Perhaps the question I dread most upon returning to the U.S. is this one: so, what is it like there? It’s like this only: “It varies.” Those are the first words out of my mouth when I answer questions about the U.S., whether about culture or weather or law or food, and they are true here, only more so. How can it not? Over 1.2 billion people–quadruple the U.S. population–in an area just over a third as large, speaking over 400 languages, twenty-two of which are scheduled (recognized) regional languages.
My answer to the question of what it is like is also schizophrenic in the extreme, and incomplete. I’ve lived on the Deccan Plateau in the silicon city, and on the Gangetic plains in the capital city–by some accounts, the place that resulted after seven or more cities were constructed, destroyed, and conglomerated over the last 2500 years. I’ve ventured north to Ladakh, in the high desert mountains near the Tibetan border, but I’ve only dipped my toes into the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. I’ve never ventured through much of the center, be it Madhya Pradesh or Andhra Pradesh or the tribal belt, and never ventured to Kolkata and the northeast–the furthest east I’ve been is possibly about three kilometers east of that terminus of the Delhi metro in Uttar Pradesh.
Despite everything, this place was quickly home. I hadn’t fully expected that, but the palm trees lining the toll road to the city, during the post-midnight drive on first arrival, gave me a sense that all would be well. We had previously visited this country in 2009, on the way home from our honeymoon in Sri Lanka, a 24 hour stop-over with a friend’s parents and aunt in Mumbai. I could see why our friend thought New York a sleepy town in comparison, but also could not fathom living in a place with roads like that. We returned to Mumbai a year ago. It’s a lovely place, great for walking, and second only to Miami in art deco buildings (if one can solve the housing question, and monsoon issues aside).
In this crowded space I have become fascinated by the trees and the birds, even simple crows, but on the look-out for the odd peacock, and in love with the free green parrots that dine twice daily on my neighbor’s terrace. In every season, a tree is in bloom: plumeria or frangipani, the graceful temple tree; joyful cannonballs with their poofs; red African tulip trees that drop palm-sized blooms, slippery when wet; towering purple jacaranda; yellow golden shower trees that mark summer; and my favorite, brick-red gulmohur with the fern-like leaves.
Around my first home, the land was red-clay dirt, with groves of eucalyptus, bananas, and coconuts, and the rows of agave that always bring a smile to my face. Signs are often hand-painted, with ads for local and Italian brands of concrete covering the sides of buildings, and words marked out in the bubbly, jalebi shapes of Kannada. Roofs are red Mangalore tiles, per one tradition, and the marble floors and granite walls still amaze me. Trees lined the streets in my neighborhood, meeting overhead or crossing the full span, and at dusk, fruit bats flap overhead. The city is primarily new, a cantonment town before Independence (a village before that), and after 1947 growth came through universities, HAL and later technological companies (first among then, Infosys), and of course the beneficial climate.
My second home is the second largest city in the world, after Tokyo, at 25 million (projected to reach 36 million by 2030). The national capital region has a population of 54 million. The sum of the top five metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S. — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston — is 56 million. And yet it has hardly the number of skyscrapers that Tokyo or Chicago has. Still, I have never been in a city that felt so large, really, in parts, so grand. Lutyens‘ boulevards are wide, and set off estate-sized buildings, including at least one by Charles Correa, and others more of a Soviet block style, though with more humor. Intermixed, too, is the history: here a Mughal tomb, there a Mughal tomb, oh, look, a stepwell. There are spacious public green spaces also: I’ve seen a street theatre festival at Hauz Khas Complex, run a 5K (5.5, given the signage) at Lodi Gardens, and walked among picnickers playing charades at Mehrauli Archeological Park. In old walled city, abrupt streets with low-hanging bundles of telecom wires date back to the pre-British time, and a few remaining wooden and iron building mix with the concrete and corrugated steel. As night falls, thousands sleep on handcarts, on ice cream trucks and refrigerated water carts, and under the flyovers and foot over-bridges. And on a dry night, standing on our terrace, you can see Orion.
There is so much I will miss. Mangoes stacked in pyramids on street-side carts. Strands of jasmine, worn with a braid. The marigold delivery man, who throws garlands to balconies from his motorcycle. The efficient packing exercise in which drivers of two-wheelers filter forward at traffic lights to fill all available space at the front, and the hot exhaust on my ankles as I wait among them. Pouring filter coffee between the cup and the tumbler to cool it and froth it. The dog whose preferred nap is on top of a car across from the office. The colonial sign, commemorating deaths in the 1857 rebellion and its new partner, honoring those who lost their lives in the First War of Independence. The depths of history and diversity ever before us. And the people, oh Lord, the people.
As we prepare to leave, there have been two particularly sweet experiences in the city. On the Thursday before Ramzan began, we went to Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, a Sufi shrine dating to roughly 1350, where devotional hymns are chanted every Thursday evening. At this point, we have visited a number of tombs and forts with marble carved into rhythmic jalli and inlaid in red sandstone. This was the first, though, that was not a museum, but instead packed with people praying, listening to music, milling around, selling and buying and begging and greeting. On the second Sunday of Ramzan, we were at Jama Masjid at sundown, watching as families filled the square with rugs, preparing for iftar by slicing bananas and mangoes and papaya into salads as they waited on the sun. And at each of these places, there was a small cultural note that I, a Louisianan, loved. In Nizamuddin, we went for kebabs, which were served wrapped in aluminum foil bearing Tony Chachere’s script name in black and white; at Jama Masdid, one family’s rug was neatly taped-together squares of wrappers for Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtators. BTR to BLR to DEL and back again.