Tom & Payal’s mehendi and sangeet party at The Manor, Friends Colony West, Delhi, Feb 24, 2012.
As Tom put it during our car ride from Indira Gandhi Airport to my hotel in South Delhi: highways in India are, at least, totally democratic. Lawless as they seem to terrified Americans, lanes are shared equally by pedestrians, un-helmeted cyclists and motorcyclists, cars, 18-wheelers and the occasional ox-drawn cart…more to follow about my experiences as passenger and pedestrian on the streets of India. Meanwhile, Payal was telling me that my best options for getting around the city for site-seeing purposes would be taxis and auto-rickshaws, and that the practically brand new Delhi Metro was a perfectly good alternative, as well.
Being intimately acquainted with the concept of subways, I was instantly interested in this option. What could be more familiar in a completely foreign country than underground public transportation? Commuters in big cities around the world surely have the same needs: affordability, reliable service, basic personal safety and access to a city’s important places. The Delhi Metro seemed a good choice as much for comparative research as a fellow commuter in a big, global city as for a cheap and useful way to see the sites as a tourist.
It did not disappoint! The spotless stations; wide, vaulted platforms; and suburb/exurb connectivity reminded me of the DC Metro, while the graphic design of maps and logo reminded me of the London Tube. The people watching was a tie between the MTA (diversity and sheer number of fellow passengers) and the Paris Metro (their beauty and impeccable style).
But, naturally, the Delhi Metro is entirely its own thing. For one thing, it’s mad cheap: you can buy a 1-day Tourist Travel Card for Rs100 ($2), plus a Rs50 ($1) deposit, which you get back when you return the card. It’s got metal detectors: my first time in the system, I stepped blithely up to the men’s line and was immediately waved over to the women’s line by a compassionate and quick-witted lady guard. And, best of all, the single-sex theme carries through all the way to ‘Women Only’ train cars: I found myself loving their peace and quiet, so much so that I would not at all mind a few Women Only cars on the 4/5 train, especially during rush hour.
Why? Because, at least as far as the Delhi Metro is concerned, Women Only subway cars are empirically cleaner, quieter, less…full of men. I adore men, but anyone who enjoys clean, quiet environments and not being stared at by men might reasonably prefer to commute in a Women Only subway car. Just saying. But with Tom’s observation about the ‘democratic’ highways of India in mind, I wondered about the social separation of gender underground, and elsewhere in public. What an intriguing challenge to my cultural assumptions about gender and democracy. Clearly I’m coming from a very specific cultural viewpoint: gender is such a complicated subject for Americans (New Yorkers?), and apparently, such a simple one elsewhere. But is single-sex anything really so simple…or democratic?
Not that I’m prepared to answer that question, except to note that the value of traveling (on a daily commute or around the world) does seem to be related to the experience of sharing the lanes.
While on tour in Croatia & Slovenia in 2008 for Must Don’t Whip ‘Um, Philippa Thompson was telling me about a friend of hers who always photographs street art wherever she travels, because it’s a good way to know where a city’s head is secretly at. As with many other aspects of my recent trip to India, I found the graffiti in Delhi elegant, yet perplexing. For example, “DISSENT OVERDOSE” – a slogan I saw tagged on an overpass on Sardar Patel Marg on the way from South Delhi to Bijwasan – definitely caught my eye, but what does it mean, and to whom? It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one asking, and I suppose that’s the point of any good work of art, especially if it’s so emphatically and intentionally in the public eye: If we’re not asking ourselves what it means, we’re probably not even noticing it in the first place.
A week before my trip to Delhi, I dream of learning to ride an elephant. There’s no saddle to sit on, just a rough wool blanket right on the crown of the elephant’s head. I tumble off and am sitting in the dirt, defeated. Standing behind me is an Indian man, very thin and taut, shirtless but wearing a turban, who insists that I climb back on board that enormous creature and learn to ride properly. I’m afraid, but he insists. He’s a trainer of some kind – of people more than elephants. He’s all business; therefore, I do as he tells me, and when I’m seated again on the elephant’s head, I realize that the elephant doesn’t mind my being there, and that there is nothing to fear. I proceed to practice steering right and left by pressing the back of his ears with the soles of my feet. It feels good, like pressing my feet on the mat in tadasana. Not being very proficient, however, I steer him directly through the tall marsh grass and into a deep, calm, silty brown river. How can I describe the way the water feels? It’s like a grandmother’s embrace, soft and loving. The elephant is completely submerged, but I’m perched on his head, mostly high and dry, if somewhat perplexed. Again, the elephant doesn’t seem to mind at all. He knows I’m there to practice, and he has the virtue of patience.