As many of you might know, my mom and I are going to an Indian wedding quite soon. This endeavor requires about a full 24-hours of travel, and then an 8 PM collapse at a Delhi hotel.
After numerous issues obtaining an Indian visa (which perhaps I’ll describe in more depth after this trip ends–I have been cautioned against telling that extremely long story while I am still visiting India), we finally made it to Delhi. We won’t be staying here long unfortunately, as the trip is short and we are going to Agra, then Jaipur in a few hours.
My impressions of Delhi are thus equally short and imprecise, tinged with after-images of its colonial past. There are strange little figments of some obscure British idea of high society that pop-up in the mirror-image arrangement of government buildings, or the way people speed through traffic rotaries. To my eyes, it’s bit like someone planted a medium-sized British village here many years ago and it grew into a city that is a bit unwieldy and sprawling.
I took an Indian cinema film studies class once where all the descriptions in course readings on Delhi were some hackneyed variation of “teeming with life.” This representation always struck me as rather condescending because aren’t all cities this way?
I think perhaps many Westerners, particularly those of us who grew up in quiet suburbs, hold a clear definition between our public and private lives: cities like Delhi upset that delineation. As we drove through late afternoon traffic to get a sense of the city center (and please know that we have only see a single small portion of Delhi on this trip), I watched people engaged in the sort of activities I am used to doing behind closed doors or, at the very least, a partition of window-glass. I saw a man getting a shave from a barber on the street, another man clipping his toenails in stalled traffic, other rituals of daily life that escape my tired brain right now.
I was thinking about how these activities have been made to seem specific to Delhi in the aforementioned lightly paternalistic essays I have read. But these are things I’ve seen in every major city I’ve visited or lived in. No one ever writes about Manhattan subway toenail-clippers, or east Los Angeles highway mascara-appliers in the same reverential tones. Somehow seeing regular people live out their lives takes on a magical quality when it happens in an area outside one’s immediate frame of reference.
I wish I could be more specific about what I’ve read, and the special kind of wonderment-condescension that often appears in essays on Delhi, but I think just noticing it is the best I can do for now. And in this space that is so different from my own experiences, just noticing, watching, and listening is probably the right way to go.