When Gurugram becomes a writers’ muse
“My friends have been raving about a new domestic help agency that has set up shop in our neighbourhood,” writes Gurugam-based author Debeshi Gooptu in her book Gurgaon Diaries: Life, Work and Play in Drona’s Village, adding that she was “tempted” to use it after her helper returned from her village “a little out of sorts”. This excerpt from one of the chapters—aptly titled after a little question that might well be one of the most quoted of William Shakespeare’s sentences—talks about how there is nothing to a name and that Gurugram is the quintessential example of this. Here’s why:
The woman they send to my door a week later is a round-faced, genial woman (from West Bengal) who goes by the name of Shakti. When I ask her where she has worked before, she says breezily, “Mongolia, Didi. I was working in a flat in Mongolia.”
I stare at her for several minutes, not sure what I should say next. I’m really impressed that she has worked in Mongolia…I wonder how she coped, living in a place as that...
‘So how did you come back from Mongolia? In an airplane? She stared at me, dumbfounded. ‘Why would I come in an airplane? I came in a cycle rickshaw!’
And that’s when the globalisation bubble burst. At least for me. She hadn’t worked in Mongolia at all, but Magnolias, an upscale condominium down the road!
Gooptu then goes on to write about how Gurugram’s residences and roads have exotic names that are meant to roll off the tongue—Magnolias, Aralias, Carlton, Palm Drive—these are names meant to reflect the city’s kindred connection to international cities, she writes. However, she goes on to say these names have only contributed to the entertainment value, and the city has failed to deliver on the promise these names represent, the promise of a glittering international-level city.
Gooptu moved to Gurugram 20 years ago, and says she still has something new to write about it every day. Other authors—old-timers as well as those new to the city—too have made Gurugram their muse. They use their writings to document their experience of relocating to the city, it’s transformation from a village to the metropolis it is today, and the things they love, and hate, about the city. Authors are deriving inspiration from Gurugram’s tall buildings of steel and concrete, its swanky soirees, and from its large economic divide and the omnipresent dust and pollution. At least seven books in the last six years, plus multiple short stories, have centered around the city.
Gurgaon Diaries, published in 2018, is a humourous take on daily, mundane life in the historic city, and documents Gooptu’s experience of how she came to find her way here. “I had moved from Kolkata and this was a complete culture shock. The shopkeepers didn’t speak any English. We hardly spoke any Hindi,” she recollects, adding that she coped by writing a blog by the same name as her book about the daily happenings. In a chapter called ‘Lost in Translation’, she writes about how she struggled in the kitchen for years because she didn’t know the Hindi word for nigella seeds (known as kalo jeere in Bengali) used to flavour Bengali fish stew, until she made friends with a few Bengali people here. “‘Arre, it’s called kalonji!’ they told me, amused to hear my tale,” she writes.
For Kanchana Banerjee, a corporate writer, moving to Gurugram from Mumbai in 2013 was unnerving. “I didn’t know a single soul here. I was unhappy for a long time,” she said. So she started making an effort to meet other people, particularly authors. “I would go to writing workshops and author meet-ups and, at one point, decided to convert the unfamiliarity of the city into something more productive,” she added.
Banerjee’s first book, A Forgotten Affair, came to be in 2016, and described the life of Sagarika, a woman married to a rich man in Mumbai and facing emotional abuse. The day she walks out of her marriage, she meets with an accident and wakes up with no memory of her past. Her husband whisks her way to Gurugram, and in her new, plush life, she tries to learn about her past. According to Banerjee, the book is based on being given the option of ‘starting over’ and being able to life your life again, given the chance.
“The protagonist in my story goes through trauma in Mumbai. She comes to Gurugram and life here is a blank slate. She can be whoever she wants. She doesn’t want to be here at first, but she finds a certain calm in not knowing anyone in the city,” Banerjee says, pointing out similarities between Sagarika’s and her own journey. She says moving away from the comfort of her house in Mumbai and coming to an unfamiliar setting was inspiring. “Relocating to Gurugram gave me distance from everything I had seen my entire life. It gave me the time, freedom and the mental space to do things my own way,” she says.
Gurugram, notes author Nirupama Subramaniam, is an assimilation of people from all walks of life. It’s a city that no one has roots in, a city which no one really belongs to, but everyone is trying to find their place in, she says, while discussing her book Intermission, published in 2012.
“Gurgaon could never be home for Gayatri. She felt out of place in this brash city that bristled with guiltless consumerism, that was urgently mutating into something unrecognisable, that allowed the uneasy edgy coexistence of extreme wealth and acute poverty. She disliked the concrete clutter, the life in the condominium that permitted her actions, entries and exits to be subject to the scrutiny of strangers.
Sweety loved the newness of Gurgaon, the shiny buildings, the comforting anonymity of airconditioned malls, the frequent sales with tantalising bargains and the proximity to all necessities. When others complained about the dust and pollution, she was surprised. The air was alive with possibilities, the days filled with small luxuries and Sweety savored each one eagerly.”
A love story set against the backdrop of the city, Intermission revolves around the lives of Sweety, Gayatri, Varun and Amandeep. Varun and Gayatri are trying to settle in the city after spending years abroad. The four live in the same condominium, and their lives intertwine when Varun has an affair with Sweety. The story, according to Subramaniam, also runs in parallel to the characters’ complex relationship with the city as they deal with the problems that it throws at them everyday—potholes, traffic, etc.
“Living in close proximity in condominiums in Gurugram brings people together. Their lives brush against each other often. Everyone sort of knows everyone here,” Subramaniam says, adding that she knows life here well, having made the city her home for more than 12 years. She says the city has grown on her.
Vanessa Ohri, an author and a playwright, has also been in a long term affair with the city. She moved to Gurugram 17 years ago, and says she has seen it grow from a nondescript, green suburb to a shiny, less green, buzzing corporate hub. “Over the years, I have witnessed immigrants with different beliefs and attitudes come together in this city, that’s how stories flow,” she adds.
Ohri’s scripts have long addressed social issues in the city, such as children growing up in the hypocrisy of an adult world. However, her story, ‘The Deluge’, published in Escape Velocity, a collection of short stories, in 2018, is one of an upwardly mobile stay-at-home mother, her new 18-year-old Bengali maid and how their respective lives touch each other.
In the story, Vidhu, the mother, is caught in the notorious Gurugram rain, and, while dodging waterlogged roads and muddy puddles, dwells on her life and relationships. Back home, Paro, the maid, panics as she tries to figure out what her job in the house is. “In all her 18 years, Paro had never felt as terrified of the rain, as she did now,” writes Ohri. “Trapped alone in an apartment on the tenth floor, to her the downpour felt different from the innocence of the showers in her native Bengal,” the story goes on. “And then, all of a sudden, as if on cue, the rains stopped…”, and the both, as if on cue, gather themselves together.
Gurugram’s urban floods that bring the city to a halt every year find a mention in Gooptu’s Gurgaon Diaries too. “The book has several stories about the bitter pills in this city—the flooding, the traffic, the economic divide,” Gooptu says, adding that in the years since she moved here, a few things haven’t really changed. “The fanciness is just a façade. At the heart of it, Gurugram is still a village,” she quips.