Saket and see

Originally published in First City magazine, Delhi, November 2011

‘South Delhi is so green!’ I exclaimed, wide-eyed, for about the eleventh time. B took a plastic sandal from the top of one of my overflowing bags and hit me with it. To be fair, I probably deserved it – even I could hear how annoying I sounded – but I really couldn’t get over the fact that there were trees and parks and even little areas of forest scattered all over this part of the city. I immediately decided I was going to like living here.

With the promise that I’d pay for petrol and a Chicken McSpicy when we arrived, I convinced Suresh, B’s autowallah neighbour, to help me pack all my belongings from my old flat into his autorickshaw and drive me from Adarsh Nagar to Saket. A North-to-South auto extravaganza. How exciting.

After spending more than a year living in North Delhi, I’d finally decided it was time for a change of scene. While I was quite content in my little crumbly flat, there were certain aspects of life in the North that annoyed me and made me feel uncomfortable. For one thing, I got stared at. A lot. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was the only firangi in the whole area, which automatically made me a fascinating spectacle for all the locals, whether I liked it or not. At first it didn’t bother me when my landlady burst into my home without knocking, because she usually had some chai or cake to force down my throat, but after a while I just wanted some privacy.

It’s funny, I always used to be dead against living in South Delhi. When I first moved here I wanted to be as ‘authentic’ as possible; only ever wearing salwaar kameez, only eating ‘full-spicy’ Indian food. I always picked chai over a cappuccino, and Chandni Chowk over Select Citywalk. It sounds silly now, but I used to feel guilty when I indulged in some kind of ‘western’ pastime, like sitting with a book in an airconditioned coffee shop, because it felt almost like I was cheating. If I couldn’t handle doing everything the Indian way, I thought, then I wouldn’t be able to make a life here.

So what changed? I suppose I finally realised the obvious fact that although South Delhi is cleaner, less chaotic and more westernised, it’s still just as much a part of India as, say, Old Delhi is. Zillions of Indians go to the malls, and the cafes and the Italian restaurants, but does that mean they’re any less Indian? Of course not! I can’t believe it took me so long to work this out.

This time finding a flat took, amazingly, only two days. Before, in North Delhi, I was interrogated by property dealers and landlords, all highly suspicious as to why a foreign girl would want to live in India. Once, I found a beautiful flat and happily paid the deposit, only to be told the next day that, after some consideration, the landlord’s wife had decided she didn’t ‘feel comfortable’ renting to a gori. ‘There are children here, you know!’ she said in bizarre justification. What did she mean? Was I going to corrupt the local kids with my wicked western ways? I got a refund.

In contrast, my new landlord (who, incidentally, is the spitting image of Fred Flintstone minus the leopardskin) didn’t really ask me anything. As long as I lived relatively quietly and paid my rent, there wouldn’t be any problem. South Delhi: 1. North Delhi: 0.

Contract signed, the next step was moving in. Driving across almost the full length of Delhi, squashed into the back of a rickshaw with all my belongings, was quite an experience. It was interesting to see how dramtically the city changed as we travelled through it. The potholes and cracks smoothed out towards CP, with the smoothest roads near India Gate. We swerved round ornate roundabouts for a bit and then got back onto the highway. Soon the bullock carts were replaced by Hondas and Chevrolets, and, like I said before, the roads got wider and so much greener. There were great big, gorgeous trees all around; a sight I’d never seen in the dusty North. We stopped a few times for a stretch and a roadside nimboo pani, and finally arrived outside my new apartment in Saket. Suresh, clearly exhausted from the long drive in the heat, still insisted on carring my bags up to my new home on the third floor. Feeling very grateful for all his help I bought him two well-deserved Chicken McSpicys and a milkshake. It had been a long day.

It’s now three months into my new life, and I’m so much happier here in South Delhi. Fortunately I haven’t been sucked in by the mall culture, yet, but I have spent a few hot afternoons enjoying their airconditioning, chandeliers and spotless marble floors (not to mention the toilets in DLF Emporio, Vasant Kunj – if you can’t afford to live like royalty, you can at least pretend you can there!). And don’t get me started on my latest obsession: Big Bazaar…

I’m not always shopping, though – I’m actually very busy these days. Along with two very lovely and talented ladies, I’ve started a new blog called ‘Cheesecake in Delhi’, which got its title during an afternoon of dessert indulgence at the Big Chill. I’m also starting a new writing project in the city called ‘Dilliwalli’. And as well as the creative stuff, I’ve become a grammar tutor in Vasant Vihar, in a house where there’s always a copy of First City on the coffee table. (So, namaste Esther and Sidhartha, and thanks for all the chai!)

I can walk through the streets here – in Saket, or Hauz Khas, or Green Park – and not even get noticed. In fact, I think the only people who stare at foreigners are the other foreigners. I’m certainly guilty of it; often catching myself with my eyes unashamedly fixed on another gori, wondering who she is and why she’s here. Does she know Hindi? Does she drink chai on the balcony in her maxi nightie? Does she ask the waiter to bring a plate of raw green chillis to spice up her rajma chaval?

Despite the fact that I now live within spitting distance of Pizza Hut, Ruby Tuesday’s, and not one but two Cafe Coffee Days, I still proudly practise my desi habits. The other week, my friend and I decided to be a bit expat-y and have dinner at TLR. But being Friday night we, of course, couldn’t get a table, so in the end, we found ourselves filling up on masala omelettes from a street seller outside the trendy bar. On the way back to the metro, we admitted to each other that we’d both felt more comfortable sitting on the kerb with paper plates and a few guys in lungis than we would have done in TLR anyway.

Regardless of the North-South Delhi divide, things like streetside omelettes – and nimboo pani, and the frustration of trying to cross the road – stay the same. And I’m glad for that. Living in Saket has made my life so much easier, but I still want to experience the Delhi that I fell in love with. I continue to travel North most days for my Hindi classes (thank God for the Yellow Line!), and once a week, or so, to Rohini to see my big, crazy, desi family.

One great thing about this city is the varied lifestyle you can live here. I’ll spend the morning making chai and paranthas with B’s mum, then get lost in the Old Delhi bazaars, recover with an iced latte in Connaught Place, and finally head home to Saket, stopping, if I want, for a Bollywood fix at the PVR. Delhi, meri jaan. This really is the place to be.

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