By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Delhi was still the smallish, palimpsest city the British handed over to independent India when I first lived here. I fell in love with the whole of it: the convoluted lanes of old Delhi; the impressive remnants of earlier civilizations; the garden-like beauty of the area now called Lutyen’s Delhi for the architect who designed an add-on to replace Calcutta as capital of the Raj; the Jumna River, lovely at dawn, but even then blackened by sewage; the purple-blossomed jacaranda trees at the height of the hot season; the intoxicating coolness of the first rains of monsoon. I read history. I studied Hindi. I bicycled everywhere.
Coming back, again and again, over the years, I saw Delhi change, old bungalows razed, skyscrapers shooting up, residential colonies proliferating, slums ditto, especially on the other side of the river, traffic clogging the roads and spewing plumes of exhaust that mixed with cook fire soot to create a smog that made breathing suicidal. Seeing Delhi evolve, I saw mostly loss and mourned. Like most people who fall in love, I’d wanted nothing to change. I drifted through Delhi like a maiden in a Moghul miniature yearning for an unretrievable lover.
But cities are like people. The richly experienced don’t want to be sixteen again. As for cities, without change they stagnate or die. At best, they become quaint tourist traps. A city that’s confident and full of vitality, however, can preserve a generous taste of history while building boldly for the future. This, by and large, is what Delhi is doing, I think, and the ever-expanding Metro system makes the contemporary version work, despite the everlasting nuisance of the construction process.
Metro Makes a Difference
The river’s still a disgrace. Slums continue to grow. Too much farmland has sprouted satellite towns with soaring buildings or sprawling residential colonies for the moderately or outrageously better off. The sky seldom yields the least hint of blue, but the worst has been reversed: the air is much cleaner, which is good for everyone’s health. Buses run on natural gas. Cars, trucks and auto rickshaws no longer spew inky exhaust. And the declaredly green Metro system keeps tens of thousands of vehicles off the streets. I did a quick count of the motorcycles and cars parked at one line’s terminus: nearly a thousand two-wheelers and about eighty sedans. In fact, something like eighteen Metro stations are served by parking lots where space fills as soon as it empties. Metro may be scorned by the upper classes and it’s irrelevant to the poorest of the poor, but it’s a great boon to the exploding, upwardly mobile lower-middle and middle-middle classes presumed to be transforming India.
My Metro Plan
Visiting Delhi this time, I hoped to let my time-eroded city-of-the-past go. If I couldn’t warmly embrace the new one, I might at least depart with sympathy for Delhi’s latest avatar. Metro, burrowing underground at the center, surfacing at the periphery, would serve as my updated Garuda. My plan was this: at the end of each of the many-colored lines ̶ red, blue, yellow, violet, etc., I’d disembark and survey the outer edges of the city; zipping along underground, I’d play sociologist, learning what I could of and from my fellow passengers. And there’d be this advantage, too: it’s the height of the hot season (over 43 C. equals over 110 F.) and Metro is delightfully cool.
What’s instantly clear is how Metro knits this vast urbanization (some 20 million and growing) into a single city. (Well, sort of, as I note in concluding.) Meanwhile, most everything’s accessible quickly and quite affordably, especially for commuting workers or students with a monthly pass. And after you’ve climbed a hundred steps or ridden the occasional escalator (elevators always available) to the superheated surface, you’ll find an armada of auto rickshaws to take you the last mile. You might find some old fashioned taxis, too, but one of the huge changes in Delhi is the shrinkage in the fleet of yellow-roofed Ambassadors trolling the streets for passengers. The taxi driver who transported me and my luggage from airport to hotel was bitter. Metro’s destroying his business, he grumbled. Often, these past few days, I’ve wished I could avert incipient heat exhaustion and reduce general sweatiness by hailing a taxi and asking the cabbie to turn on the AC. There’s another lost pleasure for those with rupees enough for real taxis. By cab you can feast your eyes on the vistas and tree-lined streets of New Delhi. You may also get caught in the all-day gridlock of Old Delhi.
Old and New Juxtoposed
But emerging into the sunlight via Metro provides some amazing collage-like moments. My favorite so far was the vision of an elegant red sandstone tower thrusting up through the greenery shortly after we’d surfaced on the yellow line heading to the mushrooming city of Gurgaon. It was the 236 foot tall Qtub Minar, dating to the 13th century, when a Muslim ruler caused it to be built of stone pillaged from a much earlier Hindu temple, some of which also survives. Different, but equally dramatic: the 108 foot polychrome of the monkey god Hanuman that looms over the Karol Bagh station.
Talk about the palimpsest process! In Delhi the past is always poking through. Via surviving buildings and ruins. Via design motifs. Via music and all else that goes into culture. Compare the busy composition of ancient reliefs showing dancers and drummers with the frantic choreography of Hindi film, for example. Only the most obtuse observer concludes that the past is dead in this city. And beyond the tangibles of history stand the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, supposedly sited hereabouts, whose themes continue to capture the popular imagination.
The Technical Details
So the Japanese picked a winner in the 1990s, when they underwrote a $6.2 billion project with a 60% loan. Statistics for phases I and II, now complete, are as follows: trackage of 128 kilometers; 35 underground stations, one the second deepest in the world; 142 stations in all; fleet of 280 trains, each carrying 2290 passengers, 240 seated, but often packing in hundreds more, or so my own crushed-in experience suggests; train frequency about every five-six minutes; wonderfully clear signage. Technologically, the Delhi Metro planners borrowed globally to build a “world class,” earthquake-proof facility that currently serves 2.2 million riders daily and makes a profit, which means the loan is being repaid.
Up-to-dateness means a lot of things. You can recharge your cell phone while a Metro train is underway ̶ if you aren’t talking or texting, as so many people do, flabby-waisted matrons with bulging handbags on their laps as well as school boys weighed down by book-filled backpacks. During one trip I found myself near a little family, the wife seated, the man standing over her, ear buds implanted, listening to music, I suppose. A toddler shuttled between them, whining. Daddy picked up the child, planted one bud in his child’s ear and presto! a smile of delight and little hands beating time to the music. Contemporary fatherhood on Metro.
There are other signs of the times, too. This is a dangerous world, and entering the very busy Rajiv Chawk station I passed by a guard balancing his machine gun on a low wall of sand bags. In addition, at every station my carry-ons were xrayed while I was wanded by a female officer in khaki. Re security, Metro also offers this protection from more conventional threats: no high speed capsules to be trapped in. Cars connect all but seamlessly. A single corridor runs continuously from train’s head to train’s tail.
Metro trains and stations are reputed to be wholly safe for women travelling alone. (The same can’t be said for all exit neighborhoods late at night. Delhi dailies highlight the horror stories.) What’s more, although women may and do ride in any car, a whole car on every train is for women only. Normally I distance myself from gender segregation, but ladies’ cars (with boarding points designated by ̶ ugh! ̶ pink signs) tend to be less cram-jammed. Bye-bye principles. Hello comfort.
Still, brutal as the crush in the rest of the train may get, young or even middle-aged men are usually quick to cede a seat to pregnant women and or to frail old men. Once, for that matter, a very chivalrous, very ancient gentleman rose to give his seat to this younger, but far from girlish strap-hanger. No way could I accept his seat, but his gallantry shamed a paunchy young man into getting to his feet. That seat I happily occupied.
Other, more innovative points of etiquette have evolved on Metro. For instance, it may seem that no seats are available, but a row of seated women will scootch together to make room for a couple of female standees. What does this tell you about women’s instinct to make the world a better place for everyone?
Meanwhile, what’s the younger generation coming to, fashion-wise, according to my Metro survey? Pierced noses are out: no diamonds flashing above a nostril. Bindhis on the forehead are out, too. No red dots. No sparkly pasties. And tight jeans are in for the college crowd. Tops run the gamut from tees to smocks, none of which need to cover the arms or tush anymore, though cleavage is clearly not in. School girls are more likely to wear the traditional salwar-kamiz. But their tunics don’t billow. They skim the body, and baggy trousers have been replaced by Nehru-style churidars or tights. And not black tights either. Red tights. Neon pink tights. Cyan and emerald green tights. The influence of Bollywood, perhaps? As for the long scarves/dopattas that used to be worn with a kamiz, forget it. Hair-covering and breast-draping are out, except for the occasional village woman on some errand in the city for which she's likely to have dolled herself up in a sequined sari no city girl would be caught dead in. In so far as the village belle is entering an alien world, the glitter might be seen as battle dress. Good for her.
During all these miles I’ve covered on Metro, I’ve encountered only one woman in an old fashioned black burqa, but even she was not fully conforming. For safety’s sake, or to see the world around her, she’d thrown up the face flap. And then there was the slender girl wearing jeans and a nicely shaped shirt, a combination which (to my Western eyes) looked great on her beautiful body, although she'd also looped a scruffy scarf incongruously around her neck. The purpose of the scarf emerged as she left the train. She swirled it rapidly over head and hair so only her eyes were visible. Would the neighborhood mullahs be satisfied? Not likely.
Male attire on Metro is pretty boring: jeans for the young, creased trousers for the rest, usually paired with a drip-dry shirt, the uniform of the not-so-affluent white collar worker in the summer. Each trip I'd see a few men who looked to be skilled workers in rumpled, well worn pants and faded shirts or jersies, and once a group of three farmers climbed aboard at an outlying station. Dressed in dhoties instead of trousers, long kurtas and towel-like head-wraps, they spoke in the loud, nasal voices characteristic of the country side. Did they leave their oxen in the parking lot when they boarded Metro?
I’m not being snide here. I’ve reached the crux of the matter. Metro is very impressive technologically. It’s obviously very popular, too, with office workers, with tradition-scorning students and solid-looking middle-class women. But here’s my question: although Metro is theoretically accessible to people in poorer colonies and/or slums on either side of the river and even to some fairly rural areas, most riders seem to be doing all right economically. Maybe the poor and those doing low- or no-skilled work consider themselves well-served by buses and commuter trains. But wouldn't they also flock to speedy, air-conditioned metro, if the fare were more affordable? On the other hand, fare-lowering and class-mixing (especially during crush hours) might not please the current clientele and would surely hurt the apparently in-the-black bottom line.
Mass transit is a necessity in a megacity world. But how to do it right? Indian railroads were built on a not-exactly-dead class system, as airline fares prove. Pay more. Travel very comfortably. Pay less and be grateful to get where you need to go. Metro appears to be democratic. Everyone pays the same. But some people are being left out.
Which means my long romanticized Delhi of the past and today’s Delhi aren’t so different. Much to appreciate. Much to mull over.