"Mmmm" may connote sensory bliss on
all five counts, but ‘M’ can also be loaded with the subtext of heady
prejudice. In my early years in Calcutta, ‘M’ stood for the bhadralok
Bengali’s favourite hate, the Marwari, because the latter did something as
despicable as make money. In other circles, M also stood for ‘Mac’, not as
in burgers but as in the community given to saying "B.g..r off, men!" Later
in Mumbai, where we worked at the Illustrated Weekly, Qurratulain Hyder
added her own arch self-deprecation, referring to her tribe as "We M’s!"
However, when I came to live in Delhi, I discovered the cultural domination of another genre of Ms—the Mall, the Multiplex and the Maalish- waali. Like a tout at Tis Hazari, they insidiously sidled into the conversation. Compared to this omnipotent trilogy, the self-styled deities of Minister and MP were but wannabes.
I came from the plate-glass paradise of Mumbai, but I had never experienced the complex consumerist ecosystem of the Mall till I arrived, stirred, shaken and shoved, in Delhi. Gurgaon actually. It wasn’t so much the goods they stocked as the behaviour they provoked which gave them their awesome quality. It was as if the whole shuddering mass of Delhi aggression had been awaiting the Mall moment.
The Multiplex was occasionally part of the same space, but it occupied a mind-zone entirely its own. If shameless goods-grab at the Mall was dismissively waived off with a "Do you know who I am?!", that other quintessential Delhi mantra ordered the universe of the Multiplex: "What goes of your father?!’’ Pappu and Pinky threw it at you, whether they arrived late for the movie, trampling over a whole row of corns and scattering popcorn, or whether they drowned the screen dialogue with their mobile conversation on the quality of the gobi and gossip at last night’s farmhouse party.
The Maalishwaali wasn’t part of this landscape, but, arguably, she prepared her clients for their forays into this terrain. However, this was not her sole claim to social relevance. Maalish- waalis were the gym, the grapevine and the shrink (no pun intended) rolled into one. Dilli Billis of every class, shape and blood group depended on them, and they were more prized than a minister’s signature.
The Mall and Multiplex represented the capital’s "Yeh Dilli Maangey More" character. The Maalishwaali was the metaphor of a city which pushed and pummeled and needed to oil its way into and out of every situation.
There is of course, a fourth M in Delhi. ‘Madam’ may not be as visible, but she is no less omnipresent, no less a state of mind.
This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, February 28, 2006