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A Tale of Three Cities: Metropolitan Mutation and Building a Home

Written by Shanaia Kapoor, 30th August 2020

Born in the artists’ Bombay, I grew up in a comfortable envelope of family, Shergil, jazz and ‘good’ conversation. South Bombay in my eyes, was far from the privatised and cavalier landscape that reveals itself to me now. Colaba was the kind of quiet that fissured only for the paperwala’s drawl or the pre-divorce D’Souza’s squabble about the driver or the dentist or dinner. We had a ‘family doctor’ three buildings down, a laughably small patch of grass we’d call ‘Bandstand garden’, and the market I’d visit only on Janmashtami. From atop my father’s shoulders, I’d watch the Govindas breaky clay pots of butter and money and turmeric amidst the human frenzy.

VT Station, Mumbai. Image credits Shanaia Kapoor

Stand-up sets on the Virar local, negligent auto drivers and the ‘place beyond the sealink’ float past me. However, the subtle comedy of Pali Hill’s gluten-free girls reading second-hand Sartre only until the tweet of them doing so has been uploaded on Twitter, has me amused– as do the neo-liberal Mehtas with their salaries for the help pressed between pages of books about communism. The way I remember it, with my family’s odd Parsi humour, biweekly mentions of Adi Marzban and the lingering smell of Dhansak on Sundays, coupled with the delirium of loud Punjabi dinners, Kada Prashad and drunk Antakshari at sangeets, the world was a fairly simple place. 

Since our move to Bangalore nearly a decade ago, we return to this chaotic city nearly every summer and then for Christmas. The smell of sea and sweat and self-importance has remained central to my experience, but it has now become one riddled with heated conversations I have with my parents’ friends from Xavier’s– educated and citing the importance of capital or investment or something about Make in India– the city is different to me now. Our watchman still calls me ‘baby’ and for some reason, in Bombay, this doesn’t faze me. I am faultily fearless in a city of relatively safer streets and taxi drivers I call ‘bhaiya’ who tell me about Ajay Devgn or recent inflation. 

The parties are predictable and the pre-games are sound loops of Travis Scott, talk of ‘hydro’, and “bro, relax, I know Mac (uppity club’s manager who makes his living off of underage drinkers), even if you don’t have an ID, I’ll get you in”. At *insert single syllable, could be just a letter* Club, pre-pubescent rich kid/ influencer/ hustler offers to buy me a drink. He listens to me talk about nepotism, concurs, citing from his UBC handbook, then hands the bartender his father’s credit card with a “boss” and a hand through his hair. 

The move to Bangalore was easy. Our quiet lane in the Cantonment area saw the Ahmed’s joint family home, a colonial-esque two-story with the front door fashioning ‘Bedi’s’ plated in copper, the Mangarams’ unpleasant Pomeranian and the few token Sharmas and Raos for representation. Blanketed in a gulmohar canopy, none of them were particularly neighbourly, but with the city’s disappearing lakes and power outages, the community would congregate to complain– from Yeddyurappa to the IT boom to Shilpa’s dog Astro and his knack for pissing on parked cars. Most days, however, were quiet. 

Bangalore. Image credits Shanaia Kapoor.

The first few years after our move saw actual heaters and woollen socks till early February and excuses to sit outside with tea and parle g in the monsoons were plenty. In school, it seemed like everyone knew how to play the guitar– brooding fourth graders with the intro riff of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’ in the jungle gym during ‘break’. I practised rolling my consonants like in Tamil phonology and dragging the a’s in sambar over lunch, before proceeding to teach everyone else at home as though I had a PhD in pronunciation. The floors in most houses were red oxide and everybody had labradors named Imli or Simba or Max. At parties, the adults with salt and pepper hair would dance to an Elvis rendition, talk about Vijay Mallya, eloping maids, and the slow death of art in the city. The night would close with a song everyone knew till the air smelt only of whiskey. 

Now, the monsoon sees ‘people I know somehow’ at Third Wave in Indiranagar, Saturday mornings a blur of cold brew and attempts to cure a hangover. The nights in this city are different– Church Street dotted with girls in black dresses smoking cigarettes on pavement corners, too smart or pretty or tall for the guys they’re with (commerce and art majors from Srishti or Christ or a token Netherlands University). We are already drunk at Bob’s or Smoke House or Noon Wine, stumbling out of the little backdoors, hailing autos, calling drivers, slurring directions to UB City. 

There is more drinking. DJ Prithvi or Ronit or Akshay is shrieking over the speakers and the music is terrible but that was never the point. It’s barely 2 am and the club lights are on already, so we go to Empire, pick up chicken shawarmas and end up on someone’s terrace– distant mutuals reveal a Mallya Aditi connection– the guitar is out, someone is playing Swarathma or Indian Ocean and a light drizzle ensues. We sit around a table, there are two men from Germany whose names no one can pronounce, the night’s unrelenting ‘promoter’ and a bunch of people I go to college with. There’s Corner House and biryani, someone is rolling a joint– no 88GLAM or OG Kush– but it doesn’t seem to matter. 

Leaving Bangalore for college in Haryana invited mass objection from most family members, but somehow, with campus security jargon and very clumsy promises, I found myself on the yellow line of the Capital’s crowded metro. To me, Delhi is a strange city– with its herculean roads and men to match, ‘gol-gappas’, and dosas delivered to disappoint. At parties, everyone knows all the steps and even though I’ve seen all the movies, ‘Kala Chashma’ just doesn’t look right when I do it. Everyone’s Hindi feels hurried and complicated, the ends of their words are sharp and conclusive. I am suddenly cynical and wary of everything. 

Barahpulla, Delhi. Image credits Anant Shah

In this city, I am desperately Indian. I wear jhumkas and slip on my kohlapuris that are now worn and re-worn to feign the kind of Indianness that comes with a price tag. My kurti is a mellowing indigo, white lines bent just enough to trick Fabindia frequents like myself into mild satisfaction. Khan Market feels familiar– I allow myself ignorance and privileged bias because it’s the only place that feels like some semblance of home. At Sarojininagar, the women are loud and unapologetic, but I keep tripping over my sorries. I don’t know how to bargain or attach ‘ji’ as a suffix to my ‘bhaiya’ while trying. It is cold and it feels like they can sense my fear and bad Hindi, so I pay full price on everything. 

The semester ends and I am always itching to be at the arrivals gate of Kempegowda International Airport. We book an Uber, then check and recheck to see if we remembered to carry the pepper spray. We do this a hundred times over. I don’t call our cab driver ‘bhaiya’ and he doesn’t tell us about Bollywood, instead he talks about his daughter, then drops us off only when the very tip of our location pin is visible. On the metro, the weight of my suitcase is crippling. A man sees me struggling and offers to help lift it. I shake my head and I don’t smile when I thank him. 

Featured image credits – Aariya Patel

Experience Further: ‘To Build a Home’ by The Cinematic Orchestra is resonant of the transient nature this piece reflects, of learning to find comfort in more than just physical spaces. The song, in congruence with what I’ve attempted to portray through the essay, questions what it is that we hold onto when it is time to leave an aspect of our identities behind.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture through investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society

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