The Quiet Turnaround Of Delhi

Updated: Oct 26 2002, 05:30am hrs
Last week, while attending a superb jazz concert in the capital, an unexpected thought crossed my mind: I like Delhi. This thought struck me with the force of a revelation because I have spent the last decade actively hating the city of my birth, a city I once loved and admired and which ultimately, like many Delhi-ites, I felt deeply betrayed by. And now, sitting amid all these people happily drinking the music, Delhi signalled a new message: Notice me. When you werent looking, I changed.

There is such vitality in the city today, such abundance. The kind of buzz you once went to Mumbai for. The new in New Delhi is quite real: on every corner the best and brightest of the world are showing up. Opera, Japanese taiko drums, Lebanese food, French films, Picasso exhibitions, Italian fashion, Sufi meditations, Pilates classes. Should you want a charge of cultural electricity, you need but step outside your door and take a dip.

The city is proactively attending to its ulcers too: there are spanking new flyovers humming over once nightmarish traffic bottlenecks. There are more cybercafes than youd find in London and pretty good dial-up connectivity at home too. A metro is coming up in Delhis belly that could dramatically lighten the load of traffic on its surface. Mumbai has been upstaged on pretty much every count although, of course, comparing cities is as fruitless as comparing husbands. There are probably 10 million versions of Delhi. This ones mine.

The Delhi I grew up in was very pleasant. In its wide open avenues we could bike to a friends home without getting knocked down on the way. We could romance among breathtaking monuments without being mugged at gun point. If we had an accident, someone always stopped to help. True, the most exciting thing you could do as a young person in Delhi was watch the jumbo jets take off at the airport followed by paranthas at Moolchand. But the city was free and safe and unpolluted and very liveable.

And then in the late-80s, genteel Delhi began to cast dark shadows. Fear settled ominously in the air. On every corner, armed policemen appeared behind bunkers, looking out for terrorists. Everyone was a suspect. At traffic stop lights, we didnt dare look sideways: the guy in the next car could mean trouble. Schools raised their walls 20 ft high to lock the children in while deep communal hatreds turned neighbourhoods into tinder-boxes ready to explode. There were days you couldnt be sure of getting home alive.

And that wasnt all. Pollution was so bad, it was like smoking 40 cigarettes a day, according to a survey done some years ago. To survive in this corrupt and power-hungry city, it no longer mattered what you did. Only who you knew. If you didnt know the right people, you were nobody. Heaven forbid that you should need medical attention or school admissions or even a gas connection, you could be sure of not getting it. How could anyone love a city so monstrous

During that dark night of the soul, the only thought that crossed my mind was: Leave. Find a way to get out of this city. But I stayed on, as people often do with an abusive partner but with the heart lusting for someplace else. I dare say, the people who had come to hate Delhi were also the ones who had once loved it most.

Hate, like love, is blind. Whatever you focus on increases. The more I expressed my disappointments with Delhi, the more I impressed them on my brain, to the exclusion of everything else. I looked for and found: crime, ugliness, squalor, repeatedly broken promises. And everywhere, corrupt government officials one hand holding a danda, the other stretched out for a bribe. Things were as bad as they could get.

It has been said about alcoholics that hitting rock-bottom is very good... Because that is often when a U-turn begins.

I was so focused on how my once-cherished city had disappointed me, that I completely failed to notice how it had gone about reinventing itself, expressing a phenomenal will to survive. Some things are actually getting better. Lets see: my sister-in-law recently got her driving licence made in less than half-an-hour and without a tout. It was so smooth, shes still in shock. A friend had a minor accident and within minutes a police van showed up, helped and then left without a bribe (although I admit this may be an exception not a rule). The guy attending my phone complaint the other day was actually polite. Pollution has gone down remarkably, even during Diwali, thanks in large part to initiatives by schoolchildren. After waiting too long for government action, the people of Delhi are beginning to take ownership. Let sleeping politicians lie, they are saying. Let lying politicians sleep.

You have to remember what Delhi was like just a decade ago, to appreciate how far its come today. It would be, as writer Henry James once said about New Yorks Central Park, a failure of social morality not to pat the place on its back. If you want people to improve, its also important to catch them doing something right.

Delhi can no longer deliver what it once did: a clean quality of living, the pleasures of driving down wide open roads with your windows rolled down and a happy song on your lips. That Delhi has gone. The grand statement is dead. It is in the smaller gestures that the city is redeeming itself in its cultural zeitgeist, its remarkable entrepreneurial spirit spilling out of street corners and a definite improvement in customer-service attitudes everywhere.

And yet, who can argue that even with these improvements, the underbelly gets uglier everyday. Delhi offers every possible form of vice: disease, filth, stinking poverty, crime, despair. How do you reconcile the differences That you could go to see the finest in world cinema here but get mugged while walking back to your car in the parking lot.

Perhaps the answer is that you cant reconcile the differences. You can hold up, instead, a wide angle lens to see the full picture. Both, Delhis incredible zest for life. As well as its suicidal desperation. Even as we drove back from an evening of fine music, we saw a well-dressed young man step onto a crowded road and lie down in the middle of the roaring traffic, wanting to be crushed to death.

The disease in this city goes deep indeed. But wellness isnt the absence of disease. Its the presence of healing.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life. She can be contacted at