Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Am I Really Still In India?

Arriving into New Delhi, I was expecting the worst. Articles and fellow travelers portray Delhi as a congested, crowded, dishonest tout-filled city choked in a smog of pollution. However, the Delhi I find is modern, clean, and bustling - an ancient capital city on the brink of an urban revival.

As the host of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in October, New Delhi, is in a frenzy of infrastructure improvements. Many of the British era colonial buildings around Connaught Place are getting refurbished with a new coat of paint. I have not seen this many people sweeping the streets anywhere else in India, and shockingly, there are trash cans located conveniently all over the city! For the first time in weeks, while riding in an auto rickshaw around the city, I don't have to hold my breath. Thanks to a program to convert all auto rickshaws to run on compressed natural gas instead of diesel, the pollution associated with the Delhi of the last decade has largely disappeared!

The area around Old Delhi is still plagued with congestion around its narrow streets. But the many bazaars in that area surpasses all other bazaars and markets I have seen anywhere else in India, both in size and scale of their offerings. From spice markets to cotton alley, jewelery to stationery, the entire district is a kaleidescope of wares from all over India, crammed into narrow alleys reminiscent of Varanasi.

The Metro system in Delhi is by far the city's crown jewel. Superbly clean, modern and efficient, it could easily hold its ground against the some of the world's best like London's Tube and Singapore's MRT, making New York's subway look terribly third world! Not to mention, it is possibly also one of the cheapest metro rides in the world, and the automated machines wouldn't charge you more, just because you are a foreigner!

Walking along the Rajpath, with the President's residence on one end, and the India Gate on the other, one could easily mistake it for the Washington DC mall. With impeccably manicured gardens, wide boulevards, reflecting pools, and huge colonial government building, this is the capital that the British rulers of India's tumultuous past built.

Just like the rest of the city, the people of New Delhi is a clash of extremes. Coolies in Old Delhi carrying huge loads of commodities on their heads, while bankers in suits and ties are trading futures along Parliament Street. While the young and the hip are sipping coffee at countless coffee shops, and dancing the night away at clubs more befitting of Las Vegas, their parents are sipping chai and chatting with friends on the sidewalk.

New Delhi is a melting pot of everything uniquely Indian. Old and new; colonial and contemporary; punctuated with peaceful gardens and rowdy bazaars. You can find 30 Rupee thalis, and 30 Dollar entrées within blocks of each other. Like many places all over India, New Delhi is ready to be reborn. A rebirth that will make it one of the great modern cities of the world!


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