I came into Delhi unannounced.
I expected Delhi to be different. I expected to arrive and find Paris waiting for me. I expected New York City taxi drivers all lined up with air-conditioned cabs and digital meters. Instead I got India. “Hellomadamrickshawscooterhotel? Noproblem20%nightcharge.” A kindly old gentleman offers to share my scooter, and deals with the cab driver, and asks me to come to his house. Or to meet him later this week. Like I said, I got India.
I think I was not using the word, India, to explicate. Rather, I was reciting an incantation to create some meaning. Listing the things that shocked me and naming them India. Human beings need to understand, and they will work harder at this task than anything. (Reading now, I see that I also wanted to sound tough and world-weary. “Good luck with that,” I say to myself, 30 years later. “Good luck with that.” Trying to sound tough gets in the way of understanding, but at 25 I didn’t know.)
Let me state the obvious. I had trouble understanding India using standard, rational, processes. But I was not alone; clearly the British also struggled. They constructed, in Delhi, a typical capital city, broad boulevards, monuments, squares. Made for processions of the ruling class. But they got India. As did I. Where sometimes events looked like home. But different. My first day walking around, I ran into this march.
The strikers above wanted to belong to the Ministry of Tourism, instead of the Ministry of Agriculture. OK. To an American, it sounded Orwellian. Except they wore chef’s hats. A little ornamental for Orwell. OK.
The cow above mowed lawns, pulling a cutting tool behind to keep the open, green, public square open. OK.
On the other hand, when you get India, some things are in fact the same. Comprehensible.
When I was little my mother pulled my hair into braids every morning. I never sent my kids to school uncombed. We make sure our children go into the world looking tended to, so that no one will assume that they can be harmed, unnoticed.
Found in big cities anywhere. I lived in Manhattan, after all. Why was I still shocked that people slept on the ground? I think because India was so overwhelming, so new, that I razed my structures of knowing to the ground. I had to start fresh. Everything surprised me. What I knew. What I didn’t know. But I could feel the new framework rising, in Delhi. Almost hear hammers in the background. Some of what we think, when we are trying to understand, is admirable. Some is just silly. Usually it’s all comforting, however, there’s comfort in the effort, and that’s maybe as important.
I left Delhi after a few days. I went to see the Taj Mahal. Another response to the inexplicable. When someone you love dies, if you are a maharajah, you build this. A monument. With stately boulevards.
The thing is, we never control all the approaches. Even the grandest routes may be strung with wires. Glimpses sometimes tell us more.
Images: Me, an old camera, and dusty slides. For a more recent view of Delhi, with a different perspective, and great photos, visit The Existential Expatriate.