For her, Delhi is the city of love stories that weren’t really about love but were so inflamed with longing that just thinking about them makes her breath snag even now.
For me, it’s that beautiful, barbaric place where life stretches comfortably between old and new. Here, I’m both the curmudgeon of the present and the college student from another century. I like what I am here — a returning tourist. I don’t know the city, but I recognise it and it behaves with courtesy and the cool politesse.
She takes me on the Metro and we stand by the door, laughing and chatting and confiding. She points out the Qutab Minar to me. Once the train goes underground, even though I recognise the names of the stations, I can’t imagine what’s actually above ground, above me, in parts of Delhi that I once knew better than its auto drivers.
I remember when I was in college, I swanned around Delhi confident that I could get lost in the city, but I’d never be at a loss here. In the Delhi Metro, underground, at a station that I approach tentatively, I wonder whether I’m lost, at a loss or both.
She shows me a photo of an ex on her WhatsApp. I look at it, trying to figure out whether the face that I can’t quite see (bent head, looking away from camera, at a phone) may be attractive. She notices the time stamp under the name that she hasn’t uttered since their last night together a few years ago. “7.09pm,” she says. It’s now 7.10pm.
I admit to her that when I walk into Khan Market, it’s the old market I see even though there’s newness crammed into its every spare inch. I don’t know or care to notice the bars and cafes where you can still smoke indoors, the old place that has a new outlet, the new doorway for the old shop that’s been refurbished. Mine is the Khan Market of a book shop called Bahrisons; where clove cigarettes cost Rs 1 more than they do in other parts of the city; the Khan Market of orange sunshine cake at Cafe Turtle. She tells me that Bahrisons has a new shop that’s only for children’s books.
This is the city that she doesn’t want to leave and the one she hates coming home to — “this isn’t home, it’s a stopover. It is to me what that terminal was to Tom Hanks,” she says.
I tell her about the man, Ratan Singh, whose son retired about four years before he did. “I take after my father. He also looks very young for his age,” was all the explanation Ratan Singh would give for the fact that as far as government paperwork is concerned, his son is older than him. His son has a birth certificate. Singh knows the day he was born there was terrible rain and the tree that was a few hundred metres from his home was struck by lightning. That was a terrible year for crops in his village so his father went to the city, Delhi, to find work.
Delhi is the city where I argue with my not-so-distant family about The Hindus and Narendra Modi, where she keeps quiet so that no one at the table will really notice she’s on her phone and not listening to the debate about whether or not the gambling circuit’s hunch is on to something when it predicts that the Congress party will get only about 50-70 seats in the upcoming general elections.
Could you live here forever, she asks me. My first thought is that I’m not beautiful enough to belong in Delhi. I sort of managed to fit in when I was in the flush of youth, with my crazy skirts and kohl and energy. I’m tired now and settled in my uncool skin, utterly misfit with my drabness against Delhi’s dusty, sun-polished prettiness. Mumbai, with its bright blue tarp and hideous architecture, with its absent green and encroaching gray, its late night traffic jams and uncunning cabbies — it may not be mine yet, but its ugliness is as comforting as a hug from an old lover. I don’t know if she’ll understand what I mean so I beat all this down to a flat, simple “No” for her.
We laugh about how she was born in Mumbai and I was born in Delhi, but here she is and there I am. I ask her if she loves Delhi, after all the years spent here. She tells me she loves the sex she’s had in the city. I tell her sex isn’t the first criterion that comes to my mind when I’m thinking about whether I belong in a city.
“Really?” she says.
“Really,” I reply.
“So why do you love a city? Its infrastructure?”
I feel vaguely like someone agreeing to an arranged marriage when I say, “Well… yes” and hope like hell she’s too drunk to list all the things that fall apart on a daily basis in my Mumbai.