Does this Make me a Delhiite? How I Integrated with My Host Community

Lajpat Nagar is a mixed-use neighbourhood that houses one of Delhi’s oldest markets. Established in the 1950s, refugees from newly formed Pakistan built a small settlement on the outskirts of the city. The Central Market has all the elements common to vibrant, public spaces.

Moving to a new city always presents challenges. Especially when that city is located in a different country. Identifying social norms, operating with limited language skills, navigating in uncertain situations… these are part and parcel of travel. Yet, for those of us with a high cultural drive, encountering and working through cultural differences is often among the most rewarding parts. With each new piece of information we refine the map of our host communities, and maybe even begin to integrate at some point. The process isn’t always glamorous, though. Sometimes it feels a little like this:

Does this make me a Delhiite? A story of how I integrated with my host community.

[Adapted from Let’s Chaat, Stories from the Fellowship]

The chemist didn’t have the exact medicine my doctor prescribed, so he recommended an alternative. I popped what I assumed was an antibiotic and set out for my day. After a month at my host organization, there was zero chance a minor infection could postpone my trip to Lajpat Nagar Central Market. I needed clothes. I needed to help my friend find suitable attire for a wedding. And as a former urban planner interested the elements of vibrant public spaces, a visit to this particular market was overdue.

Lajpat Nagar is a mixed-use neighbourhood that houses one of Delhi’s oldest markets. Established in the 1950s, refugees from newly formed Pakistan built a small settlement on the outskirts of the city. [1] The Government granted 15 ft x 60 ft plots to members of the new community, with the buildings constructed in single-story rows like army barracks. [2] Today the neighbourhood includes residential colonies and various commercial areas. Its beloved Central Market is known for reasonably-priced garments, jewellery, and eateries. The area is still characterized by long, thin shops; many barely wide enough for two people to manoeuvre but deep enough to take you to another time zone. This construction style has been extended to subsequent stories, the result being shops comprised of multi-level switchbacks. I imagined such a place could be the authentic, naturally-occurring basis for the festival malls we try to create in the US.

When we reach the market, elements common among popular public places are immediately apparent: a continuous edge of shops that one can browse; private spaces to duck into from time to time; a mix of retail and food options; stores that serve as destinations as well as businesses trading in fast-moving consumer goods. It is indeed vibrant. The crowd is so dense that to stand still we have to fight against the current. Hawkers sell refrigerator covers, reusable shopping bags, nail polish. Stylish men and women move amongst the shops, stopping to make conversation. Street corn and fried everythings scent the air. Dogs sniff at discards, and each other, searching out something fragrant. Colored sand and flowers- vestiges of rangoli- scatter slowly, destined to merge with the dust passing underfoot. It’s a fantastic public space. The market is a pinwheel- a kaleidoscope of society. I feel dizzied, in a good way, but also a little nauseous, when my friend pulls me into the gown store.

The air conditioning provides some relief. I feel better as we manoeuvre through the long, thin halls, each level representing a different quality of garment. When we reach the 4th and final floor, women sit on tufted stools, exquisite gowns being presented to them one by one. Mostly future brides shopping for nuptial attire, mostly silent, like the store.  As my friend waits to be attended, we browse the racks. Another wave of nausea passes through me. I excuse myself to a less crowded area, in search of a seat, or a washroom. None prove available so I arrange myself on a platform near a quiet rack, waiting for the feeling to pass. From across the room I can see my friend being served. The occasional shopper visits the rack near which I have posted myself, eyeing my face as it changes colour.

A lifetime passes and my friend has tried on several gowns now. She examines herself in the mirror and calls for my opinion on a designer lehenga. I try, but a million hand-sewn beads reflect my green complexion. If I don’t leave now I am going to vomit in the company of countless brides and their unspoiled visions of an important day. I have no choice but to make a run for it.

Hands over mouth I begin the dash. Through floor four, past the designer gowns and stately ladies. Round the switchback, through floor three, and its off-the-rack but once in a lifetime dresses.  Switch back through floor two, for the wedding party. Now floor one, past the cashier and time-pass area for dads. Finally I make it to the exit.

The dense air hits me hard. The market is still thick with people. My head is swimming. I cannot see straight. No dustbin is in sight. Then, in the distance, it appears: an overflowing garbage pile. I reach the drop location just in time. Relief comes. And comes. And comes. Until I hear it: “Kya kar rehee ho?! Kya kar rehee ho?!” A woman stands up from behind the trash pile. Pointing, still yelling in Hindi, she looks ready to take my head. For a moment, things clear and I understand. This is not a dustbin; it is a bin of scraps collected by a kabadiwala for resale purposes. I have puked on a day’s labour.

Humiliated, ashamed at my ignorance, I grab the little money that is in my pocket, thrust it tearfully at the woman, beg forgiveness, and run.  Nausea and cramps seize me. Still without a garbage bin, my only option is to locate a quieter corner to do my bidding. Huddled on the ground, I can feel a million side eyes, bystanders watching as they engage in conversation. In the moments between vomiting, I notice a half-eaten husk of corn in my peripherals; a dirty diaper nose-adjacent and a discarded pinwheel within reach. A dog approaches, looks at me, and does his business too. The kabadiwala emerges and places me in her bin. I am broken, but like the rangoli, I have merged with the marketplace. And what a great marketplace I am.

[1] Rajput, Abhinav and Lidhoo, Prerna.  Refugee colonies changed South Delhi’s face. Hindustan Times. 13, August, 2013.

[2] Delhi Information. Lajpat Nagar. Retrieved 29, May, 2020.

Dominique is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs in Gurugram, Haryana. For her Fellowship project, she is studying the national indicators for aspirational districts, identifying possible investment areas for corporate social responsibility, and creating a framework for corporate engagement. Dominique graduated with a Bachelor’s in political science in 2013 and a Master’s in community development and planning in 2015. With focuses in comparative politics and economic development, she went on to serve six years as a regional community development planner. As a principal planner with the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission, she built and managed a program to shepherd communities through state initiatives, coordinated comprehensive planning efforts, and led a variety of community engagement and economic development initiatives. In this role, she also served as a municipal circuit rider, staffing town planning and economic development offices. Prior to her career in regional planning, Dominique worked in the private sector and completed government internships at the local, federal, and quasi-governmental levels. Her mission is to build pathways out of poverty using economic growth as a vehicle for social and economic opportunity. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Dominique will be working on corporate social responsibility projects. She is excited to develop a broad knowledge of India’s development ecosystem, gain new tools and perspectives in community development, and contribute to initiatives serving under-resourced areas and populations.

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