All great cities have one thing in common – a character of their own
Over the last few months, a series of events have taken me back to a place that I last visited in my childhood. As a young girl, I spent many holidays in the city that Le Corbusier built, at my aunt’s house, roughhousing with my cousins, taking scooter rides down the perfectly-perpendicular streets, shopping in the quiet neighbourhood markets, making the obligatory visits to the Rock Garden and Sukhna Lake.
It was a fun time, but we had to make our fun ourselves. Chandigarh contented itself with being its usual quiet, well-behaved, matronly self, allowing us the space to indulge our high-energy selves but offering next to no encouragement to any boisterous behavior.
But that sleepy, laidback Chandigarh now lives only in my childhood memories. The Chandigarh of today, as I discovered recently, has thrown off that slumber and reticence and emerged as a sleek, sophisticated city that offers everything from trendy restaurants to shopping malls to swanky five-star hotels that would do any metropolis proud. And, more to the point, the once-silent city has found its voice. It still has the quiet, tree-lined streets with the most polite traffic I have encountered in India. But now, it also speaks of prosperity, energy, and a certain can-do spirit at every turn.
The best parallel I can think of is former Test cricketer-turned-TV performer, and now Punjab minister, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who – by all accounts – was a nice quiet chap who barely spoke two words during his cricketing days, but is now impossible to shut up. (Though, to be fair, Chandigarh is a tad more restrained.)
As I drove down its impeccably-clean roads, I started to think about how all great cities have a personality of their own – which may or may not change over the years – an identity that belongs to them alone and which makes it impossible to mistake them for another.
I grew up in Calcutta, feasting on its faded glory of crumbling colonial buildings, run-down infrastructure, over-crowded streets and dilapidated markets. But for all its decrepitude, there was a certain grandeur to the Calcutta of my childhood and youth: the vast expanse of the Maidan, the looming visage of Victoria Memorial, the shabby but beautiful Strand where we went for boat rides down the Hooghly, with the magnificent Howrah Bridge providing the most spectacular of backdrops.
Just like Chandigarh, the Calcutta of my childhood no longer exists. Now, when I go back to the city, I am overwhelmed by the new construction, the bustling malls, the endless network of flyovers (not to mention the one-way system that I have yet to master). Even the colonial structures I grew up with no longer look the same, now that they have been blue-washed by Mamata Banerjee’s government.
But strangely enough, the spirit of the city survives. Once I look past the gleaming skyscrapers and the sprawling hypermarkets, I can see that Calcutta (sorry folks, it is always going to be Calcutta to me; Kolkata is for when I speak Bangla) is still the same City of Joy, one of those rare places where a live culture can survive outside of a bowl of mishti doi.
Most people who move from Calcutta to Delhi seem to spend their days bemoaning their loss. They miss the easy charm of Cal; they hate the hard-headed, cold-eyed indifference of Delhi. Well, I am an exception to that rule.
From the moment I moved to my tiny little barsati in Defence Colony, I fell in love with the city. I loved its changing moods through the seasons: the flowering roundabouts heralding spring; the blooming laburnum announcing the arrival of summer; the parks bursting with green as the monsoon hit; the trees shedding their leaves in preparation of winter.
I also loved the fact that Delhi allowed me to be. This was the big tent I had been looking for all my life. This was where I could be whatever I wanted to be. If I wanted to immerse myself in theatre, art and culture, there were enough museums, galleries and artistic hubs to do so. If history and antiquity was my thing, then I could spend every weekend exploring historical monuments dating back to medieval and Moghul times. If I just wanted to let my lungs expand in some green spaces, then they too were available to me.
The space granted to me in Delhi was not just literal but metaphorical as well. And it allowed me to grow in ways that I could not even have imagined when I first moved here.
Yes, I know what all you folks in Bombay (oops, sorry, Mumbai; though like Calcutta, this will always be Bombay to me) are thinking right about now. Delhi? Really? You love Delhi? But surely, you know that Mumbai is much better? This is the city of dreams, the city of endless possibilities, the city that never sleeps, the city that, oh well, never mind!
Well, you know what, guys? It is possible to love both. I can enjoy the beautiful, tree-lined boulevards of Delhi just as much as I cherish the sea views along Marine Drive. I can embrace the Staid Dowager that is Delhi just as fondly as I hug the Brash Bruiser that is Mumbai.
Because while cities have personalities of their own, identities that are theirs alone, people like us have the luxury of embracing them all and making them our own. And why settle for less, when so much more is on offer?