Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hello from Delhi (and Dehra Dun, and Chandigarh)

We'll be returning to Goa in a day or two, but meanwhile there was some family visiting to attend to in the north.

First up, Delhi. My dominant impression of Delhi this time around is of seeing construction everywhere for new Delhi Metro stations. In a couple of years (when Delhi hosts the Commonwealth Games), I'm sure it will all be wonderful, but right now it adds to the traffic headache. That said, I was impressed by the new domestic airport terminal (the old one was hopelessly insufficient), and by what I took to be preliminary attempts at revamping the central train station.

We were happy to get to meet Jai Arjun Singh at a Crossword book store (Jai, thanks for waiting for us) in Saket, south
Delhi. The bookstore was in a massive, opulent new mall called "Citywalk Select," which has designer boutiques everywhere (Indian, European, and American), and the general feel of the massive King of Prussia mall near our house in suburban Philadelphia. It was certainly surreal, after seeing continuing signs of poverty elsewhere in the city, and Samian wondered how there could be enough Delhi-ites who can afford to pay $500 for Kate Spade purses to support these stores. Also surreal in such a place was the presence of the writer Ruskin Bond, who I think of as an R.K. Narayan-type writer (simple, elegant, and compelling storytelling), not someone you would ever expect to see in this kind of place. In this case, he was doing a book-signing at the bookstore, which was surprisingly packed.

When you're traveling with a two-year old, you don't get to read quite as much as when you're either alone or with other grown-ups. Still, I've been reading bits and pieces of Carlo Levi's Essays on Delhi here and there, and I thought some passages from his essay "The Invisible Capital" (1957) might be of interest:

The city of New Delhi appears, as you drop suddenly down towards it out of the sky, as something unreal and abstract, an immense placeless space, a utopian place. It doesn't really seem like a city; there is no centre, no cluster of houses, only a vast expanse crisscrossed by immensely broad boulevards that seem to stretch out endlessly into the distance, and dotted here and there by monumental buildings, isolated in the greenery. Much as in the shapeless, amoeboid city of Los Angeles, the distances are so vast that you can only move around by car (this modern conveyance that ensures medieval isolation). It is also reminiscent of Washington, with its plan of an administrative capital, silent and reserved; to an even greater degree, it is reminiscent of London, in the attempt to blend a sense of power with a yearning for the earthly paradise prior to the original sin.

I think the comparison to Washington is probably the most apt (I don't see the comparisons to London or Los Angeles at all). More from Carlo Levi on Delhi below:

Construction began here in 1911, in the last few years of a wold that promised eternal progress and security, and New Delhi remains -- as if it were somehow separate from living reality -- as a perfect document of that time and that empire, of its rationale and the principles upon which it was founded. It is, first and foremost, a magnificent monument to an immense empire, the embodiment of an act of detached, prideful will, a will that celebrated and affirmed itself as eternal by projecting itself into the future. But this power chose not to touch, or roil, or modify nature: rather, it seemed to prefer to identify itself with a nature that existed before time itself, a paradisiacal nature, with an absolute naturalistic utopia . . . In this paradise of the viceroys, the detachment is absolute: remote from the real inhabitants, from life itself, and from all of life's muddled heat, pain, and movement. Everything matches a rigorous hierarchy of reason, a precise, age-old, meticulous ceremony.

The above seems like the point of view of someone who came to Delhi and spent a lot of time in government buildings. From the other point of view, one could say that it's those massive government structures that are detached; the rest of the city, even caked by dust and choked by suspended particulate matter, is very much alive.

One more paragraph from Carlo Levi:

In this gigantic hidey-hole, it is possible to avoid being seen, like gods, and to see nothing. Even today a foreigner who lives in a large hotel or a government building can entirely ignore the country in which he or she lives. Soviet writers, who scrupulously attend, with their interpreters, the sessions of the pan-Asiatic congress (the reason for my journey here), with the paternal grandeur and quasi-British detachment (though instead of whiskey they brought with them Armenian cognac), have waited a full week for the sessions to end before taking their first glances at India. It is possible to stay in New Delhi and see nothing, understand nothing: but it is not easy, because the other reality (to which the sole concessions are stylistic: the Mughal architecture of the viceroy's house and other buildings) filters through everywhere unstoppably, just as the tendrils of plant life work their way into the cracks in an old abandoned wall. The vast English lawns have become, through some unknown alchemy, though still bright green and perfectly trimmed, part of an Indian countryside. All that is needed is a woman washing her sari in front of the India Gate, or a begggar lying careless on the grass: all it takes is the trees, and the orange light of sunset.

Though it's now somewhat dated, and certainly bound up with Levi's particular experience of Delhi as an "official" visitor, much of what he says here seems to me to still apply.

A few more travel notes...

We went to attend a wedding in Dehra Dun, and were staying at a guest
house near the Doon School, the English-medium private school that has educated a shocking number of contemporary Indian writers. On a free afternoon, we walked over to the front gate, and tried negotiating with the rather imposing security team about seeing the campus, but no dice. (Samian made up some story about how we have a friend in America who went there, but it didn't fly.) We were left admiring the lush campus from outside the eight-foot walls, and walked back to our guest house, past local women carrying gigantic loads of felled tree branches on their heads. (Perhaps we saw enough.)

Meanwhile, the town of Dehra Dun is choked with traffic, and the streams that run through are heavily littered with trash and heaps of used plastic bags. (The government knows it's a problem. In several states we've passed through, we've seen state propaganda against the use of plastic bags: "We, the citizens of Uttarakhand, pledge not to use Plastic Bags." I don't know if it's working.)

The drive from Dehra Dun to Chandigarh was particularly scenic, though the views were marred by the fog (smog) that hangs heavily over much of northern India at this time of year. Our driver had some colorful stories, one about a place called Kala Amb (black mango), where, legend has it, there was a special tree that had a branch that only grew black mangoes. For years, the Panchayat of that town conducted its business near the tree, and whenever someone was to be hanged, they were hanged on the black mango branch.

Another intriguing story our driver told us was about the road from Dehra Dun to Rishikesh, where, according to him, wild elephants sometimes like to come out and sleep on the roads at night. You have to go around them, and not trouble them too much, lest they decide to uproot a tree, and smash your car with it. He said there was one particular case of a deranged elephant, who had been exiled from his herd, who went on a rampage and killed quite a number of people in this way (I have no idea if this is even remotely plausible, but it's an intriguing idea: the alienated, sociopathic elephant.)

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Blogger Pinku said...


you were in my city. Your perspective and that of Carlo Levi intrigued and also amused. Being citizens I suppose we see things differently.

Btw ever read Khushwant Singh's Delhi?? Its a beautiful read...give it a try....it will give delhi from a citizen-lovers view point.

2:51 AM  
Anonymous Archana said...

When I was in Mussoorie 11 years ago, the plastic bag problem was just being noticed - before that, everyone recycled newspapers and intricately folded them into little envelopes, or used glue to make little paper bags - a charming craft all its own.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Shashwati said...

Hey you are in two of my cities! the stuff about the elephants is true, not sure about the sleeping bit though, they are losing habitat and one of their migration routes has been encroached on enough that they are coming into increasing contact with humans. Didn't know you were trying to see the Doon School, had I known.... you should have gone to the Guru Ram Rai durbar in Paltan Bazar instead, or Paonta Sahib on the way to Chandigarh (Guru Gobind Singh wrote the granth sahib there, or at least a big chunk of it) the langar is pretty fabulous, hope it still is.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Zack S. said...

Hey, I left some comments over at the Sepia Mutiny cross-post, about LA School and multiple nuclei similarities (to get all technical about urbanism comparisons). I might add here, too, that having been back in Mussoorie this past summer, the trash was a problem - often I'd see people simply dump the contents of their trash cans out over the side of the house, down the hill/mountain. Elsewhere in the Himalayas (even on treks in remote areas), you'll see green-painted trashcans with instructions to recycle and avoid littering, just as often long philosophical pleas as terse directives- always both amusing and saddening. Every time I go I think it's interesting to ask people there why they think littering is so prevalent and what they think could possibly change it, instead of pontificating as the westerner I invariably am. Anyway, the main reason I write is to ask where you got a hold of Essays on Delhi - I've popped it into Worldcat and can't for the life of me seem to find anything, but maybe I messed up somehow.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Zack S. said...

D'oh! Found it, it must be Essays on India (not just "Delhi"), no? It's a slim volume apparently, so I'll definitely pick this up when I head back to school.

6:30 PM  

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