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…


      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.



Yummy- Mummies and their Strawberries

Strawberry                                       Schooling in India is not simply about education. Especially in a status conscious city like Chandigarh, it is as much, if not more about brand and social standing. While on the one hand one does pity the children caught in this rut of school- home work- school, Chandigarh introduced me to a hitherto unknown aspect of schooling in our country- the yummy-mummies and the whole dynamics of education. As it is the whole business of being a yummy-mummy is not an easy one. Combine it with the pressure of schooling and you have a potential potboiler. We blame the chalk and talk system of education for burdening our children. What about the pressure that a yummy-mummy has to face thanks to her children’s education?

             The first day I went to pick up my son I was at my clumsiest best. Ragged t-shirt over equally ragged jeans, hair scrunched up, dripping sweat in the month of july. After all I had been jumping over and around cartons that were lying scattered in varying stages of being unpacked. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have dressed better for the simple reason that all my clothes were still lying tucked away in some carton.

               Reaching the school gate, I jumped back to double check if I was in the right place. Instead of a motley crowd of grandparents, domestic helps and harrowed mothers rushing either from work or from home, what greeted me were two distinct groups. One the “aam junta”, the mango people, a lot like yours faithfully, only not in ragged clothes and without dust in the hair. And the other group of what looked like a page 3 gathering. Perfect hair dos, beautifully manicured hands, designer bags and shades, slender wrists with Omegas and Rolex, 6” Jimmy Choos, 2carat solitaires in each ear- What was I missing? This sure wasn’t a bunch of moms there to pick up their kiddos. Maybe there was some social event happening after school. That would explain this crowd and the line of Audis, Mercs and BMWs outside I thought. But as days went by I realised that this was no socialite gathering but the daily crowd of the Yummy-Mummies who were there to collect their strawberries!!   

                  Over the next couple of months, while on one hand I reclaimed my hitherto fallen jaw from its position on the ground, on the other hand I gained tremendous insights into this whole “Yummy-mummy” phenomenon. To begin with, the whole key to being a yummy-mummy is balance-balance between being yummy and being a mummy. Now you cannot be too much of either. If you are more on the mummy side, read huge and unkempt, that is not acceptable. Remember the fate that befell a certain Ms Rai-Bachan for failing to “fit” the mould (no puns intended)? Even the tag of “most beautiful woman in the world” couldn’t save her. Not that I didn’t enjoy every minute of the media bashing meted out to her. I totally did. However, my point is that she was too much in the “mummy” mould. Then there is the other extreme of the likes of Victoria Beckham who are always too yummy. For people in the relatively normal realm, too much of either doesn’t work. So while you must have a beatific Madonna like smile and expression all the time, actually looking like Virgin Mary will not help.

           Schooling of the child is an important component of the whole “yummy-mummy” exercise but it’s somewhat a Catch-22 situation. This is your first real social role and appearance as a mother. Without the right “school”, the whole discourse will fall apart. But more “right” the school, more the pressure to be the perfect blend of mummy and yummy. You have to balance not only your vehicle, your wardrobe, your look but also how engaged or disengaged you are with the child and the school. The child’s upcoming assembly or class project cannot be dismissed lightly but neither can your life be disturbed over such happenings. While you must avow not to pressurise the child over anything, if he or she is found lagging behind the others in any manner, the anomaly has to be corrected. As you go to pick up the child, neither can any outfit or jewellery piece be repeated, nor can the discussion be ignorant of social happenings and gossip, not simply of your social circle but of the school as well. And so on and so forth… it is a tough life indeed.

                       Two years down the line, where do I fit in? Still in the old mango people category, I’m afraid. In front of the fashion parade of yummy-mummies, I always look like something the cat has dragged in. I still pick up my son in a beaten up i-10 that thanks to all the dents on it, might soon be the size of a nano. Most of our Saturdays are spent in front of the idiot box rather than at some happening barbecue. It’s still the same old-same old and I am grateful for it.


                          Need I say more? I rest my case…