Delhi is like The Complete Works of Shakespeare. You may read just that book and nothing else in your whole life and you would still be wiser. But if go to other cities, walk in their alleys, talk to their dwellers, you would realise that how enlightening it is to read other books.
In other words: Shakespeare is great but not everything; Delhi is great but not everything.
I was recently in Surat, the diamond hub of Gujarat. I had gone there with much reluctance. I mean why leave Delhi? It has everything — forts, palaces, tombs, bookstores, bazaars, malls, gardens. It has surprise streets, sweet secrets. It has character.
But Surat is a more beautiful city than Delhi. Dirt free streets. Colonial buildings. Smooth roads. The old Surat is cleaner than old Delhi. Havelis are as stunning. Mosques are beautiful. There is Shahjahan’s fort, Dutch cemetery, Parsi neighbourhoods and lots of vegetarian restaurants. (The Pizza Hut there has no non-veg option!)
Like Delhi, Surat, too, has a river. But, unlike Delhi’s Yamuna, Tapti doesn’t divide the city into social hierarchies. It unites it.
In the night, people drive to the bridge, park their cycles and cars on the roadside, and sit by the balustrade. All sorts of Suratis go there: couples, families, solitude-seekers. Rich, poor. Women in saris. Women in burqas. The city lights twinkle into the river making it all look dreamy. This dream world in which followers of different religions gather together at one place is, however, too unsubstantial to exist in the clear light of the day. Then Surat comes into its own. Its divisions are laid bare. Navigating through the city means crisscrossing Hindu part, Muslim part, Hindu part, Muslim part.
You don’t find this kind of Jerusalem in Delhi. Our city might not respect its river but at least it respects its people.