Tuesday, December 13, 2011

IN SEARCH OF OLD DELHI

Namaste! Welcome to India. At the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi.

1976 - that was my first visit to New Delhi, and my first trip overseas. I was 28 then and thrilled to bits that I was finally going to visit the country of my birth - if you believe in past lives and reincarnation.

It's still fresh in my mind. The freezing cold as I stepped out of the plane at 5.00am in the Indian winter, the exotic smell of spices in the air and the exciting anticipation of the adventures that lay ahead. A whole month on my own to explore this ancient sub-continent with just a backpack of clothes. No hotel reservations, no itinerary and no friends in India. My mother thought I was absolutely insane to venture abroad alone. And of all countries to start with, why India, she asked. But why not, I replied.

Opened in 1982, the iconic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium underwent major renovations
to meet international standards to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the
XIX Commonwealth Games in Oct 2010.

The New Delhi of 2011 is hardly recognizable to me, thanks in part to the 19th Commonwealth Games which the city hosted for the first time last October. The city underwent massive construction and renovation in preparation for the international sports event. It was an opportunity for the city to showcase India as an emerging economic power.

Taking the metro is the most efficient way to see the sprawling city. Get a tourist day pass to
save on fares and the hassle of queuing for tickets.
Looking down at the expressway near Lajpat Nagar station. The traffic gets heavier as the day progresses.

But I was more interested in seeking out Old Delhi. Was it still there beneath the veneer of modernity?

I found the answer when I revisited Chandni Chowk. The old city centre seems to have been bypassed even as development envelopes the rest of the city. After 35 years since my last visit, not much has changed for the poor and the homeless as these pictures below show. Is this a reflection of the government's failure to address urban poverty?

Rows of shops lining the streets of Chandhi Chowk. Little signs of progress and development here.
The homeless live on the sidewalks, often next to piles of uncollected garbage like the one below.
Rummaging for recyclables. Littering, spitting and even peeing in the streets are still common in the older and poorer parts of the city.
Absolute chaos on the streets as rickshaws, autos (tuk-tuk), buses, motorcycles, cars and pedestrians fight for right of way. Note the absence of lanes.
Earning an honest living: tailor, barber and bicycle repairman share work space. These guys can teach entrepreneurs a thing or two about cutting down on overhead expenses!

Is it possible to retain the old while embracing the new? Can there be a happy compromise? When it comes to urban renewal and redevelopment, Singapore has shown that it can be done without sacrificing its historical and cultural heritage.

Chinatown Singapore in the early 1900s. Source: Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board
Chinatown today attracts both locals and tourists. Source: William Cho (Flickr)

3 comments:

Antares said...

Excellent combination of photos & text. Topnotch stuff, my dear!

Bananazą®‡ said...

Pitiful to see the homeless sleeping in that condition. In the midst of coming up with an entry on 'barber' and your pix caught my attention. Seek you kind permission to use that pix with due credit linking back to you. tQ

el-f said...

Sure, you are welcome to use the barber pic.