Manic drivers, spicy politics and cricket-crazed waiters are all part of the choking chaos of New Delhi.
The prospect of spending a few days in New Delhi is, like the call of the unknown, irresistible.
The Delhi metropolitan region supports India’s second largest city and is home to more than 16 million people. The teeming city serves up an unnerving array of stories, including that of Delhi Belly, that serve as a deterrent to dining out too much.
India’s capital city has a multifaceted countenance which continues to beguile. The many testimonies of Delhi’s denizens prove that, as always, the authentic account of a locale stems from the people it breeds.
Ashok P, a well-dressed, polite, elderly gentleman is a taxi driver. Born in this city to parents from Punjab, he is as proud of his city as he is dismissive of its people’s conduct. He is not joking when he says: “If anyone needs to be rushed to a hospital between 9-11am, they’d better be prepared to die on the street.”
The city’s traffic oscillates between careening manic drivers and standstills where the vociferous voices of infuriated drivers drown out even the most incessant honking. Much to the annoyance of his fellow road-users, Ashok chooses to drive very slowly.
Despite his apparent calm and the constant “This is India” mantra, he confesses to escaping his city every three months to relax and de-stress, favouring sites in Dharamsala and Kashmir.
In his time, he has seen Delhi transform, especially before the 2010 Commonwealth Games. His father once told the young Ashok said that he preferred British rule because: “After the freedom, there was too little discipline and too much corruption.”
Sixty-seven years after Independence, Indian political parties are currently battling similar issues in the world’s largest vote. With 850 million voters, India’s general election began a month ago and its final results are scheduled for release on May 16.
Bright red posters of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi (who is tipped to be India’s next Prime Minister), grab attention along the city’s clogged roads. They read Modi: Runaway Husband.
Meanwhile, The Week magazine’s cover story entices with exclusive eyewitness accounts of the day the potential leader of 1.2 billion people got married. Everyone now knows about how Modi, as an 18-year-old newly-wed groom, left his bride 46 years ago. It was the morning after they had wed.
While NaMo, as he is referred to, refuses to be drawn by the attack on his reputation, India’s media is relentless in its scrutiny. Through opinion polls, panel talks and adversarial rebuttals, NaMo’s every move, past and present, is thoroughly dissected and discussed in the public arena. Nonetheless, Modi, a tea-wallah’s son, remains unmoved, riveted instead by his unwavering focus on winning.
It’s like being transfixed by the country’s national sporting pastime, Indian Premier League Cricket. This year’s series holds the nation in thrall as much as the elections, even if part of it is being held in Dubai. Restaurants workers are hypnotised by flat-screen action. Their mops and buckets are abandoned in the middle of the floor as they quietly gather and claim front-row spots. Their supervisors, equally spellbound, continue to keep their eyes on their screens rather than on their subordinates.
In Delhi’s Old City, lies Chandni Chowk, India’s oldest and busiest market, a place where traditional ways reluctantly embrace modernity. The market may compromise on convenience, but it retains its values in its winding streets and cramped quarters. Trucks, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, carts, bicycles and pedestrians leave no part of the narrow, confined streets unfilled.
When all movement halts – amid much yelling and cursing – people somehow pluck themselves out of the disarray to restore order. Store workers rush out to help push overladen, offending carts. Pedestrians civilly direct traffic. People converse. After a moment or more, vehicles and people move on as if they had never stopped.
Young children who sell sun-shades at traffic lights do the same. So do the lean men with trays of sliced coconuts, weaving in and out of traffic hoping for a brisk trade. Passers-by pause and pop into street temples for a quick prayer.
Amidst Delhi’s choking chaos, unceasing cacophony and writhing mass of humanity, each dweller unobtrusively seeks his space. Even if it is only for a moment. People learn to separate themselves from their surroundings to seek solace.
It may not stand to reason but I, too, have found my own mental space in Delhi.
Delighting in dead ends, Jacqueline Pereira seeks unexpected encounters to counter the outmoded. Find her on Facebook at Jacqueline-Pereira-Writing-on.