Delhi Steps Towards the Future

Nothing embodies the way India is modernising like the Delhi Metro. Opened in 2002, the system’s clean, marble floored stations and smooth, linked-carriage trains rival those of the most developed cities across the road.

The network has changed city life. Destinations that once took hours to get to on the traffic clogged roads can now be reached in just a few minutes. Parts of the sprawling city that you’d once never consider visiting are suddenly easy to discover.

For some the metro has offered even more radical changes. A lady in a bright sari stands at the base of the metro escalator. She peers forwards at the moving steps with a look of terror on her face, shuffling slowly towards them then backing away. She is confronting the modern world perhaps for the first time. She reaches out with her foot towards the step, but then changes her mind and backs away to the stairs. She will remain traditional a little while longer.

While Hong Kong’s rush into the future means sweeping away much of the past, in Delhi something different is happening. The city is becoming stretched between the very modern and the still thriving traditional cultures.

Stepping out of one of the polished modern metro stations, you suddenly are suddenly plunged back into a very old world again. Rickshaw drivers line up to collect passengers. A group of ragged cows still shuffle around in the dust. Venerated in Hinduism, these cows are looked after and allowed to roam free through the city. It’s possible to imagine they will still be shuffling around here in another hundred years, when sleek skyscrapers pierce the sky and hover cars buzz between them.

This captures that dilemma of development. Everything suggests these cows should be cleared away to make way for the new – that it is absurd to still have them stumbling through the city, leaving droppings on pavements, forcing cars to swerve on four lane highways. But it also feels tragic to get rid of something that has existed for so long, that holds so many memories and traditions.

Nowhere is the old, traditional Delhi more present than at around the tomb of the Islamic Saint Nizamuddin. The area’s bustle of people and dense tradition led the Indian writer Anita Desai to use it as the catalyst which changes the central character in her wonderful short story “Royalty”. The area is always crowded. Beggars line the shade beside the road, hobbling on old wooden crutches with lame legs dragging or sat smothered in layers of dusty clothes.

Flowing past them are scores of Muslims, distinguished by their long gowns, their tight white skullcaps, their wiry beards, and the shawls slung up over women’s faces. Some live in the area and come to pray daily, others are from further away and have made a pilgrimage to this holy site. Religion – that latent force in all of India – hangs even more heavily in the air here, mingling in with the rich smells from the food stalls.

Going into the ornate tomb, you can listen to the Sufi singers’ rhythmic voices sending out a flowing, passionate chant to God. You can watch the crowds who push in around Nizamuddin’s glowing burial chamber, stroking or kissing the smooth marble stone. This is all driven by such devout belief, a following that has swelled over hundreds of years. Watching the people, you feel that religion for them is not just something practices but an intrinsic part of everyday life.

You have to search hard now to find this kind of spirituality in Hong Kong. Occasionally you might glimpse it — in the smell of incense wafting out of the Man Mo temple perhaps, or seeing people burning paper money outside their shop. But these are rare experiences. The bustle is still here in places like Graham Street, and Flower Market Road, but these are increasingly under threat.

What replaces them doesn’t feel like a replacement at all. The plans for the redevelopment of Soho promise lots of glossy shops, carefully crafted benches and lights, plants here and there and smiling people swimming between them. Sound familiar? In all but roof, this will be another shopping mall.

It’s a phenomenon that needs a new verb — the increasing “mallisation” of our urban spaces. The relocated Murray House, the old fire station in Tsim Sha Tsui, and many other locations have already fallen prey to this process. In Hong Kong, the questions of how to grow richer and more modern all seem to be easily answered this way. Is India going to move in the same direction as it develops?

Nizamuddin’s Tomb is in the southern part of Delhi. If you keep driving past it, a new highway sweeps you up over the crowded suburbs and towards the newly urbanized, flashy district of Guargon. Here you can head to malls which out-sheen and out-price those of Hong Kong.

The Versace shop in one recently launched its new range with an elaborate offering of champagne and canapés. The company focuses on accessories in India, because their clothes show a little too much skin for more traditional religious tastes. But polished leather handbags, made from those same sacred cows, are still very much on the list.

Delhi’s young fashionistas flock to this launch. This is new India, recently armed with a massive amount of money to spend, negotiating a new path between suddenly achievable dreams and the traditions which have existed for a long time.

If they want, it would be easy to leave the dust and the traditions behind. To get rid of the cows in the street and forget about the rickshaw wallas. Like the woman in the metro station, all they have to do is step forwards.

Nicholas Olczak is a journalist and writer living in Hong Kong.

This entry was written by Nicholas Olczak , posted on Friday February 26 2010at 08:02 am , filed under Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture, South Asia and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Delhi Steps Towards the Future”

  • This is a wonderfully written piece. “Is India going to go in the same direction as Hong Kong?” is obviously the central question, and I’m glad you don’t necessarily make assumptions about the answer. Still, while the metaphor is salient, I don’t tend to think that there’s necessarily a this old/new dichotomy between Delhi’s streamlined metro and its chaotic streets. Cowherds and religiosity are vital building blocks of modern India, and the juxtaposition between them and the mallscapes of Gurgaon may only really seem contradictory to outsiders.

    It might be the case that India defies the traditional, deterministic model of development propounded by economists since the 1950s. Other places certainly have. There hasn’t been much of a decline in religiosity in Saudi Arabia, for all its wealth. Even the cows may stay on the streets indefinitely; authorities have never been able to eradicate the dog packs that roam even the most “modern” neighborhoods of Istanbul. Locality has more power to assimilate modernity than is typically assumed.