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Belonging everywhere and nowhere

A year ago I took the decision to leave Mumbai which has been my spiritual and real home for most of my life and shift to Dehradun. When I look out of the window as I write this, I see the foothills towering above me. It has been years since I ever saw the sea from any window I looked out of in Mumbai not since my childhood and my city was called Bombay then.

Indian town planners have ensured that potholes and uneven paver blocks are now to be found at all urban, semi-urban and rural centres. File pic
Indian town planners have ensured that potholes and uneven paver blocks are now to be found at all urban, semi-urban and rural centres. File pic

Then I read about how the new Telangana government wanted to include a ‘nativity’ clause in a survey they’re conducting through the state. To find out who belongs and who benefits. This is an idea that anyone who has lived in Maharashtra is familiar with and many other places for that matter. Do you belong or not? Are you a ‘son of the soil’ or an outsider? Have you stolen some opportunity from someone of the right ethnicity? Are you here to give or only to take?

This atavistic feeling is what binds us and what separates us as well. The Indian Constitution allows us to live anywhere but some tribal and some ethnic rights are protected when it comes to property, for instance. There are states that demand ‘domicile’ certificates to avail of particular benefits.

But in the two months that I have now lived in Dehradun, it is not all this that bothers me. Politicians work on fears of ‘The Other’ to build up their local support and some choose the insider while their colleagues find they will get more votes from outsiders. It’s a game and you’re a sucker if you fall for it.

No, my problem goes deeper than that: how long before the mountains pale into insignificance and I start missing Marine Drive, Linking Road, hopping into a taxi whenever I feel like it, bhel puri, the sound of Marathi, eating out, ordering in... One of the first problems that hit you, when you reach North India for instance, is that you cannot understand a word of what anyone says. You know they might be speaking Hindi but the intonations and the accent make it sound like gibberish.

Luckily, Indian town planners have ensured that potholes and uneven paver blocks are now to be found at all urban, semi-urban and rural centres, so there is no chance of missing those. Also developers have put up malls everywhere so there is no hope in hell of ever missing those. I got stuck in a traffic jam yesterday and that was a memory I could live without. I can see the long lines of cars crawling up hill roads trying to get into Mussoorie from the window every weekend...

Small town living is not completely unknown to me I have lived in Calcutta, Ahmedabad and even Dehradun before and that was when it had no malls. You just have to adjust your expectations. Hell you know that rocket leaves are not available at your neighbourhood roadside veggie shop the way it is in Mumbai. But then every fancy ‘gourmet’ mall ‘store’ in Gurgaon makes the average Mumbai kirana shop look exotic. And at least in Doon, zuchini is available at roadside stalls in season as some sort of a gourd that no one really knows what to do with. And now Dehradun has stylish apartment blocks which offer fine living with furniture imported from Dubai, parquet flooring and mountain views as part of the deal. Eat your heart out, Mumbai builders!

Right now, though the jury is out. A semi-retired life has its attractions and a morning spent deadheading roses is fulfilling and even a bit romantic. Moonrise is not hidden by tall buildings (all right, all right sometimes a mountain or two can get in the way). Newspapers don’t arrive till 10 am so birdwatching in an amateurish fashion has to fill that time. It seems like a travesty to get stuck to the television and miss the morning parakeet versus babbler show.

As for belonging, the politicians can cry their eyes out with their surveys and their certificates. Like Groucho Marx, I don’t want to belong to a club that will have me. I reserve the right not to belong anywhere.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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