I realise there’s much that Delhiites (or anyone, for that matter) could find to disagree with in this post. Therefore, I qualify this by stating that this is purely based on what I’ve seen so far in the few parts of the city I’ve had a chance to be around, and the few people I’ve had a chance to observe – which I’ll admit is really not much at all. So excuse the seeming generalisations, because I’m telling myself there’s a lot more to Delhi that I have yet to see, know and understand. But then again, can you truly understand any city, can you truly shed the circumstances you were born in and are in?

Anyway, the one thing that perturbs me most is how there is a clear line of hierarchy for nearly everything. I will qualify this again by saying that this is true of the rest of the country too – and perhaps the rest of the world as well. But nowhere in my few travels and the three cities I’ve lived in have I seen it play out as obviously as it is done in Delhi. Every interaction seems tinged with a sense of ‘you better know who you’re dealing with…’ - and I'm not even talking about workplace hierarchical levels. One friend said that Delhi has a strong ‘naukar chakkar,’ and I can’t help but agree. Coming from a middle-class family from Chennai, I’m unable to comprehend the extent to which people rely on – what do I call them, servants? – their maids, cooks, drivers and other kinds of helpers for so many things. I see the idea that because we pay them, we are entitled to much. Help we demand – we hardly request – ranges from bringing up our bags from the car, to bringing a spoon from the kitchen, to clearing our hair off the bathroom floor, to cutting our apple, to plugging our laptop charger in the socket a tad unreachable, under the table. I see that we are annoyed when someone refuses to do anything we ask, because, heck, we deserve it because we pay them so much. I see that we are always suspicious about the very people who help us get by everyday, because if you’re too nice you’re going to be ripped off someday or you’ll be taken advantage of.

I see this attitude translating into how we talk to them – there’s a customary bhaiyya or didi attached to every sentence, but it doesn’t mask the tone of you-better-do-what-I-say. Someone living in my house compound had the audacity to tell construction workers who live in the half-built apartment they are constructing behind my place, and cooking on random fuel they’ve collected, that they don’t cook meat there because the badboo is coming into his house courtyard. The security guard of the hotel nearby proudly yells at the rickshaw-drivers to get out of the entrance to the hotel. The big car honks the brains out of the smaller car and forget how everyone treats pedestrians.

I’m deeply annoyed myself that I’ve employed a cook, and even as I try to justify it by saying that the kinds of conveniences available to me in Singapore – of readily-available, inexpensive food steps outside my office and in umpteen malls and food courts paces outside my home – I feel angry that I’ve also become reliant on someone for a basic need. I’ve been told that I should yell at her when required, for she won’t take me seriously otherwise.

It’s seriously disturbing. I know I’ve not had a chance to see much of Chennai because I never went to college or worked there, but I honestly doubt that most people from a background similar to mine from Chennai would be able to relate to this. Of course, all of our houses employ women who come to clean the house and do the dishes, and I’m sure there are people who behave in different ways with their helpers, but somehow, this attitude is scary. Singapore is also full of domestic maids who immigrate from other southeast Asian nations, and I have heard horror stories of how some of them are treated – as many as I’ve heard of maids who have truly become family. I haven’t, however, seen this overt class distinction play out there at least among the Singaporeans. The average Singaporean, to my knowledge, is respectful – or at least tolerant – of the people who clean her toilets, cook her food, and sweep the roads. The city taught me to be self-reliant, clean bathrooms, pick hair off the drain, and do my dishes on my own – so much so that my mother, who has often ranted about the hair I leave behind whenever I wash it, was surprised that I started clearing it once I moved to my own house in Singapore. Of course, I acknowledge the massive difference in backgrounds, situations and cultures here, and realise that most people I'm talking about, in Delhi, in India, have never had to be in a situation where hiring domestic help is a costly affair.

I’m not judging people for behaving in a particular manner, trying to portray that we treat people better in the South or pretending to be a superior person, etc. – I will not fall into that simplistic trap of painting people with the same brush, or of assuming false morality in my behaviour. I’m simply registering something that surprises me. This is something that I’m taking time to get used to, and maybe months down the line it won’t bother me at all. And, how do I put this without making it sound like I’m judging? I hope that come what may, I don’t change how I behave with people.

This afternoon in the office, I was sorely tempted to pull up my shawl to cover my head too – the air-conditioning was making the office so cold that my fingers were getting numb, my knit legging-ed leg was getting goosebump-y, and I was sure I’d get a headache at this rate.

And then I wondered how I would brave the Delhi winters.

Ladies and gentlemen, here I am, announcing the latest big move of my life. So far, the record is Chennai à Singapore à Mumbai à Delhi. I’ve steadily been moving north, except for the Singapore bit where I moved a few degrees north of the equator.

While Mumbai did a good job in getting me used to a city that wasn’t Chennai or Bangalore or another southern city where I had family – I could manage my way around in Hindi, get used to tomato-onion-garam masala-based gravies every single day Delhi is a whole other world.

First of all, it carries the loaded baggage of being unsafe for women. After Singapore and Mumbai, here I was, resigned to not wearing shorts or being out and about alone at night. My mother’s concern reaches epic proportions as she signs resignedly when I tell her I’m out for dinner or to buy things. I try every time – unsuccessfully – to allay her fears and say it’s not that bad; but after Mumbai, I will admit that the number of women I find on the roads – alone – after 7pm is shockingly low.

But otherwise, things have been a lot more fun. The biggest change would be the Hindi. Yes, Mumbai made me feel more confident about my hesitant Hindi, and I shamelessly describe or bargain without any thought to whether I should use ka or ki, mera or meri. Mumbai generously allowed me those mistakes. Here, I don’t know… but I confidently rattle off anyway in my working Hindi until my lengthy monologue tapers into English and I finish with an embarrassingly well-constructed English sentence spoken to a house agent, tiffin delivery guy or carpenter who would likely just nod his head or answer back with a complex Hindi sentence.

Hindi here is literary, pure. After Mumbai’s Marathi-mixed Hindi and ‘Tum kya karta hai’ type lines, Hindi in Delhi is like listening to people read sentences from a book. Road signs use words like ‘pralabdh’ (or something like that, I forgot what intense word I saw!), and people use words that I’ve never really heard before, even though my Hindi is as textbook-ish as can be, given we learnt it for years in school without ever having to really speak the language. I hear the word ‘dikkat’ a dozen times everyday, and I wonder why they just can’t use ‘takleef’ (or does my limited vocabulary not understand the nuances and simply consider both synonyms for difficulty?). I also hear the word ‘nazdeek’ and wonder why you can’t use the simpler monosyllabic ‘paas’ (both, I’m pretty sure, mean ‘close’).  And took a minute to understand ‘khulle paise’ for ‘chhutta’ (change or coins).

I’m doing much better, though. I unconsciously switch to Hindi (albeit on very rare occasions) with my colleagues, and I consider that a big achievement because all my life I have never spoken in Hindi in a situation where I didn’t have to. I guess all the Hindi that I hear being spoken around me in office –something that amused me to no end on my first day – helps.

As life settles into a fairly comfortable routine, one of the things I enjoy the most is taking the train back home. I live three stations away, and two doors from the station I exit at. I’m silly enough to want to grin widely (but thankfully check myself) every time I walk past the cacophonous ‘Madam-madam-madam’ chant of the rickshaw-wallahs outside the station, asking me to hop on to their vehicle. I walk past the row of them and get into my house, the house till which their line extends. Ah, the pleasures of staying close to the station!

That said, what’s with having manually-drawn rickshaws in this day and age, and that too in the national capital?! It irks me whenever I have to sit in a vehicle and watch a man – often thin and wiry, and sometimes even old – pedal painfully through crowded roads. I feel worse when I have a co-passenger. The first time I sat on one – I couldn’t remember when I’d sat on a rickshaw before that day – it was like going on a roller-coaster ride through crowded, brimming-with-life-and-commerce Delhi-6. I kept sliding off the sloping seat, and had a laugh whizzing through the roads. Now, I wish I could avoid every rickshaw ride. Like my friend says, these men are selling their labour to earn money – but it’s bitter to watch. Like I used to be amazed and feel sad looking at frail, old people cleaning tables in Singapore foodcourts – they are only earning their money, but you wish they didn’t have to do this.

Otherwise, the roads are laaaarge and wiiiiide, and it’s such a pleasant surprise after Bombay’s choking, narrow roads. You don’t see slums, and the metro is just so beautiful and I’m so proud to see something like this in the country – and it’s kept clean, and how! Government buildings, state representative houses, a hint of the Red Fort from a crowded road in Delhi-6, the Lotus Temple that I see near the Nehru Place station, the Dilli Haat with its stalls from across the country… the city (or what I’ve seen of it) is like an everyday display of what the country stands for in its full glory, and it’s always thrilling to see things you’ve read about in History standing before you tall and proud (even though I’ve done enough trips to Delhi as a kid). And houses – man, where are the apartments?! Every place I wanted to rent was a barsati ­ - a glorified servant’s quarters or outhouse, built where the terrace should have been, stuffed with basic plumbing and a few perfunctory shelves. After seeing a dozen of them, I zoned in on one that’s as big as one of the bedrooms at my home in Coimbatore – and I pay more than what we would rent our whole home out for.  

As I settle into my new home, manage packed lunches and dinners, eat fruits like I never have before, feel hungry all the time like I never eat (!), hunt desperately for a maid (so much that I walked up to a random security guard and asked him to tell any maid he sees entering the society), feel like I'll melt in this furnace of a weather, feel delirious at times wondering whether I’m in Mumbai or a whole other city, and would give anything to get steaming, hot upma for breakfast, I’m slowly getting used to Delhi… and kinda enjoying it too. 

Three or four years ago, I went about telling friends who ‘accused’ me of being feminist that I wasn’t one, but that I was a firm believer in gender equality. Although I slowly revised my stance even before starting my Master’s, remembering those instances makes me cringe now – I wish I’d met earlier those brilliant people who explained to me why being a feminist isn’t a bad thing. Before coming to Bombay, I’d laugh with a friend who teased me about becoming a part of Nari Mukti Morchas. Now I’d tell him, what the heck, I’m proud to be a part of it now.

Besides intense discussions, heated arguments (and the faster heartbeat that accompanies these) or the pure joy of reading something that puts into words something you’ve been struggling to explain, feminism has introduced some externalities in my life. Many positive ones, the life-changing things. The negative ones are unavoidable, I guess, but they relate to some everyday things which now make me guilty when I indulge in them, or which make me positively worried about how future in this world is going to turn out. 

Those scenes in Mouna Ragam when Revathi plays up marital symbols: watching it last year, I stifled a cry when the scene came where she pulls out her thaali to explain that her husband was injured – why would an educated, English-speaking woman need that when she could convey it perfectly well to hospital staff? It’s not a recent phenomenon, I remember getting annoyed as a child when in Vikram Kamal asks his female friend when she says women can do anything men can: “I roam around without a shirt when it’s hot, can you do that?” But it’s gone to exponential levels now. I want to beat up anyone who writes a dialogue ‘poi oru selaiya kattu…’ as the worst possible insult to a man, or where there is a soup song that squarely places the blame on women, along the lines of ‘adi da avala…’ or ‘venaam machan venaam indha ponnunga kadhal…’ F$%*#r leave the women alone if you feel so bad then, won’t you? I’m scared to watch KLTA because I’m not sure I’ll be able to look at the humour without thinking of forms of misogyny embedded in it.  

Giving a gender-related argument to drive any point home (it just seems to the simplest, most obvious example!), so much so that one friend sighed and asked not to look at everything through this lens.

Getting alarmed when niece/nephew/other children say things like girls can’t be superheroes they have to be princesses/boys don’t cook or wear pink, and trying to get them to understand they can do whatever they want without thinking about being a boy or a girl (only to fail miserably because I just can’t do baby-level talk). Will these kids grow out of it? I don’t remember what I was like as a child, but I do remember enjoying my toy machine gun, my cars and asking for a football while enjoying my dolls Mini, Meena and Skipper, and fighting with parents to buy a Mattel kitchen set in Bombay.

Or going the lengths to tell my mother that I will not be kanya-daan-ified whenever I get married – am I an object? Or trying to convince her that I will edit out I-hope-I-die-before-my-husband- or Please-give-me-a-hundred-sons-type mantras: who wants to start a married life wishing for these things? I have other ways to prove love to man besides wanting to die before he does, and anyway, I should have a life outside of him, isn’t it?

Trying hard to take a joke. I don’t know when I should just laugh it off and when I should rise up in anger and tell the person to get the hell out of my Facebook feed. I’m tempted to try to verbally slap some sense into female friends who share with pride how motherhood is ‘divine’ (come out of it already!) or those who share (as if it’s a gem) Chetan Bhagat’s article about how men should allow their wives to work because it will make for a more productive household even if the phulkas come a little cold (oh, how dare you ….)

I’m not much into swearing anyway, and have never used mo-fu, bc or even ‘gay,’ but trying not to even say bastard when I want to hurl an abuse at some man – say, a harasser on the road – is proving to be quite difficult. Add to the mix trying to avoid ‘lame’ or ‘stupid’ because it is disrespectful to people with such conditions, and I’m trying to resort to good old English – as  friends put it, maybe it’s time to go back to ludicrous, ridiculous and the like (see, I can’t even remember too many of these words).

It’s been a wonderful journey so far, even though I wonder how I’ll make my peace with the aforementioned minor dilemmas in everyday life. I also wonder if this is just a phase I’ll grow out of when I get out of cushy student life and have to tackle the everyday pressures that come with working life. I desperately hope not. The last two years have been so life-changing that it would be a pity if I have to leave the learnings behind just because life demands that – but somewhere, there is a teeny, tiny hope this won’t happen. Ten years hence, I hope I can still read this blog and be proud that I am still living my life as an individual, as a Vani Viswanathan with an identity that is not tied only to a family, a man or a child, but also to something that is uniquely my own. And that I will still roll my eyes and try to explain why women shouldn’t have to cook, can enjoy movies wholeheartedly because they don’t really have sexism in every other scene, or tell little girls they can play superheroes too.

P.S.: And I’m officially out of excuses to start working on my thesis this morning. Work, woman, work! 

P.P.S.: The blog turns EIGHT!