Is Delhi becoming more cosmopolitan?
By Edward Luce and Rahul Jacob
Published: April 30 2005 03:00 | Last updated: April 30 2005 03:00
Until recently the question of which city was better, Delhi or Bombay (now officially known as Mumbai), would have generated little debate among Indians. Bombay, with its multicultural vibrancy, its sea-facing Arabian art deco properties, the Bollywood film culture, and its ever-changing metropolitan tastes, had the clear edge.
Most people readily dismissed Delhi as a stifling abode of pompous civil servants, many of whom had little idea power had been transferred to the people when the British packed their bags in 1947.
The more prejudiced would add - sotto voce - that in addition New Delhi was basically a Punjabi city. Punjabis, according to widespread prejudice, are a loud, heavy-drinking and uncultured bunch, many of whom have no concept of queuing.
Such generalisations are grossly unfair (I have met several Punjabis who, when reminded, can queue in an orderly fashion). But the Delhi-detractors were hard to dissuade. And they were in a majority.
There are still plenty of Indians for whom Delhi remains a by-word for all that's wrong with India - the political corruption, and its culture of VIPs and VVIPs. But their protestations are growing fainter.
Quietly, but fairly rapidly, Delhi has spawned one of India's most vibrant private sectors over the past five to 10 years and now ranks quite comfortably as India's richest city. New Delhi, in other words, is no longer an exclusively public sector town.
The emergence of a new class of people for whom money is not something that necessarily has to be concealed or explained away has social - even cultural - ripple effects on a place. It inveigles new trends such as a meritocracy, private vehicles and young people with cash. The difference between a place that has young people with money and a place that doesn't is the difference, say, between London in the 1950s and London in the 1960s.
One of the more agreeable consequences is the mushrooming of restaurants in a city where if you wanted quality food you had to go to five-star hotels - and swallow all the antiseptic paraphernalia that goes with them - or be invited to dine in private homes.
For the growing class of Delhi-ites who have acquired a taste for non-Indian cuisine, there is a growing choice of genuinely good restaurants, particularly Italian. For example Diva, run by the irrepressible Ritu Dalmia, who learnt her cooking in Sicily.
In addition to her imaginative dishes, many of whose ingredients, such as the meats and the Italian herbs, are flown in, Ms Dalmia's wine menu is second to none. Most of Diva's fine wines are relatively affordable nowadays, since India's bureaucrats have been reluctantly lowering the country's Himalayan import tariffs on liquor.
A short stroll away in Delhi's Greater Kailash district - now a thriving area of central Delhi that was merely a staid suburban district just a few years ago - you can find Delhi's best Lebanese cuisine at Shalom, a restaurant as vibrant as any in Beirut. Or there is Olive, another Italian restaurant, set in a beautiful courtyard near the Qutab Minar, Delhi's gigantic Islamic minaret.
Compared with London, New York or Hong Kong, Delhi's choice is small. But it is growing quickly. And the absence of good cuisine is no longer an argument the traditionally better-caterered-to Bombayites can use against India's capital. In contrast, Delhi can point quite reasonably to a number of attributes that Bombay lacks, or where it is even in headlong decline. The most obvious is transport. Journey times in Bombay have doubled in the past few years in the absence of any serious effort to build new infrastructure. Many of Bombay's best restaurants are in the suburbs and involve up to 90 minutes' driving time (in most cases, there being no alternative).
In contrast, Delhi is about a fifth of the way towards building what should be the world's most modern underground railway network when it is completed in about a decade. Already about 30 stations and two lines are functioning.
In June, the Delhi underground will open its first junction, in Connaught Place, the shopping hub that was once considered the centre of New Delhi. Judging by the landscape work that is going on above ground, Connaught Place will soon reacquire the vibrancy and style it once possessed, although this time in post-modern guise.
Space is also a factor in Delhi's resurgence. Unlike Bombay, which is hemmed in on most sides by water, New Delhi can circumvent its equally stifling New York-style rent control laws by spreading outwards. The emergence in the past few years of the two satellite cities of Gurgaon, to the south, and Noida, to the east, has infused Delhi with an economic dynamism it had lacked. The Delhi underground will extend to both.
Many complain about the brash shopping mall culture that Gurgaon, in particular, has embraced. But it is hard to begrudge the emergence of India's first concentrated zone of service culture in a country where only the well-connected would get anything resembling service (and, Punjabi or not, get to jump the queue as well).
And why complain about Gurgaon when you have - on some counts - nine historic Delhis on your doorstep spanning among the most breathtaking historic architecture in the world?
Bombay contains probably India's best Gothic British-era architecture around the Maidan (park) and Victoria Terminus railway station in Colaba. But there are few parks, whether in Bombay or any other large metropolis, that could rival Delhi's Lodi Gardens, which combines a scattering of 15th-century tombs with an ordered and manicured arrangement of tropical flora.
Nor is there anywhere in Bombay that can match Humayun's Tomb, the grand 16th-century mausoleum of an early Mogul emperor (and which presaged the more dramatic 17th-century Taj Mahal), as a venue for concerts - usually Sufi music.
Of course, Delhi's galaxy of historic monuments is nothing new. But their appreciation is greatly enhanced by the fact that you can eat in a nice restaurant afterwards, and that you can book the table in a restaurant with a telephone that you purchased yesterday, and that you can drive there and back in a car you ordered only last week.
India's rule of haughty bureaucrats is gradually being challenged by a society with more diverse sources of advancement and avenues for wealth creation. Delhi, as India's capital, was the principal victim of the country's strangulating license Raj. As such, Delhi is the principal beneficiary of its steady demise.
As for Bombay, something happened when Hindu nationalists changed its name to Mumbai in the mid-90s. Since they changed nothing else, some people now call it Slumbai.
Edward Luce was the FT's south Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi between July 2001 and March 2005. He is writing a book on India.
Delhi, for all the architectural splendour of its Mughal and colonial buildings, is a city difficult to like. The problem for many visitors begins at the very beginning: at its shabby government-run airport as one arrives, usually in the middle of the night.
You make your way down ugly fluorescent-lit corridors that smell of a ubiquitous floor-cleaning disinfectant, which, like a good sauvignon blanc, has inescapable overtones of catâ€™s urine. If you have not had the foresight to book a car in advance and are not then whisked away by a liveried chauffeur, you find yourself at the mercy of Delhiâ€™s tireless touts as you exit immigration and customs.
The Lonely Planet guide has a two-page section entitled â€œDodgy Delhiâ€ devoted to warnings about the scams that taxi drivers regularly pull. Itâ€™s quite a conmanâ€™s compendium: â€œDriversâ€™ most effective and popular stories to get you to another hotel during the wee hours of the morning include the hotel being â€˜fullâ€™, â€˜burnt downâ€™ and â€˜closedâ€™. Two other scenarios may include Riots in Delhi Syndrome and Lost Driver Syndrome.â€
A colleague recently returned from the city wondering aloud if any of its taxi drivers knew their way round. A Brazilian friend tired so quickly of Delhiâ€™s touts that on his second day there he went to a travel agentâ€™s office and pointed hopefully to the city on the map of India that seemed furthest away - Trivandrum in Kerala. He flew out the next day and quickly fell in love with the country.
My problem with the city is with its definition of VIP. Very important person in Delhi invariably means some minor functionary of the government. Few capitals celebrate political power so consciously.
The plain white Ambassador cars are as ubiquitous as a nunâ€™s habit in a convent, but with quite the opposite intent: politicians and bureaucrats are driven round in them, often with flashing red lights and horns tooting away in already snarled traffic.
Delhi is the most imperial of cities. Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker purpose-built what is now the presidential palace and the north and south blocks, where the governmentâ€™s senior-most officials toil away, to impress the natives.
Even in the midst of the technology-led triumphalism that pervades New Delhi these days, I canâ€™t help looking up at those vast sandstone government buildings and see them as the ultimate Sisyphean boulder, a handicap that hundreds of millions of Indians are doomed to keep pushing ineffectually out of their way.
Bigger than Versailles, by some accounts, and completed in 1929, the presidential palace was built for British viceroys in a hybrid of Mughal and classical styles by 3,500 masons. Despite the fact that Indiaâ€™s president and prime minister are among the most well-intentioned of the political class anywhere, there is a fin de siecle, â€œlet them eat cakeâ€ quality that hangs over Lutyensâ€™s/License Raj Delhi still.
â€I refuse to talk about famine or drought or caste wars - or political disputes,â€ declares Bakul, the Indian diplomat on holiday in Delhi in Anita Desaiâ€™s masterly novel about the city, Clear Light of Day. â€œI refuse - I refuse to discuss such things. â€˜No commentâ€™ is the answer if I am asked. I choose to inform them (foreigners) only of the best, the finest.â€ â€œThe Taj Mahal?â€ asks Bim, his sister-in-law, sarcastically. â€œYes, exactly.â€
Plenty of Indiaâ€™s finest monuments are in Delhi, and that, together with its proximity to Rajasthan, explains why so many travellers begin their journey there. I couldnâ€™t put down this Times of India report in March on US secretary of state Condoleeza Riceâ€™s visit to a monument in Delhi. â€œThe mystique of Humayunâ€™s Tomb made her eyes misty . . . Condi felt the legacy of Delhi inside her.â€ (There remains something of the court circular about newspapers in New Delhi with their tittle-tattle about who is out of favour with Number 10 - Janpath in this case (home of Sonia Gandhi) - and who the latest dignitary on a state visit is.)
Delhi never moved me quite as much as it reputedly did â€œCondiâ€ but when I went to college there in the early 1980s I loved the city unreservedly because the legacies of the Turkish, Mughal and British empires were almost always around me.
Talk about a lesson in history: The bus ride from a friendâ€™s home on the outskirts of south Delhi to my college in old Delhi took me past the 12th-century Qutab Minar, past Lutyenâ€™s Delhi to the 17th-century Red Fort to 19th-century British Delhi and its quaintly named Civil Lines. In Delhi, tombs and monuments straddle intersections the way other cities have traffic lights.
On a recent trip, I returned to Old Delhi - and my old college - after a gap of more than two decades. Plenty went wrong in annoying and abrasive Delhi fashion; Bombay and Bangalore are both more gracious and more efficient cities.
If you are lucky enough to befriend a Delhite, his hospitality is legendary; bear hugs replace the handshakes. If you are a visitor, however, watch out for the sharpest of elbows.
For travellers, a booster shot of patience and good humour before you land is advised. The old line about people viewing socialism differently depending on which side of the counter you are on in Delhi is settled by everyone behaving as if they are firmly ensconced behind the counter.
My booking for a night at the Oberoi Maidens, a sprawling colonial hotel in old Delhi, was mysteriously cancelled. (I opted to stay with friends in a more convenient location instead.)
Then an officious caretaker at St James Church berated me for taking notes on the history of its restoration (prominently displayed) and insisted I leave the church. (She had a notice from the presbyter to prove her point, she said improbably, but it was hard to imagine this happening anywhere else.)
Happily, my college looked much the same but prettier, its gardens blushing at the fecundity of the Delhi spring. The history students appeared to be tackling the same questions I had wrestled with: â€œDiscuss the character of the May Fourth Movement. Why has it been considered a Chinese renaissance?â€ and â€œThe May Fourth Movement called into question the very basis of the Chinese state. Commentâ€.
But, the â€œcampus placementâ€ notice-board suggested that even in this seemingly timeless college quadrangle, change was on its way. When I studied in Delhi a couple of decades ago, the vast majority of students in my class were preparing for Confucian-style exams that would vault them into the government bureaucracy. This time, there were notices with candidates shortlisted by the consulting firm Ernst Young, a local ad agency and the Indian Express, a newspaper. If that notice board is a window into the future, fewer young Indians covet what Delhi has historically been all about: managing a department of rubber-stampers and securing a flashing red light on top of your car.