I thought I knew Delhi. Not that I would have ever claimed Delhiite status. But on its aesthetic and rhythm and culture, I thought I had a sharp grasp. What I had experienced here during my six-month exchange at Jawaharlal Nehru University is a large part of what drew me back this time. There I had marvelled at the diversity of a campus that brings students from all over India—not to mention Central Asia, Europe, North America, and East Asia. I had celebrated a political spectrum that felt more expansive than the American Democrat-Republican binary. I had listened to lectures that flowed with the richness of story-telling, equal parts poetry and prose.
My return to Delhi seven weeks ago came with a certain naïveté; the two years away from life here had collapsed JNU and Delhi into one, in the way that distance and time often simplify memories. While I knew that not everyone in this city of 20 million people was a Marxist jhaula-wala—the stereotype of a JNU student—I somehow expected that the texture of this experience in Delhi would feel the same as it did last time.
Instead, just about everything is different. A hustled metro commute has replaced my leisurely walks to class (with frequent chai breaks). Cosmopolitan south Delhi lounges have replaced the Narmada hostel rooftop as my evening hangout spot. Instead of engaging with the finer points of South Asian religion and philosophy behind a classroom desk, my work on affordable housing forces me to face the hard realities of modern Indian society—a growing gap between rich and poor, an oaf-like public sector, and status-conscious materialism. The gentleness of the JNU dhabas I once frequented has been supplanted by the daily aggression that is, in truth, rule more than exception in this city.
The Delhi I move in now is much more complicated. It’s harder. The instant community that JNU provided is no longer a safety net. The global idiom of campus life—that allowed an easy adaptation from an American university to an Indian one—is now in my past.
It was only a week ago that I began to see the potential in this less romantic Delhi experience. JNU is but one part of a dense, multilayered city. It may be a subculture that I look to with fondness, but there are so many other spaces, communities, and histories packed into this teeming city. All of them have something to teach me. If I treat Delhi as my classroom—sailing out from the safe harbor of the JNU campus—then each of its cracks, corners, and characters can become a teacher over this 10-month journey.