Indians are notoriously good at slagging each other off but taking offence when someone else does. I’ve recently been having conversations with foreigners new to Delhi who talk about the lack of civic sense, and I’ve noticed that Indians in the conversation tend to react badly, accusing outsiders of overreacting, or parrying their observations with irrelevant remarks about what a great ancient culture we are, or (worse) how it’s the same everywhere else, or (even worse) what an economic powerhouse we are.
It’s happened to me. When I moved back to Delhi in 1995, I remember having a conversation with a young lady to whom I was introduced at a party, who raised her threaded eyebrows at me and said, “So, what’s up? How do you like Delhi?” Being earnest and not well schooled in the ways of small talk, I told her. “Well, the thing is that nobody seems to have any civic sense in this city.” Her polite smile became rather strained. “When people throw something away, they just drop it right where they’re standing,” I continued. “Or they chuck it out of their car right onto the road!”
Today it wouldn’t really surprise me that her eyes glazed over and she walked away to another corner and studiously avoided me the rest of the evening, but at the time it did. At the time, I just wondered whether she agreed, or disagreed, and either way, why she didn’t seem to have anything to say about it.
But the truth is that there are only two possible ways to live in Delhi: either you insulate yourself from the daily frustrations and eyesores and injustices by erecting what Douglas Adams would call a Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) field; or by being daily bloodied, and having your sunny temperament shot to bits, by the same frustrations and eyesores and injustices. The people who don’t think Delhi’s non-existent civic sense is a big deal, tend to be people who are insulated from it by a rich layer of money, and armies of people who engage with the city and its denizens on their behalf.
Or they’re perpetrators themselves, like the older gentleman who squeezed his large car in front of mine at a petrol station tire pressure station. I marshalled my courage, got out of my car, and marched up to him. “There’s a line here,” I told him. “Oh, I didn’t see it,” he bellowed, invoking the marketing principle that if you say something loudly enough, other people with mistake it for the truth. “I think you’re incredibly rude,” I croaked, which made him sneer so hard that I was afraid he might inhale his lips.
Reading about the renewed drive to get beggars off the street in time for the Commonwealth Games, I can’t help but wonder what they’re going to do about the other sorts of eyesore. Like the fat hairy fellow with jewelled rings leaning out of his Mercedes to spit paan; or the householder who speaks to his or her domestic staff as if they’re naughty children—or speaks about them in their presence but in English, on the assumption that they won’t understand; or the person who jumps a queue without a shred of hesitation; or the driver who barges up to the top of a driving lane waiting to turn without worrying about the lanes of traffic being blocked behind. And that’s not even getting into the murders and thieving, from petty break-and-enter to the corporate and political crème-de-la-crème.
There is a school of thought that says that it isn’t productive to focus on this sort of thing—why ruin your peace of mind? To which my own response is, I hope I never find myself untouched by it.