Delhi Vignettes – An NRI Visits Hometown and Sees a Changing India

[By Gaurav Sood. Mr. Sood visited Delhi early this year. Mr. Sood also mantains a blog: spinCycle]

MY flight landed on a humid and somewhat benign May morning in Delhi. My initial impression on reaching the Delhi airport was how much the airport had changed, thankfully for the better, since my last trip to Delhi two and a half years ago. The airport is still not even close to the level of even a country like Peru or Jordan or even Costa Rica, but still, the turnaround was there to be seen.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, as the Delhi Airport is named, still operates out of a puny single terminal building – which comes as a surprise for a country with so many development pretentions. Still on the topic of airports, I would like give a brief statistical snapshot that puts into perspective India’s infrastructure or more pointedly lack of it – there are 333 airports in India including small airports handling only private jets as compared to US which has 14,857 (CIA Factbook, est. 2004) airports.

One would never discern the above facts admist all the hoopla surrounding India’s emergence as the next economic power. The hoopla is of course not all bogus – fortunately there is an element of truth. Outside the airport, the roads leading to the centre of the city seemed broad and well paved, none of the shoddy tar-deficient loose gravel construction that had ailed Indian road construction for the past half century. The roads were lined by puny undergrown trees sitting in oversized steel cages. In a climate like Delhi, and where the trees are in constant danger of being marauded by cows (and hence the steel cages) it is hard to expect any better but none the less a sad spectacle.

Inevitably on our way to our house, we stopped at a red light and then there were the poor impoverished children, so dramatically captured by the firangi (western) tourists. It was a brief glimpse of the “old” Delhi that has been fairly well ‘cleansed’ with repeated demolition drives of jhuggis (poor hutments) and other deportation schemes to the extremities of Delhi.

Mall Culture

While in Delhi I visited Ansal Plaza, an old but ‘happening’ spot in Delhi and I entered a perfume showroom that seemed to have been transplated from US. Moving further along the airconditioned cooridors, I stepped onto the escalator, once an unimaginable luxury. I still remember an episode from the time when I was probably about 10 and we had gone to attend a reception at a five-star hotel. We parked our Chetak a couple of kilometers away and took a taxi to go to the hotel. And there in the hotel I first lay my eyes on an escalator in this beautiful building. The point is that escalators were potent symbols of luxury and I don’t remember seeing any escalators while growing up.

Anyways, I clambered on to the escalator and entered a department store that had a sort of a haphazard but American department store-like decor. One thing that set apart the mall I visited in Delhi from the malls I have visited in US is just the sheer number of people out there to shop. Probably the number looked more because American malls are designed very spaciously while the ‘mall’ that I went to seemed a bit cramped. And I almost forgot one more thing that’s different in Indian malls – the legions of well trained and polite sales staff. No there are not there right behind you making your life unbearable but just around so you can ask them what you like.

Delhi Metro

Delhi Metro is a landmark achievement for which Delhi Government and others associated with the project deserve unreserve accolades. It is a first world subway system built in record time, even by western standards. The subway cars appear to be of much higher quality than used on the Boston subway. The travel is quiter primarily because the path is straighter, there is a better carriage that locks out noise much more efficiently and the fact that the system uses overhead electrical cabling than the screechy ‘third-rail’.

One thing that stuck me while travelling on the Delhi Metro was a sense of deja vu. It reminded me of a time when I was in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and I had taken the Calcutta Metro when it had just started. There was a police guard checking to see if people didn’t step over the line and the general over-staffing that coincided with the inaugration of the system. A similar air of daintiness surrounds the current Delhi Metro. After all this is a first-world shiny subway system for a desperately poor city.

People act coy around the gleaming subway but I am sure that five years from now the train system would come to resemble the rat infested ramshackled system that our railways is. It will still work and be on time but the air conditioner would occassionally stop and there would be desperate overcrowding and the seats would be dirty. In all it would be “broken in”. All said and done, it remains an impressive achievement. One last aspect of travelling on the Delhi metro – get ready for passing through a ramshackled metal detector system that probably doesn’t work and a friendly pat down by a policeman.

In Memoriam

Delhi, the city where my parents grew up in and I grew up in, is vanishing behind the mindless facade of humdrum commercialization and sprawl. Delhi was never a beautiful city, at least not in my lifetime. Jamuna was always dirty and houses were built to occupy every square inch of land. It was an impoverished city with a tough, detached spirit that came from the number of Punjabi refugees that settled in Delhi after partition.

Narrow streets in a city give it a certain charm and intimacy but the forever widening sprawl of Delhi roads is destroying that feeling. Shabby jhuggis have been replaced by faceless parks that look out of place, and construction workers wear orange jackets like elsewhere in the first world, and rich kids now go to air conditioned schools. All of that has come at a cost. But this is a resurgent city, proud in the money it makes, proud in its metro and its flyovers, and buoyed by the economic and social upturn.

To Delhi, my home.