As I sit in the balcony of the three-storeyed building I’ve called home for the past one year, coughing multiple times because of the smoke coming from the tandoor that the restaurant-_walla_ has set up in the lane, I wonder how different would it have been if I had chosen to stay at home in Najafgarh forever. Najafgarh, the unknown Delhi, the Delhi that has not been discovered much, the Delhi that you neither see in the star-studded Bollywood blockbusters, nor in the artsy, low-budget films, the Delhi unworthy of being called Dilli¬.
I was not born in Delhi. I was born in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. No! Not Kashmir. The beautiful city pressed between mountains on all sides, carrying the Dal in her lap, boasting of world-famous Chinar and Apple trees, is as alien to me as America. When I was a 15-year old, I remember boasting of my lineage that went back to Kashmir, of belonging to a place that was heaven compared to Delhi, even though I was as unknown to that place as my friends were. I was born in Jammu. The part of Jammu and Kashmir that nobody is familiar with. ‘You must have seen snow? How lucky!’ would have been the standard response when I would tell anyone that I often visited Jammu. Jammu didn’t have snowfall. It was almost like Delhi in terms of weather with just a few slopes to make it a tad better. The near-two hundred kilometres of distance between Jammu and Kashmir made all the difference. As the conditions worsened over the years in Kashmir, my pride associated with it also shattered. It was a fine morning when I had been to a park with a few friends that I had received the loudest blow on my face for the first time ever. We were a group of four people, very close friends, and we were basking in the winter sun, singing songs and playing the guitar when a group of two middle-aged men stopped right in front of us. The conversation took off from a couple of song requests and a little chit-chat to asking about each of our backgrounds.
‘Where are you from, beta?’ ‘Oh, me?! I’m from Delhi..um..originally, from Kashmir’ They were both, in their forties. One of them had a long moustache and a tidy beard. His beard had a few grey strands which made him look older than he was. The other was short and had closely trimmed hair. He had a noticeable round belly which didn’t look odd at all; in fact, I can’t imagine how he would’ve looked without the round bump.
They exchanged a quick glance at my utterance of the cursed word. “Kashmir?!” The one with the big moustache couldn’t suppress his grin. “Tell your brothers and sisters in Kashmir to stop the stone-pelting na?” The other man looked away, embarrassed by what this man had said but his silence disguised his acknowledgement.
I was infuriated. I didn’t know what was the reason behind this anger. Was it because I didn’t want to hear anything about the Kashmir that was a part of my identity? Was it because I didn’t want to do anything with Kashmir? After all, I had never been to the place, so much for having any connections over there. He made one last remark before he went away. ‘Beta, please don’t tell anyone else that you’re from Kashmir. You’ll get beaten up!’ He had a hearty laugh at my expense and left with his friend, after putting his hands on all of our heads as a gesture of blessing us.
The only relevance that Kashmir has to my real life is that of being on my Birth Certificate as a part of Jammu and Kashmir. I have lived all my life in Delhi. But the Delhi that was part of my experience of the last eighteen years is drastically different from the Delhi of the past one year. This Delhi has fancy cafés, bookstores, historical ruins, forts, dingy lanes and all with historical and commercial value. It is valued and appreciated by everybody that visits.
Nobody visits Najafgarh. The Delhi that I was a part of had nothing but squalor, filth, dirt, even with all its empty plots and huge farms, it was polluted. I don’t remember a single day before coming here when I actually sat down and looked at the clearer sky that had at least a few stars that I could pinpoint, and admire that place. I had internalised hating that place so much that I couldn’t have ever imagined that I would look forward to going back every time I came away. Najafgarh is filthy in terms of everything. The roads are overcrowded, the public transport isn’t very good, the streets are filled with madmen following and teasing girls coming home from their tuitions or in the marketplace. There isn’t a fancy restaurant in a radius of almost ten kilometres. My mother and I had hated our father for the better half of our lives for making us live in the place. But we got used to it. The filth, the noise and pretty much all the trouble until the time when I had to leave. I had to leave. The place was an island of its own. It wasn’t connected to Dilli, the Delhi that caters to dreams. It wasn’t connected to the Delhi that is broadcasted and is worthy of all the appreciation it gets. To share the dreamers’ limelight, I needed to climb out of the bog.
Dilli, in its entirety, with its glorious past, crowded lanes and red-bricked walls is a bog. No matter how far you’ve climbed, you will stay find yourself out of breath, trying to reach out of its grasp. The Delhi that I had known is still holding on to me. I might have found peace in the filth, after all the years of struggle. The filth was comfortable. It was home.
The smoke has grown too much for my liking. With all my allergies to dust and smoke and my breathing problems, it’s a wonder that I managed to spend an evening on the balcony. But my lungs can’t bear anymore. I stifle a cough to prevent its echo to be heard in the corridor but I can’t hold it in. My eyes grow tense and I have a slight irritation in my throat. I let out a cough and the echo that it lets out is deafening.