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The Great Delhi Vs. Bombay Debate: A Search For Belonging And Real Butter Chicken

For thousands who spend their lives between India's largest cities, food becomes the easiest vehicle of nostalgia, identity, and belonging in both.

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For over a month I’d been salivating at a signboard right next to a multiplex in South Bombay. Obviously it wasn’t a movie billboard; you don’t learn about new releases from posters anymore. The marketer grates your senses enough from all corners of the four walls of your car and home before you wish the movie had already opened in theatres, floored its audiences, been trashed by some critics, and made its crores, so you didn’t have to watch some stars and listen to few atrocious songs forever.

Now every time I’d emerge from one of those terrible movies at the Inox in Nariman Point, the signboard next to it would instinctively lighten up my mood, guide my steps to the first floor of the announced blockbuster remake, that, to my umpteen inquiries, would just refuse to open. It did, finally. I went there thrice over the same week. It’s a restaurant called Moti Mahal, which should not be confused with millions of them across India. I mean here, the original Dilliwallah Moti Mahal.

I mostly eat because one has to. If they mashed up all my meals inside a mixer-grinder and placed it as a drink instead, it would serve my purpose just as well. This is to mildly suggest I’m not into food, let alone even vaguely a foodie. Yet, for years since I migrated to Mumbai (migration being the political term for those who move within their own tax-guzzling nation), I’d barely utter the name of the city I was from, before someone or the other would plunge us all into a debate that frankly I couldn’t give a damn about.

In Delhi, I say I’m from Bombay. This is factually correct. I’ve lived here for about as long as I have lived there. In Bombay, I say I’m from Delhi, since no one really is from Bombay, it seems, and you must have an answer when someone or the other asks, “Yeah, but where are you really from?” “Delhi, I guess, it’s where I (physically) grew up—school, college, etc.”

That dreaded D-word and the nauseating gang-rapists it represents forces the fellow before me to start with something common to talk about: me agreeing most of the time and him hoping for an argument: “Oh, Delhi dude, I was just there last week. Those frickin’ guys, man, they eat up all our money, build fancy flyovers, swanky metros, airport... do we get... ? Such unprofessional people out there, bro, and so uncouth. Just the other day I was with this girl, and this guy kept staring at us, and then he walked up and said... ”

It’s roughly the same when you cross over to hear from the other side of the metropolitan fence. “Ah, you’re visiting from Bombay? I love that place, yaar. I just can’t imagine living there though, getting on to those packed trains, staying in those cramped apartments. How can you live in such tiny boxes? There’s just no intellectual life. It’s all about Bollywood... ”

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I know what they both mean. This is how the divide between two of India’s only cosmopolitan cities pans out, though there isn’t really a debate between Delhi and Bombay to speak of, given the points being made are usually in a drawing room in Delhi or Bombay, and among those who’ve already made their preferences quite clear by being where they are.

We go where work takes us, though rent, commute, or nightlife could be a deal-breaker for some; friends, family or the gymkhana, for some others. Women should ideally venture out where they feel safer: Mumbai – 1, Delhi – 0. Families should ideally live where they can raise kids better: Delhi – 1, Mumbai – 0. The rudimentary arguments end there.

Or they would if the Bombaywallah wasn’t so insecurely patriotic about his city, which is unnecessary given that most pampered Delhi-ites are just the opposite: they will happily admit they love Bombay more. You hear the worst things about Delhi being discussed among Delhi-ites in Delhi. Loyalty is harder to find among the special economic beneficiaries of the nation’s political capital. They prefer to see themselves as outsiders to the northern semi-Punjabi/Haryanvi city they live in, and insiders to some other impenetrable clique or charmed circle that sets them apart from the rest. The ‘rest’ comprising flashy Punjoos in Pajeros, aggro agrarian Jats, UP-ites, and Harris (Biharis), power-tripping politicians, name-dropping brokers, jhola or jholar journalists, new or old money, babus or bandars, literary types or farty intellectuals... Take your pick. Coteries are contagious.

To Delhi-ites, their city-state is National Capital Region first. It belongs to India before it does to them.

A perennial sense of the other seems cemented in the Delhi mindset. I observe people bitch in that city more in general, though that could be a knock on the grumpies I hang out with more than any statistical take on the metropolis’ culture. A lack of a common city pride comes more naturally to the cosmopolitan, urbane Delhi-ite still, because their city-state is the National Capital Region first. It belongs to India before it does to them. No one really owns it, which explains the feudal brat who must perennially ask the bouncer at the bar the existential question, “Do you know who I am?” The bouncer doesn’t know, obviously, or he would have simply bowed at the sighting. Or maybe he needn’t anymore. Even the ultimate political insider risks becoming the disposable outsider as governments and bureaucracies change. No one’s status, in that sense, is permanent.

Those moving to Mumbai may feel the troubling wrath of parochial politics sometimes—Marathi, non-Marathi—though I never have. The Bombay-ite in the high-rise subconsciously believes that he built this city of rock and roll through private entrepreneurship, paying a third of the nation’s taxes to the state, while receiving far less in return. Ownership is complete. Self-pride somehow balances out the self-loathing.

I’m often compelled to defend Delhi in their midst then. Since no one will. Struggling with what to say and wrap up a banal conversation, my only repartee has consisted of two words—Butter Chicken. “Buddy, show me a place in Bombay, or the world, where you get to eat that authentic Dilli stuff, and then talk to me.”

It’s an obscure sort of argument, rarely understood by anyone for them to offer a credible enough counter statement. I assume I have won those debates, often replacing the two words with dal makhani, malai tikka, paneer lababdar, butter naan, lacchedar paratha, Pandara Road, Connaught Place, Jama Masjid...

Or, in fact, just Moti Mahal, which used to be a tiny takeaway in Peshawar until it shifted to Delhi’s Daryaganj after Partition. Its enterprising chef, Kundan Lal Gujral, son of a cloth-shop owner, is credited with having invented most of the well-known Pathan-Punjabi specialties his grandson’s restaurant chain serves now. Many other North Indian outlets serve the same dishes, though they give their cuisine a delusional, phony epithet: Mughlai.

I’m not sure Babar, Humayun, or Akbar loved the Tandoori Chicken. They’d never had it. Kundan, known to be Nehru’s favourite banqueter, turned a tandoor meant for the roti in North Indian countrysides into one that you could cook a whole meat and produce a Tandoori Chicken from. I’m not into Tandoori Chicken; meat with bones, or any kind of boners, best avoided in public.

What I’ve dreamt about are the tandoor’s by-products, the Dal Makhani, and the Butter Chicken—a creation that seemingly came out of a need to keep succulent tikkas fresh by adding tomato puree preservatives. It led to Maulana Azad, India’s first education minister, telling the Shah of Iran, “Visiting Delhi and not the Moti Mahal is like going to Agra and not visiting the Taj Mahal.” Or so says Kundan’s grandson in his book Moti Mahal’s Tandoori Trail. The Maulana was probably right.

True to imperial condescension, the Brits took home very little, though they left behind quite a bit in India after independence. No one certainly wanted to stick around any longer once the British rule had ended. About fifty years after independence, to most Indians, the ultimate cock in the snook must have been foreign secretary Robin Cook, terming the Chicken Tikka Masala as the national dish of Britain. Obviously much of the Chicken Tikka Masala has now been mutilated to suit blander English palettes. I avoid them. But which unadventurous Indian traveller goes abroad to try Indian food at Indian restaurants anyway? I do, at least once on every trip. The best butter chicken I’ve had outside Delhi was cooked by an Iraqi chef in Amman, Jordan, at a restaurant called Kashmir, and the best non-Indian naan I’ve ever tasted is at a hole-in-the-wall called Kamasutra in Amsterdam. This desi trail is not the same thing as having McDonald’s at every port. The food is hugely different everywhere and yet slightly familiar. Come on, there is some sort of adventure in that. No? Okay.

Nostalgia is an insurmountable exaggeration. Remakes can never work for their original audiences.

For about a decade of being in Bombay, it had become a bummer for me to get hungry, feel my tongue let of a drip, coil up, and suddenly recall the taste of BC (Butter Chicken), DM (Dal Makhani), and BN (Butter Naan)—yeah, we Delhi-ites even abbreviate our cravings. I would find the objects of my fancy in the restaurant menu, of course, order them right away, and feel sucky and cheated with the apologies that would turn up on the plate each time.

Moti Mahal in Nariman Point could change that, I thought. It didn’t quite. The prized trophy of my childhood, the FSS (Fruit Salad Sundae), didn’t taste the same when Nirula’s opened an ice cream outlet at the Bombay airport. I figured the missing link wasn’t Mumbai. It was me. Nostalgia is an insurmountable exaggeration. Remakes can never work for their original audiences, least of all if it’s Sholay’s.

Which makes me sad, because I don’t even have a cooked-up reason to defend Delhi anymore. But what’s there to debate. You live in a city whose people you inevitably begin to love the most. It could be Jhumritalaiya for some, for me it’s Mumbai – 2, Delhi – 1, though I refuse to touch the vada pao ever.


This essay is excerpted from Mayank Shekhar's Name, Place, Animal, Thing, copyright Mayank Shekhar, published by Fingerprint, and available for purchase on Amazon.


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