To the City

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As we followed the loopy Yamuna Expressway on a frigid November night, we hoped to beat the fog that was still rising from the river like a bad omen. Made of wisps of threats, the grey blanket promised to envelop us in a suffocating bear hug soon enough.

I had come to visit my parents after a long time. My daughter’s eyes were pools of wonder. Since we had left the airport, she was stuck to the car window: looking out, trying to fathom this microcosm of the world that is Delhi. She shouted in delight at all the billboards that we crossed. In keeping with everything about Delhi and NCR, they were larger-than-life and lit up like Christmas trees. Jewellery, cars, food, homes, education, dreams, promises of progeny – everything, it seemed, could be sold in Delhi. Innocently, and absolutely impressed, she asked me if all people in Noida watched these ‘big TVs’.

My daughter, for a four-year-old, is well-heeled, but has stayed in small towns that dot India’s landscape. Bhatinda, Kalimpong, Binnaguri – places that you cannot call cities by any stretch of the imagination have been her homes.

So when she visited the Capital in all its glory, the onslaught of development and hallmarks of progress took her by a storm. Fifty flavours of ice-cream, twenty kinds of milkshakes, eighteen varieties of doughnuts, a couple of trips to Hamley’s, and innumerable rides on lifts and escalators – she was irrevocably sold to the idea that Delhi was the epitome of ‘cool’.

Her uninhibited enthusiasm for all things ‘city’ made me question my decision to stick with my husband as he moved from one place to another every couple of years. Was I being fair to my children? Did they not deserve better education and recreational opportunities? Was I withholding essential avenues for all-round development? If she missed out on this kind of ‘exposure’ would it hurt her confidence?

There was a reason why I was second-guessing my decisions. Being the daughter of an army officer, I had lived around the country too. In some kind of cosmic irony, most of them had been the small towns. The first ‘big-city’ I lived in was Pune and I was sixteen years old. A gawky, introvert thrown into the midst of mall-hopping teenagers, I pretty much blundered through the last couple of years of school. Between being bedazzled with the glamour of the city-life and keeping my eyes down lest the rawness of my experiences be recognised, it was pure, twenty-four-carat hell with all its fiery agony. The universe is merciful, though. I moved to Bangalore to pursue higher studies and got better acquainted and more comfortable with living in the pulse centres of the country.

Throughout my stay in Delhi, I incessantly worried about my daughter’s future, but I needn’t have. As we wrapped up our trip, the embryonic awe that my little girl felt began to wear off. One can have only as many pizzas and as much fun. The Delhi hangover wore off completely when we cut across beatific tea gardens and dense forests to reach home. As we entered the house, she asked for her staple, dal-chawal.

That was the silver lining. Perhaps my experiences were clouding my judgment. Aren’t we all a unique product of life’s rigmaroles? Who can claim to have gone through the same experiences as someone else? How could living in a city guarantee confidence? Didn’t a parent’s unchallenged attention account for something? Can you compare the heady whiff of sprinkled perfumes – a marked sign of city malls – to the earthy aroma of freshly bathed ground: one, bottled sublimity, the other, an oath of nostalgia? One the brains and brawn of the country, the other its heart and soul.

Won’t living in the little towns of the country add a wealth of experience to her life? It did to mine. I can speak four languages and understand five more. The network of friends that I have cuts across social strata, geographical boundaries and income barriers. I could fix a ride, rent a house or arrange for pot anywhere in the country. My daughter’s life was already different from that of her contemporaries. She might not have visited the city zoo as often but she has watched deer resting on the porch or elephants and snakes crossing her backyard. Her outings might not involve a 3D movie but are about soaking her feet in the river bed. She doesn’t have access to talent-building classes but spends weekends under make-shift tents in the company of children from around the country.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that where you lived or what legacy you were bequeathed mattered but a little bit. What mattered was what you made out of the life given to you. The world is peppered with tales of rags-to-riches and the wealthy that run empires to the ground, legends of those that started with nothing but just a vision and a dream and built everlasting heritage. Each experience, that a city or a small town offers, is different. Neither is better or more important. They are unique. The prolific neon lights in the metros are as compelling as the luminosity of the stars dotting the deep, dark sky, visible only from the periphery of a city. Life was whatever you created. Real was what you believed in. Happiness was wherever you chose to find it. Home was wherever you decided to call it. The city-town debate raging in my mind was moot.

That is until my daughter discovers that in cities you can choose from five different flavours of popcorn in a movie theatre.

The article was published here.

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