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Delhi's New Beauty

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Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

Influenced by the fashionable garden-suburb movement, Lutyens envisioned a wide-open plan of sweeping lawns, radial boulevards, and grand monuments—a deliberate echo of Washington and Paris, with India Gate as a sandstone Arc de Triomphe. The manner was decidedly Occidental, but despite his misgivings, Lutyens did incorporate Indian elements—domes, loggias, chhatris (canopied pavilions), and jaalis (latticed screens)—into his classically inspired edifices.

New Delhi was finally inaugurated in 1931; the British enjoyed it for only 16 more years. Yet Lutyens’s plan endures to this day, a symbol of the glory and vanity of the Raj. The writer William Dalrymple calls New Delhi “one of the most elegant urban landscapes anywhere in the world.” High-ranking Indian ministers still reside in Lutyens’s gracious bungalows, with their broad lots and chalk-white façades. New Delhi was conceived strictly as a government town, like Canberra or Brasília, and civilians were kept safely outside; the original plan accommodated just 70,000 people. But with New Delhi’s population now swollen to five times that, the bungalows take up increasingly precious space. In spite of their landmark status, Lutyens’s buildings are succumbing to wear and tear and encroaching development; a significant minority is lobbying to raze them altogether. The World Monuments Fund lists “Lutyens’s Bungalow Zone” among the world’s most endangered cultural sites.

Lutyens’s gently curving parkways, unique in India, made getting around the capital far easier. The problem was that they encouraged everyone and his nephew to buy a car. Delhi now has three times as many automobiles as Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai combined. (In Mumbai even CEO’s ride commuter trains to work. But Delhi is a city of committed drivers, no matter how much traffic they must endure.)

One has to admire the sheer nerve of Lutyens and all the would-be Delhi-tamers who followed. Imposing order on any city is a herculean task; trying to do so here is downright quixotic. Delhi is, as Sengupta writes, “a cityscape that refuses to listen to reason.” Along any street in the older quarters, look up, and you’ll see hundreds of exposed and frayed electrical wires, lashed together with barely a thread. Sparks occasionally shower the sidewalk. No one pays any heed. This ramshackle, improvised power grid is typical of Delhi’s infrastructural anarchy. Sixty percent of the city’s residents live in dwellings that are unauthorized or patently unsafe, and not just in slums and shantytowns—the dilapidation extends even to middle-class neighborhoods. Lately officials have been cracking down on illegal construction, but it’s a futile effort, like those old smash-the-weasel arcade games.

In parts of Delhi it seems as if the mold of a metropolis has been abruptly slapped down over a rural village. Here and there the old world pops up from the rubble to carry on its business: a farmer steers his cart across six lanes of traffic, a barefoot girl draws a bucket from a well beside a water park, an ox chews the lawn at a five-star hotel. Yes, the country dwellers came to the city, but the city also came to them, and in most cases swallowed them whole.

It’s this perpetual collision of what is and what came before that makes Delhi so compelling and, it must be said, so challenging for travelers. Feeling violated, confounded, and downright angry are not unusual reactions here, nor are they always unjustified. Service in shops and restaurants remains officious at best, and otherwise blithely indifferent. Taxi drivers now have fancier cabs—the 1948-designed Ambassadors are gradually being phased out—but they drive like lunatics, and are still intent on introducing you to their entrepreneurial cousins. (I was all but hijacked one morning when I directed a cabbie to a jewelry shop in Bengali Market. “You want gold?I know much better place—we go there,” he announced. Protest was futile. I finally fibbed that I was donating a kidney to the owner of this particular shop and if I didn’t arrive within the hour he would likely die.)

Prepare yourself: Delhi’s airport is a shameful mess. The main terminal, purportedly under renovation, looks as if a tornado tore through it. Huge mesh nets suspended above the immigration desks catch bits of plaster that actually fall off the ceiling as you watch. A veil of blue smoke hangs over baggage claim—whether from tobacco or a chemical fire is hard to discern. Rats scamper through duty-free.

Smile! You’re in India! This is the way of things here, and it’s useless to complain, even if it’s impossible not to. Traveling here isn’t “for everyone,” though I have a feeling we’d all be better off if everyone on earth could see India, in all its ragged glory.

And, what, meanwhile, has become of Old Delhi, the most ragged and glorious place of all?Thankfully, it endures—as beguiling as ever, with much of its peculiar charm intact. This is one area where a Western visitor can still be totally ignored; Shahjahanabad’s denizens are too consumed with their work and errands to notice a stranger in their midst.

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