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Delhi’s makeover from bureaucratic backwater to dazzling metropolis has occurred in the blink of an eye. Jonathan Foreman looks at the country’s capital city with a fresh perspective

No place I know has changed as much or as bewilderingly quickly as Delhi. It is not just that it looks and feels so different today than it did when I first visited in the early 1990s. These days its appearance, if not its underlying character, can change in a matter of months, something that just doesn’t happen in New York or London.

Last year I left New Delhi in March and came back in November to find that the semi-tame ‘community’ dogs who had been such friendly companions in my Safdarjung Enclave neighbourhood for the last five years had all mysteriously disappeared. So too had most of the young North- Eastern people who used to live in the area and all of the little momo restaurants that served them. The North-Easterners have presumably migrated to another area or returned to Mizoram; the dogs, however, seem to have fallen victim to some secret government-sponsored Commonwealth Games clean up effort. (Delhi’s governments move in mysterious ways, as the secret release of Jessica Lall’s murderer showed). The winter smog – euphemistically called ‘fogs’ like the infamous ‘pea-soupers’ that used to blanket London – was far thicker and more noxious than the previous five winters, presumably thanks to all the new vehicles hitting the roads every month. And all the routes around town that my girlfriend used to drive now took three times as long.

This was partly because of the massive traffic disruption caused by all the Delhi Metro construction, but had at least as much to do with the dozens of new flyovers that had been erected over the summer. As usual their construction had apparently taken place without much thought as to what happens when vehicles come back down onto the road, so that wherever there is a flyover there is a traffic jam at each end. On the other hand, IGI Airport suddenly boasted an amazing new domestic terminal, one that made the international terminal seem more shabby, provincial and unwelcoming than ever.

However, the most interesting changes for me are the more gradual ones. In the 1990s, many Indians of an elite background not only spoke a rich old-fashioned English with equally old-fashioned English accents, they also boasted elegant old-fashioned manners of a kind you would encounter all too rarely in the UK. However, the trend for education at US colleges, the impact of Hollywood movies and TV (thanks to deregulation) and the impact of visiting American NRIs all mean that younger people now sound, dress and even move more like Americans. That is not necessarily a bad thing. In Delhi, native-born people often complain about the rudeness, crassness and arrogance of NRIs, but their presence here, and the way they complain so quickly and so loudly seems to have had a beneficial effect on service in hotels, restaurants and shops. On the other hand, when I’m in Khan Market squeezing past loud, inconsiderate types shouting into their mobiles, I do miss the gentleness and sweetness and reticence I used to encounter so often when I first came to the city.

I am even more struck by the impact of café culture on Delhi life. Back in the early ’90s when I was a bewildered backpacker, there were Nirulas and the old Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place, and that was really it. It is almost as if the new post-economic-reform middle classes needed a place to meet that bore no resemblance to existing institutions, and then brought them into being. Not everyone approves of the café revolution (though because the first chains weren’t foreign they haven’t attracted the xenophobic spite and paranoia that was faced by the likes of McDonalds). I myself wondered if the popularity of the local Café Coffee Day was somehow responsible for the disappearance of the nice chaiwallah who used to have a little pavement stall at the entrance to the park. But a few months later I bumped into him in the park where he had a new job as a watchman and he told me that his stall had been as popular as ever with local people but had been closed down by the municipal authorities as part of a scheme of ‘beautification’.

The park has indeed been beautified by the addition of new plants and fountains that sometimes work. It is also safer than it used to be. (A female friend of mine who has lived there on and off for a decade used to tell me horror stories about being harassed and attacked when she went running there, even in broad daylight.) In another sign of broader change, when I walk through it with my girlfriend I am rather disconcerted and disappointed to see other foreigners. More important, the monuments in it are better labelled and looked after, in stark contrast to the general neglect of such places which was the norm in the early ’90s, when places like the Red Fort or Humayun’s tomb were rubbish-strewn and seemed to double as public urinals.

It is also fascinating to see how people dress so differently. Delhi used to seem so unsophisticated and conservative compared to Bombay. In the early ’90s, you never saw an uncovered female shoulder, let alone a mini skirt except on foreign women. Today they are remarkably common despite the ongoing scourge of ‘eve-teasing.’ The capital has become a ‘cooler,’ more fashionable, more fun place, one in which the tone is no longer set by officialdom and embassies and khadi-wearing members of Parliament.

In general, the antics of the politicians and bureaucrats now seem considerably less relevant than they once did to the life of the city. You still get the absurd 1950’s style changing of street names so that some elected official can prove his or her patriotic or party credentials (not that anyone outside politics actually calls CP ‘Indira Gandhi Chowk’) but that kind of thing, like the old populist-nationalist calls to demolish the Lutyens bungalows, seems to belong to a different era and to a vastly more insecure and defensive India than the one that has flowered in the last few years.

Local politics of a more serious and practical kind seems much more important than it did in those days. The rise of the ‘Residents Welfare Associations’ in colonies like mine and their ability to pressure bureaucrats to provide the consistent water and trash collection that were once the preserve of only the well-connected, reminds me of the revolution that took place in British urban politics in the mid-19th century when a newly-empowered middle class forced all kinds of reform and transformed London into a modern city with sewage, lighting and running water for all.

Other things have not changed. When I first came I was amazed to see the sandbag emplacements and the rifle-toting policemen and soldiers outside hundreds of official residences. Though the tone of the city is no longer set by the government or central bureaucracy – thanks to the presence and self-confidence of a powerful business class – the capital still seems remarkably militarised compared to the capitals of most other free countries.

Then there are the sounds of the city, that I now find so familiar and reassuring when I come back to town, whether it’s the non-stop hooting of horns at rush hour, or the tapping of the colony chowkidar’s lathi on the pavement at night, or the urgent early morning sing-song of cart-men selling vegetables or fruit or collecting kabadi. I am mindful that even if I get to keep coming back to Delhi year after year, these comforting sounds may cease. After all, when I was a very small boy in London we still had the equivalents of kabadiwallahs (they were called ‘rag and bone men’ and they came around by horse and wagon), and in a few places you could buy fresh fruit from men pushing carts. All that is long gone. Those people and the encounters we had with them were replaced by stores and systems that were unquestionably more modern and perhaps more efficient, like the mini supermarket that has arrived round the corner from our place in Delhi. Yet, something human and intimate and delicate died with their passing.

 

 

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