I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life.
–The poet Ghalib quoted in Khushwant Singh’s Delhi: a Novel
It was almost ten years ago but I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget the first time I arrived in Delhi. This was back in the day before they opened the modern, antiseptic terminal that handles international traffic. My flight had landed at three in the morning–I remember broken windows, shitty lighting and bad vibes. And being mobbed coming out of customs by desperate taxi drivers, winding up in a 3-wheeler tuktuk and the long drive into the city, indigents burning campfires on the roadside, farm animals wandering in the traffic lanes, and even in this witching hour, an incessant noise, the undisciplined application of vehicular horns. After checking into my hotel, I can recall my deep reluctance to leave the room, burning with regret over my decision to travel India for six weeks.
The Delhi on the Corner
In the last decade, I’ve flown into Delhi six times. Delhi is not the destination, of course; India is. For many of us, Delhi is more of a way station or a bazaar; it’s where the traveler stocks up on the necessities overlooked in his haste packing his bags. Most of us pick up our ongoing rail tickets on the day of arrival. No one loves Delhi but deep down, I think most of us like it. Because it’s where we say “Hello, India,” and when we’re done, “Farewell.”Was Delhi really more desperate ten years ago or have I become so acclimatized that Delhi’s chaos is now a variety of normalcy, albeit an extreme version? Click To Tweet
Unfortunately for the city, if one googles “Delhi” the autofill names “Delhi gang rape” as its first search suggestion. This is not accidental. Delhi’s history goes back a thousand years to when it was known as Qila Rai Pithora. It has experienced many incarnations, eight cities, through the centuries: Siri, Tughluqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Purana Qila, and Shahjahanabad. Prior to New Delhi being built by the British Raj, Turks, Afghans, and Mongol hordes crisscrossing the continents in search of blood and booty laid waste to Delhi, starving its citizens, purging its enemies, torching its temples. The thing about the city today is that outside the wealthy suburbs and the business-leisure downtown district of Connaught Place, much of the Delhi’s crumbling architecture appears lately pillaged, though this ‘rustic’ aesthetic is more to do with neglect than the barbarians’ wake.
Most travelers enter India via Delhi and its airport and the transition is startling, even for the seasoned hand. Of course this is what you’re in for: different cultures play by different rules and you’re supposed to be learning about yourself in this (mis)adventure. When dealing with the insufferable crowds, traffic, shysters, bureaucracy, your character is tested. Moreover, you can’t help but think hey, for all the snafus at home, it’s not the disarray Delhi labors under. One is reminded that things in your real life aren’t so bad. At the same time, you try not to die here, as this is a city of djinns, and you really don’t want your own ghost marooned in such a sloppy megalopolis.
But we should be little bit fair to Delhi. It has its sites. To name but a few: the Red Fort, Shah Jahan’s magnificent sandstone citadel; the Jama Masjid a beautiful seventeenth century mosque located in the medieval atmosphere of Old Delhi; the crooked, phallic 12th century Qutub Minar; not to mention the many museums (including one for toilets) and bazaars.
Having spent so much time in Delhi over the years, I don’t often go sightseeing. Instead I wander Paharganj, the main bazaar near New Delhi Train Station. It’s where I always stay when I’m in town and though it has its share of backpackers there are enough gray-haired hippies who remember the old days, trumping us young ones with their acid-laced anecdotes. In Paharganj, I have my restaurants, food stands, chai stalls, and rooftop lounge patios that I patronize. First meal whenever I’m in town is a rava onion masala dosa at Sonu Chat House, a no-frills joint where you share your tables with strangers and the food is cheap, good, and safe. If it’s dusk I like to go to the rooftop of the Hare Krishna restaurant. I don’t go for the fare (terrible except the ginger-honey-lemon tea) but the city looks beautiful in the gloaming light. Sometimes there are birds-of-prey hovering over the mess. The decay looks poetic and beautiful in magic hour light—I’d take a sunset over Delhi than Geneva anytime. There is a sense of relief as night falls. That those of us appreciating the coming darkness have survived. Because that’s what most of us do in Delhi, residents and visitors, we just try to make it through the day in one piece.
I’ve been going to India for ten years and in that time I’ve seen Delhi undergo some significant change. Much of it still looks like the aftermath of a catastrophe, but no question emerging middle-class wealth has led to some gentrification downtown. There are more cars and motorbikes on the road, more cameras and mobiles in people’s hands. A lot of the changes, including the new airport terminal, were done when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games a few years back. In my own Delhi world, they paved the road in the main bazaar and kicked the street merchants and mendicants out of Connaught. India is learning well from us in its process of Westernization: it’s not just transitioning to a hyper-consumerist society, but filtering the underclass out of its presentation of a competent, happy place. I could be wrong and many Indians are ascending socio-economic ladders, but in this country cynicism is a survivor’s tool. Or maybe it’s mostly the same as it ever was and it’s my memory playing tricks on me. Was Delhi really more desperate ten years ago or have I become so acclimatized that Delhi’s chaos is now a variety of normalcy, albeit an extreme version?
This past month I came to India to visit Gujarat, specifically the Kutch region, in the dusty, desert frontier near southern Pakistan. For all my time spent in India it was a challenging experience and though I managed to stay active and accomplish what I’d set out to do I was debilitated by all sorts of physical complaints. Some threshold was breached halfway through the journey. In the midst of an agonizing health crisis I asked myself, “What am I still doing here in India?” I vowed that this was it, the last hurrah.
A week later, when I returned to Delhi on an overnight train from Ahmedabad, among the many unions striking that day were the taxi and tuktuk workers and I was stuck taking a cycle-rickshaw to Paharganj. The pockmarked road was a disgrace. “India!” I cursed. I’d planned some excursions into the city, but with the strike going I decided to remain in the New Delhi area until my flight left that night. I had my dosa at Sonu Chat House and read my novel in the park in Connaught Place. At dusk, I went to the roof of the Hare Krishna and had my tea and watched the sun fall beyond the serrated edge of my sight and I realized that my resolution of moving on would come to naught. Like a family member or a difficult friend you’ve known for years, I love India even if I don’t like it very much. Sooner or later, I’d stand on this same Delhi rooftop, feeling grateful to be alive, asking myself, “What am I still doing here in India?” My tea finished, I would once more begin the long process answering this incomprehensible question.