There is a rigid cast system that prevails in Delhi society. One that is invisible in plain sight. How often are you asked, ’Where do you live?’ Or in Delhi parlance ‘Where do you put up?’, very soon into a conversation with a stranger, someone you have just met. It is seeming a natural question, but its purpose is not to find out where you live. If you respond with a vague, ‘South Delhi’, the questioner will follow up with, ’Where in South Delhi?’ If you say, ‘South Extension or GK’, the immediate comeback is ‘Part 1 or 2?’. ‘Two’, you say reluctantly.
‘Which block?’, asks your inquisitioner, as if he is likely to drop by immediately. ‘G’ you say reluctantly. ‘Ahh’, says the indefatigable questioner, ’my father-in-law, used to have a house there but he sold it and moved to Gurugram.’ If on the other hand you say ‘W’, your savvy questioner would immediately gauge that you have a large independent bungalow in the best part of the locality and his response would be tempered accordingly. A visibly impressed, ‘A lovely area!’ or a more inquisitive, ‘you must have bought it a long time ago?’
Another variation of this conversation, which spans age and generations, is from the time I was in college. ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Moti Bagh’. ‘Oh! Is your Dad in the government?’ An obvious conclusion since certain colonies are overwhelmingly ‘government housing’ in Delhi. It doesn’t of course stop there. ‘What block?’ Depending on your answer, a canny Delhi brat will be able to tell how senior a position your dad is in, in the government hierarchy. The housing blocks are in reverse order of seniority with numerals to further differentiate level. If you live in Type E, for example, it would mean being lower in hierarchy than say a D1 which would be lower than a C2. ‘Which Ministry?’ could be a follow on, from the more status conscious, but only if you are housed in the D1 to C1 categories.
The reason for this minute enquiry should now be clear. Your social and economic status is gauged by where in Delhi you ‘put up’ and your standing in the invisible caste ladder assessed accordingly. Once you are socially categorized, the conversation will proceed in the relevant ‘swim lane’ or not at all.
A recent news report alluded to another kind of hierarchy. It seems parking assistants in a tony central Delhi market, allotted parking space and personalized services based on the car you drive. So, a government vehicle or a luxury car is awarded the highest priority, while more humble vehicles (and their drivers) tend to be ignored. You can see something similar in the vehicles stopped by our harried traffic police force on Delhi roads. The shiny big cars don’t fall into their challan net as often as the humbler two and four wheelers. You could of course argue that the latter tend to drive more rashly than those in luxury cars, an argument that wouldn’t go too far when compared with accident stats of BMWs and SUVs that inevitably make our front pages.
I recall one recent occasion when I was stopped for jumping a red light that had suddenly made an appearance, on what used to be a free turn, on my usual drive home. As I apologised, I was told by the traffic cop, before he kindly let me go, ’Aap bade admi ho, aap ne sorry bol dia tho thik hai.’ [You are an important person, it is big of you to say sorry, you can go]. ‘In this case you are the bada admi, so thank you’, I responded as the cop looked both sceptical and unconvinced about his elevated status. Intrigued by his response and relieved at not being issued a challan, I asked him, ‘What is the usual response you get? ‘Why have you put a red light on this free turn?’ ‘If you have a few minutes I will tell you’, said the young traffic cop from Haryana, as he motioned me towards the curb. Apparently, the usual response when they stopped cars that jumped the light in this tony part of Central Delhi was, for drivers, to yell, deny all culpability and if the cop still persisted, to bring up ‘connections’ and threaten to complain about them to their superiors. This threat was usually carried out, with the poor traffic cop getting pulled up by senior officials for doing their job!
The reason for installing the red light was even more telling of another manifestation of our not-so-secret caste system. A retired but senior government official needed to cross that particular road twice a day to get to the park for his daily constitutionals. He wrote over 30 emails, according to the young traffic cop, to senior traffic officials, to get that red light installed. Another illustration of the disproportionate clout of certain categories of citizenry in our very own Delhi hierarchy.
The next time you are asked where you live, what car you drive or what your father/ husband does, remember it’s a trick question. The answer will slot and fit you into a neat compartment in our very own Dilli-wala caste hierarchy, one where the Hindu rate of growth has another meaning altogether.
Nitasha Devasar is a corporate head and writer. The views expressed here are personal.
The phrase Hindu rate of growth, was coined by famous anti-establishment economist Raj Krishna, who used it to describe India’s unsatisfactory growth trend, which at the time (1950-80) was stuck at 3.5 to 4% per year. In layman’s terms, the rate of growth reflected the Hindu philosophy of contentment (a state of happiness and satisfaction) and good karma (action, work or deed), which are essential traits for leading a better afterlife.