India is a huge country stretching from Pakistan all the way across to Myanmar and ranging from China and the Himalayan Mountains down to steamy Sri Lanka which almost brushes the equator. There are 28 states each with its own culture, language, history, and struggles. Even a native of India can only see their dynamic country through one pair of eyes and set of experiences. So the quest for the “true India” seems quite impossible and illusive. Once you begin to understand something about this culture, you discover something that throws a monkey wrench in your original hypothesis. This was really true during my trip to Delhi in February.
Flying into the Delhi airport felt like I was coming home, back to the familiar. When I am not in Delhi I crave when the plane I am on begins the decent into the Gangetic plain and I know that I will see my Asha family soon. This trip was different because my primary reason for coming to Delhi was something other than spending as much time as possible at Asha House. I did get to spend some beautiful moments at Asha House, but the focus of this trip was different. I was primarily there to be a support to a friend who was there to do some battle with the Indian bureaucracy. Because we needed to be in closer proximity to the government offices, we stayed with different people my friend knew in South Delhi and Gurgoan. This was not the part of Delhi I knew.
South Delhi is transversed by wide roads lined with lush greenery, and divided up in tidy sectors named with the letters of the English alphabet. In these cozy sectors you can find apartments and houses with gardens out front along quiet streets. The luxury cars (lot of imported Hondas) parked outside are meticulously being washed by the owner's hired driver. Just around the block is shopping area where you can get groceries, vegetables, photocopies, school books, and anything else you might need. Even though it is walking distance most people can afford Rs.10 to take a auto-rickshaw ride. If you are too lazy for even that you don't even have to leave your house. All you have to do is call up the store and they will deliver everything from rice and potatoes, to chicken, to potato chips and cold drinks (Indian English for soda). You also are able to order delivery of any kind of cuisine thinkable: Italian, Mediterranean, Chinese, McDonald’s, Domino’s, North Eastern Indian, South Indian, and the typical Northern Indian fare. In this neighborhood there are no beggars on the streets or dirty children playing in the dust. There is a gated play ground for the children of the neighborhood to play in with monkey bars, swings, and slides all painted cheerfully.
I don't know exactly when it started hitting me, the fact that the Delhi I knew was not the one I was experiencing, but if definitely hit me that I was in another world when I stepped into DFL Place Mall. This is actually one of three super luxurious malls that are built almost on top of each other. The only way you can tell that you are going into a different mall is because you have to go through a security check when you cross from one mall to the other. It is like having three malls larger and fancier than South Park right on top of each other. The other two are called Select Citywalk, and MGF Metropolitan Mall. Google it if you don't believe me. Honestly I had a hard time believing my own eyes. THREE luxury malls.... why in the world? May in Dubai but not in Delhi.
My friend and I were at DFL Place to meet up with someone. We were staying at someone's house in South Delhi so this mall was a convenient meeting place. We got there a little early to wander around and get some ice cream. I found a frozen yogurt place (what is a luxury mall without frozen yogurt?) and was pursuing the menu overwhelmed by the Western amount of options, when a young girl pushed her way past me right to the counter, literally pushed me. Flouncing her hair and adjusting her designer bag she tried ordering the largest thing on the menu for her and her boyfriend. The guy behind the counter seemed embarrassed because of her actions and helped me first because I was technically next, but the girl tried thrusting her handful of Rupees toward him to try to get served first. In my head I was wondering if this was really happening and what I should do. I would expect this sort of thing from the Delhi that I knew before. In this country everyone pushes and shoves to get what they need. There are no tidy queues(lines) unless there are police to enforce them. Even with this there is usually some extra courtesy shown to foreigners. I am not saying that I deserve extra special treatment, but I didn't expect to be treated so very rudely especially by a female and one much younger than I am, and on top of that inside a mall that seemed the pinnacle of “civilized India.” This girl seemed to think the world revolved around her. I thought that was a western thing... maybe it came as a bonus with her designer purse. I got yogurt but my head was too much in a whirl of culture shock to really enjoy it.
The entire mall (really malls) experience was the most culture shock I have been through so far. At first I thought it was reverse culture shock (because these malls were so western), but I am not quite sure that was quite it. This was still India, but such a totally different India than I ever expected to experience. Since being in Delhi I have read a book called,“The Beautiful and The Damned: Life in the New India,” by Siddhartha Deb. In this book Deb examines the lives of businessmen, farmers, activists, and women in this country that is so rapidly changing. This man who lived for quite some time in NYC and seen western self-centeredness there, gives his own account of wandering around DFL Place Mall:
“ I was still wondering why I had been unable to enter the Paul Smith store. I didn't normally go to designer stores but when I had ventured into some of them in New York out of curiosity, I hadn't felt such unease. Somehow, I was more exposed and vulnerable in Delhi. This wasn't because it would be apparent to everyone in the shop that I couldn't afford to buy anything- because that would be pretty obvious in Manhattan too but it mattered to me in Delhi that people would know, as if the very objects would sneer at me for daring to enter their space. In the West, with its long excess of capitalism, it might be possible to scoff at luxury brands. They had been around so long that they had lost some of their meaning. But in India, luxury brands still possessed power” (Deb, 240)
Reading this hit on the head what I had been feeling. I felt out of place not because everything around me was reminiscent of the excess of the West but because because there was a strange pride and power that oozed from every shop, kiosk, escalator, display, and the people who strolled around wearing designer clothing and shopping bags emblazoned with luxury labels on their arms.
The India I knew was one of the orphan, the leper, the beggar, the persecuted pastor, the struggling family; the India of the people who appear as a faceless nameless mass to the people cavorting in DFL Place. I knew in theory that the India of leisure and luxury existed, but to see it with my own eyes, to smell the sickly perfume with my own nose, to feel the perfectly cold AC on my own skin, to taste its delicacies with my own tongue, was something quite unnerving.
Deb, Siddhartha.“The Beautiful and The Damned: Life in the New India.” Viking by Penguin Books India. 2001