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Delhi is where the heart is

November 24, 2017 13:00 IST

You can return to Delhi even after 25 years and find that friends treat you as if you had never left, says Rahul Jacob.

Visitors at Delhi's Qutub Minar

The immigration officer in Bengaluru took so long that I began to suffer a panic attack that any protracted interaction with a bureaucrat behind a counter brings on.

"You go to Delhi too much," he blurted out, poring over the stamps in my passport that were proof I had returned to India inexplicably often via the miles of mud-dyed carpets at Indira Gandhi international airport rather than the relative Swiss minimalism of Kempegowda in Bengaluru.

 

I had visited New Delhi six times in 12 months. Invites to friends' weddings and a 50th -- and even a 30th -- birthday celebration was one reason.

Work that ranged from parsing the tea leaves to understand the direction of the Reserve Bank after Raghuram Rajan's abrupt departure and the impact of demonetisation was the other.

Economics in India is no longer the dismal science, but a jaw-dropping whodunit thriller as we lurched towards implementing GST with much less preparation than Canada in the 1990s and Malaysia a few years ago.

Paradoxically, this was the first summer I have not been in Delhi in six years. I missed it. The heat is so ferocious that one is in touch with nature and yet miraculously not in the midst of a forest fire.

The new friends I made in my first summer in the city in 2011 after two decades away are still close, the kinship strengthened by long restorative drinks of nimbu paani and lazy breakfasts or dinners.

Summer is conducive to a musical chair routine of successive addas, reminiscent of the Kolkata of my childhood or the Delhi of my college days.

By contrast, there was not a grey, polluted winter in Delhi when I did not wish every week I was in Bengaluru instead.

When I visited last July, my former landlords insisted I stay with them or in my old flat. (The current tenants, who are close friends, had not moved in.)

I awoke every morning savouring the fleeting coolness on the balcony and wondering if the yowling from peacocks nearby was a protest against being a mascot for such a confused and confusing country.

From the terrace I could see my landlord, a role model at 94, walking in circles for 45 minutes on the large lawn where tall frangipani plants stood like sentries, part of his rehab therapy after a fall in Lodi Gardens.

Whimsically, I decided to have a drinks party at a day's notice. There was no furniture in the living room other than a mattress with a colourful patchwork bedcover and a sofa waiting to be reupholstered.

As I waited outside the Jangpura home of the lady from whom I had ordered shammi kebabs, I saw her regally alight from a cycle rickshaw with plastic cling wrap plastered to her head.

She had wet henna applied to her hair. After stern instructions about how to fry the kebabs, she returned to the saloon.

That impromptu party last July was one of the best I have been lucky enough to host. Since it was summer, everyone showed up.

A diverse cast of childhood friends, journalists, academics and restaurateurs came laden with alcohol and good humour.

You can return to Delhi even after 25 years and find that friends treat you as if you had never left.

The unjustly maligned Punjabi ethos also means that once you are accepted into a family, you just keep adding generations of friends within it.

I received an email from a friend's glamorous 80-year-old mother to jokingly complain that a photo of mine was looming over her computer in January: Her daughter-in-law puts together a calendar every year of recent 'family photos'.

I was a newcomer to Delhi who found himself 'expected' at three homes on Diwali one year.

Delhi is also a place where professional relationships endure.

I had known my exceptional ophthalmologist less than a month when I left, but he advised me via WhatsApp on a recent eye infection and refused payment when I dropped by for a follow-up.

My dentist in Nizamuddin sends me reviews of my book I wish I could pay to publish. After visits to Business Standard's office, I am invariably late for my next appointment because there are so many colleagues to say hello to.

Delhi may also be 'where the networks of crony capitalism converge, where money seeks the license to earn more money' as Samanth Subramanian observed in a review of Rana Dasgupta's damning biography of the city.

No capital has a business culture more short-sighted and mercenary, but, contradictorily, few places are as generous.

This week, I heard that the impending departure of my friends from my old flat had resulted in it being leased to a stranger. Absurdly, given the number of friends I can stay with when visiting Delhi, it felt like an eviction notice.

Sensing my dejection, my landlady said, "You always have a home here."

If I missed the view from upstairs, well, she was sure the new tenant probably wouldn't mind if I stayed there occasionally.

This thoroughly impractical idea made me smile for days afterward.

IMAGE: A couple takes a selfie in front of the Qutub Minar in New Delhi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Rahul Jacob
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