Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bombay versus Delhi revisited

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.


globalbabble said...

Just as well that I am a Mumbaikar married to someone with Delhi-roots. I can afford to be a fence-sitter ;-)

seana graham said...

I'm surprised this hasn't brought more Bombay loyalists out to play yet...

adrian mckinty said...


For the visitor New Delhi is a more manageable and less intimidating entreport into India than Bombay, I suppose because of those wide boulevards, but I wonder if it has quite the same cache. After spending some time in Bombay and then visiting Delhi the latter seems a bit staid and dowdy, or at least it did when I was there five or six years ago.

Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, the pace of change in India might not quite match that of China, but it is substantial. Even a decade ago, I found Delhi a laughable city in many ways. Like, I'd land at the airport at 10am; the car that was supposed to pick me up would be nowhere in sight; I'd take a cab to my first meeting; Coordinating with the car rental company, I'd meet up with the driver at a later point; befuddled at my annoyance, he'd say, "But I was at the airport at 10.30".
I suspect you will find Delhi considerably less dowdy and Bombay considerably more intimidating if you visited today.
Seana, I expected more loyalist comments as well; the fact there aren't just shows how pride in Bombay has diminished.

seana graham said...

It's interesting to think about infrastructure after just watching Obama's State of the Union speech which addressed the same here.

How do people fall out on the Mumbai/Bombay name thing?

Girish Shahane said...

Pretty much everyone has adopted Mumbai, Seana.

seana graham said...

So you're a hold out, or what?

Girish Shahane said...

Something of the kind...

VV said...

waaaah! That was such a heart-breaking article. Although, not unexpected. It is not just the infrastructural changes that are making Delhi so much more appealing, but also the activities of Delhi citizens groups, activists, and artists (the "mental space" that you refer to). There just seems to be so much happening in Delhi now, from grassroots activism to cultural stuff to lots of locally organized fun activities (envt groups, hiking groups, heritage groups etc etc). And I totally agree with Maratha parochialism that has plagued Bbay. And only the Ambanis and Bachchans of Bbay remain impervious to it and thrive in the atmosphere. I didn't feel like coming back to Bbay this year. And maybe it is time that I start calling it Mumbai. The city does not seem to be a "Bombay" anymore.
-- VV

Jai_C said...

In the context of this post, it seems relevant to point out that along with more "abundant open spaces, large homes, magnificent monuments and important academic institutions" Delhi also has/had:

- larger and older riots
- even less punishment for the perpetrators
- successful re-elections for many of them.
- a more secular image for the perpetrators' party inspite of all this.

So there you have it: Delhi has more of everything :-)

PS: No Mumbaikar btw. have only spent a couple of days in either of these cities.