Seventeen years after she last visited Kolkata – once her home and the repository of her childhood memories – my wife says she’s disoriented there now. “It’s so dirty,” she complains over the phone. “Hush,” warns her son, “if Mamata Banerjee hears that, you could be in trouble” — which, as everyone knows, is a possibility not worth considering. Besides, isn’t “dirty” a national identity? “I love Bombay,” my wife has been known to say, “but it’s so dirty.” Jaipur, where she’s a frequent visitor, is also dirty, of course, and Bikaner, where my parents have a home, has bins that provide banquets for the neighbourhood cows, causing litter to spill over their posh roads.
Kerala is a mite cleaner, but there’s little to distinguish one city in India from another, the sameness of architecture and the prevalence of filth being universal features. Discarded plastic bags flutter like flags in the hills; in the countryside, village dumps are distinguished by a prevalence of plastic packets and disposable sachets. Pigs snoot about in the garbage on Goa’s once pristine beaches.
In a cul-de-sac in Parel, Mumbai, a party is underway at Blue Frog that could be happening in Blue Frog, Delhi, so similar is the music, so familiar the guests in their uniform skinny pants and black shirts that for a moment I share my wife’s discomfiture. Give or take the difference in how long the music can play, you no longer know whether you’re in Mumbai or Delhi, a homogeneous, hybrid brand of lifestyles bridging the gap more effectively than their physical dissimilarities. At Busaba, where I’m partying that night, the bodies on the floor wouldn’t be out of place at, say, Keya, or Anidra, in Delhi.
The following day, having ventured to go shopping in the city, my wife complains, “Everything’s the same as in Delhi.” The shoe shops in Bandra carry as much bling as their clones in Lajpat Nagar, and young teens carry their Longchamps (and their mums their Michael Kors) with a casualness that is more affected in Delhi, but then my wife says housewives in Udaipur carry their Louis Vuittons to go vegetable shopping in the absence of a nightlife. Makes you wonder to what use the lovely ladies of Punjab put their Christian Louboutin shoes and Gucci bags?
If the shopping has a muchness, what of food? The upmarket shacks in Delhi now serve jumbo prawns with nary a care; butter chicken is almost the currency of street food in Mumbai; and you get better sushi in Chennai than either Mumbai or Delhi. Korean is as commonplace as Chinese once was. The appams in Delhi are every bit as good as in Kochi, the dosas in the city a tribute to Bangalore Coffee House in the city now known as Bengaluru. Starbucks in Mumbai and Delhi currently have queues a quarter mile long but will soon be as ubiquitous as the Baristas and CCDs in every urban sprawl.
If you spotted a pair of jeans you like at Wills Lifestyle on a visit to Mumbai, they’ll request that you get any alterations done in Delhi for convenience, no questions asked or receipts required. Paradise, in Hyderabad, will courier your biryani to Delhi for your evening’s dinner, just take your pick from its online menu. As the difference between cities melts away, all that remains to distinguish them is the squalor – which, thankfully, in Delhi is somewhat less than elsewhere – perhaps the only distinction we in the capital need be thankful for.