Some Delhi Observations

Sasmita and I spent one full week in Delhi in May 2014. We were there primarily buying wedding clothes for the Nayak family and ourselves. We also visited some friends we stayed in touch with and who made indelible marks on our lives.

I remarked to Sasmi at one point that Delhi felt comfortable and familiar to me. While she agreed with the familiar part, she told me Delhi brought back memories of terrible things in her past, so she was not as excited. When I pointed out that Delhi is where we solidified our relationship, which eventually led us to marriage, she just smiled and said, ‘yes, but it doesn’t erase what happened before I met you.’

We visited Sasmita’s former neighborhood of Munirka and saw her old landlords. They were so excited to see her. They do not have the internet, or any way to keep in touch besides mobile phones, so our arriving on a random weekday afternoon was a joyous occasion. Despite the problems she had with them previously, they were all smiles and genuinely touched that she remembered them and wanted to say hello.

Sasmita with her former landlords
Sasmita with her former landlords

Here are some other thoughts after returning to the area where I spent six months of my life in 2011:

*The ironic t-shirt has reached India. Everywhere I went, men were sporting shirts that said things that I am nearly positive they did not actually understand. I saw at least two shirts about Michigan, worn by young men that I guessed had never been outside of India.

*On the same sartorial vein, what is going on with men’s belts? I lost track of the amount of guys of all ages I saw who were wearing belts that wrapped halfway around their waist, after buckling. I do not just mean street urchins or teen boys in public; I am talking about men in suits or other professional business attire.

I do not know what I was missing, but I wondered why to me, it seemed like a large percentage of Indian males could not find belts that were the appropriate size. I noticed this trend in every city, railway station and village.

*Middle class India is obsessed with brands. One day we were shopping in an underground market called INA and I saw a shirt that I liked. I went into the stall and the vendor told me it was Abercrombie and Fitch. Except that, it was spelled ‘Abbercromby and Fitche.’

The shopkeeper tried to tell me how the shirt was ‘very good American brand’ and that it was ‘very high quality.’ I remained silent, and he did not know I was from the US. Finally, after hearing enough, I said to him. ‘I live in the US; this is not Abercrombie and Fitch.’ Feeling chagrined after being called out by someone who actually knew the brand, he quickly walked back behind the counter. I did not buy the shirt.

*The first time I saw an air-conditioned city bus, my mind immediately flashed to the young woman so horribly gang-raped in 2012, that she died. It was a sobering thought, because an air-conditioned bus represents progress, as does the place she and her friend visited before that fateful ride, a sprawling, upmarket Western style mall in Saket, South Delhi.

That a guy and a girl would be socializing and unmarried and not family is a relatively ‘new’ phenomenon in ‘modern’ India. This makes the brutality of the rape more jarring, serving as a stark reminder about how much further attitudes, justice and women’s safety must progress.

*Delhi’s metro system is awesome and highly efficient. Every single person must go through a metal detector, electronic wand, and if they have a bag, an x-ray machine. I cannot speak to how thoroughly the police check for contraband or other illegal items, but  everyone is checked without exception, despite the massive crushes of humanity.

The Metro is also building at least eight new stations in South Delhi alone, to open within 1.5 years. I contrast that with the DC Metro where I live. The Silver Line from downtown Washington D.C, to  Dulles VA and the international airport, took years to be approved, was in building progress for years after that and is over-budget by millions of dollars.

Of course there are trade-offs, the Delhi Metro Authority probably never held a town-hall type meetings discussing their plans or soliciting feedback from city residents. Rather the DMA made a decision, metro stations will be built, if it causes hardships or inconveniences for a citizen that is too bad

*There is no concept of waiting for those coming off the train to exit, before entering. I am not sure if this is a DC custom or not, but in India if you are not aggressively pushing your way out of the train, you will definitely not get to the platform. This goes for both metro and Indian railways.

Also in the train and on the platform, people also do not ask you to move, they put their hand on your shoulder and physically move you to the side. It is not violent, and has little force, but it is definitely noticeable, and the first time it happens a bit jarring.

For someone like me, aware of personal space as a way of life, being thrust into India, where the concept is nonexistent always takes adjustment.

*Delhi’s traffic is worse than ever. What I fail to understand is why there is not basic enforcement of any traffic laws. On the way to the airport, near dusk, we saw car after car stopped on the left side of the road. Not one had hazard lights on, nor was there any type of road ‘shoulder.’

People milled about, as cars whizzed past them, going indeterminate speeds, since speed limits are not enforced. Our taxi driver remarked to us that they park there because airport parking garages were too expensive. In a split second, a fast car might slam into one of the parked ones or pick off a person on the side of the road as if they were an insect. Yet, no one seemed concerned about this.

*As far as I can tell, there is zero enforcement of road laws anywhere. In fact, I never saw a single cop doing anything except directing traffic at red light. Not once did I see police presence in vehicles, on the road itself. India has the most traffic fatalities in the world, an absurd 190,000 plus in 2013.

Every hour 17 people die on Indian roads.

National newspapers decry the lack of law enforcement on India’s roads, including no laws against overloaded vehicles and usually no barrier separating the two directions of traffic. Why does the government refuse to do anything about it? While we were there, one of the new cabinet members died when his government vehicle was smashed by a car going the wrong way on one of Delhi’s main roads.

Usually the government refuses to act when it’s just the ‘common man’ who suffers, the fact that a ‘VIP’ died due to Delhi’s dangerous traffic I would think might cause talk of change, but as far as I can see that will not be the case.

*The week we were in Delhi, were the hottest temperatures in nearly 20 years. The temperature, not the ‘heat index’ spiked to 117, not including humidity, which was probably close to 70 or 75 percent. Miserable does not even begin to describe it.

During our last day in India, we visited Santosh Samal, the head of Dalit Foundation. He is a powerhouse for Dalit rights in India and my internship there was one of the best experiences of my life.

With Santosh at the DF Office.
With Santosh at the DF Office.

He said to Sasmita, on March 3, 2011, in a workshop in Lucknow,  ‘see that guy over there, he’s Indian, but a new intern from the  USA, can you be his translator today?”

Fast forward two years and now we are married.

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