The Chandigarh Cliques

I have a theory about City Beautiful. According to many, it may not be true or may be a bit over the edge but a theory it is. So here it goes.

Chandigarh, for all practical purposes, is a deeply traditional, even conservative city, no matter how modern its exterior. Yes, it was proclaimed as the “modern city” of new India and still is the heart of all that happens in North India. However, scratch the surface and what you find underneath the extremely cool, hep exterior is a closely-knit conservative society.

The “real residents” of Chandigarh, those who define the city and its character, are those who have been living in the city almost since its inception. They have been here since the beginning, and with their progeny, will be here ad infinitum. Given the size of Indian families ,with all the aunts, uncles and distant relatives thrown in, these families add up to a significant part of the total inhabitants, or those who matter anyways. These families more or less know each other and among themselves own most of the businesses and properties of the city. They all grew up together, in and around Chandigarh, in a handful of famous local schools and colleges- St John’s, Carmel Convent, Sacred Heart and colleges like MCM, GCG or DAV for Boys. Even after some excursions out in the wilderness, read Sanawar or Nainital, all the prodigal children came home calling to comfortably settle down in the laid-back life of Chandigarh. With the next generation, the horizons have expanded and the excursions out of the city generally mean a few years’ trip (educational or otherwise) to either Australia or Canada. Yet, at the end of the day, most come back to take over the family business or property and, armed with their expanded horizons, to take them to the next level. So, I guess, it will go on.

Is there something wrong with this kind of a societal up? Not per se except that, it gives the city its unique flavour, the underlying characteristic of which is snobbery. For all practical purposes, Chandigarh is a city functioning with a few coteries as the focal points. These are closely-knit, veritable centres of power, and entry in any of these is virtually impossible. There are few preordained schools where their children study, few restaurants they frequent and some social gatherings they grace- all  owned, run or managed by one of them. Of course, others, the public, too use and visit these schools or social places, but very clearly as outsiders. Stand outside any of these schools as the crowd gathers to pick up the children in the afternoon and the demarcation is obvious. No doubt, there is scandal, gossip, and all such ailments of modern socialising but within the hallowed circle of these cliques. An outsider is deemed to be so in all respects.

If you are a part of country’s elite bureaucracy, regardless of your “outsider, transferable”  status, you get a de facto admission, even though it is need based. However, make no mistake; it is purely owing to your IAS/IPS/IRS etc tag. Without these, you are a persona non grata. Even if you try to break into any of these cliques with money as your ticket, chances of success are not high for you are the nouveau riche wannabe. Owning fancy cars alone clearly is not good enough.

Having stated my theorem, let me clarify that this “old timers and old established family” characteristic is by no means unique to Chandigarh. Every city has them. What sets Chandigarh apart is the way this defines and rules the city’s ethos. I spent a considerable time in the city as a student and at that time, I was totally oblivious to this aspect of City Beautiful. Perhaps as hostel residents, we were all “outsiders” and had limited exposure to Chandigarh in its totality. However, when I came back to this city much later as a working woman with a family, the “outsider” status loomed large. Is it all in my mind? Maybe, maybe not. In any case it is worth some introspection by the denizens of City Beautiful- both the outsiders and the old timers.

Panjab University…Memories and Beyond…

gandhi-bhawan

      What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “Chandigarh”? For most it is the city’s tag line-“City Beautiful”. For others it is Sector 17, Rock Garden or Sukhna Lake. For me however Chandigarh is synonymous with Panjab University- my alma mater…one that I remember with fond memories and nostalgia.

            If I say that Panjab University was love at first sight for me, I’ll be lying. My first reaction on entering the University was one of admiration for the beautiful, green layout but also of some kind of cultural shock. Not that I was moving from some high end Ivy League University but cultural shocks come from even covering a distance of few hundred kilometres. Different set ups and sensibilities is something I have seen ever since I packed my bags and stepped out from my secluded life in Shimla. From the hallowed portals of Loreto Convent Tara Hall, where life pretty much resembled “Sound of Music”, I went to DPS where life was like a shot out of “Delhi Belly”. While in the former anything above a whisper was a sacrilege, the loud ruckus full of expletives in the latter forced one to turn into a screaming banshee! But I survived…just about so but I did. 

           Panjab University, once again, was not an easy transition. I fell in love with the manicured lawns, lush green open spaces and fountains but a University Campus is more than that. My first brush with university was also my introduction to the “gehri” culture. What I didn’t know at that time is that the University is the culmination of the “gehri” route that starts somewhere in sector 9/10 and after cutting through these sectors, ends in the University campus. For the uninitiated, “gehri” is the utterly inane, senseless and fairly futile practice prevalent among the youth of Chandigarh. In a nut shell, it entails going up and down a particular route for no particular reason, except perhaps to pollute the environment. And during the course of this aimless sauntering if you come across a member of the opposite sex that catches your fancy, well you abandon your original path and start following them instead. Mostly girls are the ones chased though reverse too happens at times. The intention is mostly pretty harmless. In fact I wonder if there is any intention at all..till date I can’t see the point of this entire “gehri” culture. But as a friend recently pointed out, this is the accepted “dating protocol” of the city. By following the girls thus, the boys are “introducing” themselves to the girls. If they get a positive response, by way of a smile perhaps, they may venture asking her out or else just continue in their silly ways.  

            Silly as it seemed, and still does, in a lopsided kind of way it does work I guess. For all my initial scare and irritation, I gradually realised that seeing the same faces day in and day out took the “strangeness” away from the stranger. They were no longer “unfamiliar” in true sense of the word. These very faces you saw the rest of the day as well and gradually they seemed not threatening but more like distant acquaintances in the face of new “strangers”! Of course this is no excuse for the “gehri” culture which is nothing but a form of street harassment but I could see why the boys think it’s an acceptable way to approach a girl. As it is we are a very conservative , sexually repressed society, Chandigarh even more so, and it is not okay to approach a woman openly. How and when this will end, I don’t know. But as with most other things of our past, I reminisce even these “gehris” and all the times we chased the boys instead, with nothing but fond memories. Yes ..guilty as charged..we eventually fell in the same pattern and often ended up chasing the boys though the intention was not to forge familiarity. Intention as in most “gehris” was absent.

               As with most Universities, more students were found outside the class than inside. To begin with, we were the sincere, studious ones. But soon enough we too succumbed to the charm of the outdoor. Sitting near the “hut” and sipping tea, no matter how awful, was way more attractive than putting up with Aristotle inside. There were a few who never did make it to the classes but went from one “hut” to the other or when they had enough of “hut” hopping, they headed to the mecca of all students- the Student’s Centre. Stud C as it is called was and still remains the focal converging point for all. The studious ones emerged from the library behind for a well deserved coffee break while the others were, well, always on a break. With its picturesque surroundings, Gandhi Bhawan, sprawling lawns and gushing fountains, it still makes a pretty sight. As the evening descended, the hub of all activity shifted towards the Sector 14 market and the girls hostels. From the usual “gehris” to hostellers picking up daily supplies, research students running to get their thesis typed and ruckus in front of samosa shops..yeah it was alive alright!

                 The interesting thing about life is that despite its ever changing nature, some things never change. I continued visiting the university long after I had finished my Masters and I still often do for a quick cup of coffee or even a bite. Lot has changed – the pressure of numbers is apparent. While there were hardly any cars visible in our time, except for few owned by the faculty, today car of every make is to be seen and that too owned by the students. The cleanliness, greenery levels leave much to be desired and the fountains are mostly non functional. Instead of a single food outlet at Stud C, there are a plethora of them offering a variety of cuisine. Yet in some fundamental ways, it’s the same old, same old. The “gehris”, bunking classes, the couples trying to escape public eye…all remain the same. As do what we called the “permanent fixtures”. No I’m not referring to the heritage furniture that has become the subject of much debate but some “students” who never left. While the majority stuck to “hut hopping”, they took it a new level altogether with “department hopping” starting or ending with the penultimate resting place for all- Law. Since when they had been there, no one remembered or even cared. For how long they would continue being there, no one knew that either (neither did they I suspect). They just existed as a part of the landscape…whenever one set exhausted its self imposed tenure, another set quietly slipped in to take their place. While the permanent fixtures of my days are not to be seen (thank god for that!), new ones have replaced them.This is the beautiful continuity of life- we all, no matter how permanent, move on and are duly replaced by others as transients, as permanent. And so life goes on as it must leaving us with nothing more than fond memories.

 

 

Traffic Times

dog driving

 Chandigarh apparently has one of the best traffic in the country. What exactly that means, however, I have no idea. Driving in the city is no doubt a breeze, specially after Gurgaon (though the sad quality of FM does leave one wishing the drive were shorter). This “best traffic” tag however has me a bit confused. Does it mean that the drivers are law abiding? Or does it refer to the orderly traffic movement? Or maybe the vigilant traffic police? Or the fact that due to less population density, the number of vehicles on the road is bound to be less? Whatever be the reasons thereof, with a practically nonexistent public transport system and the Punjabi flair for flashy cars, the ease of traffic movement, is no doubt a welcome surprise and relief.

 

                   Chandigarh traffic does have some peculiarities all right. Staying in Gurgaon for almost 4 years, I had started wondering if we had any police force in the name of traffic police at all. Chandigarh drastically altered my perceptions. There is no dearth of traffic police in Chandigarh and the best part is that you don’t get to see any until, like an over smart Alec, you jump a light or do something similar. It took me a while to understand their modus operandi. If you can spot a cop from a distance, the chances of you continuing zipping at a speed of 90km an hour or breaking a few other half a dozen traffic rules are bleak. The whole fun of it is in the siege. No sooner have you jumped a red light or taken a wrong turn at the most innocuous of crossings, a hurly burly Sardar ji cop wll apparate in front of your car as if from thin air. To give them their due, for all the unpleasantness of the situation, the cops are, by and large, a pleasant lot. Of the various stories about greasing their palms or them targeting outside vehicles more, I can say nothing, not having experienced the same. All that I do know is that tears and playing the damsel in distress card does the trick as well. You apologise profusely, promise on the powers that be never to break a law again and look at them with tear filled eyes. Chances are they’ll let you go with a warning. A child with you who as promptly bursts into tears? Well they might even apologise for upsetting the child but they were just doing their job and saving you from harm. Of course you understand , you nod, and that’s it!!

 

             The lady officers on duty however are a bit of a different story and deserve your sympathy instead. To begin with, most of them seem emaciated so much so that had it not been for the little posts they stand on, you are most likely to miss them even while they wave you down. And such is our deference to law, that it is not uncommon to find many people just ignoring them and whizzing past. At one time, I actually saw some male officers giving back up by way of waving down all those who had ignored these ladies at the earlier light or crossing. Sector 9 inner market and the main road between sector 9 and sector 10 is often a sight for such bizarre happenings. I often find myself slowing down in a smoothly moving traffic out of sheer sympathy and deference to them, much to the chagrin and honking of those behind me.

 

       And this brings me to the most annoying habit of drivers in Chandigarh- honking at a red light. Before the ticker at the signal can hit a “0” and the light turns to an orange, forget a green, all hell breaks loose as it were. Incessant honking from all sides! I mean really people give me a break !! No one has any intention whatsoever of spending their life at the signal and will move at the first available opportunity. Unless a car is expected to grow wings and start flying, we all just have to wait. So very often I have resisted the temptation of stepping out and showering these pearls of wisdom on people behind me. But seriously..Let us learn something from the awful NCR traffic. Given the congestion in NCR, specially at peak time, very often you are just left waiting at a signal for quite some time before you can cross it. But nobody honks- not maniacally anyways. A few odd ones will do the irritant needful anyways but, by and large, the “Even a dog does not bark without a reason. Please don’t blow horn at red light” campaign seems to have driven home the point.

 

            Times are changing fast and a look at the profile of the vehicles in the city gives us a clue as to where we are headed. A haven for two wheelers and even cyclists at one time, Chandigarh is rapidly becoming a city not safe for two wheeled drives that leave your limbs dangling all over the place. There are exclusive cycling tracks but very rarely does one see any enthusiast on it. Even the University does not leave much scope for cycle usage given the vehicular rush there. My only regret is that I did not give cycling a chance while I could in my days at the University. Perhaps I should enjoy the drives in the city before they too become a thing of the past.