There are only two kinds of people in the Indian military that I know. Those who have served in Delhi and those who haven’t.
Those like me who hadn’t this privilege tend to see everything through rose-tinted glasses. They think in black and white. Sitting in their squadrons and ships, they get all upset and angry that things aren’t moving at the pace they desire. They are hopelessly romantic and unabashedly optimistic in their worldview.
Then there are those who have been there & done that Delhi posting. It’s a coming of age thing. Once you have served in Delhi, you kind of lose your virginity forever.
You see, Delhi is not your every other city. It’s a melting pot of different cultures, different people, and sits wedged between Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, states with their own unique ‘brand’. It is the seat of the mighty Indian bureaucracy. The politically charged atmosphere is enough to make crooks out of every Aam Aadmi. Look at Kejriwal if you want a fine example.
Everybody and their uncle is fighting for survival in Delhi. If you arrive there wet behind the ears, the city will take you for the ride of your life. Right from the moment you step onto Hazrat Nizamuddin, New Delhi Railway Station or the IGI airport, you gotta watch your step, buddy. It’s simply a matter of time before someone screws you over, figuratively speaking.
As a southerner (dilliwalas call folks like me ‘madrasi‘) who had never crossed a latitude north of Mumbai, I was suddenly pitchforked into Naval Headquarters at Delhi to fill a desk driving ‘Aviation Plans’. I had big plans for naval aviation, but none for my own survival in that city. Hell, we didn’t even own an air conditioner then. The inverter was something I switched on inside a helicopter before starting motors. I was fond of Sting’s Desert Rose but had never seen a desert cooler all my life.
In many ways, we were walking into a perfect trap laid by the Personnel Branch who conned me with some rich prose into believing I was indispensable to Navy HQ in Delhi. I rushed there with family during peak summer when even seasoned dilliwalas would have exercised abundant caution.
After getting fleeced by the airport taxi, I fell for a trickster in the Ministry of Defence’s accommodation office who offered me a retired Major General’s house in Noida. Now, Delhi and Noida are like partners in crime, separated then only by the Yamuna river and Mayawati, both equally contaminated. Noida, though in the National Capital Region (NCR), is borderline Uttar Pradesh that can give even experienced Delhiites a rough ride. For me, it made no particular difference since I was blissfully unaware of what lay ahead.
The ground floor house in Sector 28, Arun Vihar held great promise. We had two bedrooms, a large living room with attached kitchen, a small lawn and the bustling Brahmaputra Market right next door. From the safe confines of our transit accommodation in Coast Guard Officers’ Mess in Noida, it looked like paradise reinvented.
The bubble burst when I opened the taps for project ‘cleanship’. Unlike army officers with their unit’s backing and buddy system, naval officers & their better halves are ‘maid for each other’ and have to carry their own cross. Our plans for giving the house a good scrub with soap and water fell apart in no time. Only a weak trickle dripped from the taps when what we needed was a gushing fountain. It was not even enough to set up a birdbath.
Now Delhi-NCR has every type of service at beck and call. A plumber was called in. He surveyed the arid house with a grim face while picking out shreds of pan masala from his teeth. He sold me a tall story of how he has been working there for the longest time and how he qualified to be plumber extraordinaire. What’s worse, I believed him.
In my sweet ‘madrasi‘ way, I requested him to fix the problem ASAP before my wife runs away back to our previous abode in NOFRA, Goa. He went to check up what was wrong and came back in 15 minutes. In Delhi, that’s enough time to fool two other people.
His solution was at once shocking and terribly damaging to a naval officer’s princely pre-6th Pay Commission salary.
“Sirji, poora pipe gal gaya hai. Kuch nahi bacha. Kam se kam pachhees hazar ka kaam hai” (Sir, the entire pipe is corroded. Nothing is left. It will take at least twenty-five thousand rupees).
My heart sank. That was my entire transfer emolument! I was caught between devil and the deep blue sea, without a drop of water of course.
The General politely declined to be party to any such extravaganza. “Sanjeev, I have given you a house. It’s up to you to make it home”. His sage counsel failed to produce any water or steel pipes that stood between me and my ‘hot posting’ to naval HQ.
I counted all the loose change we had. My boss had already earmarked a tall pile of files for me with plenty of “on file please” remarks. ‘Admin week’ was running out. Madhuri wasn’t pleased at all.
While moping around in the sector looking for money or some steel pipes, I ran into my senior colleague and hardcore Delhiite Cdr Sharma. One look at me and he figured I was going through the pangs of a ‘first time Delhi’ exposure. In my usual minimalistic way, I told him I was facing some issues with water supply.
He didn’t need any more explanation. “Ah, that bloody plumber must have given you the ‘steel pipe gal gaya’ story?”, he asked in the typically blunt dilli manner. I nodded helplessly. He took me aside to a park bench.
“KPS, welcome to Delhi. Here, every problem has a hundred solutions. If you don’t smarten up, people will sell you the Taj Mahal.”
That still didn’t produce any water. I looked at him more lost and a wee bit thirstier for gyan (wisdom). “Call that fu**er again. First, give him a few gaalis (choicest invectives). Tell him you will report him and get him thrown out of the sector. Threaten him with ‘you don’t know who I am’. Then tell him to bring a footpump and pump like there’s no tomorrow. Do this, then talk to me. Samajh me aayi baat?” (do you get it?)
I had my first ‘Delhi for Dummies’ lesson. I went exactly as per his script. When the plumber saw the transformation in me, he was a different person altogether. Rs. 500 and fifty hard kicks on the footpump brought a Himalayan flood gushing through all taps in the house. Madhuri observed that maybe she might even like Delhi if things continue this way.
In the next few months, I came across all sorts of crooks who tried to sell me desert coolers, ACs, solid-state inverters, batteries and water purifiers. Coworkers who had spent more time in HQ smartly tried to palm off their work to me over the crushing load of my own desk. Neighbours tried to usurp our parking space while brokers tried to sell our house while we were still living in it. But like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, I always smiled, with my virginity intact. I carried Cdr Sharma’s advice whenever I stepped out of home. In Delhi, attack is the best form of defence. When in doubt, fight. There ain’t no middle path 😛
But then Delhi also has a way of slowly warming up to you. Starting troubles aside, if you hold your nerve, it’s a delightful place with all conveniences. An enterprising population always wants to offer you a bouquet of solutions (ok, throw in a shortcut or two while I look the other way!). Spectacular mountains and tourist destinations await within a 4-hour drive. Children turn more street smart than they will ever be growing up in laidback cities like Bangalore or Chennai.
In the end, my big plans for the navy had to be passed on to another dilliwala and we left Delhi for Bangalore two years later. As a family, we are now ready to deal with any city. Nobody can sell me steel pipes when a footpump will do. No sweet-talking businessman can throw a sales pitch at me. My ‘hey’ can turn into ‘oye‘ and ‘yes’ to ‘haan ji‘ when required. I have the Dilli gene coursing through my madrasi veins now!
Love you, Delhi. I call it the end of innocence.
(Want more? Read my experience of Bangalore versus Mumbai here)
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal.