Three Weeks in Delhi

I’ve spent about three weeks in Delhi now, and love it. It’s a great city, with tremendous energy, good food and a very optimistic feel about the future. But I’ve been hesitant to write too much because this is my first trip to India for any meaningful amount of time, and I’m loathe to draw too many conclusions from just one city.

What’s interesting, though, is how often I’ve been told by Indians that “Oh, Delhi isn’t the real India. It’s too calm and ordered.” Funnily enough, I’ve also heard the same said about Mumbai, Hyderabad, etc. I suspect Indians take a certain amount of pride in the chaos of the country, and in the nation’s successes that seem to come in spite of that cacophony rather than because of it. There’s a sense of nostalgia for an India that’s more chaotic, more rural, more authentically … Indian …  than what you see from today’s rising power in South Asia. And maybe by acknowledging that the chaos of India is slowly being tamed and integrated into the greater economic world, Indians worry that the essence of the country is changing and they’re losing something with development—that it’s just not quite as much fun anymore.

It’s hard to say. But I can say that I’ve rarely been more welcomed, helped and engaged with to the degree that I have been here in Delhi. The locals that I’ve encountered, with the exception of the autorickshaw drivers/bandits, have been unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful. I’m delighted with Delhi.

But I want to note a few things that have caught my fancy:

  • Sikh men. They all seem so quietly dignified  with their carefully placed turban, their immaculate beards and a look of infinite patience in their eyes. Even the young Sikh men seem to be born with the weight of the world on their shoulders, which they bear with extreme forbearance and gentle humour.
  • The excellent choice of food from all over India that you can find in Delhi. From southern Indian burn-your-teeth-out vegetarianism to northeastern tribal pork dishes that truly hit the spot, the selection and quality of the food has been outstanding.
  • The drivers. This is not a positive observation. The drivers in Delhi seem to have a death wish: mine. I’ve been clipped in my elbow twice by cars swinging around a corner and the drivers simply not giving a damn about what happens. If you’re on the street, you take your life in your hands.
  • The inefficiency. Again, not a positive observation. India excels in it, mainly as a means of providing jobs for the 1.2 billion people populating the subcontinent. Guards hang out by every single retail store’s entrance; some ticket counters in train stations are populated by clerks whose sole job seems to be to ignore you and look annoyed when you ask questions; manual labourers using picks and shovels to tear up entire sidewalks right in front of stores in a market, preventing you from getting to the shop. But they have jobs, so they can feed their families. So that’s a net plus, I suppose. But given the huge number of workers involved in relatively small amounts of work, the individual market worth of individuals remains low. Until India solves this problem, it’s going to have issues with growth and providing a prosperous future to all its people because poor Indians as economic actors are have a depressed worth.

But these are nits. Delhi and—I assume—India, has exceeded my expectations. My expectations of South Asia were by three years in Pakistan, so India, for all its faults, inequalities, poverty, corruption etc. ad infinitum, comes off as a joyously chaotic place with real forward momentum.

I won’t be online for about 10 days starting tonight because I’ve joined up with a photographer, Carolyn, from Brooklyn who’s documenting the effect climate change is having on environments. So we’re off on a 10-day hike into the Himalayas to the Pindari glacier to document its retreat in the face of rising temperatures.

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So, I’ll be off the grid for a while, but there should be some amazing photos when I get back. Look for me around July 2.

Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

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