I just got back from a week in Delhi, and have lots to blog about. But first, I'd like to continue where I left off, with my Mumbai Boss piece on NGMAs (link in the January 10 post below). A number of Dilliwallahs looked askance at what they saw as my criticism of the capital. Sure, I'd written about Delhi's new imperial aura, but I don't believe the article as a whole was critical of the capital.
On my most recent visit I perceived that since the annoying blockages resulting from Commonwealth games prep have been cleared, the pattern I discerned some half a dozen years ago has become boldly etched: Delhi is racing ahead of Bombay and is now India's premier metropolis. And it's going to stay that way because, as I wrote in my final column for Time Out back in 2008, nobody has a claim on it. As soon as some group claims a city as its own, it signals the beginning of a decline. Bombay grew to greatness because it was the one city in India that welcomed people of all religious, ethnic and linguistic groups. Ever since its political discourse began revolving around the claims of Marathis, the city has suffered. In the past five years, Hyderabad has fallen victim to the Telengana agitation, and Bangalore to Kannadiga - Tamil conflict. Calcutta and Madras have, of course, long been mired in parochialism.
Since my valedictory Time Out column doesn't seem to be on the Web, I'm cutting and pasting it here. The final sentence suggests Bombay may soon have to give up its status as India's premier metropolis. Less than three years later, its clear the switch has happened, and Bombay's now in second place. It may be that a decade from today there will no longer be any debate about the issue. During Lord Curzon's reign as Viceroy, Calcutta was India's foremost city, with Bombay brashly staking a claim. Eventually, Bombay comprehensively overtook Calcutta, to such a degree that the debate itself died out. The same looks set to happen in the case of Bombay versus Delhi.
A Tale of Two Cities
I don’t love Bombay. I barely like it. Things were very different in my teenage years, when I had a pride in my home town that extended even to supporting its Ranji Trophy team. I viewed other Indian cities, as many Bombaywallahs did, with snobbish disdain. We had great public transport; we had power 24 / 7; taxis and autos charged by the meter; shops were located conveniently at most street corners; eateries catered to every income level; liquor stores stayed open well after sunset; vehicles maintained something like lane discipline; appointments were kept more or less punctually; and women participated in the workforce in massive numbers. None of this was true elsewhere in the country.
My attitude began changing after the January 1993 riots. That’s when the city’s liberal identity suffered a dreadful wound. It wasn’t a fatal injury. Recovery would have been possible, had the instigators of violence been punished. Instead, they were elected to run the city and Maharashtra state.
Many good things have happened in Bombay since then. Aside from revolutions in IT services, telecommunications and organised retail that have transformed all cities, we have witnessed enormous growth in the entertainment and financial services sectors. We’ve begun to appreciate the preciousness of our past: localities like Kala Ghoda, Khotachiwadi, Bandra and Juhu have benefited from the efforts of heritage activists and citizens’ groups. But 1993 and its aftermath irrevocably shattered my pride in the city. Visiting other places these days, I frequently find myself comparing them favourably with my home. Delhi, in particular, appears an increasingly congenial location. It always had abundant open spaces, large homes, magnificent monuments and important academic institutions. In recent years, the city has grown more diverse, and less obsessed with who’s-in-who’s-out politics. Infrastructure’s been upgraded, with new transport systems promising an end to the cliché about needing a car to get around. Having its own government is a great help, but what’s even more crucial to the capital’s progress, I believe, is the fact that no religious community or linguistic group can stake claim to it. Free of chauvinistic demands, Delhi has not just physical but also mental space to develop into a truly great city. I’m afraid Bombay may soon have to give up its claim to being India’s premier metropolis.
There, it’s done. This is my last column, and I’ve ended with perhaps the unkindest cut of all. Before I go, though, I’d like to thank all readers who have taken time out to respond to my articles over the past four years and a bit. Your feedback has been incredibly gratifying. I’ve been privileged to have a prominent position in a magazine of such consistently excellent quality, but I now feel the need for a more expansive and interactive format. Hope to meet you soon in cyberspace.