New Delhi, india
So here I am back in New Delhi. Shall I bore you with the details of the barriers leading up to this arrival? Why not? As usual, I’ve been running around these last few weeks doing way too much, subsidizing my overbookage with my sleep and personal time. Somewhere in that rush, I negelected to acquire that all important entrance visa required by the Indian border officials. Well, long story short, a lot of begging for letters, a chunk of cash and several visits and phone calls to visa offices and the Indian High Commission later…. and I was, as of Friday, the owner of a one year business-class visa valid for multiple entries. (I’m all about the multiple entries, you know).
This was just in time, because I’d already booked my flight for the following Sunday, less than 48 hours later. Whew!
So I am here ostensibly to give lectures in New Delhi and Goa, organized by the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute. I say “ostensibly” because the solid dates, times and titles have not yet been confirmed! I know, I know.
I’m also here to have a couple of meetings with future research partners. See? I don’t do vacation. Everything is work.
This is my third trip to this particular Indian city, and I won’t mince words: I don’t like the place. Delhi is a city rich in history and opportunity. But centuries of invasions, immigration, devastations and endless turmoil have made it something of a gritty wreck. I love reading about Delhi, as per William Dalrymple’s “City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi“, but being here is usually more trauma than joy.
I say so with some trepidation, because once you look past the chaos and muck, there is high art, intellectual achievement, history like you can’t imagine and, of course, the seat of government of one of the most interesting and important nations in the history of the world.
This morning I crawled out of bed and decided to ease my way back into Indian life. It’s been four years, after all. My plan was to go for a quick walk through Karol Bagh (one of the busiest markets in the city, and where my hotel happens to be places) to get accustomed to the heat and chaos, then retreat back to my room for an hour’s jet lag recovery.
A lot has changed subtly since my last visit, and dramatically since my first visit 14 years ago. The airport has been modernized and is no longer the terrifying jumble of touts and taxis. (Well, not so much, anyway). The streets of Karol Bagh are still overcrowded and overly busy, but the roaming livestock are much fewer. In fact, today two hogs (enormous beasts) wandered into the market and the dogs went nuts. A few years ago, that would have been such a commonplace occurrence that the dogs would have just slept through it.
Speaking of dogs, I saw something really surprising today: a tea wallah bent down to feed a passing stray dog some of his bread. I say this is surprising because Indians historically have not treated dogs, stray or otherwise, particularly well. I hear that pet dogs are now not all that uncommon, even in the cities.
I stopped to buy some water and surprised myself with how easily my stale Hindi tripped from my tongue. (Mind you, any four year old can say, “do pani”.) I’d made a concious decision this trip not to bother even trying to learn or practice the language or to do anything touristy or cultural. I’m here to work, after all, and am already well behind in my deliverables. In fact, I’d also decided not to even bring a camera, though I’m sort of regretting that decision now.
As a newly licenced motorcycle rider, I’ve been viewing the famous Delhi traffic with renewed wonder. Between cars, trucks, bicycles, three-wheelers and the occasional animal transport are the ubiquitous scooters and motorcycles, swarming like army ants over their hapless prey. It takes a special skill to ride the clutch through such slow moving traffic, avoiding obstacles literally by mere inches.
Another frustrating thing about big Asian cities like Delhi is their penchant for not labelling street names. I navigate via street names and the map in my head. As a foreigner plopped into foreign chaos, it’s been a struggle to navigate by landmarks, since everything sort of looks the same. So instead of the 20 minute morning walk, I ended up wandering Karol Bagh for two hours, trying to find my hotel. You’ll be happy to know that I made it back….
…Just in time. Because it’s monsoon season and the rains have just begun. Going to have a nap before heading out to Connaught Place to have a look around.
Connaught Place is a mess. The surroundings are being dug up for new additions to Delhi’s subway system. Yes, it’s a sign of progress. But signs of regress still abound, like the many naked toddlers working alongside their families in the construction site. Manual labour is a family affair in India, after all, and safety is never a concern.
But while the city is its familiar chaotic, charmless self, there are definitely signs of change. It’s a modicum LESS chaotic than in the past. And, unlike the past, people don’t seem to give tourists more than a second glance.
This worked against me today as I was desperate for a taxi or autorickshaw to get me back to Karol Bagh after my visit to Connaught Place. But no one was interested. Seriously! India has changed. In previous visits, I would wave some cash around and the cabs would come flying in. This time around, my cash is just not worth the hassles of traffic.
So I relied on my GPS and Google maps to take me on a long circuitous walk to… nowhere. Tht’s right, Google Maps sucks for Indian cities, especially ones that are undergoing heaps of construction.
How did I get home? I tried the new Delhi subway system. Like so many new things Indian, it already looks decades old, while it’s only been around for a few years. But it’s really quite wonderful, much better and more impressive than any North American subway system I’ve seen, but not as good as some European or Asian systems. The best part is that for only 12 rupees (less than 50 cents) one can go a lengthy distance in a matter of minutes that would have taken three times longer and cost three times more if attempted via taxi.
The Delhi subway has some interesting Indian cultural elements. First is the prominent “no spitting” sign at its entrance. Second is the separate men’s and women’s security lines. Third is the fact that there are security lines! Fourth is the metal detector and baggage x-ray that every passenger is subjected to before getting on the subway. (I’m not sure what they’re looking for, since my switchblade was clearly visible to the x-ray and no one seemed to mind.) And fifth is that traditional Indian comfort with cramped, confined spaces, as the cars themselves are packed with passengers like sardines, while maintaining a semblance of gendered exceptionalism (there are “ladies only” seats inside the subway car.)
Last is the ubiquitousness of security. This is not just to avoid terrorists and jerks, but to help people get in and out of the cars at an efficient pace. I must say, I wish North American subway systems were as well staffed. But that’s India: no shortage of underpaid labour.
Okay, off to bed. It’s been a long day.