There is a small town – or several – in every Indian town and a town in every small town
We have various identities: nation, state, region, religion, caste. There is also another, more local identity, perhaps the one that matters most to us: the town or village in which we live. In many ways, other identities are abstract and distant. The streets and neighborhoods in which we grow and work, the marketplaces we frequent, the local landmarks, these are the places where we carry out our life activity.
Over the years, I discovered this curious facet of my personality. I realized that I am above all a patriot of the city. If someone says something flippant and judgmental about where I live, steamy fumes start coming out of my ears and, sometimes, even my nose. The writers choose their landscapes and their characters; they feel a kinship and empathy with them. Sometimes it happens backwards, and sometimes circumstances make you live where you are, or it can be totally accidental when you show up and decide to call home. This applies to everyone, not just writers.
UK band Pulp had a number 1 hit titled “Common People”, which featured the line “Everybody hates a tourist/ Especially the one who thinks it’s such a laugh,/ And the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath .” It’s about tourists coming to England, ‘going native’, eating fish and chips and laughing at working class life.To some extent, we understand this phenomenon: those visiting a foreign country for the first time are used to succumbing to clichés and stereotypes; so much for trips that broaden our horizons.
But what about the person who comes from Delhi to Dehradun? I was sitting with one of these specimens in a bar in Dehradun and the waiter was slow to bring him his second beer, which he immediately attributed to the slowness of the small town turtles. I’ve been to bars in Delhi where the service is even slower. Another friend went to a Thai restaurant here and complained that the food was terrible. “What else do you expect from small towns? Any restaurant, anywhere, can serve food you don’t like. A third Indian in town came into town and on his way to the hotel saw a man sitting on a string bed staring off into space. This was also transformed into a romantic image of the small town. The fact is, there are men sitting on cots in the back alleys of cyber-city Gurgaon and New Delhi even as I write this.
I have lived in three towns/cities, they being Allahabad, Delhi and currently Dehradun. In the mid-1990s, when I first came to Delhi University to do my BA, a college senior would often surprise me and persist with the same question: But what did you do to Allahabad? I would say, “Read books, listen to music, go to the movies, have a crush on girls, drink Lehar Pepsi, play cricket, watch star trek on Doordarshan, and a film by Buster Keaton at the university’s film club. It wasn’t the answer he was looking for. Finally, one day, I told him that we used to go skinny dipping in the Ganges, and to fetch snake skins from the sandbanks, an absolute lie. He was satisfied. He had found the exotic oriental truth he was looking for.
The people of Delhi suffer from the illusion of the ideal Indian small town. For them it is a prototype, the one where there is no difference between Katihar, Allahabad, Shillong, Coimbatore, Itarsi, Ranchi, Jabalpur and Kottayam. At the same time, they are confused in their expectation of what a small town should be. The image they have in mind is that it is a sleepy, green place with rolling hills, like a village in Arunachal Pradesh. This is not the reality of India’s bustling small towns.
One person from Delhi was disappointed with the number of big brand outlets in Dehradun: Hamleys, Dunkin Donuts, H&M, Apple, Crocs… My God, it’s becoming like Delhi. Pub chains like Turquoise Cottage and Social have either opened or are about to open, as do international coffee chains like Starbucks. In the eyes of the Delhi person, we have to maintain a pastoral existence so he can come here and relax and then complain about the lack of nightlife. It is a strange paradox to inhabit.
Another curious aspect of the people of Delhi is that they are constantly trying to “get away” from Delhi. When it comes to fight or flight mode, Delhiites are firmly into the latter. Which makes it all the more curious why they can’t understand the little places they visit. What is even more ironic is that in the eyes of that other false entity, the West, all of India is one giant mass: a hot land with no snow and lots of elephants.
I have known Delhiites who have moved to one-horse towns in America and who feel superior returning to India, only because in the eyes of their neighbors they have “advanced in life” simply by moving to the back of the afterlife in the United States. This person from Delhi, who didn’t care about small towns, now lives in the smallest town in the whole world. In this version of Americana, the Hindu right-winger, who moved to a small American town from Delhi, now faces hostility from his new neighbors – Trump-supporting white supremacists. Life has a nice way of leveling things.
The fact is that in India, the boundaries between small towns and cities are blurred and blurred. There is a small town (or several) in each town and a town in each small town. The screenwriter who lives in Versova, Mumbai, will never visit Colaba in her lifetime. Versova is the small town where she lives. Every small town will have someone opening a funky watering hole or coffee shop.
However, this is not to deny the differences. As someone who has spent two-thirds of their life in a small town and one-third in the city, I think I know a thing or two about the quintessential characteristics of small towns.
Small town dwellers are obsessed with opening stores, usually kirana stores. The restaurants are called Lip ‘n’ Sip, while the fashion stores are called Dezign Studio. The moral point taken here is: why should I work for someone? The truth is that there is a real lack of opportunity. Those without the capital to open a store have a standard face-saving response; when asked what they do, they will answer ‘ownership’ or ‘construction’.
In small towns, the first thing to do in the morning is to go to the local bank. Everyone from their twenties to retirees hits the bank after their mandatory gym class or morning walk.
“I have an early morning tomorrow.”
“What are you doing?”
“I have to go to the bank.”
Small town folks also like to tell you where you or your parents were spotted the day before.
“I saw your parents buying fruit at Survey Chowk.”
“Arre, yesterday I saw you at the Behl chowk traffic light. My bike was right behind your car.
In Dehradun, there is an underclass of unemployed middle-aged men who live with their mothers. They are abstinent males with no bad habits except sweets. In the evening, they put on a clean shirt, do their hair and go to the local grocer, sticking their hands in the various pots of caramel on the counter. So sweet.
Small-town drinkers are used to drinking only super-strong lager, because the alcohol mafia has decided that only five major cities in the country deserve regular-strength beer. You won’t get Kingfisher Premium, only Kingfisher Strong.
When it comes to relationships, people in small towns tend to get genuinely confused by phrases like “She broke up with me” or “My friends are getting divorced.”
People from small towns are also great sulkers. They tend to be sensitive to the smallest of things and won’t speak to each other for months, before finally making up. At this point, no one remembers who got angry about what.
Finally, there is little road rage in small communities. People smile and carry on, even though one car has scuffed another. No one wears crowbars under their seat like in Delhi.
Many songs have been written about small towns, perhaps one of the most famous being John Mellencamp’s “Small Town”:
“All my friends are from such a small town,
My parents live in the same small town,
My job is so small town,
Provides few opportunities, hey.
But I’ve seen it all in a small town,
I had a ball in a small town,
I married an LA Doll and brought her to this little town,
Now she’s a small town, just like me.
I have nothing against a big city,
Still enough hay seeds to say
“Look who’s in the big city”;
But my bed is in a small town,
Oh, and that’s enough for me.
The writer is the author of ‘The Butterfly Generation’ and the editor of ‘House Spirit: Drinking in India’. The opinions expressed are personal.
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