Big City Parochialism

This column by Isha Singh Sawhney is about how badly we, Indian tourists, treat our hill stations. (On a related note, see Hari the Kid’s rant about Indian travellers.) While the complaints in the column are legitimate, reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder if Ms Sawhney even knew about hill stations outside the Himalayas – the column makes it sound as if hill stations are destinations exclusively reserved to Delhi weekend travellers, and that Ooty, Kodai, Khandala, or Darjeeling don’t exist at all.

This is quite possibly an over-reaction considering the simplest explanation is a combination of limited word count for columns combined with the fact that the Sunday Guardian is a Delhi only paper, and so can happily hire columnists with a limited worldview, ahem, an extreme focus on Delhi, but since the emotional reaction is already there, I might as well run with it and turn it into a post. The whole thing got me thinking that parochialism isn’t only for villages, but lives quite happily in big cities as well.

The fellow from the village who is parochial is so because of lack of opportunity. Kept to his (or her) village (or to an industrial urban slum), he has no time or money to go out exploring, and sticks to what he knows (or can afford). The big city parochialist, on the other hand, is parochial because he lacks for nothing. The city (or perhaps even his neighbourhood) provides so many opportunities that he doesn’t need to know that other cities exist or what happens in them.

To pass now from merely dubious generalisation to active and reckless stereotyping, this exists in most Indian metros, or at any rate places which call themselves metros, regardless of whether such a tag is justified. Thus you have the Bombayite for whom Pali Hill and Pall Mall are in the same city, but who knows nothing of Pune (or perhaps even Goregaon). There is the Delhiite who has no clue about what happens in Bangalore or Chennai, and the Alwarpet resident who doesn’t know that Ashok Nagar exists, leave alone what is to be found in Delhi or Mumbai or Hyderabad.

Of course, there are shades of this big city parochialism. The worst you can get is to live blissfully clueless about where other cities even are. Slightly better than this is to be aware of their existence and location, but to be unconcerned about what happens over there. And slightly better than this – and I confess to being guilty of myself – is to not live so much in a geographical city as a city of the mind made up of a certain very specific set of neighbourhoods from multiple cities. (As an aside, while I was discussing this with Narendra Shenoy, we realised that MachanIf there are tony neighbourhoods, there must be rocky neighbourhoods also. Sorry.)

In my case, I could at one point step out from the airport in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, or Singapore; and instantly feel at home in – respectively – Green Park, Fort, 100 ft Road Indiranagar, or the stretch between Orchard Road and Bras Basah Road. This – fortunately or unfortunately – is no longer the case, since in the past three years I stopped travelling frequently, and now every time I visit these places I am struck less by what’s familiar and more by what’s changed.

It’s also worth pointing out that Bangalore residents rarely sink to the lowest levels of parochialism and not knowing anything about other cities at all. This is for the simple reason that it would deprive them of their favourite activity of taunting said other cities about their weather.