An old friend asks me if I miss Mumbai while I'm here. I think, I've only been here three weeks. What's to miss? But I did miss Mumbai at the start of my journey to Dehra Dun, when I spent a week in Gurgaon with friends recently moved there (and weeping a bit). An artificial construct that attempts to mimic a city, situated close to another conglomeration that strains to be a world class metropolis, fails on just about every count.
Gurgaon is dust and malls and gated communities. Somewhere beyond all that, there must be villages and there must have once been fields. Nothing matches. Girls trying to lead the big city life get raped regularly. I say this in a matter of fact manner because that is how the residents behave with it. Men will be men and particularly Gurgaon-Delhi men.
Never have I seen so many booze shops (in the local newspaper parlance "liquor vends") as I have dotted between the malls of Gurgaon. Ajit Pawar would weep at the amount of taxation he's missing out on. The booze shops outside the malls (which are full of pubs) have plastic tables and chairs outside them for their customers and enterprising food stall wallahs provide the snacks. It seems hardly surprising that there is a cultural and social disconnect between the malls, the pubs, the "vends", the "big city" girls and the men. This is not a real place yet, whatever the future may hold for it. The metro to Delhi seems like a welcome escape. Or indeed, a gated community.
'Jugaad' big City living: The booze shops outside the malls in Gurgaon have plastic tables
and chairs for their customers, and enterprising food vendors provide the snacks
I have lived -- of course many years ago -- the "big city" life in Mumbai. We bothered about neither time nor place and scoffed at the nakabandis which became ubiquitous after the 1992-93 riots. Going home from work at whatever time in the morning was perfectly acceptable. I give thanks that I am not a young working person in Gurgaon or Delhi and also am filled with gratitude that I live in Mumbai.
The gated communities which have cropped up in Mumbai, particularly in the old mill areas of Central Mumbai, seem even more of a misfit in the Gurgaon context. What are these people hiding from? Many, I suspect, are new to Mumbai and uncomfortable with its odd mix of high-price lifestyles and egalitarian attitudes. Those slums and skyscrapers (well, whatever, tall-ish buildings) have lived together for many more years than these artificial new glass-faced structures in Parel have existed. There is no reason in Mumbai to hide, only to be at the mercy of high maintenance bills and the security-guard mafia.
Fear of the Gurgaon sort is an unwelcome addition to Mumbai and adds to the feelings of disconnect between social classes. Which will not unnaturally only increase the conflict -- the more removed you are, the less sensitive you become. Thankfully, the severe shortage of land in Mumbai's municipal limits (Vashi and New Mumbai excluded here) ensures that cheek-by-jowl is the only way forward.
Dehra Dun is neither so dusty nor schizophrenic as Gurgaon and is nowhere close to being a "big city". The people are seemingly less aggressive and growth may be slow but the young are hopeful and remarkably well-dressed. As with most of India, progress is skewed and Dehra Dun careers along, this way and that. Real estate and education are both booming. I see new schools being advertised every time I visit. Industry may be in short supply but enterprise is not. There's even a multiplex now!
Higher up in the hills, I take a walk round the garden mid-column and admire the bright yellow California poppies nodding in the breeze. Dehra Dun appeals tremendously but I know I'll be back in Mumbai sooner rather than later and join the froggie chorus, praying for a short summer and a long monsoon! Anywhere but Gurgaon, eh?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona