The simplest method to ignite a fervent discussion on social media is by either sharing a video showcasing a bizarre food experiment (read Fanta omelette) or expressing criticism about a city by contrasting it with another.
The latter can be based on food, culture, weather, traffic or any other mundane stuff. A few days ago on social media, a user expressed their discontent with being referred to as “Tu” by local people in Mumbai, which sparked a heated debate about the superiority between Delhi and Mumbai.
When defending their cities online, many people act like Batman—who takes the responsibility of saving Gotham city upon himself. However, it is important to consider the source of excessive pride in the city.
Why do seemingly rational people get so offended by any criticism about their city that they start behaving like a doppelganger of Raj Thackeray and go even so far as to blame migrants for destroying the city’s cultural identity?
Also read: Chandigarh pride parade keeps politics out, culture in—Jaago, boliyan, gidda
This kind of pride is shown in the current environment where cities have become urban nightmares due to a range of factors. It doesn’t take a ChatGPT to find the answer to why Indian cities are in an absolute mess.
Rent prices are skyrocketing, and finding an apartment as a bachelor is challenging enough. And if you are in love with someone and searching for a place to live with them, get ready to fall out of love because, in India, live-in relationships are more like ‘can’t live-in’ relationships.
Pedestrian paths are as non-existent as the morality of landlords. Those without money to waste on OLA or Uber are doomed to endure the melancholy of public transportation.
Urban planning is so bad that even light rain can turn the city into a flooded mess. Cities are so devoid of greenery you only witness nature when you order a green salad in a fancy restaurant.
Unhealthy levels of Air Quality Index (AQI) aren’t exclusive to Delhi. Almost similar levels in most major cities suggest that there may be a government policy of ‘One India, One Pollution.’
In this current scenario, doesn’t it require some high degree of meditation to fall hopelessly in love with any city? Perhaps that kind of spirituality can only be achieved through meditation on poor to severe AQI levels.
City—a repository of nostalgia
Harold M. Proshansky, a prominent environmental psychologist, introduced the concept of place-identity, which refers to the bond between an individual’s self-identity and the environment in which they exist. This connection encompasses various factors, including conscious and unconscious thoughts, emotions, beliefs, desires, preferences, and memories, all linked to a particular location.
The city is not simply a physical entity; it also holds a profound psychological significance in shaping the comfort and familiarity of its inhabitants. The repetition of everyday domestic routines within a space forges a bond, imbuing the banalest activities with meaning and identity. The city is a repository of nostalgia, and any comment against it is perceived as an assault on cherished memories.
However, while the attachment and affection towards one’s place of belonging can be understood, excessive pride in a city can also give rise to xenophobia. Individuals who do not ‘belong’ to a city are perceived as a threat to its cultural heritage.
I have always been puzzled by some people’s unquestioned attachment to their hometowns or cities. Technically, my hometown is Jaipur, but I have lived in various cities throughout India. I have a lot of love and memories of Jaipur but at the same time, I do not feel a strong sense of ownership of it. I always wondered why.
I am aware of the various societal imperfections of my city and do not take any critiques of it personally. One just has to stroll in the city’s different areas to understand the unjust allocation of resources and ghettoisation as per the privilege of caste and class. The surnames on nameplates are enough to denote who holds the prime properties with a ‘first-world’ quality of life in a ‘third-world’ country.
As a Dalit, it is even more difficult to access public places because a random stranger can destroy your peace by asking about your caste.
There is well-formed awareness in me that my entry would be restricted in most households in the city. This is why whenever someone asks me about my homeland, I resist the strong urge to reply with what Ambedkar once famously wrote: “Gandhiji, I have no homeland.”
There is a fair possibility that excessive pride in any city or state can only be felt by the people who have always been the beneficiaries of the unjust and unequal distribution of resources.
Also read: Indian police will shut cities down to protect VIPs. Just see what Gurugram did
Who owns the cities?
Even the discussions on the comparison of Delhi and Mumbai are quite intricate, for Delhi cannot boast of a single cultural identity. It is a migrant city where most people have brought their distinct cultures and biases with them. As a result, Delhi presents a potpourri of multiple personas and, much like any other city of migrants, no single classification can be deemed accurate. This can be true for many cities, and it’s important to ask, after all, who owns these cities?
The lakhs who live in slums and sleep in shops as they work thousands of miles away from home, or those who sleep inside the comfort of fully furnished apartments protected by underpaid guards? A food delivery guy wandering on the empty streets of the night searching for the apartment to deliver the food, or those at a Bollywood dance house party agitated by the slight wait for their gourmet food? Your idea of relatability of any particular city is the product of the navigation allowed to you via the passport of your class and caste privilege.
Nowadays, in every Indian city, there exists a plethora of ugly, large sign boards boasting, “I love Delhi. I love Mumbai. I love (enter any city name). People visit such boards, even those with no special love for their city, only to click a selfie and fetch maximum likes on social media. The social media wars based on cities sometimes also seem like engagement wars. They produce so much engagement for the platforms that in the end Elon Musk can sit in front of advertisers with ease and confidence. The irony of the internet is that the commodification of outrage, which takes a toll on an individual’s mental well-being, is eventually reaped by either social media owners or Instagram therapists.
Anurag is a multimedia artist and host of Anurag Minus Verma Podcast. He tweets @confusedvichar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)