Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Defender of Delhi

After writing my belated first post of 2012 yesterday, I thought I'd take a little look at my readership stats. Naturally, having posted nothing at all in January, I was expecting my figures to be somewhat flat. I was very surprised to find that actually, January had been one of the busiest months since I started this blog back in June.

Further digging revealed why: I had come to the attention of a blogger for the Wall Street Journal who had spotted my post reacting to an anti-Delhi diatribe posted on a travel website. Clearly rather amused at what he saw as an over-sensitive reaction on my part, the writer cast me as an expat springing to the defence of my adopted city like an expat Batman with a computer.

Anyway, I re-read the post and I stand by what I said then. Since then I've also lived through a Delhi winter and I can confirm that the city's fog (actually, more like smog) is pretty unpleasant. Others have managed to find it beautiful in a weird and ethereal way; I've just found that it bleaches out the city's colour and makes me feel asthmatic for the first time in years. But I still don't find it reason enough to hate the place.

It's not really surprising that living in a place can lead you to develop a certain protectiveness towards it. When you live and work in a city it becomes more real. The people around you aren't just a backdrop to that tourist spot or a great photo op. They're people who share your space. You invest in them just like you invest in the city itself. And their idiosyncrasies - and those of the city you share - become a part of your life in a way that never quite leaves you.

So when some feckless tourist turns up and proceeds to bash the place, of course your hackles rise. It's not just the fact that a place as endlessly complex as Delhi, where 17 million individual lives intertwine, is arrogantly reduced to a set of stereotypes about piles of garbage and spitting in the street. It's that feeling of hey, this is my city! I get to bitch about it, not you!

It's like how most of us are with our families. We can moan about them endlessly, but woe betide the outsider who has a word to say against them.

But I've come to realise that it's not just foreigners who make me reach for my cape and tights. Delhi-bashing is a favourite Indian pastime. I think most of the Indians I've met who don't live here seem to hate the place. A friend of mine in Bangalore positively pities me having to live here (she has a point, at least in terms of climate - Bangalore seems uniquely blessed in India in that regard), and sees Delhi as a boring government city lacking in sophistication and full of shallow, obnoxious people. She's not alone. Take for instance this blog post about the men of Delhi, which recently provoked a storm of furious responses, apparently including death threats. On the other hand, the many supportive comments seem to show that these feelings are far from uncommon among people from elsewhere in India, especially the south.

A lot of the cultural references in that post went way over my head, but the general thrust is clear: a perception that Delhi is inhabited by boorish oafs and subjugated women. Not the city I know, but then I am not a woman from southern India. Different cities exist side by side and the one you live in is defined more by who you are than by the actual city itself.

What really intrigued me about the post and the responses, though, was the way both sides threw around the term "racism". A large chunk of Delhi's population is Punjabi in origin - huge swathes of the population of that state came to the capital after Punjab was divided at Partition - and an antipathy towards Punjabis does seem to run through the post. Many of the responses, by contrast, are heavily anti-Tamil. A lot divides Punjabis and Tamils, but are they different races? Do they perceive themselves as such? Does that make them more different than two European peoples? Or different but in different ways? I realised reading this post that my understanding of India's diversity has a very long way to go.

Well, this has wandered a bit off-topic, so I'll get back to what I wanted to say: that Delhi is not well-loved by Indians in general. Maybe it's the fate of the national capital (go to any provincial English city and ask them what they think of Londoners). Or maybe it's more complex, part of a whole web of little resentments to do with ethnicity, language, politics, economics and culture, in which the truth lies somewhere in between what everyone tells you. Maybe understanding the relationship between Delhi and the rest of India would take several PhDs to get your head round.

It's India. It's safe to assume the mind-bogglingly complex answer is the correct one. 


Kay in India said...

Hey there! I'd written a long response which ended up getting lost somewhere.

Having lived in the NCR for a year now, I definitely agree with your friend from Bangalore. In fact, I've never seen a more superficial society than what I've witnessed in Delhi. I know of people who make top notch salaries, live with mom and dad, and blow off their money on designer [by that I mean high end designers like LV etc] junk. It's not the blowing up money that I dislike--it's the attitude with which everyone else is judged [as not worthy].

I wouldn't really compare it to London or DC, but to Vegas--flashy, fake, with no real substance, and really will eventually run out of money in the long run.

In comparison--I really prefer Hyderabad [far more laid back and welcoming] and Mumbai [far more cosmopolitan and diverse, liberal and egalitarian]. I've met people in both cities who are FAR richer than the Delhi crowd but FAR less superficial and flashy. I realize it's just my experience that is clouding my judgment, but I've heard too many people say the same thing to think it's just a coincidence.

I've never really seen Delhi as Punjabi though--I've always seen Punjabi as Canadian: hard working, community oriented, and very friendly!

Chris said...

I wonder if it's maybe partly a Gurgaon thing? The whole flashiness and attitude towards money is something that I see there more than I usually see in Delhi. It may also reflect the fact that I work in the education sector which I think is generally quite well insulated from the kind of superficial society you're talking about.

The whole Punjabi thing is interesting. Before I came here I would have had similar perceptions as yours since there are a lot of Punjabi-origin people in the UK too. But there seem to be a lot of negative stereotypes about them in India.

By the way, beautiful wedding photos - congratulations!

Kay in India said...

Hehe! From my experience it's def a Delhi thing! Gurgaon's a different ball game all together! Gurgaon has your farmers who've just sold their lands and made tons of money--so they buy the most idiotic things like Hummers and whatnot! The Delhi crowd feels it's far too sophisticated to be even remotely compared to the Gurgaon 'rich' crowd. To me: they're both very similar! The ppl I described are all from Delhi families.
But there definitely are some (not too many but some) great people in Delhi from what I've read on numerous blogs! We've always viewed Delhi as a temporary setting so that's prb why I've never sought them out!
Thanks! Wedding photographer did a terrible job but I had a cousin who took some nice pics!

KATEDJAY said...

Dear dont meet punjaby people ? No Sikh people in Delhi hahaha. Where was you eyes ? because in Delhi everywhere you can see Sikh and also lot of Gurdwara ( sikh temple )
I'm alucky woman because I meet lot of them, punjabe people are very honnest and very sincere.
soory for you that you dont meet punjabe people.

Anyway delhi is a so big city, unfortunatly for you , you dont meet the good part of delhi !
Maybe you dont want it.
My english is not good enough to explain you all my mind.

Delhi can be a very welcome city and also a lovely city it depend on the eyes of your heart.

Sometimes we love a place sometimes not, but it come from us not from the city.


carvaka said...

so here is my long reply and please correct me if i am wrong.

at first about race.

officially india doesn't recognize the term race. now if we translate that to a question of ethnicity - then the answer is yes. we do see each other (punjabis- tamils- manipuris) as distinct ethnicity.

if we ask a more biologically fundamental question like whether different ethnic groups are genetically distinct - the answer probably is yes again .
i think it is still ongoing research - but gene can tell you your language (in india) but interestingly, not your cast or religion.

is there a similarity with europe?
but unlike europeans , most ethnic groups don't see each other as different nations. may be because indians have a underlying cultural unity (like europe) but never a political identity (unlike europe?). before '47 the political boundaries were always moving. and different ethnicity never had a kingdom of their own.
another reason could be we have more than one identity - religion/caste is certainly another very important one.

now to delhi - :D
firstly, you may be misreading the "punjabi" thing . for all north indians - anyone else is a madrasi. for all south indians - anyone from north is punjabi. for all bengalis anyone non-bengali is a hindusthani (!).
so when the "madrasis" complain about "punjabis" they don't mean only "the punjabi".

i am by the way a bengali - and so far , few months now, few months then - i have spent around 7/8 months in delhi. i find the city interesting - food and history. but i also found the people rough and uncouth. and it is not the punjabis- they are usually friendlier. but usually the hariyanvis (gurgaon is part of hariyana) and people from UP (noida - greater noida etc) are in my opinion mostly too blame.

i have spent considerably time in other cities in india - both in north and south . but as far as people are concerned , delhi is the worst.

Chris said...

Thanks for taking the time to leave such a detailed response! I didn't know that about the usage of the word "Punjabi" - that actually explains quite a bit about some of the things I have read.

I still get on pretty well with Delhi folk as a rule. For which I'm grateful!