I landed in New Delhi at 11 PM. It could have been a nightmare, but it wasn’t. My hotel took some time for the taxi driver to find. When we finally screeched up to the valet, the driver smiled to himself as if he’d heard a joke. In that fleeting moment, our language barrier was broken, and to exchange glances was enough. Him: awe at the display of wealth. Me: realization of our differences. This was the fanciest (five-star) establishment I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending the night. I had no business being at such a incredibly grand place, but I had procured the softest landing for myself ahead of time. If not for tripping out of the run down taxi in my old hiking boots, I would have thought I was in Beverly Hills.
I expected the following day to be tough. The taxi ride from the hotel to Gurgaon, a city just southwest of Delhi and the residence of my couchsurfing host, was my second glimpse of India. I would quickly realize this too was plush. This city was merely a pile of weeds just ten years ago. Now the up-and-coming, well-to-do live with luxuries no different from the American upper class. Here are the same gated communities complete with swimming pools, spas, bowling alleys, maids, and personal drivers--except these are thirty floor high rises adjacent to rapid construction of more of the same.
In retrospect, the best fortune brought me into the home of my Gurgaon host. I’ve heard repeatedly that Delhi is a hard place to stomach even for native Indians. I’d soon learn that I would want, no require, distance from the real Delhi. When I broke from shelter to make day trips into the capital city, I would get on the metro at the very end of its line, and the contrast out the window grew harder to look at the further in I went. I stepped out of the metro to intense heat and the smell of food, auto exhaust, cows, garbage, dust, feces, and pee. The sound of tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) and car horns was deafening. All things were crowded together; garbage piled high and was strewn literally everywhere imaginable. From lack of services, people defecated publicly and slept soundly in trash piles on the street next to starved dogs. I was beaten senseless from all directions.
Delhi is a city that inflicts an intense need to move forward. Me: to get the hell out of there. Them: to capitalize on every opportunity. Competition here is at another level. Those who live in decrepit conditions and slums are the most enterprising people. Relentless in the chase, lives are scraped together. People here are no doubt the scrappiest. I was completely dumbfounded. In a street overcrowded with people, many doing hard labor, I am the only one drenched in sweat.
Here there are no boring moments. Every moment is climatic and without falling action. I have yet to find resolutions. Back in Gurgaon, after wondering the Delhi streets and alleys, I would sigh with the biggest relief. I'd think, "I'm finally home."
It’s funny how things come to be. The masses of migrants to Delhi, 3.9 million strong in the slums according to the 2011 census, all aspire for Gurgaon. It's the poster child of Indian success. But the catch to the American dream is that it's not repeatable. Mother Earth fights back. And make no mistake, Indians know this too well.
Emily Dickinson called it first when she wrote,
I’ve been thinking a lot about the India I’ve experienced so far. In Delhi, I could never survive. In Agra, a brave woman. In Amritsar, I’d find something close to civil coexistence. I am quickly realizing that I could spend my entire time abroad here in India and not break the surface. India is not just a country but a continent. Each place is a force of its own contained within its atmosphere. I have not twisted my face into a grimace so often, and I have never grinned from ear to ear as frequent as in these past weeks.