by Suniti Sampat
“Not Delhi!” her eyes widened. I looked on as my best friend authoritatively stated that studying in the National Capital would be the worst decision that I could make. I tried explaining that I was out of options, but she wouldn’t listen. I really had no supporters on this. All of my family was against my studying in Delhi. Many an irate aunt would call to drill some sense into me. But I stood my ground. I was leaving. Goodbyes were said. My parents were hopeful that hostel life would not agree with me. My seemingly stoic brother even shed a few tears at my supposed predicament. Bets were placed that I would run back home in a week or two. What with the 6 PM curfew and the other stringent rules? They were of the opinion that it was impossible to lock me up on campus after 6.
“Acha hua aap woh maramari wali class mein jaati ho. Dilli mein kaam aayega,” quipped my driver. I was hoping to god that I wouldn’t have to use my kick-boxing skills there (I can barely do any damage). Nevertheless, this set the tone for Delhi. How bad could it get, really? I was so confident that the 6 PM curfew wasn’t for real. After all, I was an adult. How could anyone place restrictions on what I could do and could not do? My parents haven’t felt the need to place any such restrictions, so how could anyone else?
I was proven wrong. A lot of surprises awaited me, some quite unpleasant. For probably the first time in my life I realized how vulnerable I was simply because of my gender. So let me tell you about why I love Mumbai. Because women just don’t exist in Mumbai, they thrive. They populate offices, clubs, railway compartments etc late into the night. That too without any fear of being attacked. It is a beautiful thing, this freedom. It saddens me to know that women in Delhi haven’t known this kind of freedom. The fact that I can get into a general compartment of the Mumbai Local with a male friend at 9 pm shocks most of my friends from Delhi. Mumbai may not be able to boast of the super-efficient metro-network, but at least one-half of the population of the city can use the local trains after sundown!
The Mumbai Local is symbolic of the working women’s freedom in India. Efficient and safe, it is referred to as the lifeline of the city. Everyday I’d travel (sometimes unaccompanied) from one part of the city to another by the Mumbai Local. Sometimes it would get as late as 10 pm. But I’ve never felt scared or received any frantic phone calls from worried parents. The contrast between the two cities may be better understood by the fact that the knowledge of my simply being outside the campus after 8 PM is enough to raise the blood pressure of my father!
Another unpleasant thing that I encountered was the unabashed male gaze. This really scared me, so much so that I decided that the 6 PM curfew was justified. So here’s something: while the creepy guy in the metro is leering at me, I can feel an itch in my hands. I can almost picture wiping the grin off his face as I execute a perfectly-timed slap across his face. Oh! The satisfaction I’d get when he’d look around puzzled as to what struck him. But alas! This isn’t Mumbai where roadside romeos are beaten up on a routine basis with sandals and I must make do with rolling my eyes angrily. I was truly saddened by the state of affairs. The fact that the dignity of an individual may be judged by the way they dressed was a concept alien to my sensibilities. Such a culture repulsed me and I longed for the freedom that Mumbai afforded me.
Something very noticeable about Delhi is the presence of strict hierarchies and class differences. At least within the University, these hierarchies are taken rather seriously. The scene is completely different in Mumbai. As my boss sweetly insists that I eat the Bourbon biscuit he is offering me, I slowly feel the hierarchy being shattered. I love the fact that every person is given respect and importance, irrespective of their position. Households are often held to ransom by the domestic help. My family cook wastes no time in lambasting me if I mispronounce a Marathi word. In fact, he even jokingly informs me that I should go back to ‘My Gujarat’ if I can’t be bothered to learn proper Marathi (Yes, he is a Shiv Sena Fan). However, there is an implicit understanding that I must never be rude to him.
Since I’ve broached the dreaded Shiv Sena subject, I must mention that one inconvenience that one faces in Mumbai is that these regional parties have the power to disrupt the functioning of the city at their leader’s whims and fancies. This somewhat dilutes the cosmopolitan culture of the Financial Capital. I do realize that that this also makes life somewhat difficult for certain linguistic and regional groups.
Grudgingly, I must mention that there are some rather fascinating things that Delhi has to offer. One of them is the open spaces and wide roads. Another is Delhi University, with its politics and distinct culture of debate.I must admit that sometimes the average Mumbaikar is better informed about the world of Bollywood (something even I am guilty of) than national politics. Living in Delhi has prompted me to ditch the Bombay Times for the Hindu and has pushed me to be a more participative citizen. I was made aware of the fact that I had been living in a bubble all this while. I shall ever be grateful to Delhi for this.
But in this moment, let me enjoy the city lights as I step into the night.