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Delhi's New Beauty

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Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

Delhi has been described as an “unlovable city.”

That’s nonsense, but one can see how the claim arose. India’s capital, so the canard goes, is a city of migrants and refugees from all corners of India whose ancestries (and loyalties) are elsewhere, and who still regard Delhi as a temporary home. Every cabdriver here can enumerate the charms of his far-off birthplace, even if he hasn’t been back in decades. But few wax rhapsodic about Delhi. No single community may call the city its own, nor can any group be said to belong here. “People don’t come because they necessarily love the city,” says my friend Ashok Malik, a columnist for India’s Pioneer newspaper. “Primarily they come to make a name for themselves.”

Mumbai has Bollywood and the financial markets, Kolkata its intellectual life, Varanasi the holy Ganges. But what, besides ambition, is Delhi really about?Once the sole domain of government bureaucrats and babus (clerks), it’s now also a global hub for fashion, media, business, technology, and manufacturing as well. With the dozens of languages, ethnicities, and agendas that coexist here, Delhi is impossible to pin down. Even the origins of its name are indeterminate. One possible source is the Persian dehleez, or “threshold”—an apt symbol for a town full of arrivistes. Travelers, too, have seen Delhi as a doorway to be passed through, quickly, en route to more exotic points: Jaipur, Goa, the Taj Mahal. For visitors and residents alike, Delhi was what happened while you were making other plans.

What we’ve overlooked is a singular city, one finally fulfilling its role as a world capital. Home to India’s largest mosque, the world’s biggest Hindu temple, and South Asia’s largest shopping mall, the capital is nothing if not outsize. “The one persistent identity Delhi has always had is that of power, which has been its unique selling point for centuries,” writes Ranjana Sengupta in her insightful new book, Delhi Metropolitan. Power has taken many forms here—from the sandstone forts of the Mughals and the blinding-white bungalows of the Raj to the smoked-glass tech parks and call centers of the present day. But the city can also disarm you with intimate moments: on the tranquil grounds of Humayun’s Tomb, where only the flap of pigeon wings breaks the pervasive hush; in the chilly, shell-like hall of the Baha’i Lotus Temple, from which the clamor of the city seems miles away; in the entrancing Sufi Qawwali singing at Nizamuddin’s Shrine; even in the quieter corners of Shahjahanabad (a.k.a. Old Delhi), where car horns give way to the squeak of an unoiled spinning wheel.

Unlovable?Hardly.

I first Visited Delhi in December 1993, planning to stay three days. I didn’t leave for three weeks. Those 22 days still rank among the most soul-stirring of my life. On my second night in town, I walked the entirety of Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s half-mile-long bazaar. A winter chill hung in the air, along with moped exhaust and the aroma of fresh chapatis; I’d brought along a sweater but was soon warmed by the heat of street-grill fires, sputtering generators, and a thousand bodies leaping to avoid bullock carts and pedicabs. Stray cows lapped at the pavement. Visions burst out of the shadows. The mere act of walking down the street was as thrilling as a skydive. It certainly wasn’t easy: the pollution was overwhelming, the squalor so distressing that at times I thought I’d have to take the next flight home. But it was too late: on that night in Chandni Chowk, I had fallen in love with India.

I soon realized that the challenge with Delhi, a sprawling city by any measure—how else to accommodate nearly 17 million people?—was in locating a focal point, because there isn’t one. Delhi’s successive rulers didn’t just rework the same central core, as Sengupta explains; instead they built whole new settlements, often not contiguous with the previous ones. Present-day Delhi contains the remnants of at least seven different cities—from the legendary city of Indraprastha, on the banks of the Yamuna River, to the Mughal city of Shahjahanabad, founded in 1638 A.D. two miles north. When the British resolved in 1911 to move their colonial capital from Calcutta to Delhi, they chose a remote site five miles southwest of Shahjahanabad; here they created a grand, European-style city from scratch and called it New Delhi. (That name refers specifically to the capital district, while Delhi is still used for the city as a whole.)

Delhi’s centers of gravity have kept right on shifting. As it expanded through the 20th century, the city was organized into self-contained vihars or “colonies” (Lodi Colony, Jor Bagh, Vasant Vihar, and so on), each with its own market, school, and services—and its own distinct character. Moving across the city, you get a sense that it is not just seven but a hundred discrete villages.

You also realize how shockingly green Delhi is. Riding in a taxi that first visit, mere blocks from Parliament, I stared dumbfounded as we passed a dense and seemingly endless forest. I asked the driver what it was, and he waved his hand dismissively: “That?That’s just jungle.” Jungle, in a city of 17 million! (It was actually the Central Ridge, a 2,134-acre reserve populated with jackals and wild boar.)

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