Like most Delhites who have arrived rather than been born here, I have a love-hate relationship with this fast growing new-world city.
The “hates” will probably be familiar to most women who have to suffer the peculiar and thankfully increasingly isolated chauvinism of North Indian men. If I had 100 rupees for every time I’ve had a meeting with a man who looks expectantly, disappointedly, over my shoulder for a male counterpart to arrive, I’d be a crorepatti by now (Big B not required); it’s a frustratingly arcane attitude for a city that claims to be driving a new world economy, when female empowerment and equality are key to the sustainability of that economic success.
And, of course, the way in which this macho, “me-first” approach filters into driving technique and brash, superficial partying. But these “hates” aside, Delhi is a magical, captivating city, a city of multiple layers, stories and histories; easily romanticised, continuously tantalising, it reveals its secrets like a professional ingenue.
In New Delhi, you most certainly need a ticket to ride, an entry pass — power, money, status, superlative creativity or intelligence — to gain access to all it has to offer. It is Delhi’s capacity for accommodating such extremes of human behaviour that makes it a haven for creative eccentricity and which makes it for me one of the most interesting places I have had the pleasure to live in.
I may never have been to one, but the stories of debauched parties in Chandni Chowk havelis with dancing eunuchs and elderly (married) transvestites dancing til dawn make me as proud to live here as the world-class DJs mixing their own take on Delhi’s multi-sensory overloads.
The traditional attar-wallahs, jewellers, embroiderers, artists, stonemasons, carpenters, silk-screen printers who have practiced over centuries and still manufacture items of such great beauty and quality such as can’t be produced anywhere else in the world, inspire me and the countless other creative minds working privately but incredibly successfully behind closed doors.
Like most successful global cities, it is in what makes Delhi distinctive, not what makes it “global”, that its power lies. On my first visit in 2001, it was the smell that first struck me as the plane came in to land through the pink-tinged mist that seemed to permanently settle over the city. I had travelled a lot for work, but no other city had struck so many of my senses so swiftly as Delhi.
I imagined the smell as the scent of ages, which of course in some respects it is, but time has revealed less exalted sources for the city’s pungency; now it is just the smell of home, but no less powerful for it. It is one of Delhi’s strengths as a city that it connects its inhabitants so forcefully to their senses.
The Yamuna carries herself on the wind, mingling with the acrid smoke of firecrackers, the cloying sweetness of chikki and jalebee and sharp tang of kebabs that envelop those of us who dare to attempt the city on foot, placing us firmly in the local; nowhere else in the world smells like New Delhi in winter.
As the air carries scent and mist, so it carries the cry of kites as they circle the sky, the Horn Please of Delhi’s millions of weaving vehicles accelerating urgently, suicidally into the swell of the traffic, the kabari-wallah cycling past, his centuries-old call to recycle turned acutely contemporary in today’s environmentally critical world.
Although the artificial seasons of the supermarket century have arrived in rarefied spaces such as Khan Market, for most of its inhabitants, Delhi remains a city located firmly in natural cycles; it is the joy that the monsoon rain splatters in large, crystal-clear drops on people’s faces, that makes the arrival of the new season jamuns, green channa and mangoes sms-worthy news, that still brings people out in the mist-drenched early mornings for brisk walks around lush, green parks, which gives me occasional hope that Delhi may hold the key to a 21st century kind of living.
(The writer is the Director, Arts & Culture, British Council India)