What whereabouts do you ask of me, O people of the East ? Considering me poor and laughing at me
Delhi, that was a city unique in the world, Where lived only the chosen of the time
Fate has looted it and made it deserted, I belong to that very destroyed city -Meer Taqi Meer, Urdu Poet, 1723-1810
Meer Taqi Meer seems like a cool poet, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that he is accurate and that Delhi was indeed once an amazing city. I bet it was a sunshine land of rainbows and hugs and bliss and it’s only because of Fate that it is…the Delhi that exists today. I would like to visit this Delhi of the past, and if I can get a DeLorean, that would be just swell. Because visiting Delhi today is a mixed bag at best, at least, that has been my limited experience of this city. I would like to blame that on limited exposure and general foreigness, but I have to say, given what I know of Delhi, this just might be what it is for many people, a land of discomfort and disconnect.
The city of Delhi is an ancient one. The area now known as Delhi has been continuously inhabited since the 6th century, and to visit much of Delhi today is to see layers of history crusted over each other like old scabs. Legends say that Delhi was the site of Indraprastha, the mythical capital of the Pandava family in the Mahabharata. There is no evidence that this is true, however, and the earliest archeological remains found thus far in the city date back to the Maurya Empire, around 300 BC. The current Delhi is actually Delhi #9, as the remains of 8 previous cities have been found around the contemporary city area. Delhi passed through the hands of several rounds of Hindu rulers before it was conquered by its first round of Muslim visitors, Tajiks from Afghanistan, in the 1100s. The Turkish conquests of Delhi followed, forming the Delhi Sultanate. The Turks, and then, later, the Afgan dynasty known as the Lodis, established Delhi as a center of Sufism, and a major dominant power in Northern India. Delhi was then, like a girl in a Nicholas Sparks novel, courted and won, then lost, then won again by the Mughals, and in 1638 Shah Jahan moved the Mughal capital from nearby Agra to Delhi, changing the name of the city to Shahjahanabad (it’s amazing that easy-to-pronounce moniker didn’t last, isn’t it?)
In the decades that followed, Delhi became the town bicycle rickshaw, and everyone wanted a ride. From the Marathas, who sacked the city in 1737, to the Afghans in 1757, to the Sikhs in 1783, then the British in 1857, Delhi has been attacked more than Rebecca Black’s Friday video. Although now, visiting the city, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. I mean literally, it’s hard to see, Delhi is by many reports the most polluted city in the world. Thousands of people die every year from the air quality alone, not to mention yearly outbreaks of dengue, sweltering summers, freezing winters, and constant normalized petty violence. Nevertheless, people somehow still seem to want to live in this giant city, which constantly expands in every direction, eating up the land around it like the blob. The city has over 16,000,000 people living in the greater Delhi area, and it’s growing every day.
Apart from it’s many other charming qualities, like the aforementioned air quality and the fact that there are pigs EVERYWHERE:
Delhi also has a particularly high rate of violence, specifically sexual violence, against women. The reported 1,813 rapes in 2014 made Delhi the rape capital of India, which is not quite the tourist attraction the city might have thought it would be. This is either the Delhi Board of Tourism’s worst campaign ever, or there is something about Delhi that makes men decide no means yes.
So what is it about this city? There are a lot of theories, of course. Some people talk about the fact that Delhi’s large population of immigrants from Northern Indian states like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, specifically young unemployed men, make the city unsafe for women. The patriarchical traditions of many of these Northern Indian groups, with their (some claim) culturally rooted lack of respect for and investment in the education of women have followed them to the city, and the fact that many of these young men are uprooted from their families and villages means there are no social checks to hold them in place. Some dismiss these claims, blaming Bangladeshi immigrants instead, because it’s a globally understood rule, when in doubt, blame a foreigner, right?
But whatever it is, there is something about Delhi, something strange that you can feel when you come to the city. I don’t mind the air quality, and I don’t even mind the pigs, they’re just putting one hoof in front of the other, just like the rest of us. But what I didn’t love was the Delhi stare. You see, men in Delhi will just stare at you. And it doesn’t matter who you are, foreigner or native, fair or dark, young, old, supermodel or girl next door, look up in Delhi and there will be an assortment of men staring, intensely, right at you. No matter where you go, the excellent subway (it really is amazing, the Delhi metro, easily my favorite thing about the city, fast, clean, efficient and well planned, when was the last time anyone described anything in India that way?) walking down the street, visiting the glorious historical monuments, indulging in magnificent kababs and the best roti you’ve ever had in your life at Kareem’s, there are some guys, just looking at you, like cats watching canaries.
It’s difficult to describe just how disconcerting this is. Nothing is actually happening to you. No one is saying anything, no one is touching you, it would be easy to dismiss it as normal observation of the world if it didn’t go on for quite so long. Meeting the eyes of your starer doesn’t shame them, it encourages them, and it shows them you are loose. So what can you do in the face of this intense observation? Nothing. You take it. You live in those long moments of extreme discomfort, of complete humiliation and heart-pounding fear, and then as soon as you can you move beyond their line of eyesight. You walk quickly on the streets, if you walk outside at all. You dress differently. You think, what can I do, how can I protect myself, how can I arrange my life to encounter as few men as possible? You stick with other women, you ask for the protection of the men you do know and trust. You fear the world, and you have good reason to do so. You are not being irrational. You are being reasonable in the face of what you know.
The thing is, Delhi is a great city, underneath all of the layers of dirt and smog and violence and discomfort. For someone researching the Mughals, like myself, Delhi ought to be a wonderland, a place so full of history it’s almost bursting at the seams, a rich metropolis of art and culture, fashion and food. But for the visitor, it’s hard for that not be obscured by the immediate reactions you have, or at least, that I had. I want to keep looking for that other Delhi, those many cities through time, the flashes of beauty and culture that flare up on those rare moments when the air quality improves.
But it’s hard to know that that exploration entails so much discomfort and anxiety. So let’s see how my adventures in Delhi go. After all, there is a fine line between giving something a chance, and taking your chances.