Since last Monday, seven days ago, I’ve been trying to become a functioning Delhi resident.
This has made this week an especially eventful one during which everything that I’ve seen, I’ve experienced simultaneously as a tourist and as an aspiring resident. It’s meant trying to explore the city with an open mind, wandering from corner to corner to see as much of the city as possible while also finding my bearings in my future neighborhood of Marviya Nagar.
That being said, I’ve never really been good at being a tourist and the flaneur-ism AKA wanderous-nonsense lasted all of three or four days. Even during those early days, I focused on building up a tolerance to the city (by walking rather than hiring wheels), coating my lungs in that fine Delhi dust and showing the sun that my skin and I weren’t anywhere close to buckling under its tyranny (this of course was done with copious amounts of water and breaks). I also quickly favored walking in the back streets to get a sense of distances rather than visiting the beautiful historical sites Delhi has to offer which I will get to visit… some day… I think…
In order to remember these walks packed with people, colors and abstract concrete structures, and to capture for future reference how I first experienced Delhi, I thought I would write up an informal series of situations I’ve run into.
Quick disclaimer, Delhi is so complex that these are in no way meant to capture the essence of the city or even attempt to make sense of it. Those are simply notes on moments, things, practices that caught my eye, many are obvious, others very specific. In that sense, these mini essays will reveal a lot more about myself than about Delhi, a city in constant flux.
The first first word and the first word
On my first day in Delhi I was invited to crash a friend of a friend’s lunch plans. It was a comforting feeling to have an objective for my first excursion into Delhi. Once at the restaurant, the truth about my non-existent Hindi skills immediately came to light and my hosts promptly decided to resolve this matter. I was first offered curse words, which were fun but with my aspiring-resident-hat on, I smiled awkwardly and asked for another word. PANI — WATER, one of them responded, PANI it would be.
The second first word (or first word) I learnt which I feel is more deserving of such a title is THEEK HAI—OK (pronounced something like tigueh). It’s the first word I learned through mimetism: it’s probably the one said the most around Delhi, you can just overhear it all the time. When OK is the only work you know, it makes for limited but very positive conversations.
Before leaving Paris, I had grabbed a small Rhodia notebook that I now always carry with me. The intent was to sketch in it (which I have) but in the end I’ve mostly had other people write in it, contact info, bars or gallery names even during negotiations. These are not very introspective writing samples but there’s something very precious about developing a collection of others’ handwriting that greatly I appreciate.
The addresses, places and GoogleMaps
Delhi has been an impossible city to get around in without a phone. I’ve never looked at GoogleMaps this much for seven straight days. At this point, the blue dot on the screen is more real than I am, it’s the one visiting Delhi and I’m just mindlessly tagging along taking photos.
The main challenge is that I can never find a street name so everything becomes relative, that’s why I’ve just ended up looking at the blue dot, spinning on myself until the little vector arrow points in the direction of my destination.
Actually, the majority of addresses I’ve been given were not street names with house numbers but rather points of reference, hospitals or supermarkets for example, followed by a very concise set of instructions: “When you get there, make a left, cross two blocks and look for the red sign.”
I’m just getting the hang of this APS (Approximative Positioning System) and will surely use this if friends ever visit me since I now live down the street from a hospital.
The ID photos
Everybody knows ID photos are at the heart of traveling, you need them for passports, visas, but here in Delhi you need them for a lot of other things. I was surprised when I went to the photo facility that the person manning the booth only sold a minimum of eight at a time but also told me “Not for visa.”
So what could you possibly need eight 1" x 1.5" photos of yourself in India if not travel documents?
Well everything else that involves a contract and signature: getting a new SIM card for your phone, signing a lease, getting a library card and whatever else I might run into next, maybe renting an AC unit… There’s something that feels overzealous about this practice but it’s also amusing to think maybe Brazil couldn’t have been set in India because their clerical practices are so visual…
The Delhi police road barriers
Sprinkled around Delhi are large (around 5' tall by 8' wide) wheeled metal yellow barriers that help re-arrange the streets into all sorts improvised spaces. Often there are no officers around them, they are simply used to block off areas, improvise pedestrian walkways or left there from some previous use. As a design I find them incredibly effective and intriguing.
They, like so many things around Delhi share this very unique standardized nature where each unit seems identical to the next while and yet carries a very visible trace of the human hand as most lettering on them will have been painted on by hand. Trucks and autos share this unique combination of large, industrial, production scale paired with an incredible, machine-like consistency in the final craftsmanship. Apparently you can order one here (but 500 rupees is a way too low so watch out).
The karaoke night
My first night out did not involve karaoke by choice. I had asked around for bar recommendations near where I was staying and was suggested to check out TC Restaurant & Bar with the warning that it was a little shady.
Expecting something to go wrong on my way to the bar, I imagined that even if I made it in in one piece, I’d have to explain what I was doing there to an angry bouncer only to probably get turned away…
I was surprised to find out the joint is actually (at 9PM) a very quiet, dimly lit imitation of an American dive bar. The walls were covered in posters and layered wooden cut-outs of Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix and John Lenon among others, and a couple TVs playing sports (cricket).
Around 10PM, the DJ, a young woman dressed in an outdoorsy picnic dress, grabbed the mic and kicked off what I soon found out was an American-hits-only karaoke night. Everyone seemed unanimous in finding American classics ranging from Radiohead to John Meyer to be much more worth while than any India or regional alternatives. I was somewhat disappointed I wouldn’t get to hear new artists and asked if people I had met that night if there were more local celebrities that got played on these kinds of nights and I was answered: “Don’t be an asshole this is not a Bollywood night.”
The Delhi lovers
A couple days ago I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Hauz Khas Fort, a beautiful series of indoor arcades several stories above ground giving a beautiful view over the water tank it surrounds.
And filled with young couples.
This is a pretty common practice in Delhi apparently, trying to find public (free of charge?) spots with some degree of privacy in order to enjoy a bit of intimacy with a loved one. What’s surprised me the most though is how public or easily accessed these spots can be, it might be in emptier metro station staircases, behind police fences (very common and versatile piece of urban furniture in Delhi mentioned above) or in the nooks provided by historical ruins.
As I said above I had somewhat noticed it but it didn’t hit me until when walking through the fort two young Punjabi men started speaking to me, they too were tourists in Delhi, they asked what I was doing there, why I was alone, and pointed out I would run into a lot of couples around this place because “This isn’t like your country where we can do this type of thing in the streets!” they said jokingly.
They also made sure I knew they weren’t an item.
The auto(-rickshaw) strategy
After getting a few auto rides and fare-negotiations under my belt, I’ve honed a strategy for getting fairly good deals. Your greatest bargaining chip is your destination, don’t give it up unless you have a good idea of how much you want to be charged and are ready to negotiate.
Walk up to the driver and ask if their meter (same as a taxi) works, they will either tell you it’s broken or ask you where you’re headed. Either way insist by asking if it works again, look as stubborn as you can (every now and then they may just choose to drive away at this point).
If they respond it’s broken walk away or get ready to negotiate.
To negotiate, say half the price you are willing to pay first followed by the destination: “10 for Marviya Nagar metro,” this will usually get you within the ball park of your intended price, if you’re lucky they’ll agree just for double the amount.
If their meter works however, make sure they reset it to 25 rupees (the first piece of advice I was given at lunch on the first day of my trip), by then they’ll probably be a bit irritated because they’ve been asking you for your destination this whole time, so you can tell them where you’re headed, if it’s close by they’ll offer you a good deal and ignore the meter, otherwise the meter is your friend, the price on it is always respected.
The almost Legos
I’ve recently developed an interest for Lego knock-offs. A few months ago in Hong Kong I came across some incredibly unique and creative copies of the world famous brick maker. As I started exploring Delhi I was curious to see what that scene might look like here.
My first venture into a toy store in Khan Market was surprisingly fruitful leading me to find my first knock-off brand, Sluban. I’ve now come across about five, Sluban is by far the most common. It’s funny to look for Legos in Delhi because a lot of stores will advertise having Legos but don’t carry any, or a very limited selection.
It’s not surprise when you see their cost, Legos sell here at about the same price as in the US meaning they are even more of a luxury toy, the copies are much more accessible and will often imitate Lego series set by set (ie. Avengers, City, Friends). Bellow are a few of the sets I’ve found, a lot of them have framed their branding around a single aspect of Legos such as “Best Lock” or “Smart Bricks.”
The crowds and queues
You usually notice it first in traffic, the streets are crowded with compact masses of cars, motorcycles, bicycles, bicycle carts and auto-rickshaws, but these masses are constantly shifting as smaller vehicles trickle to the front and larger ones realign in an uninterrupted succession of honking. This process results in each vehicle having a pretty optimized footprint. It also results in what at first feels like brash line-cutting and aggressive manoeuvres, until you realize it’s not about you getting cut-off, it’s about a more effective whole. Maybe.
The same is true of queues, there can be no daydreaming in queues here, nor should there be a gap between your shoulders and your neighbors’!
I’d get very frustrated at first when someone would appear before me when I expected to be next in line but I quickly learned that standing your ground or even sneaking in front of others without reprimand can feel incredibly addicting.
The street jobs
Delhi is filled street businesses, some are run off carts, others under tarps stretched across bamboo poles, others (maybe my favorite yet) just require a chair and an open suitcase with a mirror and some scissors in it.
As frugal as their logistics may appear to be there is an impressive degree of standardization from one outdoor barber to the next or between outdoor dry cleaners. It’s unclear if this was an organic process of replication or if there is an open source repository of How-To tutorials on opening any kind of outdoor business you’d like to start.
I feel guilty for saying this because I’m sure their owners wouldn’t mind trading their current setups for air-conditioned spaces, but as an outsider, those businesses seem to give a lot of life to the streets which would otherwise just be car corridors, you will often see clusters of people mingling around these businesses. Here is a list of some of the ones I’ve seen in no particular order:
Cobblers, fruit juice, vegetable and water vendors, barbers, dry cleaners, bike mechanics, car washers, key makers.
The laundry service
Early on in the trip I’ve been asking people I meet about local apps and platforms they enjoy using. Whatsapp and Uber have been common responses, Zomato and Swiggy (both competitors in food delivery and Yelp-like services), I’ve since also found out about PayTM (a Goggle wallet meets Paypal and Ebay?), the Airtel app which lets me track my phone plan, Quikr and OLX which are both online marketplaces for second hand products in India (like Craigslist in the US), OlaCabs (a Lyft-like Uber competitor) and the last one, PickMyLaundry, a sort of Wash.io (RIP) on-demand laundry service (you guessed it) which makes a lot more sense in India than in the US considering how much more challenging it can be here to come by or invest in your own laundry setup.
PickMyLaundry has a very detailed set of offerings on their app, once your request is sent someone comes by your place with a very large backpack and a hand-held scale. They show you methodically they’ve accounted for the weight of the bag and proceed to weigh the whole amount of laundry you’ve submitted and your cost is based on the quantity (in Kg) of the load. The laundry is brought back to you 48 hrs later in a tight little bag. I was surprised that unlike Uber, the transaction is paid in cash upon delivery. There are multiple similar app-based laundry services around Delhi, it seems like it may depend on where you live in the city.
I didn’t need to describe the process in such detail but I really enjoyed the amount of care and attention the person put into fulfilling their task (only to forget the backpack in the staircase, not sure how… My landlord had to call them to come back and pick it up again).
The distinct Realities
For a couple days I was surprised that there was so little street life in the sense that there were no cafes or tables to sit at on the sidewalks and take a break, I was looking for a very specific experience I was used to.
Once I distanced myself from my initial misreading I realized the streets are full of life, aside from the open air businesses like barber and repair shops, you have men (much more than women) hanging out together in improvised clusters of chairs an sofas, by food stalls under large umbrellas and trees shielding them from the sun, or later in the evening, older men playing cards on table cloths stretched on the ground and kids playing cricket or soccer.
There is life in the streets but not one I can currently access, one that ins’t dependent on someone putting a price-tag on my desire to have a coffee in the street so I can people watch but rather one closely tied to personal bonds, a willingness and ability to speak and communicate as members of a neighborhood and a community.
Being in the public eye here is one of the most apparent signs of the wealth inequality, if you are part of the crowd spending time in the street as a form of leisure, whether you live there or not, you live in a drastically different reality from those who choose (and can afford) to go sit in a cafe, in an office or at home. No surprise there, nor is it specific to Delhi at all, however the way this city work exacerbates this separation.
It’s hard to put into words but financial status here often manifests itself through isolation: in nooks of the city, on rooftops, in secluded air-conditioned cafes and bars, away from the hustle and bustle as many websites tend to put it. One’s ability to teleport themselves around the city, unseen by those on in the street is a fundamental aspect of social standing.
In a way it’s a form of wealth-enabled erasure that conceals one social group from the other. A division reinforced by a strong language barrier. It’s also something that multiple friends at the karaoke night and other night events have purposefully (and proudly?) emphasized by pointing out: “Bet that’s not what you expected coming to Delhi!”
Any city you go to you will find a hidden elite (and within it many other layers of wealth), night scenes that are part urban legend part reality, the only difference is that only in Delhi have I been able to witness some of it.
Capturing these moments has helped me challenge myself and go from identifying isolated quirks to looking for patterns, recurring instances and social dynamics. I’m eager to learn more about this city and its ways, something I won’t even come close to as an outsider looking in, which has made me eager to pick up some rudimentary Hindi as soon as possible. It will also undoubtedly require some light-shedding by my new friends here in Delhi and at Quicksand, looking forward to learning more about this world and its multiple realities.