Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Nobel, Delhi and all that

Since I left Delhi in the late 80's this is the first time I have spent 2 weeks at a stretch here. However, a hectic lecture schedule which involved two and half hour lectures daily, coupled with a dodgy internet connection meant that my blog has remained neglected for some time. First things first. So we all got it wrong -- the Nobel went to Nambu, Kobayashi and Maskawa, and while all of them are most deserving, it's unfair that Yoichiro Nambu had to wait this long (he is, I believe 87) to get the prize and then share it with two others. To get back to Delhi. When I was growing up in Delhi, in the 60's and 70's, Delhi was a charming city, with tree lined avenues, beautiful and stately buildings, and shopping complexes (can you compare Connaught Place with these present day monstrosities in Gurgaon) and lots of wide open areas. The ugly concrete jungles of South Delhi were yet to crop up. During the 80's and 90's when I used to visit Delhi for short periods, Delhi literally seemed to be falling apart at the seams -- the traffic was horrendous and polluting, the people even more rough and crude, and hideously ugly concrete jungles sprouting everywhere. Moreover, from an academic point of view, there was little reason to visit Delhi University. In a couple of visits in the last two years, I am happy to see that this downward slide has been halted. There are still horrible traffic jams in rush hour, people are as arrogant and rude as always (though in all honesty, not much worse than Chennai). However, there is the wonder of modern technology actually applied successfully to an Indian city - the Delhi Metro. Spick and span, perfect timing, and completely professionally run, the Metro has truly changed the face of Delhi in the areas it runs. Part of the traffic is now transferred to the Metro, resulting in better traffic management. It takes 20 minutes to go from Central Secretariat to the University, something that used to take upto an hour or more depending on the time of day. There are two other lines one of which goes all the way to Dwarka on the outskirts, so it's not the one-line wonder like the Kolkata metro. Of course South Delhi still has its jams but hopefully when the metro reaches those parts, things will improve. (Nothing will change the classic Delhi attitude though -- I noticed that people would rather spend an hour in one of their airconditioned limousines stuck in a traffic jam, than take the metro and be seen with the hoi-polloi). Dare I say it -- without naming names, some of my well-heeled friends have never even seen the inside of the Metro and its been around for more than two years! Nothing also will improve the average Delhi temperament. Too much money has brought with it a brashness, a rough and ready tendency to take matters into one's own hands, a general disdain for others' convenience. In the last two weeks, a women journalist has been shot while driving a car, a man had petrol poured on him and set on fire because of some minor dispute, and road rage has resulted in all kinds of fights, altercation and police cases. In the midst of this, the blue line buses continue to contribute their mite in keeping the population in check. Which reminds me -- DTC now has neat and clean low floor buses, some airconditioned, (with doors which open only at bus stops), which are actually cleaned everyday (no, I am NOT making this up). A colleague of mine once said pithily, Delhi is all history and no culture. While the latter is not quite true -- being the National Capital, there is a huge amount of cultural activity taking place somewhere or other in the city -- it's true when applied to the general 'culture' of the place. Delhi will always remain my favourite city, despite its people and its traffic jams. Perhaps it has to do with where one grows up. (I am always astonished when children of my colleagues think that Chennai is the best city to be in). And now with academic activity in Delhi University showing an upward trend with many good appointments, I look forward to using that excuse to reacquaint myself once again with one of my first loves.

12 comments:

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I myself thought, on recent visits, that Delhi seemed much more livable now (though I don't want to make the experiment). One thing you didn't mention -- it used to be that all shops would close by 7pm and even major centres like Connaught Place would be basically dead after that, except for some restaurants. Now shops are open much later, the central park has been renovated and there are people hanging around quite late in the evening. That alone makes a big difference to one's perception of public safety (and also makes the place nicer to visit).

AMOK said...

Nice to hear the upbeat description of Delhi, the metro and so on. May you have many offers from The Universities of Delhi. At least you must visit us more often. Yours truly is one of the well-heeled ( although not yet well-healed ) offenders, never having been on the metro. DTC buses being air-conditioned and actually having doors. Takes the whole FUN out of the stochastic commute. Can you get the air quality up again? Any thoughts about the future impact of the Nano on the (Delhi) traffic?

Anant said...

Coincidentally, I too was in Delhi last week. I always say that Delhi has a certain zip to it. But it seems to me that it is great for a visit. What about living there with 45 C maximum in summer and 2 C minimum in winter? Atleast the latter will give you a chance to take out your St. Stephen's blazer, but what to you do with the former? I think basically it is the money and oodles of it that is spent on that place that gives it the little bit of likability. I wonder if other cities also get breaks on petrol and diesel, or milk and all kinds of all other essentials, they too would seem attractive? Tell us, oh learned mastah!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

anant - I always thought zip was what Delhi lacks (compared to, say, Mumbai). Delhi is known for "chalta hai" (meaning, in practice, "it doesn't move").

Rahul Basu said...

Rahul: Yes, in fact I am always struck by the fact that Chennai shops open early and close really late -- unlike Delhi. Though of course that doesn't mean people hang around as much since unlike Delhi, there are few places in Chennai to walk around. Nothing like the Lodi Gardens and numerous others parks, in spite of all the mindless construction.

Anant: If indeed some extra input makes Delhi nicer, I don't see anything wrong. Obviously the national capital gets more funds, but the fact that Chennai has no sidewalks, no reasonable parks, few wide roads, cannot be explained by lack of money. A lot of it is just attitude. In Bangalore, people like gardens and parks, and you see the effect. In Chennai this culture does not exist. The idea even in private houses is to build right to the edge of the plot.

The other thing about Delhi is the fact that it's impossible to throw a stone without hitting an ancient monument, an old hallowed grave or mosque or some other, usually Islamic, structure. It gives a sense of history to the place. In his recent book, India after Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha points out that as a result of partition and the huge movement of population between the two new nations, Delhi turned slowly from a graceful Mughal city to a Punjabi one. Dare I say that was the beginning of its downfall, thus inviting the wrath of the hard working Delhi business community!

Anant said...

Rahul S: yes, Bombay may certainly have more zip. But Delhi does too in its own way. I have only been a visitor and I used to feel the zip walking around CP. Regarding the cultural life, etc., I have never spent enough time to experience it. Friends in the social sciences circle tell me that there is nothing like the zip in the academic life that one finds in Delhi. I guess beauty is indeed in the eye of beholder.

Rahul B: We bow to the superior knowledge of the learned Mastah! With reference to the Mughal grace, etc., the cognoscenti tell me that the Nawabi grace of Hyderabad has also been lost in the post-Princely state of Hyderabad days. I guess His Exalted Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad knew how to keep it graceful.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

rahul - regarding Mughal Delhi, it's still there (the walled city) and, curiously, has received renewed interest since the Metro was built through it. Now people don't have to negotiate traffic jams and "bumper-to-bumper" cycle rickshaws to get there, and the place is receiving a new category of visitors. But I don't suppose your well-heeled friends have ventured there yet.

Regarding Chennai and lack of respect for pedestrians, I would blame the corporation. Regarding lack of public gardens, it's a historical thing, but they're trying to rectify it now (eg the garden near the Kotturpuram Adyar bridge). Also people have preferred to go to the beach for a walk. The private constructions built to the edge of the property are mostly newer apartment complexes, built by builders intent on maximising their profit. I think the same is true in Bangalore and elsewhere. Individually-owned homes still have gardens, but they are getting scarcer.

Rahul Basu said...

Anant: I accept your criticism! What you gently hint at is your scepticism (as a modern day liberal) of the superficial facade of a graceful society in a notoriously feudal system.

Rahul: I was also referring to a lot of Islamic rather than Moghul architecture in New Delhi -- Lodi tombs, Safdarjang tomb, Qutb minar and so on (even including Humayun's tomb). All of them have large well maintained gardens around, which given them a very serene atmosphere.

I also noticed, btw, the temperature difference on the Ridge both near Delhi U and also the large expanse of greenery in and around JNU/IIT/Qutb. It's quite amazing - it almost feels like a difference of some 5 degrees in the evenings in these areas. Very pleasant...

Of course I can't imagine the nightmare that will be Delhi during the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Unlike Beijing, I doubt that they can force cars off the roads during those days.

Sunil Mukhi said...

At some point practicality gets the better of even Delhi-ites. Last time I was in Delhi I more or less accused my well-heeled relatives there of being too elite to step into the Metro, but I was in for a surprise. "Going shopping to Chandni Chowk with car and driver had become such a chore that I hadn't been in years. But in the last year I've gone there three times on the Metro" my cousin declared.

The relatives also added that despite the Chandni Chowk area still being what it was, namely a mass of crowded lanes, tangled wires and general mess, people even in that area have made good money off their textile and other trades and there is a general rise in standard of living.

I am beginning to think Delhi and Hyderabad (despite their similarly hot summers) are the places to live nowadays, Bombay Chennai and Bangalore having left their better days behind.

But as Rahul also indicates, fantasies about nice modern Delhi always come crashing down when dealing with the people there. Last time I was in new Delhi station just a few months ago, I was fleeced of 50 rupees at the official prepaid auto stand! He took my hundred, distracted me with conversation and then held it up to show I had only given 50! Oldest trick in the book and stupid me was caught off-guard.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Rahul -- those things (Safdarjung tomb, Lodi tomb, Qutub minar) are very nice, but dead. Old Delhi is still very much living. We knew a Delhi old-timer who'd give guided tours that took you through people's living rooms etc, exposing a completely different and (one generally assumes) bygone lifestyle. I unfortunately haven't been on it but I've heard of it. You'll find what ought to be hugely significant historic landmarks, like Razia Sultana's tomb, in the most nondescript cul-de-sacs. (There are also spots elsewhere with a live Islamic culture, eg Nizamuddin's dargah.)

Rahul Basu said...

Sunil: Indeed many people have told me the same viz. there has been a distinct rise in the standard of living and business in the Chandni Chowk area since the advent of the metro.

Rahul: Well Nizamuddin is in New Delhi and somehow I do like wondering in the gardens of these tombs! Morbid, did you say?

Indeed, I have heard of these walks through Old Delhi - it would be lovely I am sure to go on one of these. In fact William Dalrymple does mention some of these areas of old Delhi in the 'City of Djinns'.

Interesting isn't it, that this post of mine has got among the largest number of comments (of course some of them my own!)

Anant said...

Sunil's comment on Hyderabad brings great joy to my heart. I have always been a proud son of that great cosmopolitan city. In which other city can one be a Tamil with Telugu by birth, grow up speaking Hindi along with these tongues, have friends who could be Andhras, Marwadis, Sindhis (yes, Hyderabad has (had?) quite a few Sindhi colonies), or those from every imaginable corner of India, teachers of every ethnicity, every religion, study in a Catholic school, and yet be considered nothing but Indian?! Way to go. However, I think that the remark that Bangalore's best days are behind is probably a little hasty. This adopted hometown of mine is just as cosmopolitan, with a difference. Which other city's most important writers are Kannadiga (Anantamurthy), Marathi (Shashi Deshpande), Sindhi (Mahesh Dattani), most famous historian Tamil (Ramachandra Guha) from Delhi, etc.? Yes, it is true that the charming Anglo-Indian culture has vanished, and has been replaced by grotesque shopping malles, but the latter dot the landscapes of Delhi and Hyderabad as well. The point is that Bangalore is not what it used to be. It is a mega-city whose economy has changed. The northern part of the city now is the pole of the economy with the new airport, with the route to Hyderabad and Puttaparti making it more important. The city is now made of many mini-cities and the populace can live in such self-contained cities. Yes, the traffic is horrendous, but how often does one go to Koramangala and Jayanagar? The friendly shirt store salesman told me the other day that New BEL Road is the new Brigade Road. And the weather...man, nothing to beat it. During our visit to Delhi last week the daily maximum was 36 in October, here it is 27 or so!