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City Scapegoats

Chili peppers, brinjal, banana, zucchini arranged in increased order of size

My mother grew up in a Delhi vaguely similar to the one today, of course with less traffic and a scantier fleet of cars. She and my aunt would walk through gullies to get to their university, Jamia Millia Islamia. She was proud of Jamia – this one time, years ago, she mentioned that Shah Rukh Khan had studied there as well. Of course, she never saw him, or met him, and was resigned to the fact that he was tied down by the shooting of his then-hit serial, Fauji (1989). Nonetheless, I carried forward her pride. When someone asked me where my mom grew up, I’d say Delhi, mention Jamia and SRK. Clearly, I had trouble with brevity.

Back in those gullies, a handful of men would whistle at her, bump against her, hang their penises out of their zippers. I don’t mean to be accepting of ruthless machismo, but it was formulaic – the usual, visceral need to prove oneself as a sexual being with tempestuous desires. The dick-swinging, dick-hanging-out phenomenon can evoke an almost blasé response, but did not when it happened the first few times to me. I suppose many of us are romantics growing up. The ones who aren’t, are conversant with reality. I didn’t mind the slight delusion – a sweet, candy-covered, rose-hued version of the world wasn’t creating damage, till you forcibly inserted a phallus-shaped hole in it.

Having grown up in a city like Delhi, my experience was wildly similar to Mother’s. The endless chatter about it in the girls’ school more than made up for ignorance. There is a distinctive pleasure in collective oblivion. For a while, we all knew the wrong things together. The first time I caught sight of a penis was at the age of eleven, and I’m not sure if chronicling it and speaking about the man’s chicanery is the right way to go about this. It happened, and it wasn’t pretty. Months later, we girls huddled up around our desks to talk about our experiences. Turns out, we had all had them. There is a distinctive pleasure in belonging to a herd.

The initial reaction is fear, as it should be. This one time, we were playing in the parking lot below our buildings. A man showed up out of nowhere, flashing his genitals at us. He stood there for a while, walked around, and made sure we all got a good look at it. We did, ran upstairs, and spoke about it the next day – nothing profound, just questioning the instance, and wondering if it belonged in the spectrum of normalcy. By then, it was clear to everyone that we were growing up in dysfunctional households – of course, we did not know the word “dysfunctional” then; a big mouthful, twisted, unfathomable even – where there was no room for discussion or expression of fear over having witnessed what we had.

Let’s get back to Delhi, not that I know enough about it now. It lives and breathes as articles in the daily paper, or opinion pieces that I get on my phone. A couple of years ago, a large plate of chole bhature at Sarojini Nagar had rendered me bootless for the rest of that evening. This story, right here, is not about Delhi. It is an attempt to draw an imperishable bridge between mother and me, and us having grown up in cities that have systematically beaten us down; not enough to fully negate us, but parts of us have indeed mouldered.

I look at her today – wide smile, furrowed forehead, thick crow’s feet, slightly wrinkled neck. Her thin shoulders fold in when I hug her. We have less and less to talk about, and our opinions lie staunchly on either end of the bridge that I have tried to build. Despite the incongruity, we reach out to each other; especially me, drawing these silly parallels between our lives through shared trauma.

The city is all we have known and breathed – its dissonance, clangour, constant need for approval, and sheer displacement of identity. The city is alive, yet sings elegiacally; it is a cluster of paradoxes inelegantly packed into matchbox-like apartments.


There was a momentous day when I caught a drop of red on the crotch lining of my panties. I knew what it was. I was waiting for it, having been one of the last few girls in my class to get it. Somewhere between the lines of time, our bodies had come into their own. Here’s the thing – not all of it was joyous. A way to deal with growing breasts, unfashionable brassieres, and the creeping desperation for male attention was to employ a resilient vessel to soothe insecurities: hilarity. It was common for girls to unhook other girls’ bras as a joke. We fashioned many quips as coping mechanisms, but the true winner was the ingenuity of the euphemisms we birthed – a standing Qutub Minar, a bent-out-of-shape Leaning Tower of Pisa, the sausage between someone’s bread slices, an unassuming bell curve. To be honest, it was a step up from relentless fear of the phallocentric world. Suddenly, it could be funny; humorous dick-stery, laughable penile explanations.

As the years passed on, there was an unnatural need to belong to a man’s world, a craving for acceptance, and to merely be able to separate from the flock. No appreciation for tulle skirts or pink blush but a penchant for large, oversized t-shirts that would perform three duties: one, express contempt for mass women’s fashion; two, revere aggressive death metal bands with a surprising predilection for truthful libretto; and three, help subdue those obstinate love handles. In short, an identity crisis paraded its pompous head.

My mother, somewhat like me, fused her opinions with those of the men in her life. Fragments of us were sifted, and they soon evaporated. The difference between Mother and I erupted when I finally grew up. I don’t mean adulthood, but the actual act of growing up. It is that doorway, where catcallers and flashers in the nook of the city aren’t big enough to intimidate me. There is a reign of privilege that towers over me – right from my three-bedroom apartment far from the ground, a car with good suspension, a respectable job, and new sunglasses. There’s lesser privilege elsewhere, like in the same nooks where the dick-swingers shine the most.

The inherent dichotomy of my city is the dichotomy within myself. A part of me is strong, independent, and quick to dismiss all kinds of uniformity. The other part is bashful, fearful, and somewhat assenting to a vast compromise. The city, like Mother and I, is two things in one – an opulent, overdone version of reality sans trouble, and a downtrodden, muddled truth that hides in the shadows.

There must be a term for constant penile correspondence from one city to another spanning decades. It begins in Delhi, moves to Patna, to tall edifices in Dubai, to corners of Paris, London, Salt Lake City, Chennai, and Bangalore. In all these places and more, it has only been one thing – unwelcome. Not everything needs an open invitation; sometimes it just shows up – shabby, judgmental, opinionated, and hurtfully adamant to do nothing but oppress.

Today, Mother and I face each other. We don’t have much to say. She thinks I’ve crowded my house with one too many books, vases, and plants. Somewhere in the bylanes of our cities, we are found in awe of the city’s past and present. In the present, we are in awe of its enormity, and in the past, we were enervated by its venom. In both, we diffuse into the air, thankfully, hand-in-hand.

Cover Image: Photo by Deon Black on Unsplash