Thomas Bobinger, 08 Oct, 2006
Article published in "A Different View", a publication of the International Association for Political Science Students (October 2006)
The natural vegetation in New Delhi is the highway. Grey and dusty it thrives in the city despite being plagued by a myriad of potholes which cover it like a rash. When the monsoon starts in July the mega city Delhi turns into a little ocean. Delhi which harbors around 15 million inhabitants and thus outnumbers the entire population of the Netherlands becomes a vast lake of dirty, brown and stinking water in which children take a bath and play football and businessmen complain about their drenched cell phones and wet Armani-suits.
When the rain starts the streets are teeming with little yellow and green three-wheelers, the so-called “tuk-tuk”. Like bugs they swarm the city, ploughing their way through the two foot high water and only too often the engine denies its loyalty and the driver gets stuck in the middle of the water masses. As a tourist these tuk-tuks are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand they can provide cheap transportation. On the other hand, the drivers always try to cheat and overcharge the tourist. Traveling through Delhi thus becomes a stressful adventure in which the game of negotiating about the price is repeated over and over again. Ironically, it is not only the tourists that are cheated in this society. Since 1998 about 25 000 Indian farmers have committed suicide because they could not repay their debts. These debts, however, have largely accumulated because these farmers were severely overcharged by their money-lenders asking for up to 32% of interest. India is a culture of money-makers and the bureaucracy is driven by corruption. Yet, India is also a proud nation, aware of its 5000 year old history and cultural heritage. It is proud of its diversity and celebrates it under the motto: unity in diversity, something that we use to hear from the EU as well. American cultural imperialism had to adapt to the conditions it found in India. Mac Donald and Subway exist, but they offer a specialized range of food, that excludes beef and pork.
Foreigners often feel like celebrities in India. One cannot go three steps without being harassed by an Indian businessman who wants to sell something or who wants to show a place where he would get a commission if you buy something. Children usually awe at the sight of a white man and the thought of his comparable richness. Indeed Delhi displays like any other city a spectrum of wealth that ranges from utterly poor to amazingly rich. Whereas one runs the risk of being electrocuted in certain areas because of poor cable isolation which cause certain water-filled potholes to become death traps, other parts like the diplomatic quarter have gotten rid of the straying dogs, the unemployed who sleep on the side of the street, ameliorated their infrastructure and removed the street-roaming cows. In fact the holy female cow runs freely through the poorer parts of the city. I never imagined cows to be city-animals, but instead of fleeing to the countryside, they wander undisturbed into shops, houses, and rest on the middle of the street. Apart from being holy, they also function as the city’s waste disposal system. As dustbins have failed to make their way into the city infrastructure people continue throwing their waste on the street. It is the cows who eat not only the rotten fruits but also the plastic bags. Bessy and Berta for instance, the two white cows which love to linger in front of my hotel manage to keep the street marvelous.
And then there is of course the resurgence in national pride in India. If Russia can claim to be a great economic power with 6% of growth in GDP, then India with its 8% rightly feels on track on its way to become a major global player. Among the people this shows in their new found confidence in the English language, a legacy from the British. For decades they have suffered from an inferiority complex because they could not get their pronunciation right. Nowadays, Indians are aware that they can beat booming China and Korea in an English competition at any time. Especially proud on their IT-sector they refuse to call their country a developing one. The sexual culture has become more open towards gay people in the recent years. Despite the act of homosexuality being prohibited by law, gay parties are thriving, people become openly transgender, and one can find gay magazines at newspaper stands. The attitude towards homosexuality is basically the same as in the West: As long as it does not affect someone directly no one will care. Hence, when a prince in Rajasthan outed himself, his family was quick to dispossess him as their reputation was directly threatened. Indeed, the northern Indians form a classical macho-culture. Rickshaw drivers stop to show tourists pictures from the Kamasutra, and when you ask them why everybody is wearing a mustache you get as an answer that it is manly. Sometimes you feel like being sent back to the 80s in Europe, with people wearing tight jeans, long hair and mustaches. For Indians it is their family, their well-being and their body which they appreciate the most, all the more as the threat of violence always looms in the background. Terrorist attacks have not subsided since the India-Pakistan relationship thawed. The various separatist groups and religious fundamentalists make the people live in fear. Security guards in front of the richer peoples’ houses and at every entrance to the New Delhi Metro are a sign of the government’s awareness of their vulnerability.
All in all Delhi is a city that can teach you to become arrogant, cruel, selfish and indifferent. You can learn to ignore the herds of begging children and disabled old man just like the Indians themselves disregard them. You can learn to become callous in the way you drive and risk a smashing accident just to not let the other driver overtake you. At the same time Delhi can teach you to become compassionate and thankful for your own life, for the human rights you enjoy back home, for the clean air that you breathe and the fact that you can sue a hotel if there are mice running all over your stuff. It is all up to oneself and as a hotel boy once told me: If you don’t look out for yourself, nobody will.