Rape. Power. Dust. Caste. Street food. Smells. No toilets. Huge. Traffic. Pollution. Delhi Belly. Beggars. Rip off. Cows. Temples. Aggressive. Amazing shopping. Arts. Politics. Politicians. Chadini Chowk.
This is something that I heard often growing up on my many visits to the subcontinent’s burgeoning capital. I thought it to be true. A place with heart, soul, colour, dust, people, life, excitement and temples – is what I remember. Yes some stereotypes I suppose are true.
Today, many years later I find myself living in this sprawling and never ending metropolis that contains countless faiths and creeds and brews mixed reactions depending on who you talk to. It deals with difference everyday the way any respectable capital should – physically, religiously, culturally, spiritually and economically. But then again these differences must conform to an Indian-ness otherwise they might actually get noticed.
The stories of the rich differ of course to the far more diverse and interesting tales told by the migrant communities who have come to call Delhi their home. The bourgeois will regale you with endless updates of an India that has made it. Flashy shopping malls, I phones, red velvet cupcakes, croissants, champagne brunch and the other hallmarks of an emerging economy aggressively in pursuit of western liberalism. The migrants will tell you how they ended up in Delhi – some walked for months because they did not have enough money to take a bus, others arrived in crampled buses or through family connections, while the even less fortunate fled, leaving their villages and children behind with nothing but grit and steely determination to create a new future for themselves. Theirs is the Delhi of slum and shanty, a city of shadows indivisible from the dark of night. Here they see it all – dogs feasting on unwanted babies, abused wives and daughters, dead bodies tossed carelessly in parks. They don’t speak too much about it. Yet there’s little sense of self pity. After all, even in its harshness, what they have now is often a damn sight better than what they left behind. Whilst I cannot claim to know Delhi so intimately, I have come to understand that it is these very quiet voices that witness and endure the hardships of life which testify to the heart and soul of this vast expanse. They don’t skip a beat and nor does the city.
I wanted to live here for some time, in part, perhaps to re-enact some of the excitement of my childhood holidays. Tired of Switzerland’s perfect scenery, inflated salaries and egos and quiet nights, we decided to leave our more than comfortable life and gain some experience in the place and a world that vastly differed to ours. However, when all is said and done I felt ashamed for the first time in my life as I had to explain to people who come from nothing that we left a life where: we had water that we could drink from the tap, a place that looked like Kashmir, where pollution was minimal, where the heat did not cause you to lose the will to leave your house and where the quality of education was considered very high all to . . .fulfill a desire to live in India.
There is so much that describes Delhi and yet it is a place that is difficult to grasp hard with its many realities, identities and differences. Then again is this not also true of other grand aspiring cities? There are spectacular pieces of ancient history sporadically dotted around the ever expanding metropolis, revealing the alien realms of its many former glorious capital cities. Thirteenth century minarets, grand and opulent mukbarah’s of the Mughal era, the crumbling ruins of a the very much intact chandini chowk ( old delhi), the formidable Red, Purani Qila and Tuqhluqabad forts tell you of a Delhi that had a dignity and order. It is hard to see these qualities in the Delhi of today. This city is unloved, uncared for, a playground of Delhi’s elites and expats, a hub for poor immigrant dreams.
Littered streets, cows roaming free to eat, crumbling roads, people so poor they walk barefoot, children playing in filthy rubbish, men relieving themselves and women scurrying to work. Beautiful makeshift temples on the sides of the streets.
People. So many people. Crumbling bastis. Security guards for wealthy enclaves. This after all is where power resides. Power must be protected. But where is it hiding?
By night this city looks rural and unkempt and so very quiet. Where do the millions of people go? It’s not hard to imagine unspeakable things happening somewhere in its vast expanse. Perhaps we get to read about it in the news tomorrow or perhaps it goes unnoticed.
Other random acts of kindness can just as easily go unremarked. The boy who washes the car leaves food for the cow every morning at six by the roadside. He knows she will come. This is his act of devotion. The rich lady has drunk herself into a coma. Her maid will help her to clean up so her husband will never find out. The policeman who will not take a bribe for the speeding fine but will let you off with just eighty rupees and a smile. “ Give me tomorrow” when I do not have enough to pay for the vegetables today.
I am not from here. I am not a delhi walha. I have not understood what loyal delhi walhas love about their Delhi and may never do so. But I do want to discover.