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Shalini Singh
Shalini Singh


Greenbacks & grey skies

42Uma Ringside view: Uma and Chittranjan Soni at their Gurgaon home | Aayush Goel

Gurgaon is a baby of the reform. A village outside Delhi became a corporate boomtown almost overnight. Listen to these voices...

THE RETIRED COLONEL coughs and apologises. “I'm sorry,” he says hoarsely. “It's the pollution.” Chittranjan Soni adjusts his beret and sits back, taking in the afternoon sunshine. Soni and his wife, Uma, 82, moved to Gurgaon two decades ago. The Sonis' migration across Delhi was in search of open, green space, and clean air.

It began with them upping from South Delhi's Greater Kailash-II, where they had lived most of their life. The couple and their two sons moved to a 4,500sqft home in Gurgaon's DLF Phase 1 in 1993. Then, in 2012, they sold the home and moved into this sprawling, 14th-floor apartment in Gurgaon's Sector 30. The couple now periodically escapes to a weekend old-age home in Bhiwadi. “Malls have come up in Bhiwadi, too, now!” Soni says.

“In the 1990s, when we built our home, we had fruit trees in the garden,” he continues. “There were no sector roads, hardly any cars. DLF Plaza had just three shops. The air was cleaner till the 2000s. People were helpful and congenial. We led a good, happy life. The first ten years were spent in a healthy environment.” Then, as the new Gurgaon developed, it brought the negatives of fast urbanisation, he says. “Excessive construction without commensurate basic infrastructure, poor drainage, lawlessness and the attitude of one-upmanship. Development of roads like the NH 8 was done without planning ahead. Movement for the population living on either side has became difficult.” How does Uma spend her days? “I was lucky to find a satsang group seven kilometres away.” And, that is an hourlong commute, one way.

So, how have the last 25 years panned out, in the context of liberalisation? “Gurgaon, which was earlier considered a suburb of Delhi, has now become a separate city,” says Soni. “Commercial activity increased, bringing in high-rises. Rentals were low, so companies shifted offices here. Traffic increased, giving rise to excessive pollution, no less than Delhi.”

But, there have been upsides too. “A high class society, golf clubs, state-of-the-art hospitals [Medanta, Fortis, Artemis], educational institutions and places for recreation [Kingdom of Dreams].” As THE WEEK takes leave of him, Soni waxes philosophical: “It was heartbreaking to move each time. I was the master of my arena in the earlier DLF house. Then, I started living in one room of a high-rise. Eventually, every man gets confined to a single bed. Where will we take all this?”

WE HAVE BEEN living in DLF Phase 1, Gurgaon, since January 1992. We moved because our family grew, and the Delhi home fell short. In 2008, we moved into three individual houses in Saraswati Kunj, Sector 53.

When we moved here first, there were no mobiles or landline connections. We had to go to the small shopping centre at the end of our road to make calls. There were no malls; M.G. Road was a single lane from Mehrauli to Gurgaon. Traffic was minimal and the DLF clubhouse next to The Bristol Hotel was the only getaway. There were neither cinema halls, nor corporate offices. The air was clean; no sound pollution. Life was laid-back, perfect for a retired person.

Then, it started to transform. During the Om Prakash Chautala era, the transformation picked up pace. With the licences for malls being given out liberally, Gurgaon became the City of Malls. It was among the first Indian cities to get malls. Then, real estate investors started speculating. Its proximity to the airport caught the fancy of the corporate world. Today, Gurgaon houses more corporate offices than Delhi.

Today, the population must have grown 10 to 15 times. From a city of bungalows, it's now the city of fancy condos and glamorous offices. It has transformed into an international city, with good schools like The Shri Ram School, Delhi Public School, The Heritage School and Amity International School, which did not exist when we first moved here.

I WAS BORN and raised in Gurgaon, just like my father. He was born in Sarhaul village (near IFFCO Chowk, behind the Ranbaxy building) in 1950. My parents got married in 1981 and built their first house in 1983—in Shivaji Nagar (old Gurgaon), where I spent the first 10 years of my life. The had chosen Shivaji Nagar for its better infrastructure and access to facilities. For the same reasons, we moved again in 1996, to Sector 15.

There was never a question of settling anywhere else. My father was born here, worked in Delhi (he retired last year as a professor from Delhi University). My mother works in Gurgaon, and several relatives are also settled here.

Earlier, Dad says, people were simpler, approachable, had fewer resources and were more content. I remember things being safer. My friends and I would play in the streets in the evenings and take off on our bicycles without parental supervision. Delhi was perceived as fast and modern, and we liked the slower pace of life in this little town.

We would visit Delhi two to three times a year, to get a birthday dress from Karol Bagh or to watch a major movie at Chanakya cinema. Gurgaon had a few small independent theatres, but they did not show English films. So, my parents took me to Delhi to watch Titanic and Saving Private Ryan.

When I went to college in Hyderabad in 2002, I'd say that I was from Gurgaon and no one would know where it was. The first malls opened in Gurgaon in late 2002; DLF CyberCity and other areas exploded with jobs in 2004-05. Gurgaon became a recognisable name.

Earlier, most of the people living in Gurgaon were originally from here or from neighbouring villages. Now, we have professionals settling here and the nouveau riche are driving their luxury cars around town. Hopefully, the city will remain cosmopolitan enough to absorb the differences in its people.

While the Delhi Metro is a great help, it serves only a limited part of the city; last mile connectivity is a big issue, especially for women. I drive a car, and don't feel confident taking public transport.

My dad used to cycle to his government school through the fields, and he took the bus to work. In contrast, he was able to send me to good schools in comfortable buses, and to a coaching centre in Gurgaon to prepare for law school entrance tests.

Things have been easier for my generation. I did not need to shift cities for better jobs, since Delhi and Gurgaon provide enough options. Life is competitive and fast-paced in Gurgaon, as it is everywhere else. Sometimes one wishes for the old times.

Dad misses greenery the most. His family had owned fields and he used to help my grandfather in farming. The present NH 8 was lined with trees and green fields. It's a concrete jungle now.

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