I am 26 years old and have grown up in one of Delhi’s little-known but very clean and green colonies, Mayfair Gardens near Hauz Khas, and I continue to live in the same colony, which I have grown to love. Yet, beyond the parks and trees, the familiar houses and the Maqdumy Mosque (a non-functioning mosque, which also houses the grave of a Sufi saint) in the middle of our colony, everything seems to have changed so much. And yes, only through my experience, I can safely generalise for much of Delhi’s upper middle class, and to some extent, for the upper middle class of the whole of urban India.
The first major difference is that children used to play sports much more often for recreation when I was younger. I have fond memories of playing tennis ball cricket in the park next to my house with other boys of the colony, and I remember that we were sometimes joined by two girls too, who weren’t bad at the game (and indeed, football has been quite a common game of upper middle class girls in the Delhi I grew up in). At the end of the game, we would announce a ‘man of the match’, an honour I was bestowed upon too at times! Other than cricket, I remember games like ‘Vish-Amrit’, which we often played in my school in the recesses as ‘Freeze and Melt’. As for us not being allowed to play cricket in the park many a time in spite of tennis balls being pretty harmless, we often played on the road, given that it was (and still is) a tiny colony, with traffic not being much of a botheration. The decline in physical forms of recreation has much to do with video games. My generation saw the emergence of video games, with video game parlours coming up, which also offered bowling and air hockey. I still fondly recall going to the parlour in Essex Farms in Delhi, but somehow, I was never addicted to playing video games at home. Wearing seat belts in cars wasn’t common in my early childhood, cars didn’t have airbags and mobile phones were yet to come; still, we had a great time indeed!
Another key difference was the relationship between domestic servants and the families they worked for. I still remember how we played with the kids of our domestic servants as friends, and they did go to schools (though different from ours) too. Now, with more economic opportunities, it is hard to find domestic servants who last very long and work with utmost sincerity and loyalty. The class divide was very much there, but it wasn’t as steep.
The Delhi I grew up in was full of very lively balloon-vendors riding cycle-rickshaws with many other interesting things, like musical trumpets, which was so very exciting as a kid. Now, sadly, they have disappeared, just as those vendors, selling items ranging from food items to manure to fake mustaches and beards, chanting what they are selling as a slogan, are rare to find now, and when you do see them, they evoke a sense of nostalgia. Also, the wandering fellows who showcased dances of monkeys or bears are not to be seen, thanks to the efforts of animal rights activists, and that is something I support.
The Delhi I grew up in had a conception of community living, with friendships forged between people on the basis of their living in the same locality (something which is becoming more and more irrelevant now, irrespective of age), in which kids would join the elders to play ‘tambola’ in the club. My nostalgia of celebrating Holi in the colony (in which even Muslims joined in with gusto, and this is not to suggest that the outlook of those upper middle class Indian Muslims has undergone any change) led me once to fly back home from Gujarat, where I was pursuing college, to join in the celebrations in my colony, but they weren’t the same, though they were refreshingly much more vibrant this year.
The Delhi I grew up in was not as consumerist, and it felt good to enjoy the thrilling rides of Appu Ghar with the less affluent. That Appu Ghar no longer exists (that another amusement park by the same name has come up in Gurgaon is another story) is something mourned by very many Delhites, and so is the non-existence of the Chanakya cinema and the Nirullas nearby. The flashy malls today and the people walking in wearing branded shirts and jeans represent a new version of Delhi, different from the one I recall in my early childhood, when Bata was the only major foreign company in the Indian market and many more people were cool with buying clothes from roadside shops. Also, movie theatres that were once quite popular and were centres of markets are now less popular than their counterparts in malls. In fact, Ansal Plaza, Delhi’s oldest mall, is in quite a desolate condition given its glorious past, owing at least in part to not having a movie theatre. The rise of malls in Delhi has been a curious phenomenon, given that attempts at running supermarkets like Nanz had failed.
I remember celebrating Independence Day as a kid by flying kites, something quite uncommon now.
While the rise of consumerism has not been a very positive development, it is true that the ultra-Westernized section of our society, that rubbished everything Indian, bashing our nation and ridiculing the very idea of being patriotic, choosing to converse in Indian languages only when necessary and trashing Bollywood in general, has diminished and people with this mindset have become more tolerant to those who think otherwise. This has much to do with India’s economic growth, thanks to the opening up of the economy (and my opposition to consumerism aside, I am not a leftist and would say that the new economic policy did indeed help sections of the not-so-well-off too), with Tata acquiring Corus and Arcelor merging with Mittal, and Bollywood coming out of its decadence that it was undergoing in the 1990s! That goods from across the globe were available in India reduced the romanticizing of the West.
Equally, chauvinistic Indian nationalists desperate to prove that everything good and great is a contribution only of the Indian civilization, and writing off Western technology by pointing to the mention of flying chariots in the Ramayan, have also become a less common feature of our society (though while these contentions were receding from the public discourse, they have seen a resurgence with the Modi sarkar*), for it was not necessary to harp on our past glories to divert our minds from our contemporary backwardness, for India was becoming more and more optimistic about its future. The film Rang de Basanti too undoubtedly contributed to this positive change.
Though there are still people lamenting about the decline of Indian culture, what they fail to understand is the dynamism of a culture. Someone who celebrates Valentine’s Day also celebrates Holi and Diwali, and also may travel to Ajanta and Ellora to appreciate ancient Indian art. He may be very well versed with Hindu lore and ancient and medieval Indian history through Amar Chitra Katha comics to begin with, and then later other thick books. His eating pizzas doesn’t mean he doesn’t deeply respect Gandhi or Bose, nor does his conversing in English mean he doesn’t appreciate Premchand’s short stories. Embracing the language, cuisine and attire of others does not threaten your own (I can speak chaste Hindi and my enjoying custards doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy gulab jamuns!), and globalisation is bound to be, by virtue of the Western economic dominance, more Western than Eastern, but Indian culture, with its ever accommodating spirit, is here to stay, and that too exporting yoga and Ayurveda! Yet, I would say that the culture of reading non-fiction or even having basic general awareness among Delhi’s youth is poorer off than places like Kolkata or even Ahmedabad or Patna.
The Delhi of my childhood memories is about going to Delhi Zoo with my servant, and then the Old Fort nearby, of the Deer Park, a sweet picnic spot with its deer and peacocks still there even today, of climbing up to the terrace of the Maqdumy Mosque (now, the stairs to the terrace have been blocked by the ASI for safety reasons), of playing cricket in the park opposite my house and on the road. As for consumerism, I have chosen to not be consumerist as far as possible, and I still happily and without the slightest embarrassment use my Nokia 112 mobile (even when I see my servants now having phones of the same model!), I still often wear non-branded clothes and I don’t make any secret of the fact that I am not into Western music or American TV shows (and this is not in the least to suggest any antipathy to those who are).
The Delhi we grew up in persists in our memories, and it is necessary for us to reflect on them, not only for the sake of nostalgia, but to understand how and why the world around us is so rapidly changing.
*Promoting an un-historical history of science that conveniently undermines the scientific creativity of all non-Hindu civilisations and promotes Hindu religious texts as undisputed history, with supposedly much science in them, that doesn’t bode well for promoting a scientific temperament. Going by the Jewish texts, even Solomon had a flying vehicle (there are similar references in ancient Egyptian and Greek lore too), and many science-fiction stories by writers like Joules Verne have mentioned things really invented later, but that does not mean those stories were true when they were written, nor does referring to real places like Delhi or Mumbai or Hastinapur or Kurukshetra in a story necessarily make that story true, and as Karan Thapar, whether you love him or hate him, logically points out – “how do you account for the fact the scientific knowledge and achievements you are boasting of have been lost, if not also long forgotten, and there is no trace of any records to substantiate they ever occurred?”. Rather than spreading awareness about the documented scientific achievements of our civilisation, by boasting of scientific achievements from religious lore, we would only largely make a laughing stock of ourselves!
There are indeed such counterparts among Muslim rightists, including the preacher Zakir Naik, too, talking of religious lore being scientific (not a very good idea), as discussed in this article.
(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)