Posts Tagged ‘city’

That’s right, Delhi—I’m here again. Didja miss me?

Well, he was mooning about Delli, that highly pestilential place, possibly in search of some undiscovered facts  —Joseph Conrad [h/t Charne]

My visa arrived on Wednesday. By Sunday I was in the air. The babies cried in relays, the food was terrible, and I was fiendishly sleep-deprived after a characteristic London nightbus snafu. Throw in a red colour scheme and I feared things could get a bit Alec Baldwin (or, god forbid, Gérard Depardieu). Fortunately Virgin Atlantic has mastered the art of distraction, and I am a sucker. Proudly clutching a swish bilingual menu, unusably dwarfish toothbrush, and foxy airhostess, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

Indira Gandhi International Airport was just as I’d left it—like someone else’s low-res dream of a 1980s soft furnishings store. Anticlimactically the first shop to greet you is WH Smith. At least the irritating tourist quotient is only 1% of Heathrow’s vast semi-permanent population of milling zombies. It did feel alarmingly like coming home. ‘O frabjous day!’ I cried joyously at an alarmed taxi driver (always hit the decrepit pre-pay stall on the left before the exit, kids). My Hindi was as rusty as my feel for comical similes. ‘In Delhi I was living, and now I back come is!’

The traditional moist overshare

Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.  —George Carlin

It’s a lucky 13℃ cooler than when I left. Chronicling my involuntary bodily secretions was the highlight of older posts, though, and I can happily report that I’ve discovered a whole new species of sweat. Back in the heady ’40ºs, you’ll recall I spent most of the time lying semi-naked in a gently steaming heap of misanthropy. Delhi was brown and disgruntled.

This time it’s the clammy tail-end of the monsoon, and the city feels entirely different. Everywhere there are erotically dark sticky pools and thronging people and eruptions of green. Without warning the bloodshot sky has psychotic breaks and frantically pisses on everything. It feels almost obscenely fertile—you could, as Ondaatje writes, ‘spit on the ground and a bush would leap up’. The Victorians must have had panic attacks.

Weirdly, I feel fantastically cheerful in the humidity—I keep finding myself emailing people saying, ‘I feel like an Amazon or a horse! I taste salty! My arms are glowing like Serena Williams!!!’ Unsettling. Most likely I’ve got dengue fever.

I’ve even renovated that all-important pillar of Dilliwallahood: a phone. The SIM card form makes all sorts of irrational demands for proof of address and other bureaucratic extravagances. Unless, of course, you make it clear you’re topping up a princely foreigner sum. As a bonus, I have all these extra passport photos—which the thoughtful young man even took it upon himself to Photoshop for me, just like the Border Agency enjoys.

By Jove, it’s good to be back.

Burn before reading

You played hard to get at first, but I won’t deny I found myself weirdly attracted to you.  —Past Me

Incidentally, the observant amongst you might have been wondering why the previous post falsely claimed to be the summer’s ‘penultimate entry’. Fear not, ElectricMasalettes: this was no blunder in the blog’s characteristically pungent English. There did exist an Ultimate Entry, the glorious Platonic überpost of which Nuremberg was a mere shadow.

Romantic snapshot I planned to send Delhi

The U.E. was a break-up note to Delhi, scribbled and erased and rescribbled over a dozen heat-crazed moments at the End of Days, on yellow Post-Its that disintegrated with sweat and smeared ink up my twitching forearms and forehead. There were phrases like ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ and ‘We both need therapy’. It had kisses on the end. I may even have called Delhi a cougar. (In an early draft, it may have been ‘big boy’. Oh god.) With the 5am airport taxi honking below, sleepless and full of wild blurry joy and the last drams of Feckless Brother’s whisky, I was finally about to whack it up online.

About four minutes before I clicked Publish—hey, my mind wasn’t exactly working like Speedy Gonzales by this point—I thought: It is extremely odd behaviour to write a break-up note to a city.

I scratched myself and fell over an overweight suitcase.

Then—brain crinkling with the effort—I thought: Perhaps your.   Mind.     Has finally.

. .   .   Bro k e n.

I sweated a bit more, fell indecisively over the suitcase again, and into the taxi. Some things ought to remain between me and D-Town.

Nuremberg

Posted: June 25, 2012 in Delhi life
Tags: , , , , ,

And so for my penultimate entry. It’s been a narcissistic blast, dearest of Readers, but on Thursday I must return to Blighty—itself incidentally a name bastardised via the Indian army from the Urdu vilayati (foreign). Lest you subscribe to the idiotic Niall Ferguson view that the Brits were a nobly philanthropic bunch of give-give-give imperialist pig-dogs, other words we’ve shamelessly nicked from the subcontinent include shampoo, jungle, cheroots, dungarees, bandana, verandah, bungalow, toddy, curry, punch, mandarin, juggernaut, cummerbund, mongoose, catamaran, yoga, pundit, polo, avatar, chit, loot, thug, dinghy, doolally, coolie, pariah, orange, cot, typhoon, atoll, and nirvana. As James Nicoll says,

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

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Remember that next time you put on your cashmere pyjamas emblazoned with khaki swastikas. (And to answer a question I’ve been asked several times—no, the Jubilee was not met here with shrieking crowds and fireworks, surprisingly enough. The British High Commission, though, did tastefully deck out an elephant in Union Jacks, part of celebrations that it rather surreally claims ‘explain why Britain is such a creative, open, connected and dynamic country to live, work and visit’. As creative as Gary Barlow, as open as Prince Philip’s urinary tract, connected to the globalised world by a flotilla of rowing boats.)

Ahem, where was I? Ah, yes.

‘India’s Nuremberg’: Lutyens’ Delhi and its lovable tyrants
The vast, eerily empty left ventricle of Delhi was once the glorious heart of Imperial Delhi. ‘In its monstrous, almost megalomaniac scale, in its perfect symmetry and arrogant presumption’, the donnish William Dalrymple sees an ‘echo of something Fascist’. Or, as Georges Clemenceau put it more hearteningly in the 1920s, ‘They will make magnificent ruins.’
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Above the great Secretariat buildings, Lutyens’ inscription still, er, stands:

LIBERTY WILL NOT DESCEND TO A PEOPLE;
A PEOPLE MUST RAISE THEMSELVES TO LIBERTY;
IT IS A BLESSING WHICH MUST BE EARNED BEFORE IT CAN BE ENJOYED.

This inaccessible, authoritarian ‘lifeless void, this corrupting vacuum’ is now the beating heart of independent India’s democracy. And it’s where I trekked today to interview a very friendly, implausibly chiselled, and frighteningly powerful young bureaucrat.

Shastri Bhavan, home to the coal, oil and mines ministries alongside law, culture, and women’s development, sprawls—but not in Lutyens’ elegantly autocratic style. Instead, it’s more reminiscent of the giant blocky pisspots of Bucharest (a recent holiday destination) and other Soviet concretocracies. Outside, rows of flabby white Ambassador cars loll next to kebab stands and flabby brown soldiers.
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Inside is structured chaos. Piles of people clamour for a chit permitting entry, as a woman in the corner stamps blank documents with religious fervour. Pass acquired, the ministries jumble upon one another, a maze of brown walls, half-broken lifts, grey rooms bursting with dusty files, shuffing peons, and the faint pervasive smell of the gents’. The office itself was pristine. I perused an accommodating New Scientist while the bureaucrat deftly dealt with two complainants in a mixture of Hindi and English, fielded three more phone calls, and offered tea. They might be high-handed, but some of these guys are bloody impressive—and they have impeccable manners.

This part of town (or round the corner in the district named after the ‘Indian Machiavelli’, Chanakya—sample quotation: ‘A woman is four times as shy, six times as brave and eight time as libidinous as a man’) was also where last night—feeling like a nine-year-old betrayed by Gareth Southgate all over again—I watched England bellyflop out of Euro 2012. You’ve guessed it: I was at the Italian embassy. Wince. I confess this was God wreaking revenge for my proving the world’s most obnoxious guest at the French embassy during the Six Nations. Sorry, Ashley, it was me—you were but a mere semi-sentient prawn in the karmic sea.

This may lead you to blithely assume all those diplomatic resources are directed at taxpayers or (god forbid) winning over local hearts and minds. Nonono, never fear: the diplomatic cash goes to the diplomats. The Belgian embassy’s beer events are attended almost exclusively by French and Italian embassy staff; ditto for Australian gigs and our noble British representatives overseas. The Americans pretty much hate everyone, of course.

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And with that, my guided tour of Delhi must stutter to a halt just as it was getting started. I haven’t told you about the world’s best, melt-in-the-mouth kebabs from the old middle classes’ beloved Khan Chacha (meaty, yes, but when in Rome at least once join in the orgy); or the ghee-dripping Mughal food of Karim’s in the chaotic (illegal electricity-laden) shadow of the Jama Masjid; or how appalled slum children pointed and said, ‘Madam, you are looking very dirty’ after a very public rugby humiliation.

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I haven’t ranted about the thrill of sampling (admittedly disgusting) masala ice pops and yak butter tea beneath posters of Tibetan martyrs in Majnu-ka-Tilla; or mounting the stage at a music festival by a lake in hilly Naukuchiatal; or the exhibitionist brown bear and the gharial struck by stones from a music-blaring crowd at Delhi’s dismal zoo; or the bizarrely modernist architecture of the seventeenth-century observatory Jantar Mantar (‘hocus pocus’) just outside the stately, decaying web of Connaught Place; or the serene beauty of the Taj Mahal’s aunt, Humayun’s Tomb.

Delhi, for all your foibles, I shall miss you—and all who sail in you. Shantih, shantih, shantih.

Somewhere between the exotic and the kitsch is real Delhi.  —Ranjana Sengupta

Delhi (deservedly) has a reputation as a macho, aggressive, sleazy city—for gang rapes, institutional misogyny, and paranoid women packing pistols—and its power elites are still dense with Stalinesque moustaches. But it has another side, too. Whisper it (a touch breathily, with a coy pout and a flirtatious twirl of your cheerleading cane): D-Town is camp.

Professional sociopath A.A. Gill wrote recently, ‘If New York is a wise guy, Paris a coquette, Rome a gigolo and Berlin a wicked uncle, then London is an old lady who mutters and has the second sight. She is slightly deaf, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.’ Delhi, then, might be an ageing tsarina: ruthless, capricious, avaricious, oversexed, paranoid—and fond of bright colours, pretty trinkets, and cross-dressing. Like all grandes dames, she’s showy, hard to love, easy to photograph.

Camp, in Susan Sontag’s famous formulation, is a sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, irony, playfulness, theatricality, and exaggeration rather than content. It ‘sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”‘. With a knowing wink, it embraces the garish, the kitsch, the sentimental. It’s good because it’s awful.

Everywhere you turn in Delhi, you glimpse camp’s potential, sitting prettily atop the muscular highways and throbbing noise. It’s there in the sashaying yellow hips of autorickshaws in traffic, the painted trucks with their big warbling horns, the sultry-eyed, improbably skinny young Roadside Romeos slinking snake-hipped down the streets in their shiny purple shirts. It’s there in the childishly sweet vivid orange whirl of jalebis, the love of Bollywood song and dance, the pot-bellied jollity of Buddha and Ganesh, the tendency for melodrama in politics and relationships alike. It’s even sometimes there in the faint undercurrent of slightly self-conscious menace on some streets or some evenings—like staring at Steve Buscemi’s upper lip fur.

Imperial rule of course had more than its fair share of high camp, as the foppish Britishers Carried On Up The Khyber with their cocktails, uniforms, and strange obsessions with deviant sexuality (see Anne McClintock’s brilliantly titled Imperial Leather). Colonial-era ‘tropical gothic’ architecture is archetypal camp: the flamboyance, the kitschy imagery, the fakery (wealthy Brits like Thomas Metcalfe would even build faux-mediaeval monuments to spice up their views). Edwin Lutyens himself—a friend of Vita Sackville-West—was an ostentatious mixture of ‘joker and buffoon’. In his extravagantly orchestrated New Delhi, neoclassical lines flirt with odd domes, cupolas, and elephant motifs, in two shades of pink Agra sandstone. Butch, non?

Sontag pinpointed two kinds of camp: naive Pure Camp, and Camp Which Knows Itself To Be Camp. In the hands of Delhi’s middle classes, Delhi’s unconsciously limp wrist becomes a deliberate sardonic eyebrow raise and a Hellooo Sailor! flourish. Shah Rukh Khan pirouettes in drag for Indian film awards. The swanky markets are full of boutiques selling unashamedly garish (and pricey) consumer goods covered in Quintessentially Indian Symbols: rickshaw cushions and hijra makeup bags and ashtrays with cartoon turbaned Sikhs—and, in the new May Day Cafe, even cappuccino cups with the hammer and sickle emblazoned on them in an (unwittingly?) hilarious pastiche of coffee-house revolution. In the malls, my fellow South Delhiites eat Haldiram’s sanitised ‘street food’ in a floodlit refrigerated dystopian hell soundtracked by Lady Gaga. For both of us, braving the dirt of sprawling Old Delhi is a touristy adventure—dare we gobble a real kebab? (Answer: yes, because Delhi belly is ironic and self-referential.) Even international development becomes camp, trying to take itself seriously even while it blasts out ‘Sexy Bitch’ over impeccable lawns and expats wryly sipping vodka nimbu pani.

The dark side of camp, as Sontag noted, is that it forever converts the serious to the frivolous. It is permanently ‘disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical’, trivialising the unpalatable. It ‘proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment’. India’s real problems are only admitted in their most photogenic and sentimental guises, and difficult questions vanish in a puff of Old Spice.

For Marxist cultural theorists, kitsch is a great threat: it is a type of false consciousness, deliberately encouraging a passive, consumerist response that distracts people from their very real social alienation. As Milan Kundera argued, it equals ‘the absolute denial of shit’. Camp sugarcoats reality, Photoshops it, places a pair of heart-shaped rose-tinted Lolita spectacles on it. We must peer through its consumerist veil to the Truth beneath.

But in tipsier moments, I can’t help but suspect there is no dividing line between kitsch and reality in this strange academic life—not in Delhi, not in tweed-encrusted snuff-snorting Oxford, not in the prettily Sisyphean development world—and certainly not in this blog. So I’ll continue hoovering up Horn Please placemats and slightly sinister faceless sari mugs, and hoard them right next to my saintly Bulgarian icon and Russian dolls. And next time I’m having a nihilistic thought, I’ll stroke them and solemnly say to myself, ‘Don’t be so absurd!’