Indians feel a profound ambivalence about their capital city. Its broad avenues, late-colonial architecture, and general air of well-ordered self-importance goes well with popular notions of what the nation’s seat of government should be like. But there’s also another stereotype—that Delhi typifies an India that has lost its soul, with its “black money,” five-star hotels, and shopping malls, a place where tradition, culture, and history have given way to the flyover [overpass] and the fast-food counter.
But so what if Delhi is, as the intelligentsia claim, a parvenu city? It was recreated by those who had lost everything in the bitter and bloody Partition of 1947—men and women of the Punjab, uprooted Sikhs and Hindus, rejects of history who had to carve out their own futures. They worked and struggled and sweated to make it. They were unencumbered by the baggage of the past, for the past had betrayed them. They succeeded; and as a result of their efforts, they created the first truly post-colonial Indian city.
So families that had trudged across the frontier as refugees today drive shining Daewoos; people whose parents had lost their houses now sip imported wine in fancy restaurants. But instead of applauding them, educated Indians sneer at their crass materialism, lamenting the transformation of a Delhi that was once a byword for elegant poetry, Mughal manners, and courtly civilization.
Old Delhi may indeed have had its attractions, but it was also a moribund place steeped in decay and disease, ossified in communal and caste divisions, exploitative and unjust. Today’s New Delhi—not the musty bureaucratic edifices of government, but the throbbing thriving agglomeration of factories and TV studios, industrial fairgrounds and software consultancies, night clubs and restaurants—is a city that reflects the vigor and vitality of those who have made it. It is far and away India’s richest city; it provides and reflects a stimulus, unfamiliar to the Indian intelligentsia, of enterprise and risk-taking; its people are open and outward-looking. They may have forgotten their history but they remember their politics. They may not know why but they know how.
New Delhi has enshrined performance and effectiveness as more important measures of human worth than family name or pedigree. If, in the process, it has also placed a premium on vulgar ostentation rather than discreet opulence, so be it. The new rich could not have run the old clubs, so they built the new hotels and restaurants. The “five-star culture,” for all its vulgarity, is more authentically Indian than the club culture it has supplanted, a musty relic of proto-colonial dress codes and insipid English menus.
In its urban openness and economic energy Delhi reminds me, in fact, of the bustling coastal ports of a bygone era. With the advent of jet travel, you don’t need port cities as your principal contacts with the outside world: the “coast” can move inland. New Delhi is India’s contemporary equivalent—bustling, heterodox, anti-ritual, prosperous. For all its inadequacies, it is a symbol of a country on the move, the urban flagship of a better tomorrow. It is leading India into the 21st century, even at the price of forgetting all that happened in the other 20.
United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, SHASHI THAROOR is the author of nine books, including India: From Midnight to the Millennium. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, and many other publications.
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