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Delhi's New Beauty

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Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

Whole swaths of the city are still given over to gardens, parks, and protected woodlands. In New Delhi, each major thoroughfare is lined with a particular species of tree—neems on Janpath, tamarinds on Akbar Road, banyans on Willingdon Crescent. Then there’s Lodi Garden, one of the world’s great urban parks. I suppose New York could compete if Central Park had 14th-century tombs of Afghan emperors or thousands of emerald-colored parakeets. Lodi’s treetops are aflutter with birds: black drongos, Indian tree pies, mynahs, red-vented bulbuls. But the park is also a functional playground: joggers in tracksuits rest on crumbling mausoleum stairs; yogis do sun salutations beside the pond; vendors proffer glasses of cool jal jeera—salty limeade with cumin and mint—while picnicking families keep an eye on greedy macaques. (Wild monkeys are a growing nuisance in Delhi’s parks; the city has hired a corps of a hundred monkey-catchers to solve the problem.)

“Every third day, I travel to my office and see something that wasn’t there before,” says Manish Arora, one of Delhi’s preeminent fashion designers. “It’s changing so fast, and I must say it’s changing for the good.” Flush with new money and eager to impress, the capital is on a serious civic improvement drive. One motivation is the quadrennial Commonwealth Games, coming to Delhi in October 2010. The Indian government is spending $15 billion in preparation: updating infrastructure, expanding highways, spiffing up monuments, even—horrors!—outlawing street-food vendors, which in this town is tantamount to banning water, so beloved are Delhi’s sidewalk chaat stalls. (The ban is enforced only sporadically.) Delhi’s notorious air pollution has been dramatically reduced as well, thanks to a 2002 law requiring that buses, taxis, and auto rickshaws switch to compressed natural gas. The change is visible—and the air, for once, is not.

The first phase of a long-planned Metro system opened in 2002; 1.2 million people rode it the first day. Everybody loves the Metro. Even South Delhi socialites rave , as if riding a subway for the first time (they probably are). So beloved—so exotic—is the Metro that it’s become a bona fide tourist attraction; people ride it to places they have no interest in going, just to say they did. A clear-voiced announcer who sounds uncannily like Judi Dench tells you precisely when the train will arrive, please mind the gap, but a notice board reminds you this is still India: “Traveling on the roof will involve a fine of 50 rupees [$1.16] or imprisonment for one month.”

The Metro’s hub is a sleek, skylit terminal in Connaught Place. “CP” was the nexus of privilege and glamour in the twilight of the Raj. Opened in 1931, it consisted of three concentric rings of white stucco buildings framed by classical colonnades and shopping arcades. Intended to rival Chandni Chowk, two miles north, as the city’s main market, Connaught Place was also the Raj’s deliberate rebuke—a model of European order and sophistication. Here were the glitziest cinemas, the major newspaper offices, the most fashionable tailors and jewelers, and the finest restaurants: Gaylord, Embassy, La Bohème, Wenger’s, Volga, and Kwality (which spawned the national ice cream brand).

After a time the arcades grew dirty and derelict. The well-to-do stopped coming for their saris and suits. Parking became a nightmare. By the end of the 20th century, CP was seen as tacky and down-market, and appeared bound for the same fate as New York’s Times Square.

However, like Times Square in the 1990’s, Connaught Place is in the throes of renewal. Some of the façades are actually white again. The once-vacant dirt lot in the center ring is now a grassy park bedecked with flower beds, directly above the Metro station. Trendy restaurants are returning to the arcades, joined by state-of-the-art cinemas and new coffee-bar chains like Barista. Meanwhile, a few stalwarts soldier on, including A. Godin & Co., the famous sitar shop; and the beloved, 74-year-old Nirula’s—where, as Dilliwallas of a certain age remember, schoolchildren who scored high marks on exams were rewarded with free sundaes.

In the early nineties Nirula’s was one of the few places where you could enjoy a cold drink and functional air-conditioning. Delhi, for all its chaotic energy, felt decidedly provincial back then. “We used to say that the only culture in Delhi was agriculture,” jokes Rohit Saran, editor of Business Today magazine. It was hard to find a beer outside of a hotel bar. There were certainly no massive malls, no multiplexes, and no McDonald’s—just a lone Wimpy in Connaught Place (where, to cater to Hindus, the hamburgers were made with lamb). Neither Coke nor Pepsi had pierced India’s insular economy; the market belonged to local brands like Campa Cola and the charmingly misspelled Thums Up. Indian television ran few Western shows besides Baywatch, which didn’t count—back then it aired in every nation on earth. At that time the lines were clear: there was the rest of the world, and there was India. You left the other behind the moment you passed customs.

Let’s just say that is no longer the case. You can now buy pretty much anything you want. Coke and Pepsi are ubiquitous; Thums Up and Campa Cola have become obscure regional brands. Heroes is a top-rated TV show. Delhi has been globalized, monetized, maximalized: a city in the thrall of cigar bars and Harvey Wallbangers, chimichangas and PlayStation 3’s. Where once was the drone of a harmonium is now the pulse of Finnish lounge music. And where once was a pot of biryani is now just as often a plate of risotto.

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