I arrived in Delhi road worn and exhausted. The same way everyone arrives in Delhi. It doesn’t seem fair, subjecting oneself to a city like this in anything but the best of conditions, but when travelling from Seattle halfway across the world, I didn’t get much of a choice. I remember taxiing the runway and looking out through my safe little window at cracked asphalt and a decaying tower on the tarmac. What kind of place, I wondered, lets their airport get so rundown, so chipped and broken? This was my first time outside North America. I had no true concept of poverty, of sickness. No true idea just how coddled and privileged I was.
I’d been told, shortly before leaving, that coming into India is like hitting a wall of humidity, then hitting a wall of humanity. Instead, the airport was relatively quiet, the air similar to what I’d experienced living in South Carolina. What stood out was the trio of guards milling around the terminal exit, each equipped with ostentatious semi-automatic rifles. It seemed unnecessary, and particularly strange given that there were so few of them. Three only, for the whole arrival area. I bought a sim card at the airport, a process which involved making multiple phone calls to my Couchsurfing host, getting vouchsafed by this man I’d never met. It’s a funny thing: to get an Indian phone number, you have to first have an Indian phone number.
I never once made a phone call, the entire five months I was there.
Finally, I got into my taxi and headed toward the Freedom Fighter Enclave in Saket, New Delhi, roughly a half hour drive. I was slated to stay ten nights in an apartment there, but as we rolled through the streets I could feel tension and sadness blossoming between my shoulder blades and deep in my gut. The landscape was cracked concrete and gasoline fumes, barefoot starving women and beautiful doomed children, buildings that looked as if they’d been abandoned mid-build, and others abandoned mid-demolition. Advertisements for Coca-Cola featured shiny, whitewashed Indian women while the people taking shade under the plastic probably hadn’t had clean drinking water that day–or that week.
Everywhere I looked, my heart broke a little more. By the same time the following day I’d paid at least four times what it should have cost to hire a driver to get me out of Delhi and on to my next destination, Rishikesh, UK.
Since that time, I have met a handful of people who swear Delhi is an amazing city. I’ve met just as many, if not more, who can only shake their head when the city is mentioned. On my way out of India I gave it another chance. I went into the streets with my heart open, ready to let the city give me a piece of the beauty I’d heard stories about.
In many ways, she delivered. I strolled through the dark, deserted byways with a man from Nepal who may or may not have had very dubious intentions. An adventure, to be sure, which ended with the police insisting we hire a tuk-tuk back to my hotel. I was gifted with an armful of henna from a street artist who by all accounts should have overcharged this flush American girl. I ate thali in a Dhaba surrounded by working class men and bought three of the tastiest samosas I’ve ever had for a little over three cents apiece.
Delhi. The anger of her people bubbles over the streets. The hopelessness, the daily tragedies, and the desperation casts a shadow over her concrete and tarps. When a squeaky clean high-rise hotel sits nestles against a slum full of aching children and grieving mothers it’s hard, very hard, not to be appalled.
But, like all of India I encountered, there are gems amongst the rubble. Genuine sparks of generosity, curiosity and intrigue that help take the darker edge, even if only a very little bit. The city intrigues me, like a moody ex-boyfriend. I want to know what lies behind her scowling face, to taste more of the treasures she hides in her pockets. For now I have a scarf, which used to belong to the mother of a Nepalese boy named Truth. A reminder that one day I will return.
Written by Sarah Hirsh, edited by Bethany Naylor
To read another article about India, read The Aram Bowl Effect