Unnati dreads where she comes from. Each day entangles her in a conflict. In untangling it, she finds herself caught in between leaving and staying; between the distance of the big city from the small town.
Now living in New Delhi, Unnati is from a small cantonment town in Haryana. “I was sent to the kind of school where you send girls from whom you have no expectations,” she tells me about growing up in Ambala. “It was a Hindi medium school. My parents thought, like the other girls in my family, I would get married. At most, I would learn typing and become a stenographer,” she says, chuckling.
There were moments she felt suffocated. “My life in Ambala was just going to school and coming back home. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere else.”
“I always knew I did not want to be like my sisters or the other women in my family. Right from when I was a young girl, I would keep myself updated. I would read the local newspaper and knew what was going on in the world. I kept track of what the toppers from schools were doing. I knew I had to get out.”
Unnati is now a journalist. She has walked alone in the wild. She likes how she lives and cherishes her independence. Delhi, choking on its own air, has given her the permission to breathe.
Unnati was only 17 when she first came to the capital. She came with her mother, and it was decided that she was going to study at Sri Venkateswara College in South Delhi.
Even though the distance between Ambala and Delhi can be covered in around four hours, checking out of the town was not easy. Her father was hesitant – the PG rent was too much. Delhi University provides hostels for women, but finding a spot is not easy. While most co-educational colleges have a proper hostel system in place for boys, hostel accommodation for girls is sparse.
But Unnati’s mother was persistent. Her daughter deserved the exposure. “Somehow it worked out, and I made it to Delhi,” Unnati says with relief.
The first impression of a new city is often enchanting. It intimidates. You feel timid in front of its magnitude. In Delhi, it is not the scale of its monuments that takes you. It is its jolting badtameezi. It is the city of rude and crude uncles burping hostile opinions. To add to that is its high volume. At every turn, someone screams loudly into your ears. In the North, Chandni Chowk invites you to its clamorous streets. Not too far away, noisy Karol Bagh weddings compete for attention. At the centre of Delhi, dissent roars against the saffron seat. Towards the South, the city hushes its tumultuous class divide. On its fringes, like a narcissist, it defines everything by its own existence and calls it NCR.
Unnati’s first impression of Delhi was of a city where she thought she would easily get lost and no one would find her. As time passed, she found her way around the city. “I like my life now. But when I hear my friends talk with excitement about going back home, I can’t relate to them. I long for that feeling of ‘home’ but I wish home was comforting for me,” Unnati admits. Her response includes a hesitant confession that Delhi isn’t home either.
Moving from a small town to the big city, especially for college, is considered a rite of passage. What is often not talked about enough is the journey you take to sculpt yourself. In navigating through a warped Delhi, Unnati has wondered time and again about her bond with the city and its people. Establishing some truisms about herself, she says, “I always had these stereotypes about myself – that I couldn’t speak English properly, I couldn’t carry myself a certain way, I couldn’t mix with a certain type of crowd. There were people who subtly made it clear they did not want to be around you.”
As she talks to me in spick and span English, she recalls how she was shy, meek, and always hyper anxious and hyper aware of a sense of omission. A part of this still exists in her. Now, however, she has taken the dictum “fake it till you make it” to heart. Only she knows how she has always carried that part of the small town within herself and how she has tried to eliminate it every day.
She has reinvented language for herself. Not only did she have to learn to speak English, she had to make sure that her tongue was clean and not stained with an accent. As someone engaged in a public profession, when she speaks English, she is often brutally reminded to correct her accent. It infuriates her.
In the Indian subcontinent, many battles have been fought against the tyranny of the English language. Many folks have begun to take pride in their varying hues of English, and rightly so. For Unnati, it is difficult to inculcate that pride. We discussed how it is easy to have Tamil or Maratha pride around a language that enjoys a legacy. With Haryanvi only passed on as a dialect, and with mostly hypermasculine connotations, the pride associated with it is not easy to carry. And while it is possible to trace the shame of tainted English back to a colonial hangover, in Unnati’s immediate reality, it is also the shame of class inequality and the place she comes from. “I went to a Hindi medium school. For many who went to English medium schools, they were taught English with a Haryanvi accent,” she says.
Learning language for Unnati also came in the form of relearning her own self. To assert her self-identity, she knew she had to overcome the fear of shame. “I always looked like someone from a small town. In retrospect, I wish I had been a little more carefree,” she admits. It takes a lot of cooing at her impostor syndrome for her to feel her life belongs to her. On some days, it comes back in waves. Currently working in the world of news media, she realises there are people in her office who come from influential families, and enjoy a certain cultural capital she cannot even fathom being exposed to.
“I do not get as much respect because I don’t come from a certain background. I am unable to mix with that crowd. I would like to make everybody my friend. But I know we don’t share a similar lifestyle. Maybe if I also had a car to pick me up, things would have been different.”
But every now and then she ruminates back to where she started and that she is very proud of herself. She does not, however, romanticise the struggle of the small towner: “The identity of the small towner is really romanticised. This idea that small towners can adjust everywhere, they are more sensitive, and they are tougher and can face challenges more easily – while all of it might be true, it is important to look at people beyond their identities because we are not super heroes.”
During the lockdown, with people working from home, thousands of women have moved back to their hometowns. Lakhs dropped out of the workforce. Unnati feels relieved that she was not a part of this statistic.
She believes that most women don’t quite feel a sense of belonging in their small towns. “Men feel proud that they’re connected to their roots when they talk of their small towns, but I really don’t have any good or pleasant memories associated with being a small-town girl. I am scared that that identity will consume me. I constantly feel I will be dramatically pulled back to that small town.”
She laughs about how every now and then social media users indulge running commentary on their hatred of Delhi and chuckles over some of reasons listed. Ultimately, she says, “I think back in small towns, women have always been restricted to their ‘peaceful homes’. Toh shayad nahin chahiye utna peace. Thoda explore karne do, bore hone toh do bade shahron se (Maybe I don’t want that much peace. Let me explore a little, let me get bored of Delhi).”
Muskan Nagpal is an English Literature graduate and a Young India Fellow.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty