December 24, 2010

Sex in the Metro: Delhi

I liked Delhi better the first time.  It included: the smell of smoke and feces, hordes of taxi drivers, overwhelm bordering on panic, a liquidy jetlagged dreamstate, a constant desire to grip my money belt.  The taxi barely dodged cows, lepers, and dogs.  Looking up, new shapes of leaves under outlandish city lights.  Just above, a fingernail moon dangled in the dark, the only familiar image in an orange night sky.  I stared for awhile, finding my bearings in the elegant sliver.

Seven years later, cool night air meets me off the plane.  I note the familiar scent of burning dung and walk down the new, clean hallway, carpeted with plush blue.  Soon I’m in a cavernous room surrounded by luggage belts spewing suitcases.  I marvel at murals overhead: paintings of Gandhi, Nehru, Gautama Buddha smile in beatitude above, hued in reds and yellows.  The airport has become a non-place, Marc Augé’s term for the in-between spaces of train stations, hotels, super markets.  I feel confused in a way that India never offered before; Delhi’s airport was like nowhere else in the world.  Now, if not for the pervasive smoke-white air, I could have been in San Francisco.

I think I liked it better for its distinct flavors, its predictable unpredictability: I never knew what details to expect, but I knew they would be bizarre, whimsical, strong.  Delhi was everything but non-place, and I was willing to breathe the smog and bear the piercing motor horns in order to be in a place that never felt dull, common, or without history or theme.  Now, with it’s new-fangled airport and metro system, Delhi’s consistent, obnoxious places seem in danger of drowning in a sea of technology and international gleam.  I worry that this kind of modernization values characterless efficiency over the city’s colorful, chaotic, difficult, and oh-so-Indian spaces.

The city now includes mega-malls and motivated entrepreneurs quickly moving up the economic ladder in their suits and ties.  Delhi is making a concerted “greening” effort; the metro is one important part of this endeavor.  With more cars than Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai combined, Delhi badly needs new forms of public transportation.  I’m not asking for a polluted, economically stunted, or technologically stagnant backwater.  But I come here because I love how India is different—its ashrams butting up against fruit stalls, the sadhus in the streets, the feeling that you are in a Place, with centuries of stories around every corner.  When they dug the metro tunnels, how many of these corners crumbled into piles of rubbish?  How many families were displaced, whose generations had grown up on the same plot of land?  With these innovations, I don’t want Delhi to become too antiseptic, too straight.  The nondescript metro stations elicit both elation at the city’s environmental values, but also foreboding.  Is Indian culture offering itself as a willing and unwilling sacrifice to efficiency?

Clearly, the metro system exemplifies this contradictory progress, bringing modern convenience but also perhaps offering non-place space.  Are its branching bowels, deep beneath the city, filling this most Indian metropolis with spaces that could be found in any big city in the world?  Some Delhi inhabitants may like the idea of a non-space, a clean and quiet respite from the street dust and noise.  According to cultural anthropologist and metro expert Rashmi Sadana, the pre-metro Delhi lacked easily mappable neighborhoods and systematic road routes.  Now, metro stations are “augmenting Delhi’s language of urban expansion comprised of phases, parks, sectors, pockets, apartments, camps, vihars, nagars, settlements, flats, enclaves, and extensions…the metro is…the city’s master plan, as it demands further densification along its lines.  In some cases, the city is being built up and around the metro lines.” So the metro may indeed be defining and describing Place in Delhi in ways heretofore unimagined.

The metro not only carves out new lines in Delhi’s history; it is also drawing the attention of cities around the world.  Built on time, under budget, and without the ubiquitous corruption companion to so many similar projects, the metro attemps to make Delhi a “world-class” city.  According to V.S. Naipaul, metro riders are behaving themselves and following the rules, conserving the clean and composed metro atmosphere.  But the metro still holds authentic Indian flare: one sign in an end terminal prohibits people from bringing dried blood, human corpses, animal carcasses, any part of the human skeleton, or manure on the train.  So maybe Delhi can be clean and still be Delhi.  Maybe 21st a century metro is just adding another spice to the curry.

Sadana argues that Delhi’s metro is not a non-space.  She tells stories of men sitting cross-legged on the floor chatting, and young boys doing pull-ups on the bars overhead.  With the addition of women-only cars, Delhi females now find themselves free to travel independently around the city without husband or chauffeur.  Relatively low fares allow social classes to mix in the hollow trains snaking through the city.  Instead of dulling Delhi’s remarkable public spaces, it’s possible the metro adds to them.

My second day in Delhi I took a trip out to the Tibetan Colony.  Thirty-five kilometers and an hour away by tuk-tuk, it can be easily reached by metro.  At the Haus Khaz station  escalators descended, as if the opening was drinking their metal strips.  Marble tiles.  Dusty footprints.  Signs proclaimed: “No Spitting” in Hindi and English.  Once inside the terminal, I noted the clean floors and walls.  But the room held only lingering passengers; no hurrying businessmen or trains stirred the air.  Instead, closed gates and nobody behind the ticket desk glass.  I asked a woman.  She said, “Train broken.”  Indecipherable announcements informed us of the delays.  I entered the heat once again to bribe a tuk tuk driver.  Rushing through tree-lined streets filled with exhaust, idling in bumper-to-butt traffic, and speeding over new highway overpasses, I realized that Delhi’s modernizing efforts could never steal its placeness.  In fact, Delhi’s places depend on exactly this kind of contradiction; it’s history is built on outside influences rubbing up against the stalwart, spiritual, enduring, sundry, and quixotic Indian character.  Maybe that mural in the airport really isn’t so bad after all.  In time, this will also become yet another corner story in the Delhi panoply.

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