Is Aurangabad a city? I was asked the other day by a friend who lives in one. Not exactly, I said, though it’s not really such a small town anymore either.
That got me thinking. What makes a city? Of course, there are those technical definitions of a city, so many square kilometers in area, so much density of people per square km, and so on. While it might be helpful to the technocrats, that’s not really what I think about when I land up in a place. Having seen a number of towns around India, and having lived in cities for all of my life, here’s my rough, totally non-scientific guide to figuring out if you’re in a town or a city:
Do the autos run on a meter? Typically, I’ve found, auto rickshaws in towns like to negotiate the rate every time they pick up a passenger. A meter is present in the auto, for sure, but it’s turned off. Instead, as a potential customer, I am compelled to build a relationship with the auto rickshaw driver, convincing him to, first, go to my desired destination and second, in the price I want to pay. Haggling ensues, which includes commentary from both parties on the high cost of living, the dwindling level of honesty in today’s world, and whether one thinks they can take the other for a ride, what kind of a fool do they look like.
It’s a painful process if you’re not used to it. It can be rather enjoyable if you have the time and inclination to banter.
Are the motor cyclists wearing helmets? In the three months that I have been in Aurangabad, I have seen a grand total of one person wearing a helmet on the road. One. In a place that has a high traffic volume, and more than 70 percent of it is two-wheelers, that’s a lot of injuries waiting to happen. I saw a similar pattern in Nasik, when I was there recently.
I don’t drive a Scooty or any other type of two-wheeler (I have an intrinsic discomfort with moving at a high speed while totally exposed to my surroundings), so I can’t really say why drivers resist the helmet. If it’s anything like cars (which I happily move around in, feeling the security of a womb), the logic is that it’s uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that one would rather sign up for the highly probable prospect of living life as a vegetable after one is flung off the motorcycle.
The sense I get is that drivers just don’t see that morbid possibility occurring. This is because the roads are so underdeveloped that one can’t possibly drive at a life-threatening speed. Further, there seems to be a sense of “I’m driving my vehicle as well as the others around me.” In other words, drivers look out for other fellow drivers, generously allowing a wide berth for flawed driving, and being prepared for idiotic behaviour, ready to forgive every time. That’s what you do, in small places, where you know everyone. You have relationships with each and every person, you are not strangers. Which means you can’t really yell out the buffoon cutting into your lane without signaling, he could just be your neighbour’s brother-in-law.
I think that same attitude reigns in the minds of people when they sit in my car and don’t want to wear the seatbelt. Like a hardnosed dictator, I force them, refusing to start the car until they do. We both look at each other, incredulous at the other’s unbelievable foolishness.
How much do people stare at you? You don’t have to be a foreigner to be stared at in small towns. As a Maharashtrian, with roots in this part of the state, I still get stared at. My brown skin, sing-song way of speaking Marathi, and ease with which I eat everything put in front of me don’t exempt me. I’m still a curiosity.
I think it has to do with whether you’re in sync with the pulse of the place. It sounds a bit new-agey, I know. It’s like Taylor Swift versus Kenny Rogers- both are country music, but doesn’t she sound just so different? And if you’re hip-hop in the land of opera, well, you’re really going to stick out.
Cultures in small towns are still relatively homogeneous. That’s why even slightly off mannerisms, attitudes, and values become noticeable, worthy of stares. I’m told it’s the way I carry myself. I’ll go with that.
Is there a mall? The presence of a mall is a healthy indicator of a town’s incipient or nascent transformation to a city. It shows an appetite for breaking the norm and exploring new things. You know you’re in an aspiring town when there are a lot of people in the mall but very few inside the individual stores. People are learning, seeing products for the first time, picking them up, reading about them, trying them on. Most will walk out empty-handed, happily. The intent was never to buy. That’s why, going to the mall is a source of family entertainment – novelties are on display, like in a planetarium, zoo, or museum.
It’s okay, as far as I’m concerned. The seed has been planted, and I’m convinced folks will come back to buy the workout clothes, the hair serums, and other products that feel far out right now.
I bet there are more signs to tell if a town is a town or city, and I’ll keep updating this list. If you’ve got any that work for you, drop me a line! It’s bound to help the cultural adjustment for outsiders.