Photo Essay: To Delhi or Not To Delhi, That is The Question

A Dutch diplomat calls Delhi filthy, but an American scholar seems more riveted than repulsed.

Mr. James Mutti is a holder of a Master’s degree in South Asian Studies. Mr Mutti has made three trips to India. He talked to this writer about his impressions of the Indian capital. Delhi was recently described as filthy by a Dutch diplomat. He lives in Seattle.

Is Delhi Ugly or Colorful?

I don’t know that I’ve ever gone to Delhi willingly. All told, I’ve been there on four occasions, with my stay there adding up to about two weeks.

I know there are a large number of great things about Delhi: its history, architecture, music, markets, food, nightlife, parks, mosques, temples, and the list could go on and on.

I’ve experienced many of the great things about Delhi with no regrets. In fact, there are things I’ve loved about Delhi — whiling away calm sunny afternoons at Lodhi Gardens, travelling in the shiny new Metro train, hearing a rooster crow in Connaught Place, passing by those tiny vegetable stands tucked away in the alleys of Paharganj – the mecca of cheap hostelries for the western backpackers.

Evening Shoppers Relaxing in Connaught Place
Delhi’s Premier Shopping District

But all the same, when there is so much to see in India, why stay in Delhi? The problem, if you look at the glass half empty, is that there is just too much — too much of everything. Too much noise, too many people, too many cars, too many scam artists, too many rickshaws, too many dogs, too many shops, too much grinding poverty, too much extravagant wealth, too much garbage. Just too much of so many things!

Too Many Mannequins in a Paharganj Clothes Shop

Too Much Extravagant Wealth
A Family Walks In One of the City’s Mushrooming Malls

Yet I confess that I could not be the right person to judge Delhi. I’ve never been a big-city lover, and Delhi is one of the biggest cities our planet has to offer. But looking at the glass half full, one does have to admire the sheer scale of the city and the huge amounts of anything that can be found here. Let it not be said that Delhi is boring or predictable. The teeming streets of the city, the bustling train stations, and the throbbing markets all exude life and humanity, in their own various ways.

Commuting in Delhi
Close Your Eyes and Pray for This Motorist’s Life

It is true that Delhi is a city with somewhat of a bad reputation. Foreigners and Indians alike view it with wariness, intimidated by its size, its constant chaotic busyness, its unpredictable mix of the old and new, east and west. My friends in the U.S. know the stereotypes and are scared off by them. My friends in India know the stereotypes and are scared off by them. Yet, like any big city, Delhi still lures people to it even as it pushes them away. And that includes me, too.

I have glimpsed many faces of Delhi. In my mind, it remains strangely alluring and exciting, while at the same time confronting me with more than I cared to handle. When I could enjoy tranquil evenings in the Himalayan foothills, or relaxing days on the pristine beaches of Kerala, or intimate afternoons in small peaceful towns in the interiors of the country, why should I stay in Delhi?

A Book Cafe Juts Out Into The Chaotic Street

So, why should I visit Delhi again? Perhaps because it is a great city. Perhaps because there are many sights to see. Perhaps because Delhi offers jobs and opportunities other places don’t. But more than that, Delhi seems to be a key to India — a way of getting at and appreciating and seeing the complexity, the diversity, the hopes, and challenges of India in the 21st century.

I do not imagine I can ever avoid Delhi in my travels to India. And little by little, bit by bit, sometimes against my will, Delhi continues to cast its spell around me.

A Commuting Bus Passes by Purana Qila
A Sixteenth Century Fort

Picture Post Card – James Mutti in India*

Mr. Mutti is returning to Delhi this fall as a Fulbright fellow.

* Except Mr Mutti’s, all photographs by Mayank Austen Soofi