"I'm not interested in living in a city where there isn't a production of Samuel Beckett running." - Edward Albee, American playwright.
What is it that makes a city worth living? Or not worth living? The quality of its cultural and intellectual life? The conveniences it offers? Or, as in the case of Gardiner Harris, its CO2 emission levels?
Ever since Harris announced that he was upping and leaving Delhi because of its murderously high pollution, it seems that every other Delhi-ite is minded to follow suit as blessings are being showered on the kind man from NYT for the "wake-up call".
Commentators have weighed in with others reasons why Delhi is not fit for purpose: its soaring crime rate, its notorious rape culture, its poor public services, and its haphazard and unplanned expansion which has made it ungovernable. “Living in the Indian capital, as many others will tell you, is a punishment best avoided. If you have the option, if you can find employment and happiness in some other city, if you love your children more than the job, stay away from Delhi,’’ wrote Sandipan Sharma in Firstpost.
But it was not always so. There was a time when Dilli ( before it got anglicised and became Delhi) and “shaan” (pride) were mostly spoken of in the same breath. “Dilli’’ was India’s “shaan’’, seat of high culture and tehzeeb.
One of Mughal era’s greatest Urdu poets, Ibrahim Zauq, memorably declined a lucrative offer to become the poet laureate at the court of the Nawab of Hyderabad because, he simply couldn't bear the thought of ever leaving Delhi.
Tempting though the invitation was, he wrote, but who would want to leave the “galliyan” of Delhi (Kaun jaaye Zauq Dilli ki galliyan chhor kar).
Another Mughal-era giant of Urdu poetry, Meer Muhammad Taqi Meer, was even more fulsome in his admiration likening Delhi’s "galli koonche" to works of art (Koonche nahin Dilli ke auraaq e mussavir hain Jo shakl nazar aayee tasveer nazar aayee).
I wonder what Zauq and Meer would have made of today's soulless, vulgar, filthy, rude and uncivilised Delhi. How has their favourite city descended into the obscenity that it has. Zauq can’t even turn his grave: it was bulldozed to build a public urinal on it.
I grew up in Dilli’s gali koonchas, and know no other Indian city as well as I do Delhi. Not even Lucknow, my native town. There was a time when if I was away from Delhi for a few days I would start missing it. It was like what Robert De Niro said about New York: "I go to Paris, I go to London, I go to Rome. And I always say there's no place like New York. It's the most exciting place in the world. That's the way it is."
Now, though, I simply can't stand Delhi. Recently I spent a few months there after many years; and every day was an ordeal. When I complained I was told I was being a "typical NRI"; or behaving like a "snobbish angrez". It is not me who has become snobbish, it is Delhi which has become unbearably insufferable with its new money, cultural bankruptcy, arrogance, and in-your-face aggression. I struggle to recognise it .
Italo Calvino said he was "afraid of losing Venice". I've already lost Delhi.
To put it in perspective, though, Delhi’s infrastructure has vastly improved. Lots of newly-minted flyovers; better roads; an efficient Metro network which Delhi-ites swear by; fancy new buildings, and ritzy malls, and multiplexes. It is also a more “happening” place now—a far cry from the “overgrown village’’ that sniffy Bombayites once called it.
But as Noel Coward, the British satirist, said about London : "I don't know what's London coming to--the higher the buildings, the lower the morals."
I don't know about morals.But to rephrase Coward’s lament in relation to Delhi: “I don’t know what’s Delhi coming to--the higher the buildings the lower the cultural threshold.’’ And, of which civility is the biggest casualty.
Delhites don't do "sorry", "excuse me" or "please" any more. If there was an index to rate a city on the basis of its manners Delhi would consistently come off worst. I've witnessed more courtesy in the cultural backwaters of Haryana, Punjab and western UP than in sophisticated Delhi. And it is getting worse.
People in all big and busy cities around the world are always in a hurry, but in Delhi being in a hurry means muscling your way to the front of the queue; jumping through traffic lights; driving on pavements; stepping on other people’s toes; and knocking down pedestrians.
Try protesting and you might end up as the latest victim of road rage (an euphemism for abusive and often criminal behaviour) which in recent years has assumed epidemic proportions. This in a Delhi which once took pride in the laid-back and gentle rhythm of its daily life compared to the more hectic Mumbai.
What is truly shocking about this post-liberalisation Delhi is the insularity of its new elite. And it shows itself in their attitude towards those they regard as lesser mortals. To be an ordinary citizen in Delhi is a humiliating experience; and to get a sense of it, all you need to do is stand for only a few minutes outside Khan Market, itself a symbol of the city’s cultural lumpenisation.
Once a humble shopping centre for neighbourhood residents, it has had a dramatic makeover and now buzzes with “high-end’’ shoppers in their chauffeured 4x4s and BMWs which arbitrarily stop in the middle of the road to drop “saabs’’ and “mem saabs” blissfully unconcerned about the inconvenience they are causing to others.
If it were not so vulgar, it would be a sight to behold: the boss, one ear glued to the smartphone, gingerly stepping out of the limousine while the driver holds the door. As he waits for the saab to finish his call and give him permission to leave, traffic piles up, tempers fray with everyone honking and shouting at each other.
Increasingly, this lumpenisation is spreading to all areas of Delhi’s life and is, in no small measure, also responsible for the city’s pollution. The very people who are cheering Harris for his story are among the worst culprits.
Motorists spitting out of their car windows, chucking out empty water bottles and other rubbish is a common sight in Delhi. And here I am not talking about illiterate drivers, but “suited booted’’ gentlemen, the sort of people who then surface on the telly to lecture others on keeping the environment clean.
There’s no such thing as “tehzeeb’’ left in Delhi anymore. I know my Delhi friends will protest but sorry, mates, that’s the truth. When Elbee said he didn’t want to live in a city where there wasn’t a Beckett production running, what he really meant was that he had no use for a city which had no culture. Unfortunately, Delhi is a prime example of such a city. What a fall for Ghalib, Zauq and Mir’s Dilli.