I have been staying with ex-pat friends in Delhi’s “Defence Colony”, the plush suburb that marks the break between the heritage of both Old and New Delhi in the North, and the sprawling middle class housing projects expanding ever further south.
To misquote Obama, change is coming to Delhi. Things are on the move here – the Commonwealth Games will take place in Delhi in 2010; a massive underground metro is being built (work will continue until 2021); and a Municipal government (led by the unfortunately-named Sheila Dikshit) has just been elected for a third four-year term.
With eight (some say fifteen) different cities built over the centuries, it would take more than the dozen or so days that I am spending here to understand the complexities of Delhi.
Nevertheless, I have had three very distinct impressions of this rapidly evolving city that is destined to play a major role in the 21st century.
A sense of the suburbs
After my slightly bizarre cinema experience in Jaipur, I headed out last night into the deep suburbs to South Delhi to catch Slumdog Millionaire. As my auto-rickshaw jostled for position in the road amid the Toyota, Audi and Suzuki saloons, it was clear that I was entering true aspirant middle-class Delhi.
The Saket PVR cinema complex could be anywhere in the world. The multiplex cinema, surrounded by a McDonalds, a Pizza Hut, a Subway sandwich bar and a few emerging drinking holes; young couples strolling around, while families struggled with errant children, and groups of teenagers congregated on concrete benches; Popcorn, Pepsi and pre-fab Hot Dogs on sale by the box office.
I wandered into the McDonalds before the film. Despite the odd subtle change (the “Big Mac” became the “Chicken Maharaja” – even Ronnie M has worked out that beef don’t sell in India), the similarities were more evident than the differences. The same fixed grin on the servers faces, the obligatory “Have a nice day” with your meal, the tall stainless steel dispensing units shielding the frenetic fast food preparation activity from prying eyes. As I took my Maharaja Meal upstairs, I realised that the only discernible difference was the people –you get a better class of customer in a Delhi Maccy Ds.
If it hadn’t been for the much higher standard of behavior (probably due to the lack of alcohol), the whole thing could have been transplanted into Surbiton. This very average scene is an essential part of the whole Delhi picture.
The film itself seemed to leave a few people uneasy. Moral agonising (in the way that we love in the West) still isn’t the norm in films over here. Bollywood has a tendency to keep things simpler. While the reaction that I had heard in Jaipur was probably at the extreme end, I got the feeling that there were bits of the film that did touch nerves. Which is probably no bad thing.
Remains of the Raj
In the 1930s, the British laid down New Delhi with (as William Dalrymple points out in “City of Djinns” ) more than a whiff of the arrogance and hubris of Nuremberg. The resulting “imperial mass of masonry” still holds the political centre of India, as well as wide boulevards and green spaces which recall the European cities it was built to ape.
For four weeks each year in February and March, the Mughal Gardens (actually created in the 1930s as well) of the Presidential Palace (formerly the Viceroy’s House) are opened to the public. A journalist told me that visiting these is something of a rite of passage for a Delhi-ite, so Mel and I set off on Friday to see what all the fuss is about.
As we passed the laborious security checks and entered the gardens, we both suspected that we were in for another disappointment. A slightly tatty herb garden and a Path-From-Which-You-Must-Not-Stray did not augur well.
Then, as we turned the corner into the Rectangular Garden, we were confronted by a riot of colour that was almost overpowering. The formal layout of the garden is offset by blooming flowers in hues of red, blue, yellow, pink, orange and greens of all kinds. With over 100 types of rose, all beautifully labeled, there were some great names: the “Kiss of Fire”, “Rhapsodie in Blue”, “Doris Trysterman”, “Dr B.P.Lal” (who he? Ed), and my favourite name “Just Joey”. With cameras banned from the Gardens, it was refreshing to be able to simply suck up the atmosphere without the very 21st century obsession with capturing everything digitally (more often than not only to be deleted later).
As we left the Gardens and drove along “Church Lane” past the Cathedral Church of Redemption, I felt privileged to have seen at least one fine legacy of the pre-Independence era.
Making a mess of the Mughals
Walking through the streets of “Old Delhi” (the 17th century Mughal bit) is a bit like being on one of the streets in the futuristic film Bladerunner, only without the cars flying about: the confused jumble of signage, some of it illuminated; the bundles of electrical wires hanging and occasionally crackling and fizzing; the mix of Eurasian and Asian facial types all competing for attention; the occasional hint of a glorious past in patches of architecture peeping out from down a back alley.
In many ways this part of the city is the biggest challenge for the city planners and administrators in Delhi. Even if it feels disorientating and out-of-control for many westerners, the narrow streets and alleys are packed with life, commerce, and people’s livelihoods. Change will not be easy.
At the apex of the Old city is the Red Fort, which was a stronghold for the Mughals, the British and the young Independent India.
Six years ago, the fort was granted UNESCO status on the condition that it got rid of its military garrison. As a result, things have started to look up for what could be an interesting monument with a bit of TLC, though clearly it will take time.
Our guide told us that restoration work on some of the delicate wall-paintings has been halted for 5 years, after an (Indian) NGO sued the Archaeological Survey of India, alleging that the restoration was not faithful to the original and that cleaning practices were damaging the original materials. The case is still being heard in the courts.
Delhi is fascinating. An article in today’s Hindu Times noted (admittedly with a touch of melodrama) that India is now facing potential failed states on three of its six land borders (Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh were what they had in mind – the others being Bhutan, Burma and China). Delhi is at the heart of that particular triangle. And the religious mix here certainly continues to hold a degree of repressed tension.
With such a diverse and rich historical background and such a potentially important future role, this is a city to watch.
I leave on Tuesday heading for the Gangetic Plains.