This is my third trip to India, and the place no longer makes the same impact on me as before. I vividly remember the impression Delhi made on my first visit – the shock of the noise, car chaos and endless number of people. Even on my second trip, the traffic experience as we drove the 5 hours to and from the Taj Mahal was variously frightening and amusing. Much of India feels surreal, as disbelief can often do no other than suspend itself on a long thread.
So this time the Brownian movement of the traffic, the cacophony of horns, the mêlée of people, cows and rickshaws is just background. I no longer flinch when the car humps over the central reservation, or when we lurch right across four lanes of traffic with a faith in survival which would make Evel Knievel look unnecessarily cautious.
They say familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t know about that, but it certainly breeds complacency. Now I just ignore the persistent hawkers and beggars with a nonchalant even dismissive shrug. My antiseptic hand wash has stayed in my suitcase, and my camera has stayed mainly in my pocket. I even went out one evening without it. Unheard of. I am blasé, unruffled and smile amusingly as the first time visitor expresses wonder at this strange and alien country. And this is more than the Englishman’s pretence to take everything in his stride. I am not like some victim of Trigger Happy TV, behaving normally when the world jumps out of lines. I am seriously getting used to it.
This time I stopped over for 24 hours in Dubai en route. So my mind has been pondering the differences between these two worlds. Trying to work out why two eastern countries which are grown or growing out of poverty can be so diametrically different. I’m not sure why I am pondering this, as it would appear to have little practical value. But minds do that – they seem to have a mind of their own, as it were. You can’t always control them. Well I can never control mine. My thought patterns are definitely more Delhi than Dubai.
Delhi and Dubai. 2 Across – major cities, five letters beginning with D and ending in i. I could make it a threesome, and chuck Derby into the mix, if we pronounce the “y” rather than write it. Derby and I have a relationship of convenience. We are old friends. We meet twice a week at the railway station. I pay for a ride and leave as soon as I can. More of a service-provider than a lover.
Dubai and I, on the other hand, had never met before. My impressions on our first date were favourable. She is young, well-groomed, nicely presented, bright and very clean. But let’s drop this analogy before I go on to say that she is hot and well-built and has produced the tallest structure in the world. She is orderly and organised outwardly. But she has a lively heart – around the creek – with intricate ventricles and oracles – which beats and flutters in a less predictable way.
The city is pretty much litter and pest free. I encountered a couple of what looked like stray cats, milling around the Mall in Desai, but otherwise it was scrupulously clean and anaesthetised. The pavements are perfectly laid and level, the floors inside the beautiful buildings polished and gleaming. In the Dubai Mall, a man polishes the marble floor for no apparent reason. It was already clean enough to eat off. I had a very nice chicken and orange there. May as well create some work for the guy.
My day in Dubai lulled me into a false sense of security. The next evening in Delhi, I tripped over a miscreant paving stone and then over a random piece of protruding pipe. We circumnavigated around sleeping /dead dogs – either way letting them lie – and avoided the puddles and the electric cables which grow out of the soil. They also could also have been dead or alive. As could we.
Dubai is right-angular with a few smooth curves. Delhi is serrated and erratic. In Dubai, architects compete for pomp, height and grandeur. In Delhi, after they had replicated the Arc de Triumph and called it India Gate, the architects took an elongated lunch-break and never came back. Delhi is now a jungle of concrete and fabricated buildings; many dilapidated, obscured by rubbish, carts and endless advertising hoardings.
As I mentioned before, the heart of Dubai is different from its southern and coastal expanses and, ironically, quite Indian. Unsurprisingly, as it seems to be mainly occupied by – well, Indians. Also along the creek, the boats line up two or three deep – most of them echoes of a previous century – wooden ram shackled vessels with pointed bows and steep sides. Piled on the dockside are twentieth century artefacts – refrigerators, tyres, washing machines, wooden panels and anonymous “fragile, this way up” cardboard boxes. All are ready for loading. Is this take-over by stealth of Dubai by the Indians? I hope so. We can get them writing cheap software too.
As in India, here, the nineteenth century co-exists with the modern, effortlessly yet incongruously. Following this artery of industry along the river and into the centre, I found Indian-style markets with Indian-style spices in bags, even a utensils market. And as in Delhi, endless salesmen, trying to sell you something you didn’t know you wanted. None succeeded of course. They weren’t quite adhesive enough. One lovely man showed me all his spices (saffron is a magical herb which helps with cancer, obesity, depression and pre-menstrual tension and wards off Alzheiemers). I didn’t buy any, as it didn’t seem to help with over-heated feet, but he kindly left me his business card.
The thought I pondered most of all was this; why do drivers in Dubai drive slowly, carefully and within the parameters of white lines and traffic lights like grown-ups; whereas the drivers in Delhi, like errant teenagers, do the very opposite? (Drivers in Derby are a confusing mix of the two I think, and my teenage son and daughter would say they are better drivers than me, but that’s another topic).
Cause and effect. Is it religion? Is Islam more inherently disciplined and ordered than Hinduism? I am no expert, but maybe the ritual and repeatability of Islam with its 5 daily calls to prayer encourages compliance. Is it the road layout? Does a grid network of squares encourage regular driving? Manhattan’s literal grid-lock would suggest not.
Maybe it is the difference in age and maturity of the cities? And yet it is Delhi which is more adolescent and Dubai which is more middle age in its driving behaviours. Maybe it is the road quality? Delhi drivers are so used to dodging potholes and random obstructions that a slalom becomes almost habitual. Or maybe it is simply that Dubai comprises Mercedes and more expensive cars, whose drivers are more bump-averse.
Either way here is a classic demonstration of group behaviours. Everyone does it so everyone does it. It would be impossible to wake either city up tomorrow to a different way of driving.
Dubai and Delhi. Maybe one day when the rich men have finished playing with Dubai, as they once got bored of playing with Delhi, it too will decay and deteriorate. Or the Indian heart will complete its takeover.
Perhaps one day the gleaming Dubai malls will grow tired, the beautiful hotels will wrinkle and the tall towers of Babel will lose their sheen and start to defoliate or exfoliate. They are after all but concrete, steel and glass. Maybe then the order and perfection will be replaced by some decent imperfections.
Maybe this is decay and deterioration. Or perhaps it is life and excitement. I need to rediscover the wonders of Delhi – full of surprises and full of industry. I need to remove the film and filters of familiarity and see it again as it really is.
Atrophy and age comes to us all. We cannot resist the laws of thermodynamics and the law of time. The world left to its own devices becomes more chaotic not less. The world is, after all, random at it’s finest sub-atomic level . We cannot be regimented and clean every day. Some days we have to honk our horns and switch lanes manically. Long live Delhi. Long live the creeks and souks of Dubai. And even tiny bits of Derby.
Long live mess. Long live noise. Long live colour. Long live surprise.