I have a test for how much I ‘belong’ to a city and vice versa. Catching the early morning taxi from whichever airport, I usually tend to nod off. Snapping awake during the ride, if I immediately know where I am then the city and I have a proper relationship, if not, then we don’t. Despite all the recent construction constantly shifting the cityscape, in New Delhi I always test positive, it’s like it’s in my blood.
The fact is, I’ve lived in Delhi for many years. Since relocating to Calcutta, I’ve come back to the Indian capital several times every year, sometimes for months at a time. I’m usually completely confident that I know ‘my’ cross section of this town and its peculiar rhythms, but this time things are different. Returning to Delhi after being away for many months, I almost feel like a tourist, like a culture-shocked first timer in India. When I lived here, I really used to enjoy the terror my foreign friends underwent when I introduced them to the hyper-pinball joys of Delhi traffic. This time, it’s as if I’ve become one of my newbie friends.
The traffic in Delhi has two sides to it. In the rush hours there is, of course, the classic, subcontinental traffic crawl, the spread of private automobile cancer palpable in every small lurch forward, in every grinding of low gear, in every metal attrition avoided. At the same time, in Delhi cars can sometimes drive very, very fast indeed; whereas in Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, or Calcutta you’re lucky if your speedometer crosses thirty-five kilometers per hour in the daytime, certain parts of Delhi have huge, long roads where the rich in their imported fortress wagons and the less fortunate in their small Euro-Jap soap-dishes can equally put their foot down and scream up to eighty or ninety kilometers per hour and more. In the taxi from the airport, I first find myself terrified at the high-speed lane jumping and the last minute swerving that holds lives in balance for whole, long seconds. I’ve driven like this myself (when in Rome, eat or be eaten, etc.) but now I find something has shifted. I find myself repeating the word ‘ungenerous’ over and over in my head.
It’s a contradictory thing to say but while driving in India has always been about ‘me first’, ‘the biggest is the king’, and the clear understanding that traffic rules are made to be driven over, there has always been a sense of give and take, a sense of adjustment, where, even while driving ferociously, people occasionally cut each other some slack, forgive mistakes the other guy has made, and compensate, sometimes at huge risk to themselves. Now it suddenly feels as if that last sliver of humanity has been taken away. Over the last twenty years or so, Delhi has been force-fed new automobiles like a foie gras goose being stuffed with grain; and now it feels as if the creature’s liver is about to burst. I may be imagining it, but the car population seems to have increased exponentially since my last visit in December 2012; in the cutting off, tailgating, and wrong-side overtaking there seems to be the vicious desperation of people who’ve realized they’ve bought themselves not freedom, or any control over their lives, but a metal and plastic trap in which they will have to spend their lives fending off carbon monoxide and mayhem from the similar traps that surround them.
While criminally dangerous driving is not confined to any one economic class, there is something to be noted about walking around in Delhi’s posher markets and shopping malls. This phenomenon is hardly new, but the newly touristized me notices it more acutely than ever: you’re walking in a fairly crowded promenade in a shopping area; you see a young couple coming toward you; there isn’t enough space to pass without both parties turning slightly sideways and sidling past each other, or so you think; you make the move to create the half-space but the other guy doesn’t, he just keeps walking, wide-fronted as ever, expecting you to work your way around him. Unsurprisingly, if it’s the woman who’s going to pass you, she will do the civilized thing and move aside, but the thought never even occurs to most of the younger men. As before, these incidents make me angry, but this time I also think about it as if from the outside—what is it about this society that denies its young men any social awareness of shared space?
In the Delhi metro, things are different again. The arrival of the underground train network is transforming this huge sprawl of a megapolis in interesting ways. Suddenly, speedy mobility is within reach of people who would otherwise be stuck on buses and trucks in the endless traffic jam above ground. The metro is also an opportunity for automobile owners to leave their cars behind, though not enough of them seem to have received the invitation card. Nevertheless, many classes mingle on the metro in a way that happens in no other space in the city. On the platforms during rush hours, getting on and off the trains, all class disappears as throngs of (mostly) North Indian men slam into and through each other, neither the so-called educated nor the so-called illiterate managing the common sense realization that letting people off first is the best way to gain ingress to an emptier train carriage. There’s a certain kind of feral desperation in crowds that I’ve only ever seen in South Asian cities and, in Delhi this time, it seems to have increased in violence.
The exception to the sweaty sardining of men is supposed to be the women only carriage at the front of each underground train. However, all too often men pay no attention to the rule, brazenly entering and sitting in the reserved carriage till such time as a woman objects. Often the fuss can be bruising to the complainant and she (or they) might have to suffer abuse and even physical violence. Furthermore, given that the Delhi metro carriages are joined to each other by an open connecting space, during rush hours the passage to the women’s carriage becomes the favorite spot for the many men who see groping and pawing as enjoyable activities.
Most Indians tend to bring up their boys and girls differently but in North India these traits sometimes become extreme. Most of the communities here see themselves as honest, straightforward, generous, and fearless. There is a domination by the male in all of these constructions of the community or ethnic group, a peculiar, northern subcontinental double-edge of machismo and misogyny that actually spreads from Afghanistan in the west to the Indian state of Bihar in the east.
Last December in Delhi, a North Indian friend explained it to me thus:
“It’s simple, here more than anywhere else in India, a daughter is totally seen as a temporary member of the family, to be fed and brought up till such time as she gets married and is subsumed by someone else’s family. The son, on the other hand, is seen as the pride and joy, the one who will carry the line forward.”
Among other things, my friend and I were speaking about female infanticide in Haryana, one of the big North Indian states, and the decline of the population of girls in some districts to the point where girls had to be ‘imported’ for marriage from other parts of India.
“Why only blame the people in the countryside? My own friends, middle-class, educated people are also like that. The other day, I was flying kites with this guy I know, with his fourteen-year-old daughter and his son, who’s about twelve. So each of us has a kite aloft and we are kite fighting 1Traditionally, people ‘fight’ kites in India. The kite string is dipped in crushed glass giving it quite a sharp edge (if a taut string drags across your palm it can draw blood) and then people maneuver their kites in aerial dog-fights, using the wind and their skill to try and cut the string of an opponent’s kite., and the girl cuts her brother’s kite. What do you think my friend does? He turns around and slaps the girl—‘Why did you cut your brother’s kite?’ I ask the guy what he thinks he’s doing. It’s a sport, I say, and she won. But he says ‘No, she’s a girl, she shouldn’t cut the boy’s kite.’ This is in 2012, imagine.”
My friend and I were talking about all this because December 2012 was stamped into history by the gang rape and murder of a young Delhi woman. The facts of the case are now well known but may, nevertheless, bear recounting. On a winter evening in the city, the woman and a male friend were returning home after watching a film at a cinema at the other end of town. Widely connecting though it is, the metro system did not serve either of the areas in question. The man and the woman (or, more accurately, the two pals in their early twenties) tried to get a three-wheel auto-ricksha to take them home but all the drivers refused. Around 9 pm, the pair of friends saw a bus marked for their part of town and they hailed it. They made nothing of the fact that the bus had mirrored windows, a common enough thing in this city. When they climbed in they realized they were the only ‘passengers’ in the bus, which had four other men besides the driver. The men began to taunt and paw the girl. When the two friends resisted, they hit the young man with an iron rod and tied him up. Then they proceeded to take turns raping the woman who kept fighting back. All through this time the bus drove in a circuit through the main roads of South Delhi, stopping at traffic lights, going past police checkpoints. The men took turns at driving while the driver joined in the rape. One of the rapists was a seventeen-year-old. In the assault on the woman—who kept fighting—the iron rod was also used. After they were done, the men dumped their victims on a dark side road and drove off. It took time to find help. The woman survived for a few days before succumbing to her horrendous injuries in a hospital in Singapore, where she’d been flown in a desperate attempt to save her life.
Within a few days it was very clear how the city’s failing systems had combined to condemn the young woman to rape and death: the auto-rickshas were flouting a ‘no refusal’ rule; the bus was flouting a ‘no mirrored windows’ rule; the bus passed through police checkpoints without hindrance because it was most likely one of many buses whose owners had bribed the cops, it was therefore ‘licensed’ to go through unchecked; the same police took time to come to the victims’ aid and were indifferent and lax when they did finally come; it was doubtful whether the girl could have been saved, but it became clear that the best public hospitals in the capital of India were not capable of dealing with the potentially lethal infections that occur after such trauma. By the time my friend and I were talking, this one event had exploded in the faces of the state and national governments, and crowds of mostly young people were at the entrance of the presidential complex, one of the picture-postcard spots that symbolizes democratic India, demanding justice, demanding the resignation of ministers and people in positions of authority.
Sitting with a foot condition that meant I couldn’t run from the tear gas being fired, I watched the protests on TV over days and days. People kept talking about this being India’s Tahrir Square but some of us were not so sure. This may not have been a new country emerging from the ashes of the old, but this was definitely a new city taking shape from the dysfunctional contraption of the old one, a city that could be a better place or a far worse one. After nearly a year, the jury is still out.