A City, A Beast, My Home
Gurgaon is a metropolis birthed and wrought by its people, and the city moulds them in return.
“Gurgaon is like a pig that grows feeding on its own shit,” Anuj said the moment he spotted me. Not a hello, not a smile, just a plain stark frustration that he gave tongue to. The space around us was dimly lit, like every other Gurgaon pub, trying to escape the harshness outside by turning a shade darker. Indecipherable pub music played in the background, and the chic crowd punctuated it with sinusoidal waves of laughter that lifted and descended, as if at will. Anuj and I were meeting after a whole year, following up on a ritual that we set eight years back when I had left Gurgaon to move to Sweden.
“That’s quite a judgement, don’t you think?” I said, wiping the condensation off the glass of an iced drink that lay waiting for Anuj.
“Well, for you this must be exotic – the traffic, the dust, no parking space, and this mad rush. Not for those who live through this everyday”.
I wanted to counteract, for I had spent years in Gurgaon before moving on, and I still loyally come back to the city and call it home even after having traded my dark blue passport for a burgundy Swedish one. I have experienced the abrasiveness of this city, and the venom it spits out carelessly. I have seen the city grow, and I have grown along with it. For one reason or another, my history is conjoined with that of Gurgaon’s like a double helix chromosome. This shared history could not be disposed with; there is no escaping, perhaps for life. It was as if the city and I had struggled together in our formative years, and then like a selfish escapist I had left it behind. Now I felt owning up to it, calling it my home, despite the embarrassing urban monster it has become. This was too much to verbalise. So, I kept quiet, letting Anuj settle down first.
I first came to Gurgaon in 2004, fresh as mint from an engineering college, onto my first job that like most of my batch mates, I had found in this upcoming metropolis. The ochre landscape, sparsely marked with a few high-rises, carried a vacant look. The dust was still there, rising in whirlpools in the heat and spreading out on the newly stamped roads. What I distinctly remember from that time was the traffic, rather the lack of it. One could drive for kilometres, without getting entangled between honking metal bodies spewing toxic cocktail of unburnt carbon and nitrogen.
Public transport was virtually non-existent, and owning a motorbike, if not a car, was a fundamental survival necessity. There were only a few malls that time, and free space never seemed to run out in their underground parking lots.
A product of the flat world, Gurgaon was a time machine. On one side were the malls and the futuristic buildings of multinational companies. On the other, were the leftovers from the bygone times; a world that refused to catch up with its other half. The two parts were cut apart by National Highway 8. Which side of Gurgaon you lived in, defined you. I lived on the correct side of the highway, the one tenanted by the outsiders who strove to make this new part of Gurgaon their home.
What made Gurgaon so luring then? The opportunity offered by the multinationals. The pay package these offshoots of US majors, or start-ups tapping into outsourcing, offered was impossibly good, and even though I could not explain properly what I did at work to my once a nuclear scientist father, I relished the perplexed nod that he gave. Gurgaon, offered an opportunity to tag along on this upwardly ride. I took the bite, and that was start of this relationship, a mutual give and take: the city gave me a career and I gave it my hours and money, like millions others, spent strolling its malls aimlessly, sitting in its young Americanised coffee shops for hours, and shopping mindlessly whatever the newly acquired money could get.
Soon, as I settled down, the garishness of Gurgaon substituted the overpowering self-importance of Delhi where I had spent the last four years studying engineering. I had a comfortable living space in Gurgaon thanks to my father who spent his savings to buy a cheap three bedroom apartment far from what used to be the nerve centre of Gurgaon, the shopping malls. Till date, this apartment has remained my home, my anchor point in India.
Friendships were easy to forge in Gurgaon. Everyone was an outsider and looked for company. The pubs that had begun to pop up like grocery stores offered a twisted relief. Gyrating to loud music, vomiting with excess drinking, spending a neat part of your salary every month in the psychedelically lit vibrating rooms of these pubs fast became a way of life for the rookies. One evening, in one such pub, I met Anuj, who had moved from IIT Bombay to work for a consultancy firm. A common friend who studied with me at IIT Delhi had introduced us. Anuj was lonely in the alien North Indian setting that he was not used to. So I took upon myself to show him the city. Only challenge being there was nothing to show in Gurgaon to an outsider. We hung around in pubs, and malls, and soon bored, we started to ride to Delhi at every opportune moment. The eight-lane expressway hadn’t come up then, but it still didn’t take more than 30 minutes to reach Delhi. Gurgaon’s proximity to the capital was yet another plus.
A couple of years passed, and I graduated from a motorbike to a car. Meanwhile, I found a girlfriend. So did Anuj. Busy with our lives, trying to make something of ourselves, we would still take out time to catch up. There were many more places to meet up than the odd pubs. For instance, good eateries had started to mushroom, introducing us to the flavours from the outside world: Lebanese, Thai, and Mexican. Construction boomed too: several new Malls burst forth, shoving for space in the narrow strip of MG ‘Mall’ Road. Around this time, the fortune of Gurgaon took a turn. It came forward in its own might, rather than being scorned off as a suburb of Delhi. The once sleepy, spread out city became home to millions. Land prices soared, and price of the modest apartment that my father bought quadrupled. Abruptly, the city meant business, and with money, or lack of it, crime soared.
One winter evening, Anuj called me.
“They stole everything! And hit me with a rod,” he cried into the phone, wrenching in pain.
I rushed to decrepit hospital and a rickshaw puller had taken him to. The rickshaw-puller – who waited for me at the hospital to come and pay for his services, and for the hour of work he had lost – had found Anuj bleeding outside on the street next to an ATM. Anuj, bandaged in head, told me how he was taking money out from the ATM when two men barged in, shoved him against the wall and beat him repeatedly, before running away with his money. That was my first encounter with crime. Gurgaon was no more the innocent city that had lucked out. Rather, it was fast becoming a monster with uncontrollable tentacles that operated on their own will.
Stories of crime became frequent. So did complaints about the lack of public transport, the rising costs, the lack of infrastructure, the gaping void in entertainment options. Gurgaon struggled to become as important as Delhi, but without the bureaucratic shenanigans of its antediluvian counterpart. And it failed. Nothing improved. The seams began to come apart. For the first time, what once looked like vast expanse of streets began to clog and crumble under burgeoning traffic. The 20 minutes ride to work, took 45 minutes now. Road rage, so common to Delhi, was imported into Gurgaon. Queues began to form in front of ticket counters at multiplexes. Going out, in general, became less of an ad-hoc activity but more of a planning exercise. Weekends called for especially better planning, for parking space in malls began to run out by late mornings. Go early and settle for the whole day in these malls, became the de-facto weekend getaway.
For once, Gurgaon seemed like an orphan adolescent, someone destined to do great things, but had drifted into misguided disarray.
But I stood by, never disclaiming the city. Gurgaon had bought me with its money. Most likely, I wouldn’t have got the same monetary benefits elsewhere in India. Perhaps, it’s true. I told myself a different story though – that I truly loved the chaos that was this city, and how easy it was to glide anonymously through its rippling entropy. I liked driving around on its roads for hours, or roam the malls amidst thousands others but still remain cocooned in myself, or sitting in a coffee shop for hours, or at a pub nursing a single drink. I loved the ease with which I, an introvert, could strike a conversation with a complete stranger. Everyone I met was an immigrant, just like I was. I found in Gurgaon the unbarred edginess that I had always desired in my personality – it seemed as if adopting this city as my home would give me the license to claim its traits.
When it was time to leave Gurgaon for Sweden, I told myself that it was an event, an aberration and that I will come back home after a year. A year turned to two and then some more. Now, eight years later, though I have not completely accepted the idea that I will never come back to live permanently in Gurgaon, the reality has begun to sunk in that the city and I have parted ways and have propelled at different tempo: Gurgaon, at its typical breakneck haste, and I at a more languid humdrum.
In all these years outside India, I retained a link to the city: my friend, Anuj, who despite hating Gurgaon managed to stick around. Now, here we were, sitting quietly on bar stools nursing our drinks and chatting up about life, work, traffic, marriage, and all other important matters in life. And around us, Gurgaon pulsated with life-force, as if it had become a living character in our stories, the stories of us millennials, who grew up with the city, and while we may fool ourselves to think that we have matured with passing years, Gurgaon continues to boastfully display its adolescent recklessness.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu