Delhi is hot. I mean not warm and sunny. I mean searing hot. The sun is shining from a cloudless sky and the temperature is around +40 degrees Celsius. As we walked the few hundred metres to have lunch at the India International Centre, Jayati with whom I am working here remarked: “You’re lucky you weren’t here last week; now it’s a bit cooler.” But according to the forecast would soon again get warmer—and indeed, on May 12th the year’s record was broken with an official high of +43.1 degrees Celsius. Khushwant Singh, the famous Indian writer, sums it up in his latest, The Sunset Club: “It is said hell is a very hot place. If you want a foretaste of what may be your fate, you should spend the month of June in Delhi.” It is now May, and maybe this is only a foretaste of what comes after.
Last time I was here, in January, just four months ago, it was freezing. The cold and damp fog of winter enveloped the city for weeks. A dozen or more people died as the frigid winds blew down to the northern plains from the Himalayas. Now they die of the heat. People with no shelter, exposed to the vagaries of climate. It is the rag pickers and the poor elderly who perish when the weather gets too cold or too hot. Or when it floods. Delhi is renowned for its floods when the monsoon rains come later in the year. The river Yamuna, which crosses the vast conglomeration, rises above its banks. The slums are soaked and again poor people are washed away with the waters. Which kills more people, I ask myself. So far, it is not the cold of the winter, although the seasons are getting quite extreme lately. Which way would I prefer myself, if I had the unenviable choice? They say one feels numb and warm before one passes away from freezing. Drowning is supposed to bring along a calm, with a light that shines presumably from somewhere above. But how do they know? As far as I can see, nobody has really died and come back to tell. I think that, considering the options, I’d prefer succumbing to the heat. Maybe my brain is already overheating, as I'm thinking this way.
In the evening the heat subsides with the sun and it is actually quite pleasant. Hot and dry, but not suffocating. A couple of nights ago, I headed out by myself, as my travelling companion had acquired an acute case of ‘Delhi Belly.’ No wonder, as in this heat all kinds of micro-organisms thrive. It was more of a wonder in January, when it was cold, that I acquired a bad case of the same ailment. I attribute it to complacency. Then I had thought it was safe enough to eat salads and other uncooked food. Obviously I was badly mistaken. After a couple of agonizing days when I finally was strong enough to get on my feet I headed to the Max Healthcare Super Speciality Hospital. I could see why today so many people, including Westerners, choose to have themselves treated in Indian hospitals if they get gravely ill. Of course, this option is only available to those who can afford it; which is to say, perhaps the top 10 percent of Indians plus the foreigners who see the value of being treated here. The Max was a sprawling complex in a park-like setting, spanking clean, friendly, efficient and cheap by Western standards. After just a quarter of an hour wait, I was examined by the highly professional Dr. Monica Mahajan who discharged me with a set of prescriptions that I was able to pick up from the ground floor dispensary on my way out. Give me this anytime over an overpriced and unfriendly American hospital where they ask for your religious affiliation and credit card before they even start treating you.
This recent night I was perfectly fine and jumped into the tiny white Tata taxi that I had hired on a weekly basis to take me around. I asked the dark skinned moustachioed driver, Shiva Dayal, to take me to Khan Market. I wanted to visit the two fabulous bookstores operating at the popular place. Just a few years ago, this was just a local market. Today it is one of the fanciest shopping areas in New Delhi with lots of boutiques frequented by fancy ladies sporting expensive jewellery and handbags. Khan Market was crowded, the lights of the shops beckoned browsers. I first went to Bahri Sons, but soon realized they were about to close for the night. The two young women tending the cashier were no longer interested in making a sell. Instead they were counting the stack of bills the shop had collected from customers during the day, joking and giggling with each other. I decided to head to Faqir-Chand & Sons, a small but magnificent book handler not far away in the same row of shops. They gave me more leeway time-wise, as well as service-wise, and I was able to browse through their amazing and amazingly disorganized collections. In a place where the newest books on politics and international affairs lie next to an assortment of other tomes with no apparent connection through their topics—Jack London’s Call of the Wild adjacent to Mein Kampf; biographies of Che Guevara and the Beatles next to a photographic guide to sex positions from Kama Sutra—one can find true surprises that one just has to purchase. I picked up an inspiring anthology of Indian environmental writing, Voices in the Wilderness: Contemporary Wildlife Writings, edited by Prerna Singh Bindra.
Having picked my selection, I continued to an alley on the side of Khan Market where several small doors lead up to discreet little bars. Discreet only from the outside, however. I climbed the stairs to one called Route 04 and found a noisy room crowded with mostly young people, all Indian, consuming quantities of beer and cocktails. I could see plates of nachos carried to the tables to be consumed by the lively customers. Many of the women were breathtakingly beautiful, as many Indians are, with their large dark eyes lined with kohl. It was still early on a Monday evening, but the DJ in a corner was playing Led Zeppelin at high volume. A group of fashionable kids were sharing an oversized hookah at a close-by table. As it was happy hour, I got a second bottle of Tuborg for the same price. IMFL, they call it: Indian made foreign liquor. I could have stayed for the rest of the evening, but I was getting hungry and the somewhat depressing looking pseudo-Mexican/New Yorker snacks did not appeal to me.
I asked Shiva to recommend a restaurant with good Indian food that also served beer. The latter was a condition I would not compromise upon tonight. He said he knew just the place for me and off we drove to a new shopping centre close to Lodhi Gardens not far from Khan Market. The restaurant was called Pindi and boasted a neon sign promising genuine Mughal and Chinese cuisine. It was brightly lit with tables lining the sides of two adjacent oblong rooms. I sat at one and started browsing the menu. Soon Shiva returned with the bad news: the place had no beer. A discussion ensued involving the portentous proprietor and a couple of waiters mixing Hindi and English in a way that left me completely confused. I was led to a less conspicuous corner table and told to sit down. The paunchy owner assured me that things would work out. I would just have to be discreet about my beer. He only had two left and he had already told a group of some half a dozen foreigners sitting in the next room that there was no beer. The manager did not want them to see that someone arriving after them was actually served the cold drink. I agreed to be prudent and a waiter brought me a can carefully wrapped in a paper towel, so that it would not be obvious to any observer that the tin contained the coveted brew. With this, the evening proceeded. In my euphoria I ordered far too much food: succulent Rada mutton, with large chunks of soft lamb attached to bone served in an onion sauce containing minced lamb; delicious Karani Paneer, cottage cheese stewed in wonderful gravy; white long-grained rice.
India’s economy is growing rapidly and in the West this is often seen as a threat. People in the US complain about outsourcing of jobs, as well as about bright and hardworking Indian professionals taking jobs in America. Some of it may be true, but the thriving modern sector is still only a thin layer: icing on the boiling cake of India. Most of India is still very poor and this poverty has both a geographical dimension as well as many social aspects. Often these overlap. The UN ranks India 119th among 169 countries based on the Human Development Index. This ranking does not only include monetary income but takes into account aspects such as health and education. This puts India into the ‘medium human development’ category. The index, however, hides huge differences between people. These differences can be explained in numerous ways: historical and structural factors, the highly varying government policies between states, inefficiencies, corruption, the caste system, rural to urban migration, etc.
Some Indian states lie very far behind Delhi, Mumbai and other major cities in the level of human development. Within the big cities, too, the inequality between people is staggering. Huge slums sprout beside shiny new skyscrapers and fancy villas. Little children and severely handicapped people beg at each intersection in Delhi accosting cars as they have to stop at traffic lights. New Delhi is a gorgeously beautiful city with ample green parks lining the streets. Its majestic avenues linking parts of the spread-out city are good for cars but the distances are long for people without transportation. Old Delhi is different, picturesque for a casual visitor, but rough on those who must live there. Teeming with humanity, its narrow streets are cramped up and dirty, buildings crumbling. Violence flares up easily in poverty.
On 11 May 2011, in the middle of my stay here, the Planning Commission of the Government of India redrew the official national poverty line at Rp. 20, or less than US$0.50, per day. The motivation can only be to reduce the number of people living below the poverty line, so that India doesn’t look so bad in international comparisons or so that the government doesn’t have to extend social services to as many people. But poverty remains, wherever you draw the line.
On a recent night, my friend Nidhi took me to the Sikh temple, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. The place was crowded and very welcoming to people of any creed or colour. We removed our shoes and were given saffron headscarves to cover our hair in respect to the Sikh faith and culture. The gorgeous white temple was alive with music as people gathered there for prayers. We walked slowly around the vast square pool reflecting the lights of the temple in the dark evening. The Sikhs are proud people, never to be found among the beggars. Instead they have formed a supportive social system whereby any person in need—and one does not have to be Sikh—can find food and shelter in the temple. A tall and thin pole with lights on top has been raised high to guide people to the temple from a long distance. Also now we observed a large crowd of men and women, young and old, who had gathered waiting on the porch of a big hall to be fed. As we passed by, the gates were opened and the people streamed in for their free meal.
Our meal wasn’t free at the Blues café and bar on Connaught Place at Delhi’s commercial and business heart not too far from the temple. Sitting in the air-conditioned comfort listening to rather loud rock, we talked about the inequality and the persistence of abject poverty in India. Like Nidhi said, “Delhi is not a good place if you don’t have money,” The trouble is, there are so many who do not—and even the climate conspires against them.