A Semester in Delhi

by Goh Han Lim

Delhi, Delhi, Delhi. Capital of India and home to approximately 22 million people, Delhi is without a doubt one of the most populated and largest urban agglomerations in the world. It’s also where I’m currently spending the semester at, being enrolled in Hindu College at University of Delhi, under the USP Cultural Immersion Programme.

If there is anywhere in the world that quite epitomizes urban living at its liveliest and most chaotic, Delhi will be a prime candidate. In a country that prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, Delhi lies at the heart of Indian politics, where everyday news is filled with exciting political happenings, and with protests and dharnas happening here in the capital ever so often. Delhi is a bustling city, rich in both character and history. It is a city that is lumbering towards modernity, yet still holding onto its traditional values and way of life. It is also a city of sharp contrasts, with gated communities surrounded by slums, British colonial buildings standing side by side with ancient Mughal monuments, affluent couples sitting on the back of rickshaws manually powered by rickshaw-wallahs barely making enough for a day’s worth of meals, and chai-wallahs selling piping hot cups of chai right outside a brand new coffeehouse that just sprouted up in town.

College compound at Hindu College

College compound at Hindu College

To describe Delhi in a single sentence is at best impossible. Even after being in this city a second time around, and having resided here for close to two months now, the city still leaves me speechless – in both good and bad ways. For most people, their first experience of Delhi will be this moment of calmness after landing into Indira Gandhi International Airport, a new and beautiful airport not unlike our own Changi Airport. This calmness, however, does not last very long. On stepping just outside of the airport, the unsuspecting foreign visitor might face a rude culture shock, being confronted with a sea of cab-wallahs, jostling each other to have you take their cab, and potentially over-charging you in the process. Opportunists spring up all of a sudden from nowhere, kindly offering to carry your luggage, and later suddenly demanding for rupees. What makes this all the more daunting is that there is no way to enter the airport again for a moment of brief respite, unless one possesses a valid departure ticket for a flight out of Delhi. Another problem arises when one realizes that the Delhi police pre-paid taxi booth that will ensure a fixed and fair cab fare is situated inside the airport. This intimidating post-arrival situation has improved in recent years and it is actually much tamer in Delhi when compared to other big Indian cities, but it might still remain shocking to the foreign visitor all the same, and is but a mere taste of what Delhi has in store. Entering Delhi requires one to keep his fingers crossed and breath suspended so as to dive into the madness that so characterizes the city. But should you allow this chaos to envelop and embrace you fully, that is when the fun truly begins. Delhi will shock you at first, but it might then surprise you in ways you never would have imagined.

The sense of calmness at Indira Gandhi International Airport  that does not last very long

The sense of calmness at Indira Gandhi International Airport does not last very long

Chandni Chowk, heart of Old Delhi and an ever busy part of town

Chandni Chowk, heart of Old Delhi and an ever busy part of town

The cab ride from the airport to the city centre offers more glimpses into life in Delhi. It is a full hour of bumpy ride across the city’s roads, filled with potholes that threaten to swallow the tuktuks whole, of traveling through the notorious traffic where a 10 minute wait for the lights to turn green might actually be a blessing, of packs of stray dogs and the occasional cow crossing the busy streets without much regard, of rickshaw-wallahs taking naps by the noisy roads in the seats of their own rickshaws that are also sadly their homes, and of beggars knocking on the windows of your cab trying to obtain a rupee or two. All these signs are hardly symptomatic of a country that is trying to emerge as an Asian economic powerhouse. Yet, times are certainly changing and the city is slowly lumbering towards further development and modernity. But in the 4 years since I last visited the city, much has remained unchanged; such as the sheer poverty that still exists, the underdeveloped infrastructure inadequate for a megacity home to 22 million people, and streets that remained strewn with garbage that not only hardly disappears but is also freshly topped up each day. But some things have changed: in the 4 years since, the metro – arguably the pride of the city – is now running and fully functioning in its current phase, slums are gradually being cleared or resettled elsewhere and away from public’s eyes, efficient electric tuktuks have appeared and are slowly putting the rickshaw-wallahs out of business, and a whole range of coffeehouses from Starbucks to Costa are sprouting up all over the city and in the most unlikeliest of places. The Delhi of tomorrow will both remain similar and yet so different from the Delhi of yesterday. Delhi is an ever-changing city; it is constantly a work in progress.

Ever busy Old Delhi railway station, transport node of Delhi and also home to weary travellers and some of the city’s homeless

The ever busy Old Delhi railway station, transport node of Delhi and also home to weary travellers and some of the city’s homeless

Qutb Minar, constructed in 1193 and still standing strong today

Qutb Minar, constructed in 1193 and still standing strong today

Delhi is a continuous, relentless assault on the senses – all five of them, yes – day in and day out. The city is perpetually shrouded in a blanket of smog, and one does not have to walk very far before catching a whiff of the smell of urine along the streets. The carefully orchestrated symphony of the blast of vehicle horns throughout the day, timed so aptly one after another such that the city is never silent for even a moment, is enough to wake the dead. Personal space in public is non-existent, with the sheer population density further compounded by man and man standing chest-to-back to enter the metro or whenever there is a queue. The ever-spiciness of the food and the addition of masala into just about every dish and beverage possible will leave the taste buds tingling. And the everyday sight of a hungry child waiting for a toss of a gleaming rupee coin into his muddied hands is enough to leave one either heartbroken, or, after time, numb to the stark poverty that exists in everyday life here.

Peak hour crowd at Rajiv Chowk metro station

Peak hour crowd at Rajiv Chowk metro station

Dodgy street food makes for very tasty food

Dodgy street food makes for very tasty meals

The chaos that is Delhi that frustrates and wears me down on many days. Abject poverty exists all around. The infamous traffic and poor urban planning makes it difficult and tiring to even get from one nearby place to another. The crowds are relentless. The metro is a mess of pushing and shoving. Touts and scams abound in touristy areas.

In spite of all this, Delhi is still a city that I have come to love so much. It’s a place that one either loves or hates – a compromise can be reached, albeit not easily. For most foreigners, and even for many locals and ‘Delhiites’, they do not identify much with Delhi and do not see it as a pleasant place to visit or live in – though that is certainly understandable. Yet, even in the madness of Delhi life, there is much beauty. And as a friend of mine aptly put it, there is beauty in the chaos. The chaotic nature of the city often puts one off at first, but over time, it might become a truly interesting place to live in, comfortable even. Delhi is a wonderful place to observe how common people lead their everyday lives even in the midst of such poverty and less than stellar quality of life, and to gasp in wonder at the ingenuity and resilience of the locals in adapting to their circumstances. Delhi will shock you. It will surprise you. It will also enrich you. It opens your eyes and broadens your perspectives, especially if you come from a highly developed country where good living conditions are the norm rather than the exception. It makes you more appreciative of the simpler things in life that you might easily take for granted – access to potable water, proper sanitation system, clean streets, good air quality and the like. Delhi might not be for the faint-hearted, but it reflects the harsher realities of life, and is as real as life can get.

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh house of worship that  offers one a place of respite

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh house of worship that
offers one a place of respite

 

Lodi Gardens, an oasis in the middle of chaotic Delhi

Lodi Gardens, an oasis in the middle of chaotic Delhi

Delhi is vastly diverse. Amidst the chaos that pretty much envelops the entire city, it might be natural to think that it would be hard-pressed for one find a peaceful place in this sprawling megacity. However, oases of peace surprisingly still do exist. In fact, it is shocking how peaceful Delhi can be whenever I take a stroll through one of the many residential enclaves across the city, or sit in the lawns of my college compound, or have a picnic in the Lodi Gardens, all of which are no more than a few feet away from the nearest busy road. Delhi is also where amidst the functionalist buildings that covers most of the city, stunning old architecture with rich history still exists. It is in Delhi where traces of the British Raj and of the old Mughal rulers can still be easily found. The ancient city of Shahjahanabad that is the heart of chaotic and lively old Delhi in the northern part of the city stands in sharp contrast to the carefully planned and more affluent area southern part of the city that is Lutyens’ Delhi, the latter being arguably more sterile and lacking in character. Huge new megamalls are also sprouting up in the southern parts of the city and in the outskirts of Delhi. These are luxurious malls that can rival many others all over the world, and are arguably the pride of many ‘Delhiites’. Yet, for many foreign visitors, the ‘authentic’ Delhi in their eyes still remain that of old Delhi, in places such as Chandni Chowk and Paharganj, with their chaotic streets and never-ending crowds, the beggars and the touts, the less than clean surroundings and dodgy street food. For me as well, a fascination towards this charming Old World still remains. Old Delhi is where the city feels the most alive, where it remains the most enchanting, where it offers glimpses into a static unchanging part of town in a world that is otherwise rapidly trotting towards modernity and also sadly, uniformity. Old Delhi is certainly not as aesthetically pleasing as the newer parts of Delhi, but there is character and there is grit in Old Delhi, and it depicts the struggles faced by the larger part of the Indian society.

Humayun’s Tomb, comparable to the Taj Mahal in beauty

Humayun’s Tomb, comparable to the Taj Mahal in beauty

Delhi has much to offer, but it requires you to look past its surface. Look past the pollution that covers the city and you will see that there is much beauty underneath that layer of soot. Look past the poverty and you will see the faces of everyday people just like you and me, trying to get through life one step at a time, although under more challenging circumstances. Look past the touts that hover around you in the touristy hotspots and you will see a country filled with genuinely friendly and welcoming people. More importantly, embrace Delhi, and you might just find Delhi embracing you unquestionably in return. This city has grown to become a home to me now. Even in the days after I leave, it always will be. And it is my hope that others will come to love Delhi the same way I do too.