The Beginning of a New Life in New Delhi

It’s been two weeks since I arrived and I’ve begun to set up my life. I’ve learned some important lessons, and even traveled and attended some cultural events around and outside of New Delhi.

I’ll start with the lessons first.

I always knew them as ‘tuk-tuks’ but here in India they are called ‘autos’.

Firstly, I learned that New Delhi is immense. Transportation is an issue in this sprawling city of circular roads, heavy congestion, and a limited metro. Here, I’d like to note that I’ve lived in Los Angeles for about a year without a car and that nothing is as bad as Los Angeles! New Delhi’s salvation is that auto rickshaws and taxis are relatively cheap and plentiful. I also live within walking distance of the metro and bus. Auto rickshaws will always try to rip you off, however, and you must haggle prices or stick to your ground by going by the meter fare (19 rupees for the first 2 km and 6.5 rupees for each additional km). You will be astonished by the amount of drivers who refuse to turn the meter on or insist that theirs are broken.

Another important thing about New Delhi is that safety is an issue. New Delhi is perhaps the most dangerous city in all of India for women, and the Commission on the Safety of Women here is still trying to figure out some viable solutions. For now, however, always try to travel with somebody else. Don’t walk alone after 9-10 pm. Don’t take autos alone after 10 pm. Never take a taxi cab alone – there have been incidents of taxi drivers raping the young women that they are driving. The safety issue does really affect me, unlike the transportation issue, because I am used to being very independent, and New York City is overall very safe. However, looking on the bright side, I’ll always be with a group of people. Sometimes in NY I would just go to parties by myself, and sometimes it worked out, but generally it’s nice to go to an event with people that you already know and like.

A night market near where I live in South Delhi

There is a tremendous amount of energy in New Delhi. Cars and autos will speed by, and there are seemingly markets everywhere. You will never be too far from the noise of shopping transactions or honking drivers. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, New Delhi is not your city! Considering that I used to fall asleep to the noise of the 24/7 public transportation outside of my window, I’m fine with this. I’ve actually become dependent on the constant noise of a city – as they say, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl.

I don’t really understand why new-age/no-shower hippies are attracted to India when Indians dress very smartly and care very much about cleanliness. Press wallahs and dry cleaners are everywhere since most people freshly iron or dry clean their clothes on a daily basis. Whether it be traditional kurtas or saris or Western style casual or business clothing, Indians dress pretty sharply. Shoes are often taken off before entering a home and rubber flip flops aren’t worn outside of showers. And even though many people eat with their hands and toilets are typically holes without toilet papers, people vigorously wash their hands beforehands or afterwards. So if you’re planning on visiting, tie-dye raggy t-shirts and flops will make you stand out rather than fit in, and make sure to pay attention to hygiene.

Finally, poverty is omnipresent in this city. You can hardly distinguish the “good” neighborhoods from the others, simply because there are people without homes, bathrooms, shoes, and other necessities everywhere. While a middle class has clearly emerged, New Delhi is still full of “slums” and the poor are simply too numerous to ignore. It is heartbreaking how widespread and deeply entrenched this poverty seems. To the poor however, it isn’t heartbreaking – it’s normal everyday life. I will always maintain that we should never believe that poverty is “normal” and “will always exist”, however.

As part of the intro for a course “Service Learning”, we visited an NGO called Prayas in a village near JNU. These boys followed me all throughout our tour and loved hearing my pigeon Hindi.

JNU has a very socially and politically active student body that puts up posters and murals everywhere on campus.

JNU is very large and green. It’s a world away from the urban madness of New Delhi.

Now onto my life here. I am living with a host family with two dogs in South Delhi. I have a host mom who teaches Economics at Delhi University and an older host brother who studies English literature there as well. We live in a residential area near these huge parks, a tennis stadium, and a fun neighborhood called Haus Khauz Village. I am taking the majority of my courses at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is India’s best university. There I will take a Linguistics, a French translation, and an Economics & Law course. I’m also going to be studying an intermediate level of Hindi with a professor hired by the center that organized the study abroad program. I’m really happy with this setup – I live pretty close to JNU and it’s an opportunity to truly immerse myself in an Indian setting and learn how another system of education functions. (So far, the professors have been pretty relaxed about coming to class on time and one canceled class for a week because of a wedding, so I have yet to experience the madness that will be taking graduate-level courses!) I also get along spectacularly along with my host family. It helps that I adore dogs and that I, just like my host brother, am an only child. So I can talk about a lot of things with my host mom and him – family, culture, politics, food, etc.

The main fountain of Diggi Palace, where the Lit Festival was held.

True words.

I haven’t been resting on my laurels while my professors canceled class, however! Last week I traveled to Jaipur to attend the famed Literature Festival there. It’s the largest literature festival in the Asia-Pacific region, and the programming was magnificent. I attended panels by Fatima Bhutto (Songs of Blood and Swords), Jamaica Kincaid (Autobiography of My Mother), Ben Okri (The Famished Road), Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Amy Chua (World on Fire, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother), Abhijit Banerjee (Poor Economics), and more. I learned most by attending panels on books that I hadn’t read, because most of these excellent books are self-explanatory and comprehensive. The festival brought up certain controversial issues, such as Salman Rushdie’s attendance (he did not attend because of death threats that were later shown to been fabricated), relations between India and Pakistan, and China’s rapid development.

Currently, the India Art Fair is occuring and it’s a similarly enriching experience. To me, art is about seeing new ways to see, and learning about certain social and political problems that may not be often discussed or easily understood. Contemporary art brings up contemporary issues and is a snapshot of our times. I’ll share pictures of the fair with you all once it ends and talk about some Indian artists that I have met/liked!

I also have a list of great local NGOs here in India that I will discuss in my next post. I know that some of you are interested in volunteering in India, and believe me, it’s a fascinating place to do so. India is still trying to solve some of its most pressing social problems, and it’s interesting to discover what is working and what isn’t. There are programs where researchers are collaborating with NGOs, which are collaborating with governments, and I hope to share those with you all next time!

I’ll leave you with pictures of Pushkar, a very special pilgramage site near Jaipur. It has the most famous Brahma temple in the country. There was a certain peace and quiet there, and I really enjoyed observing everyone fulfill their rituals.

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