allegiance to Sanjay especially now that Sonia’s in power, that shows some guts and principles,” said my informant. Sitting at a cafe in Connaught Place, I heard a gruff voice say that Nitish Kumar needed to get his head screwed on straight because insulting Modi like this would mean getting into a battle that he can’t win. His companion said that Navin Patnaik had managed fine without the support of a national party. There was a snort and I don’t know which of the gents’ noses emitted the noise. Two days later, Nitish Kumar returned the aid that the Gujarat government had given to Bihar and that casually eavesdropped-upon conversation made much more sense.
Among the cast of crazies that run our country, however, the one that I think deserves her own reality show is Mamata Banerjee, or Didi as she is referred to in West Bengal. Didi began her political career as a woman who could shout down a crazed fishwife while giving speeches and jump on car bonnets. She began as a member of the Congress party and in the late nineties, left the mothership to create Trinamool Congress (that literally means “grassroot congress”). Few politicians thought she’d do much more than increase sound pollution levels but as it turns out, she is now the Indian Minister of Railways and may be the next chief minister of West Bengal. Currently, her staff is dealing with some egos that were hurt when Didi invited some people to dinner, cooked fish, got livid at her guests, proceeded to take the fish she had just served off their plates and essentially told them to bugger off.
Railways is one of the most prestigious portfolios in the Indian government so the Minister has to spend some amount of time in the capital. Recently, Mamata-didi asked for a meeting to be organised in Delhi. It was duly done. She was due to arrive in Delhi the evening before the meeting. Didi’s plane landed; she was received by senior government officials; they asked her how her flight had been; she asked if the sun had set. Someone said they didn’t think so. She needed to buy cream cracker biscuits. Immediately. On the way to the biscuit vendor, Banerjee said that she’d been told that one can see monkeys in the area behind George Fernandes’s home. She loves monkeys, monkeys love cream cracker biscuits, so she was going to go to George Fernandes’ house and give them said biscuits. And they had to get there while there was light because even cream cracker biscuits wouldn’t bring monkeys out after dark. Rumour has it that the Railway minister and her accompanying officials scoured Delhi for about 20 minutes before dusk, looking for monkeys. Sadly, none showed up to take a biscuit from Didi. The heartbroken Banerjee finally cursed her subordinates, amazed that they couldn’t find her a monkey. Then, possibly in an attempt to show she cared about them, she gave each of the officials a couple of cream cracker biscuits. “Since I didn’t find the monkeys, you might as well have them,” she said. Bless.