Why I chose to live in Delhi and how I fell in love with it

Pia Kahol
Pia KaholJun 02, 2015 | 17:16

Why I chose to live in Delhi and how I fell in love with it

In an article in the New York Times ("Holding your Breath in India", May 29, 2015), American expat Gardiner Harris slammed the living conditions in Delhi, blaming it for his children’s poor health and citing that as a cause for his return to the US. I am on the other side of this boat. I lived in the US for 11 years and left it in 2011. However, unlike Harris, my husband and I have never criticised the US and blamed it for my return to India. Instead, we have said to people 1) We wanted to serve our country and not be voiceless immigrants or 2) The US is a great country but we did not want to overstay our welcome.


But between you and I (and my husband), let us just be honest for once. I do not deny several of the charges the author made about the foul smell, the sewage, dirty water and air. Within six months of our return from the US, we moved into an upcoming neighbourhood in south west Delhi. Our apartment is part of a tiny gated compound that is surrounded with working class chawls (match box units) that are meant for the poor labourers who work day and night in the nearby area of Udyog Vihar.

As I learnt more about this neighbourhood and Delhi at large, I was horrified by the conditions of living of these poor migrants who form the majority of the labourer class. Nobody with a sane mind can walk through the narrow streets adjoining my apartment without being nauseated. I am saddened and enraged by the state in which young children play semi-naked in plain sight of what looked like human excrement. There are very few schools around and no parks whatsoever. This neighbourhood bemoans the years of neglect and poor urban planning in Delhi.

I was even more horrified when I saw eight and nine-year-olds sitting on a patch of grass in front of the apartment building our builder has rebuilt on what was formerly a dumpyard. They were smelling something through a potato chips bag and giggling. When I enquired from our guard he said it was a "chalk". Perplexed, I asked, "what is chalk?" and the guard smiled, and said, "Madam, it’s a drug". On that patch of grass, I have seen young children of garbage workers playing while their parents sort out the refuse from the garbage dump next to the path. I have seen children naked and immersed in agricultural canal right behind it playing in the waste water that comes out of the water treatment plant opposite the nala (sewage canal). I have seen teenage boys dead drunk and lying wasted muddied by that dirty water.


I often imagine myself in the London of the 1800s with grimy kids and stinky neighbourhood and I dreamily think of Delhi in future where even a grimy working class neighbourhood like mine will turn into a prized possession just because it is in Delhi. When I see a kid selling something on the road blackened with soot, secretly I call him Oliver and I have named a little girl from the slums, Jane. I am well aware that I live in a Dickensian world of poor orphans, working girls, and decrepit quarters. This Delhi is my Delhi as much as that London was Dickens'.

You will understand by now how I feel for Delhi. I feel for this city. I bemoan its conditions. I crave for a better Delhi. For millions of Dilliwalas, this is our home, our city, our pride, and perhaps our embarrassment. Delhi has an indisputable heritage and its roots couldn’t be more cosmopolitan. Modern day Delhi offers wonderful and serene hang outs like Hauz Khas village, Lodhi garden, India garden, Humayun's tomb, Meherchand market, Lutyens' Delhi. Dilliwalas also know and love the nuances of various pockets of subcultures that thrive in the city’s individual neighbourhoods.


Personally, I love its theatres, parks, and architectural wealth. Just the other day, during my morning walk in Sanjay Van in the Qutub institutional area, I spotted thousands of butterflies flitting from leaf-to-leaf, resting on the trees and shrubs of various shades of green. Within this same park, there is a small Dargah with a well that has a record of 800 years of Eid celebrations. It is believed that whoever drinks water from it will be cured of all diseases. But I love the sight of the "pir", a really old spiritual man dressed in white, praying in this jungle. Everytime I cross this spot, I feel transported to a different era. My joy reached its peak the other day when suddenly three nilgais (antelopes) sprang out of nowhere and crossed my jogging path. I stood still, stunned by their beauty and spontaneity, and felt I was in a magical land far far away.

It is this very love for our history and our land that urges Dilliwalas to take a flight of imagination and recreate the era of wealth and prosperity through our monuments and old bazaars. For example, in old Delhi we imagine clear waters flowing by the Chandni Chowk, rich mehfils with exquisite food and wine, women and men dressed in fineries, roomy havelis smelling of rose water. A kind of atmosphere recreated in Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. Then we hear the screams of men and women being dragged out in tatters, and the British army occupying the remains of haveli. When I walk through old Delhi, I fervently pray that someday it is restored as a heritage area, replete with cafes, wine bars, art galleries, writers retreat. May be it will have art walks, like those in the US, where areas are closed off for common traffic and people can have a drink, hang around, and buy trinkets.

Dilliwalas want all of this and more. They are also very harsh on the administrations that do not deliver. In the country with a Modi wave, Delhi residents gave a thumping majority to the liberal Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a mandate against corruption and negligence in their city. Earlier, they booted the Sheila Dixit-led Congress government for mishandling the Commonwealth Games. Thus, Dilliwalas certainly have their heart in the right place and are longing for their city to be clean, green, and corruption-free. I am optimistic that day will arrive. Because I also know Dilliwalas are not to be taken lightly in the passion for their city. We are united in the fact that the crown of Delhi shall only be given to those that give this city her due.

I envy Harris’ sense of entitlement he displayed unabashedly in his article. He feels so right in criticising and trivialising Delhi’s rich heritage based on its apparent deformities. This right is an extreme privilege of the Western expats. During my 11 years in the US, I didn’t meet a single immigrant who criticised the living conditions in that country. Even during the aftermath of 9/11 when almost all of us faced racism. (Instead, if someone shouted "Go back Paki", we would come back home and sweep it under the rug). Post 9/11, I recall a Muslim friend driving his wheelchair in a hurry to inform his other roommates that they were being evicted. A Pakistani friend named Farhad, who had already got a job offer from Intel, was jailed instead for some discrepancy in his papers. All Muslim students had to go downtown to get registered as part of anti-terror measures of the government. Amidst all of this, I overheard an American classmate of mine announcing "F*ck them. I want oil" as Bush announced the Iraq invasion.

There were several things that disillusioned me about the world’s greatest country. And there were some that made me very realistic about my place in it as I worked and studied. I was a poor student. I worked hard to stay on the Dean's list as I lived on a single burrito (79c) a day diet. In that small amount I saved from my student on-campus work salary, several dollars went to capital one (for an account I thought I had paid off), and to the administration of match box off-campus housing apartments that always claimed damages no matter what. But most importantly, I remember a conversation with an international student officer (ISO) whom I met with a great hope that I would finally get a scholarship for my last year of bachelors and relieve my parents from the burden of paying exorbitant school fees. Instead, the officer pulled out my application file, circled my parents name in it, and asked me point blank "Are they dead?" Numbed, I said, "No, they are not". I was suspicious of what she was getting at but too afraid to retort, "how dare you?" Then, she proceeded to tell me that I cannot get a scholarship. She said they only have scholarships for students whose parents have died. I must thank her, though, because she went even a step further in her honesty. She said, "You see, we offer graduate students scholarship because they have their brains to offer us (as she tapped her temple with her index finger). You, as an undergraduate, offer us nothing."

I survived. I passed. I enjoyed my education. My husband became a tenure track faculty in the university: a feat in the current culture of ad hoc lecturers and post-docs. We soon achieved the American dream of owning a house in the suburb, cars, and a Gucci purse. We joined hundreds of immigrants who have left their country to make a fortune as an immigrant. But the American dream is a mirage. We sat on our crate and barrel sofa, wearing our Burberry scarf, sipping on French wine in our William Sonoma glasses, and wondered why we felt so empty? Inwardly, we craved for our country. We could not stomach the idea of bringing up our children in the rampant gun culture. We could not accept that no matter what, our children would always be secondary citizens of that country. We wondered why we would do this to ourselves and our children when we come from one of the world’s finest cities: Delhi.

Besides, we craved India’s food. We missed the smell of our flowers and taste of its fruits. We dreamt of vegetable and fruits of India while quietly shopping for genetically-modified food in the supermarkets. (Frankly I would not be able to tell between American cauliflower and eggplant if you put a gun to my head – they all taste the same!) Quietly, we gulped down the salmonella outrages in the baby spinach and didn’t even sigh when we heard that canned meat or beans had rats, bugs, and faecal matter nicely packaged by a leading company. Dissatisfied from coke with corn sugar we would drive through ghetto-like Mexican neighbourhoods in search of the Mexican coke with real sugar. We never showed our disgust when surrounded by inordinate amount of meat (that looked quite gross at times). We never called the country poor when a young girl would come up to us with a kid in arms asking for a few dollars, tears in her eyes. We sat quietly in our car as a mad man rushed to us outside jack-in-the-box once. We never complained when we were fleeced by the stall owner at a local fair (that red Clifford dog was not worth $100). We quietly paid up when on our way back from New Year’s block party the rickshaw guy asked for some random, big amount. We never said to our nation and to the world, America is not a place worth living. Instead we felt sympathetic. We stopped seeing Americans as other people. We felt solidarity with them in the human condition.

Instead of criticising, we did what other immigrants do. We kept up the facade of the developed world. During dinners when our American hosts would want us to be thankful for being in the land of milk and honey, we said our thanks. When they talked about elephants and monkeys and magic carpets, we gave sheepish smiles. We sent pictures back home, of the tourist spots or rich cars and fancy neighbourhoods (mostly white). Somehow as immigrants from a Third World nation, we are obligated to not give the impression of hardships in America, of which there are plenty. That would be, we felt, breaking of a dream so many Indians back home hold. It would be ungrateful to our parents who went through so many hardships to give us a good education and send us to the land of plenty. We suffered in silence. (Thankfully, none of these burdens beset our American friend who can complain loudly and proudly why he left India.)

One of my most distinct memories of the US is when I was walking through the main streets of Baltimore, where I had gone for a conference. The main city is apocalyptic, with deserted streets, homeless drug-addled people and the security personnel here and there that add to the ghastliness. There, right outside a McDonalds' shop, I saw a man peering through the shop window. As I entered into the shop, he looked at me. All I remember is his hungry, haunted eyes. He was like a wild animal confused and hunted. I thought I had seen Molloy as I recalled the great words of Samuel Beckett: "To him who has nothing it is forbidden not to relish filth."

There are so many pitiful sights in America. In the ghetto in my neighbourhood, hordes of African-American children lived in squalid conditions, with raging pitbulls and no parks. They would often trip down to the basketball court in front of the house and ring our bell during Halloween. They too had hunger in their eyes.

But I didn’t write about any of this or talk about any of this to anybody. At least till now. I haven’t talked about the crazy Christian lunatics who often came up to say Jesus will soon come and save India. They too expected me to be grateful. I have not talked about the kid who stayed in the apartment below mine with his mother and just sat there still with his head bent as his mother sat next to him chain smoking in their small garden. I haven’t talked about the old man who would come out in the night to pee on the road in front of my house. I never mentioned the mysterious clothes I would find strewn around on my daily morning walks with my dog. But I would imagine a tall man walking naked, rambling, and scratching himself all through the night. At school, I never mentioned the fear I felt when a student of mine told me he had 21 guns all for himself and one of them was in his backpack. The school was just reeling under the news of a suicide of student who had killed himself in a professor’s office. That walk, with that student, from the classroom to my office, was one of the most excruciating walks I have ever taken.

I never told anyone of the little dog who secretly lived in an abandoned house. I tried to feed her once and she yelped and ran for life. I have never felt so bad for being human as I did that day after seeing the distrust in her eyes for a human hand. She probably has been euthanised by now by the city. That day, I realised, clean streets come at a great price. A price I paid myself when my dog passed away suffering from swamp cancer. I remember her last lick as she took her favourite pink doll into her surgery (I will refrain from citing the costs of the treatment as that would be very degrading to her memory and our love for her). Later doctors told us as that a spore had entered into her system through water (was it the pool at the dog park, or that still lake or small canal near our house?) she was a Labrador and one of her favourite pastimes was to swim. We would drive for almost two hours to take her to a dog park with a pool. Little did we know that her love for water will kill her. Even before her surgery, she was constantly sick from the pet food our veterinarian had passionately advised to feed her with. Human food, she told us, is bad for dogs. I still blame myself for blindly believing in her. Both my husband and I believe the American system killed her. It brainwashed two PhDs into believing things that couldn’t possibly be true. She is one of the main reasons we came to India. We felt it will be irresponsible for us to put any more of our children through this polluted atmosphere. Who knows where the cancer lurks next?

I will not claim India is better than America. But I think it is unwise to say that America is better than India. I never said any of these things because such comparisons ring false in the modern world and sound presumptuous. I have never really criticised an American politely listening to their criticisms of our political system or living conditions or food, as a sign of respect. First, I respect that they are our guests. And when I was a guest in their country, I did not feel it was my place to point out to them their struggles unless I could actually contribute to the solution. For example, my husband and I know very well about the poor health care system in America. People in the US, among them a friend’s mother, have had to mortgage their houses to pay their hospital bills. In contrast, we also sat among doctors who discussed after how many more operations they would buy their next porsche. To anyone who would like to believe the American medical system is in the pink of health, I can assure you that America is no place to get sick.

Unfortunately people do get unwell, in India, in the US, in this world. Human beings today have obviously made great concessions to sustain the consumerism of which the US had led the way. Americans, not unlike the Indians, have a great struggle ahead towards equality and healthy living. They live in ethically ambiguous conditions like the rest of the world today. The fact is our world right now is in anguish from rapacious choices that humanity has made. People, children among them, are suffering everywhere with cancer and AIDS and other diseases. Our world is a contaminated place, more apparently in some places than others. America, of all the nations, should identify with India’s struggle for a conscientious growth.

I ask you, the expats and people from the so-called developed world, must you not identify with us in our struggles? Do we deserve to be condemned for them even while I strive for solutions? The least you can do is extend to us your sympathies as we extend to you ours. Are these divisions between the East and the West still valid? Are they not coming in the way of a better future that children of all nationalities deserve? Do children in India not have the same rights as those in America? Does not our desire for a better city and a better world resonate with you at all? Are we not part of the same world? Will our children, then, find justification in our escapism, selfishness, and one-sidedness? Should this disparaging blame game not stop at least when it comes to health and living conditions?

In the first year that we returned from the US, we spread the ashes of Alyosha, our dog, in the crystalline water of the Ganga in the foothills of Himalayas. It was still dark and there was a cold drizzle in those early hours of a winter morning. As we sat on the banks of the holy river saying good bye to our first child, the water slowly turned slightly white for a few seconds in the light of the morning sun. I felt our dog, our daughter, our angel, who was a white Labrador, was finally free of her suffering. That she was happy joining the world in its elements. Soon after that we got pregnant with our son. We have named him Mir, after Mir Taqi Mir, Delhi’s great poet. Alyosha’s portrait hangs in our living room and she oversees the happiness of our big brood of four cats, and a beagle, along with our son. We are happy that Mir is a Delhi boy. If, most likely disheartened by the well-oiled myth of the great West, Mir ever asks us why we didn’t have him in the US, we have a very simple answer. It is because we wanted him to have Delhi. Delhi is her guardian angel as he grows into becoming a responsible citizen of the world.

Last updated: August 25, 2015 | 15:22
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