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Delhi's New Beauty

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Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

“Ten years ago Indians didn’t eat out frequently,” says Ketaki Narain, a longtime resident. “The best restaurants were necessarily in hotels, catering to tourists and businesspeople. Now, as Indians grow wealthier and go out more, we’re seeing more freestanding places.” Delhi has hundreds of restaurants serving regional Indian cuisines, from Maharashtrian to Bengali. But younger Delhiites—some of whom dine out every night—prefer non-Indian food. Tabula Rasa, one of the new breed of restaurant-nightclubs, serves dishes from every continent: African chicken stew, Australian lamb, Brazilian pork chops, Spanish ham, Chinese pot stickers.

At the enormously popular Olive Beach, a whitewashed bar straight out of Mykonos, you can order top-shelf caipiroskas till 1 a.m., while Louis Armstrong warbles “Summertime” and Bollywood starlets preen around the fire pit. The original branch in Mumbai is a film-crowd favorite.

Hold on. Is Delhi becoming… Mumbai?

Like London and Paris, Delhi and Mumbai are forever twinned as rivals and antipodes. The capital is the society bastion and type-A player—competing in every arena from handbags to weddings. As a friend says, “Delhi likes to show.” No wonder all the top Indian fashion houses are based here. Mumbai, on the other hand, is aggressively unpretentious: a city of frayed jeans and T-shirts, not the saris or salwar kameez you find in Delhi. (Rarely do you see denim here.)

“Delhiites have an obsession with the trappings of wealth, status, and very conspicuous consumption,” says Payal Kohli, editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure’s South Asian edition. Ashok Malik agrees: “There’s a grasping, mercenary quality to Delhi that comes from its being a frontier town. Historically it was a gateway for invaders; people here were more aggressive as a result. That’s still the case today.”

Two events defined, or redefined, Delhi’s character. The first, in 1947, was Partition. As India cleaved in two, untold numbers of Muslims left the capital for the new state of Pakistan, and thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fled Punjab for Delhi, changing its demographic mix overnight. The capital would remain for decades a predominantly Punjabi city.

The second event, though not nearly so traumatic, had broader effects. “Delhi’s transformation really began in 1991, with the opening of India’s economy,” Saran explains. Liberalization unleashed a flood of foreign investment. Hyundai, Dell, Sony, GE, and others set up vast office parks and factories around the capital. Deregulation of the television industry inspired a wave of media start-ups. (India now has more than 60 news channels, the majority of them with headquarters in Delhi.) Between 1991 and 2001, as new arrivals poured in from every Indian state—entrepreneurs, educated workers, illiterate farmers seeking construction jobs—Greater Delhi’s population grew by 5 million. Rohit lives across the river in East Delhi, in a middle-class neighborhood that’s 90 percent “outsiders” (his term): Tamils, Gujaratis, Keralites. India’s capital is now a more accurate representation of the entire nation. Of course, the whole idea of what India is has changed a great deal of late, and it is in Delhi that the future is being written.

Drive 10 miles southwest of the Qutb Minar (the world’s tallest brick minaret, erected in 1193), past the brand-new Cyber City complex, and you’ll arrive at a dust-choked, 32-acre construction site—the future Mall of India, in the burgeoning suburb of Gurgaon. Designed by the team behind the Mall of America near Minneapolis, and scheduled for completion next year, it will be one of the largest shopping centers on the planet.

In just over a decade, globalization—and the huge burst in the service economy—has utterly transformed Delhi’s perimeter, which readers of Thomas Friedman will recognize as Outsourcing Central. Although fewer than a quarter of all Indians work in the service sector (compared with 60 percent in agriculture), it accounts for more than half of India’s GDP. British Airways’ worldwide call center is in Noida, another futuristic suburb across the Yamuna River, where creepy signs point the way to Biotech City and Sector 12-b.

Gurgaon, which 15 years ago was a rural farming community (gaon means village), is now a full-fledged satellite metropolis. Apartment towers named Magnolia and Belaire tout “24-hour electricity and water” as a selling point, along with the requisite swimming pool, health club, and lily pond. Many residents are fleeing central Delhi for enclaves such as this, with their toll expressways and 10,000-car parking lots. If the story of Delhi in the 20th century was one of ceaseless migration to the city, the narrative of the last decade is that of the long exodus to the outskirts—for those who can afford it.

This wasn’t at all what Edwin Lutyens had in mind. The London-born architect who created New Delhi remains, nearly a century on, a controversial figure. As Sengupta notes, Lutyens had little affection for Indian architecture, deeming it “cumbersome, poorly coordinated, and tiresome to the Western mind.” When the British decided in 1911 to relocate the colonial capital, Shahjahanabad was considered too unhygienic and dangerous a location. So Lutyens set about conjuring a new city from the slopes of Raisina Hill, well removed from what he termed the “nuisances” of Old Delhi.

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