Monday, October 08, 2007

Viewpoint - Bemoaning Delhi

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Money Speaks

Ugly, poor, and greedy is the city.

[Text by Gaurav Sood; picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Delhi doesn’t look like anything. It is amorphous, and as misshapen as only third world cities can be. It is but a mass of hutments, box like houses built to occupy every available inch of space (and a couple more created by bribery) crammed together across narrow lanes interspersed by indifferent wide diseased roads full of traffic and nauseous fumes, covered in brownish dust that suffuses the air, with a deathly sun beating over it.

People live in this place – a lot of them - but it isn’t that the city was created for them. Instead people have wrested savagely whatever little piece they can. And the combined savagery of poverty and corrupt government has created this tired undifferentiated mass of bricks, tar, garbage, and people.

It is as if the houses have come up, lanes been laid, roads built, with no thought, or care except the most pressing, the most basic one – to live. To talk of architecture is presumption, and to talk about the city’s “character” an even more absurd pretension still. It is nauseating to see Delhi through the goggle-eyed Western view of third-world – even their pictures of poverty with cute children with distended bellies due to malnutrition are exotic. There is nothing exotic about Delhi – no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas, or behind the empty eyes of its ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class. Not that the brand conscious or the carefully brand weary middle class in West has something to boast about. But leave the pretensions home.

Delhi is there – people are living, driving, pissing on the disintegrating walls plastered with tattered posters that line some of its streets, fucking in their bedrooms, and coming out blank eyed in the morning from their cells. It is a city of elbows and impatience. It is a city full of people bent upon joylessly eating, and consuming, to fill that enormous chasm that opens up when you live such warped lives. It is a city of broken men, and women – with distended pot-bellies, cracked hands, and tired disfigured faces. And no – they don’t want your ***ing sympathy, or even your ‘understanding’ for there is nothing to understand, they exist only to dig up another day from the bowels of another sleepless night.

There is no redemption in Delhi, even for the rich. Why should there be? Rich can hide in air-conditioned cocoons but must give in and sadistically abuse their servants, generally young boys 10-12 years old - if the nimbupani isn’t cold enough.

Since the north excels in aborting female fetuses, and ‘protective’ attitudes towards women by their parents, and predatory attitudes towards them by young males stifle their movement, you only see hordes of young men on the road. Since there is little impetus to implement child labor laws, kids sell – sometimes surprisingly high-end books to people who will never read them but will talk about them– at red lights.

Delhi, as its chronicler William Dalrymple points out during one of his sane moments in the largely delusional book dedicated to the city ‘City of Djinns’, is a refugee city. Delhi, until the economic reforms for mid 90s, was defined by two things – entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees who came after partition and built their lives piece by piece, and the largish babudom. Post ‘95, it increasingly became a grotto for the myriad poor - predominantly from North India, and simultaneously an embodiment of Delhi government’s aspirations, and the rich Indians’ aspirations, both mediated by the reality of poverty, corruption, philistinism, and greed.

Both aspirations fed each other, as they still do, to sap soul out of the city – leeching the richer neighborhoods of languorous bungalows shaded by Gulmohar trees, and with walls draped by Bougainvilleas – carefully replacing them with multi-storied boxes, replacing town roads with enormous highways to accommodate the rapidly multiplying cars, and tearing down some of the poor localities and eviscerating small businesses based on their ‘unauthorized’ status.

Whatever vestiges of culture Delhi clung on to were preyed upon and consumed during the last decade or so as Delhi grew one enormous housing project - endless grid like arrays of shabby quality 4-5 story flats- after another. The taps dried as water shortage became more acute, and now aunties in ‘good’ neighborhoods rejoice if they get water for three hours every day.

The sad part is that Delhi is the capital city and boasts of some of the best infrastructure that the country has to offer. There may be some joy still. The umbra of carnage wreaked over the past decade may still yield to the faint light of the globalized penumbra. After all McDonald’s is here and Ronald, the jovial and orange clown, seems inclined to show us the way to perennial peace and civilization.

8 comments:

Bini Mokhtar said...

wow. overwhelming. i was hoping for some positive remarks, but tis would be a reality check for me. oh well. delhi, here i comes! ;D

Anonymous said...

this is as true as singapore is clean. even the dogs in delhi aren't friendly.

Mayank Austen Soofi said...

anonymous: your experiences have been very different from mine. The stray dogs in this city are always sweet and lovable. I'm a Delhi walla. I know it. As for the people, the wealthy can be quite greedy and selfish but I have always found love and welcome in 'poor' households during my walks.

hnewdelhi said...

Why, of course! My experience of Delhi has, I'm glad to say, been mostly of the safely hidden behind a car window type, but the dogs look menacing. As do the people. All of them - the poor more so than the wealthy, the poor here have that look about them that says to you, "You lucky bastard. If my hovel weren't marginally better than Tihar jail, I'd have been stabbing your tummy for the 416th time this moment." The wealthy ones just want to compare car makes and if you actually live in a posher place than they do. Unless it's after 2 drinks, when they think the same thoughts as the poor. All in all, a supremely shallow people, for whom the best explanation is that when the Brits left India to God, the Gods none of them wanted to take over.

Anonymous said...

why of course hnewdelhi - you are a prime example of all that is wrong with Delhi. Now do us a favor and get back into your car.

Brown Girls said...

Wow, that's a lot of existential angst. Mr. Sood has obviously never noticed the box-like houses in East London. Political correctness aside, once he is over his habit of gross generalisations (the north is in the habit of kiling female foetuses ... etc), may be he will realise that to say something like "There is nothing exotic about Delhi – no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas", about a city that is 5000 years old is ridiculous. And when he gets over the word 'third word', may be he can try to do something constructive about things that bother him instead of simply ranting. Ranting is too easy. And then may be get over saying things such as "as misshapen as only third world cities can be". Oh please.

hnewdelhi said...

Yeah yeah, get into a fight now. Then kill one another. Might as well pull Allah and Cashmere into it. Stupid twats the whole lot.

willworkforfood said...

Mr. Sood,
I have a feeling you do not know Delhi too well. To me your view seems like an outsider's view.
If you were a 'native', you'd know, despite all its faults, No city exemplifies the spirit of survival more than Delhi. The rich you talk about so disdainfully have not always been rich, most of them came as refugees. They have acquired their new found wealth by way of hard work and never say die entrepreneurial spirit. The booksellers at the red light also embody this spirit. they work hard and send their kids to school. they are seldom unhappy for the city has given them another shot at life.
To me Delhi is also one of the most beautiful city in the World. For every time i am depressed by its mess of industrial areas, a drive through the avenues of Lutyens Delhi never fails to cheer me up. delhi is a city of Incredible history and heritage and by and large its residents are proud of it. And I am not even talking about Qutub Minar , the red fort or the Humayun's tomb. There is history everywhere you look. From the medieval step well in the midst of Connaught place to the forbidding Tughlaqabad fort. Anyone who bothers to look can have his 'own' little piece of hisory, far way from the tourist trail.
Delhi also has a flourishing cultural scene. you only have to pick out a copy of first city or time out to know about the vast array of events you can take your pick from.
Delhi is a little but of a schizophrenic. It has many personalities. It is ruthless and genteel at the same instant.
You only have to scratch beneath the surface Mr. Sood.
And if The City of Djinns didnt make an impression on you, for better or for worse, you probably dont deserve to judge this city.