Sense and Impressions

Delhi leaves me feeling overwhelmed, excited, anxious, curious, frustrated, and often, not very bright. Impressions come quickly, and are disabused just as fast. I have no idea which, if any, will hold up over time, but I’m fine with this. I’d rather not try to make sense of Delhi after just a few weeks here than force understanding on to a megacity. At the same time, I don’t want to go too long without writing something about living here and let my thoughts, even the ones that inevitably won’t hold up, slip away.

I may have no real sense of this place, but I can still talk about my senses in Delhi; for better or for worse, the city leaves heavy marks on all of them. These impressions don’t add up to coherence—they’re just some of the many things, good and bad, that strike me in my new home.

Sight: In the day, people and cars, stalls and rickshaws layer and push up against one another, spilling down streets and through alleys; near my work, in an industrial zone, tool and hardware stores occupy any available space with different combinations of every piece of equipment under the sun, shops breaking down into boxes breaking into individual components like fractals. In the night, sudden clusters of bright lights in the darkness illuminate popular markets and neighborhoods like islands in an archipelago.

Colors, even under a coat of dust, are vivid. There’s something breathtaking about a large, coarse woven bag spilling its contents of bright orange marigolds into the street outside a temple, or seeing those same flowers in garlands or strewn on the steps of a roadside shrine. It’s as disconcerting to see them being offered up from a begging woman’s hands in quiet appeal.

Sound: The language of business is English, the language of the day to day is Hindi, and the language of the road is Honking. The cacophony is a constant and horrible companion to getting around. On balance, the tradeoff between not being hit by an approaching vehicle and getting an unexpected deafening blast in your ear is probably worth it. Still, I have a hard time feeling this way, especially when a motorbike drones its evil, high-pitched horn down the block.

Escaping the chaos often means going up. On the roof of a small hotel in posh Greater Kailash, listening to a Rajasthani band under dim lights, I feel far removed from the tumult. Musicians trade parts with hand gestures or a nod of the head as the melody dances between instruments and heads peek over neighboring roofs to take in the scene.

Taste: Within minutes of my house there’s a universe of delicious foods–fresh fried and slowly deflating bhattura for soaking up chole, sweet chicory spiced chai, or spicy garlic chicken noodles and Nepalese momos, two welcomed Indian appropriations of Chinese cuisine. Mangoes taste better here than anywhere else I know, especially in a milkshake at the tail end of the season, right before they disappear.

Scent: The smell of cooking food fills the space around the street stalls, whether from kabobs grilling on open flames at the local halal place, or frying pakoras and baking naan in all their abundant varieties. These smells are more respite than anything else in a city where growth has so far outpaced development, and are quickly overtaken by the all too familiar thick smell of exposed sewage or the stereotypical subway scent on long stretches of open wall, the byproduct of the penchant here for public urination. Wherever I go, there is always exhaust, the underlying miasma to accompany everything else.

Touch: It’s wonderful to pick up a cold bottle of water after finding refuge from the heat, or to find the same feeling holding a freshly made shake from the local juice stall. This time of year, the sun touches everything from late morning to early evening, making it foolhardy to be outside and disabusing me from my habit of walking everywhere in a new city. As an alternative to walking, riding the metro is an exercise in intimacy and a lesson in the art of violently yet politely jostling for a space. While unpleasant, I’ll gladly take it over the brief but even more intimate brush to the back from a pickpocket in Old Delhi.

Again, it’s too early to say anything definite about living here, except that there are good days and bad days. Still, I’m glad to be here, excited to experience more, and looking forward to the possibility of, someday, maybe, getting a handle on this place.

Before receiving the Fellowship, Eliel worked for three years in the U.S. House of Representatives. His experiences in Congressional offices representing different districts in New York State gave him an opportunity to apply his academic background in political science and public policy to promoting jobs and economic development in his home state. At the same time, he learned about representing and furthering local priorities at the national level. In addition to his time in Congress, Eliel has worked with domestic and internationally focused non-profits advocating for human rights, social justice, and economic development, and received his Masters in Public Policy with a focus in international development from the University of Maryland.

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2 thoughts on “Sense and Impressions

  1. Eliel
    I remember reading an article on Calcutta , my birth city, which started with ‘ Calcutta assaults the senses”. Actually all cities in India , why , all places in India do that. You cannot use any one of your five senses without being acutely aware of the other four butting in. Perhaps that’s one way of living life to the full.
    Enjoy Delhi

  2. Eliel, I was swept back to my time in India as I read this entry. I remember writing in my journal that my first taste of India was a feast for the senses. Overwhelming? Yes, definitely. And also somehow in touch with the very pulse-beat of life, something on the edge and essential. There is something there that, once tasted, is never forgotten. I wish you a stay there that is rich in experience and that you will treasure always.


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