It’s not possible to encapsulate Delhi into words or organise the place into neat observations. On one level she is a fascinating jumble of colour, history, religion, language, food and geography. On another she is an impossible number of individuals, each trying to survive and prosper in a chaotic, unfair and prejudicial society. A society where the rich and poor are separated by institutional discrimination and contained by unwritten rules based on religion, gender and family name.
As the sliding doors opened into the new airport concourse, the first impression you get is one of a quiet, clean, modern sedate city; recently the host of thousands of global visitors to the commonwealth games. A few drivers were quietly leaning over the rails with names of passengers to collect. One, amusingly, read “Michael Vaughan” – reminding me that this was a civilised and dignified country, playing the gentleman’s game of cricket, following the rules by the book and to the letter.
Stepping outside the airport and experiencing the real streets of Delhi, nothing could be further from the truth. If there are any rules of the road, they are incidental. Road markings are purely decorative. Lane discipline is absent without leave. A three lane road would vacillate between four or five lines of closely packed vehicles, meandering in and out of line like errant children, cutting each other up, and amazingly always missing each other by inches. The only rule being that if you honk your horn, can do whatever you like. It is a free for all suited to dodgem cars. And a very, very loud one.
Intermingled with the cars and lorries are the small yellow auto-rickshaws, motorbikes and bikes and kamikaze pedestrians. The roads belong to everyone and to no-one. Road signs are purely suggestive; road junctions have no protocols. It would fail the most cursory health and safety or risk assessment. And yet somehow it works, at least for some people.The dance resolves itself – people get places.
The next day, walking the streets through the hot smelly crowded markets , we found another perspective. Here the noise was also colour and aroma, accompanied by the cacophony of daily life. Ones eyes are drawn to anonymous people doing what they do I guess every day. And one cannot but wonder at the nonsensical juxtaposition of the rich white westerners walking through a dark sea of poverty and survival. People carrying things – cement bags on their heads, furniture on their bikes. People selling things – mangoes, water, postcards, pity or guilt. Each one an individual with a history, a family, a struggle and maybe a hope. A vague hope of escaping their groundhog day of gathering food, maintaining shelter and keeping safe.
The rubbish piles on the streets. Apparently much of it was removed for the Games. The streets were washed and sanitised; the stray dogs rounded up and the dead dogs disposed of. Somewhere will be a mass canine grave and a landfill site of refuge.
Westerners are welcomed, treated with courtesy and respect. Cars doors are opened, luggage is carried. People move out of the way for you. When I checked into my hotel, my luggage was swept up and arrived later in my room, where the man placed my suitcase on the stand and cut off the security tag. I tipped him. A beautifully dressed woman greeted me as I walked in, sitting me down and bringing water, whilst she checked me in, and then escorted me to my room, showing me the facilities, All with a smile, courtesy and deference which makes one feel good. But should we continue to play the game. Are we grateful or grandiose? Does it make us feel served or self-important. And if we carry our own bags for a change, is the bag carrier offended, liberated or disappointed?
But we dance the dance, and most of the participants seem to enjoy it. And yet it perpetuates the social and sexual hierarchy. And plays to the myth that the white man is still in charge.