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My Passage from Washington to New Delhi

Just how great are the differences between the U.S. and Indian capital cities?

April 22, 2005

Just how great are the differences between the U.S. and Indian capital cities?

India overwhelms. As a foreigner who will be resident in New Delhi for the next couple of years — and as a new arrival from Washington, D.C. — I cannot help but compare the two cities.

New Delhi, the relatively new capital of the then-British India, is less than 100 years old. It is south to the on-again, off-again ancient capital, Delhi, whose complex history goes back more than 1,000 years.

Today, the lines between the old and new parts of Delhi are blurred with carts and cattle in the streets, but it still retains the memory and history of a city that has been the nostalgic Indian capital for seven empires.

Washington, D.C., older than New Delhi by 100 years as America’s capital, has an uncomplicated history. It is a showcase of immensely successful nation building, a place of pilgrimage for patriotic Americans and a must-see sight for foreign tourists.

It is where the world’s leaders come to make their case to the leaders of the only superpower and to the lords of the international monetary system it dominates.

The quintessence of American power, culture and history, the Washington Mall and its surrounding area, are benign and beautiful in appearance. Behind the symbols of the triumph of America lies the world of bare-knuckled politics that affects pretty much the whole of mankind.

However, few come to New Delhi to marvel at the well laid-out seat of a government that is still wrapped up in fading red tape, bound almost as tightly as an Egyptian mummy in its white shroud.

Tourists come only to spend their nights in its magnificent hotels and their days in Old Delhi gawking at the glory that was India before the British came.

Those who come to New Delhi for other reasons are on a mission. World leaders come to cement relations with an emerging world power — and businessmen to profit from India’s burgeoning economy.

Majestic in layout and similar to the Washington Mall in its purpose, the broad avenues and imposing buildings of the Indian government enclave are not for the hoi polloi.

I notice how deserted the heart of the capital of the world’s second-most populous nation looks even as I try to imagine the annual pageantry on India’s Independence Day.

I see more monkeys than people on the sidewalk of Dalhousie Road, a street in the heart of the government "enclave," not far from the Parliament and President's House.

There are a few museums, but very few signs of tourists. The nearby diplomatic enclave of beautifully landscaped boulevards and stately embassies flying their nations’ flags is a world removed from the rest of New Delhi.

Surrounding the enclaves of power and diplomacy are the residential areas, where the high and the mighty live. Signs of a different Delhi come into view as I move on.

The roads are not as clean, the houses are not as immaculate. Not far beyond, yet another world emerges. The sights, smells and sounds of this Delhi are not pleasing to the senses.

Interspersed with homes behind high walls and along the sides of every dusty road is the reality of a desperately poor populace struggling for survival.

Prosperity is overwhelmed by poverty. In fashionable Connaught Place, I see a stray dog and a man in rags rummaging for food in an overflowing garbage bin.

Bedraggled women knock on the windows of my air-conditioned car at traffic lights, pointing to the little babies they carry to pull at my heartstrings.

Undernourished children with baleful eyes try to sell newspapers they cannot read. Such encounters are so commonplace that they dull my sense of guilt and compassion.

Just about every wall and tree along the roads of Delhi seems to invite its denizens to spit or urinate on them. The smell of drying human and bovine defecation assaults my nostrils.

I go to a world class hospital in suburban New Delhi several times to visit a “medical tourist” receiving first rate treatment at cut-rate price. The smell of raw sewage permeates the air on the way to this institution of medical excellence.

Inside, however, is where chaotic India meets sophisticated India. The security staff struggle hard to enforce rules while the doctors treat patients with enviable patience and skill. As in the field of information technology, India has already "arrived" in medicine, where the latest advancement is available and affordable to everyone.

If you were a pedestrian in New Delhi, unlike one in Washington, you would be a stoic of a very high order. You would walk not for pleasure — but out of necessity.

You would dare not look up to see the sights, for you might trip on the broken pavement or fall into an open manhole. Instead, you must have the skills of a matador to dodge the hundred different types of vehicles seemingly intent on mowing you down.

Even the usually supremely unflappable bulls that block your path might be given to occasional road rage. You must have sharp eyes, quick reflexes — and no sense of smell.

Never mind walking the roads — even the sidewalks are not meant for one’s walking convenience. Between the shops with their overflowing merchandise encroaching on the sidewalk and the roads blocked with barriers to prevent you from crossing, you are an unwanted interloper in the modern capital.

The Washington counterpart to the New Delhi pedestrian can press a button at a crosswalk and wait for the traffic to defer to him or her.

New Delhi — or for that matter all of India — is struggling hard to cope with the downside of its growing prosperity.

The construction of overpasses and underground train tunnels, road widening, bridge building and a myriad of other infrastructure projects to improve the quality of life will go on for so long that Delhiwallahs — Indians who live in Delhi — may never again savor the clean air and tranquility their less prosperous elders once took for granted.

Despite all the stress and struggles of life in this huge and overcrowded city, the average Delhiwallah is incredibly polite and self-effacing.

Other foreigners told me of the uncommon courtesy they received in getting their visas extended. Almost every Indian who is of a subordinate or supplicant status ends every sentence by calling me “Sir.”

I have never heard the word uttered as many times in a month in Washington, as in a day in New Delhi.

The Indian worker can be extremely resourceful and an improviser par excellence. When my unusual American car needed a part unavailable in New Delhi, the mechanic and his crew somehow fashioned a substitute in a machine shop in one of the back alleys of the city.

More than a billion Indians with a most impressive level of drive, determination and resourcefulness are now entering the globalized world.

Against large odds, they have proved their mettle at home and abroad. For all the corruption and injustices of a society finally shaking off its feudal-colonial mindset, India is no longer afraid to dare and do it.

With a flourishing democracy, Indians are sending politicians to New Delhi with the mandate to reflect this new-found confidence.

I suspect that the mandarins in Washington, Beijing and other world capitals have an apprehensive-appreciative awareness of New Delhi’s emerging role in world affairs.

Even as the poverty surrounding the prosperity assaults my senses, I have no doubt that New Delhi will be a capital of consequence far into the future.