It’s been two months since I moved here, and Delhi is still to me a city that is indescribable to a frustrating extent. Any word you use to describe it will be equally as accurate as a completely opposite descriptor. Its people are as gentle as they are aggressive, its culture as textured as it is superficial and plastic, and its food as authentic as it is watered down and “continental”. Multiple moves throughout my life, between cities as varied as Washington, Sydney, San Francisco, and Bangalore, had made me a confident re-settler, able to find and redefine myself as the location required. Delhi, however, has tested this assurance and challenged me to ask questions about myself that I thought I had progressed beyond. In a city that is essentially questioning its own identity, it’s difficult to know where Delhi’s confusion ends and yours begins.
Like many other Indian cities, the inequality within its boundaries is stark. The usual dichotomies of newly cosmopolitan India, sparkling BMWs navigating sewage filled streets while flanked by homeless beggars, are as applicable here as they are in other metros. What makes Delhi different is the persistence with which the inequality is masked. The poor are pushed out to the borders of the city or “resettled” on less valuable hinterland. The maintenance of central Delhi’s beautiful lawns and the grandeur of its parliamentary offices don’t even hint at the conditions on its peripheries, where the majority of its people live. The effect of this is that Delhi doesn’t feel so much like a city as separate universes: a universe of the diplomats, a universe of the businessmen, a universe of social workers, and a universe of the poor. Every city has its rich and its poor, its elite and its workers, but in no city previously have I seen such a determination to stay in your universe and pretend the others either don’t exist or don’t warrant attention.
This has had an interesting impact on my social and professional interactions. The merits of being “well-rounded” seem almost irrelevant here, since each universe I enter is so specialized that after twenty minutes I find myself out-politic’d, out-fashion’d, or out-NGO’d in conversations. The city has forced the creation of caricatures, and so never before have I found myself defending capitalism so strongly in the “hippie” circles, nor so staunchly supporting NGOs and philanthropy amongst the corporate club. Trying to keep centered and to maintain a moderate point of view, whilst defending the poles in the face of critique, has resulted in my questioning my own beliefs in a way that I haven’t been forced to since…probably high school. What do I actually stand for, and what do I simply defend because I feel like I should? Because one Sanjana wants to save the world, while the other Sanjana really wants to buy that absurdly expensive block of cheese she misses so badly, she ends up defending both extremes? It wasn’t so hard to combine the two desires in my previous life, but Delhi seems to want me to make up my mind between them, and fast.
Clearly, I’m not going to be able to pick between cheese and charity just yet. And perhaps I’ll never be able to. But thankfully, like every other universe, Delhi has made some space for those of us who are simply between universes. And those are the spaces that I’m discovering: finding places in Delhi to escape from Delhi. It takes extra determination to find, and a willingness to go alone, but it’s in this game of hide and seek that I’m hoping to piece together a city I understand and a philosophy that feels like mine again. Puzzles were never my thing, but sometimes you have to get back to the basics.