Monday, June 27, 2011

India First Impressions

India overwhelms a visitor upon arrival. First impressions are important and India's is sensory overload. The smells of sweat and sweet incense are strong. The feel of humidity hangs in the air and on your skin. The taste of spices are pungent and fried snacks are pleasing, but the many warnings of Delhi-belly convince us to start out this adventure by ordering "mild" off the menu and always sticking to bottled water. The sights are a stimulating mix of colors and smiles and misery and life lived in the open. And everywhere there are people, people, people.

The USIEF staff arranged for us to be picked up at the airport by a driver in a (thankfully) air conditioned minivan to take us to a bed & breakfast that is covered for the first week.  Driving from the airport, I began to see a different India from that I visited 20 years ago. Huge construction projects are everywhere. Our driver told us that near the airport there were projects including a new mall and hotels and office complexes. Only about half the workers we saw balancing on the high walls or guiding cranes to drop beams in place were wearing hard hats. Hugging the construction sites are tent cities where men urinate in the open, women cook on fires and diaperless children with natty hair wander among the squalor. I recalled Shekar Narasimhan, a mortgage banker and real estate developer ( with whom I met in McLean, Virginia last week, telling me that whole villages would come to work on a construction site and may get stolen away by another site for a few rupees more in pay. His Indian construction company has higher standards of both safety and housing conditions for their workers and so retain them longer. Although motivated by being more humane, he said this makes economic sense for his companies too.

Pradeep, the husband of the proprietor of Vandana's B&B Guesthouse ( where we are staying this first week, who owns a tile company, explained the increasing labor costs in Delhi by saying, "The states have done more economic development, so people no longer have to come to Delhi to find a job." He lamented, "It's harder for Delhi businesses now." I wondered if that slowing of urbanization might actually be a boon for the rural areas and, ultimately, a positive factor in a country where the vast majority of the over 1 billion people still live in villages. However, with a population of approximately 20 million (no one really knows) in the greater metropolitan area of Delhi, this place is definitely a world-class megalopolis.

The traffic is an example of chaos theory in action. Motorcycles weave through narrow spaces in the slow moving lanes, some piled high with families, a husband driving with a toddler perched in front of him, an adolescent behind him and a wife hanging on to the back. Auto-rickshaws or tuk-tuks, the open-sided three-wheelers that often have four or more people squeezed in the backseat - which my family has already done - are even more reckless as they use their horns for an essential accessory. Cars and buses and trucks all barrel down the street knowing that in any game of chicken with pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles or tuk-tuks, they will come out the winners.

The first night after our 15 hour flight from Chicago over the north pole to New Delhi was a restless one for us all. We were all awake by 4 a.m. and I told our daughters that we would take a walk at 6 o'clock in the neighborhood of Safdarjung Enclave, hoping the "guard" was out front by then to let us out of the gate.  He was and, as we set out, it started to sprinkle. Three minutes later, it was pouring. By the time we sprinted back through small streams to the B&B, were we all soaked. "Welcome to the Indian monsoon," I told my family. Later in the day, we bought umbrellas.

The rain is both baptismic blessing and burden. While it washes clean this dirty city and cools down the stifling heat, it also adds to the muddy mess of streets and moldy mildew that quickly weathers the buildings. And as it rains I think, if only they could capture all this water and strategically share it across this parched land. Later, I will learn more about the conflicts around water use. But the many paradoxes of India begin with us being wet and hot, delighted and exhausted, energized and overwhelmed.  

1 comment:

  1. Reading Shantaram, so am kind of projecting what you are experiencing, in terms of your surroundings.