Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Delhi Nails It (very long...)

In Which We Ride the Delhi Metro and Surf the Himalaya(n Coffee Shop's Wi-fi)

M says I should post something. I always feel like a blogpost without graphics doesn't really give you your money's worth unless you're like Paul Krugman or something, which, now in my thirties, I recognize at last that I am not. However, I am not cool enough to have a camera on my mo-bile wireless cellular telephone phone, nor do I have a phoneless camera. Thus, I will poach y'all some images and hope that suffices.

Some years ago I viewed with skepticism the beginnings of Delhi Metro. The whole of India is so and so often loosely held together, ancient, and charmingly jerry-rigged, that the idea of a subway in Delhi was just incomprehensible. Yet there were ongoing reports of workers being crushed by cranes (ouch, and unfortunately somewhat predictable...) and the traffic reroutings were hard to overlook. I had presumed, foolishly as always, that this was still somebody's pipe dream, but then this last time in Delhi in September I thunk I see'd a train going on one of the tracks.

So yesterday I was trying to get out of the 'ganj (backpacker ghetto extraordinaire, with lots of swell fresh off the plane tourists) so I could find a rickshaw-walla who would be willingly to only slightly gouge me, when I happened upon the Ramkrishna Ashram station. With a name that could be, only slightly erroneously, translated as 'Spiritual Retreat of the Incarnation of God Station' I think Elephant & Castle has slipped out of the number one Impressive Train Station Name spot. Maybe the fumes of the 'ganj had gotten to me, but for once I was roaming leisurely and without a 348567-item agenda, so what the hey, thunk I, this is a nugget of South Asian culture of which I should be aware, and it can only be so much worse than trying to debate a rickshaw-walla. After my recent experience with a one-day late train, and with all the rest of Indian Railways stations, employees, procedures, antiquated systems, crumbling stations, and god-awful toilets, which have been uniformly awful from Kerala to Kashmir, I maintained a guarded fatalism.

(Note: I like slow, crumbling India just fine, in fact better than incredibly praudyoginikaa [technological] Tron-resembling parts of America. But part of the joy of India is just how wackily off some stuff is, and getting used to the notion that that doesn't change the reality that my life is Just Fine.)

Probably will be, as so many other things, quaintly amusing and yet routinely disheartening, and certainly redolent with expectorated betel-juice, not that there's anything wrong with that. (Cue foreshadowing of the disillusionment of the cynic...)



By which I mean to say, wow. As in, mera madlab 'wow' hai, yaa ni 'WOW.'

It's just like a subway. Except faster, shinier, and better smelling than New York's, Chicago's, or Boston's, closely edging out D.C.'s, and I'll even say it trumps the London Underground.

The stations are clean, bright, shiny, and spacious.
The concourses are thoughtfully planned out to facilitate movement between lines. There is no graffiti (ahem, though I for one do miss grafitti.) The escalators all work.

People stand in line for tokens without rushing the windows in a gross display of Social Darwinism where not only the strongest but also the rudest prosper and the poor, weak, and demure are summarily and literally shoved aside.

A token costs 8-20 rupees, aka $.17-42.

The trains themselves are well-lit, fast, and run without fail. They have lots of straps for hanging on to, reserved seats for women and the handicapped, announcements about upcoming stations and transfers, and are clean and not at all smelly, unlike some other metropolitan transit I could mention.

There are particularly Indian announcements such as "Please do not sit on the floor of the train." And the British get a shout-out at every stop: "Mind the gap." (There is none.)

There remain some wrinkles to be ironed out, such as the certainty that those exiting a train will be washed back inside by a rushing tide of humanity. Letting other people off first--so seemingly sensible--is apparently not an intuitive notion, although in some stations people line up, single file, 20-long, on each side of the door, and a security guard stands in the middle to make sure people can get off. Then everyone crowds into the car, albeit in an orderly fashion.

I think the best part is, if I can say this without being completely superior, chauvinistic, colonial, and Orientalist (though I am, in fact, a member of the American Oriental Society) the whole project seems to have a salutory effect on the culture.

People are really calm, polite, and happy. The trains are quiet, with no blaring horns or scathing accusations over who cut off who in traffic.

Prices are more or less comparable to the bus, so that, unlike the IT wave, this development won't disproportionately serve the already-affluent while leaving the poor behind.

Perhaps best of all, this is a public multi-generational multi-gendered space. So much of India, at least the parts of India in which I move and have my being, is predominantly male and 14-40. I myself am male and 14-40, and so I am sympathetic to, if not afflicted by, the ambitions that that period of life engenders, and the consequent brusqueness and competition that result from that imperious-seeming drive.

But the Metro is a space where women and men and people of all ages converge. It's handicapped accessible. It's real cosmopolitanism. It's genteel, and nice. No one spits or smokes, drunkenness and harassment are verboten, no one tried to sell me anything. It's Handicapped Accessible. People seem to be really proud of it, and I even find, in random Google searches, physics-types saying how modern it is.

(Here the former Prime Minister rides in style--Go, Atal Beharee Vajpayee!)

Of course its not perfect--vide one particularly ascerbic and humorous review, for example. There are tiresome (to me) and very thorough security checks. In a city of 19 million, how can you run a commuter train system where we're going to check everyone's bags one by one, by hand? Including lunchboxes? We all go to work with lunch and laptop in pocket? I suppose that's necessary, but it's still a drag, especially if you don't know the system and try to go through the turnstile without getting searched and have to stand around finger in nose while the police get you another electrono-token. Lines for those tokens are pretty long, too. But all in all, the Delhi Metro gets an A+++, I sez.

The success of all this is, I also sez, the ultimate argument against imperialist, colonialist, Orientalist notions. This shows that the problems of Indian culture, like those of all cultures, are the product of history and circumstance and accident and design. They are contingent, not inherent. There is nothing about India or Indians that precludes successful functionality and outstanding triumph--nor is there any reason why India cannot adopt those features of modernity which it finds useful and integrate them into a throughly traditional and 'Indian' society. I also think this is important given the apparent sense of reflexive shame on the part of so many people here, both vis-a-vis the higher stratae of culture, and the modern West (cf. the last two Booker Prize Winners).

At the end of all this I hopped off at what I thought was near Majnu-ka-Tilla, and had to get a rickshaw the rest of the way, but upon arriving at the Tibetan 'enclave' (read: ghetto) it was much the same as it ever was, inasmuch as when can get STUFFED for lunch for under $3, and the Tibetans are doing things well and right. For example, in the basement of an otherwise deserted-looking shopping complex, I found a coffee shop with espresso et al, friendly baristas, and high-speed wireless. Funky furniture. Tasteful innovative art. Chocolatey baked goods. That's not to say that it's good because its like the American standard I'm used to, but that it is better than Nescafe, dialup, and crumbling plaster by anyone's standards, I think. A double espresso was only a buck with tip. And best of all, the sounds of multiple Himalayan dialects all around--what more could a real Orientalist want?


Lynch Family said...

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Grandpa George said...

How long has subway been running?--in operation when I was there in 2002? Is my perception that the fare though low for visitors from developed countries and some Indians, it would be prohibitively expensive for most Indians who are not middle-income?

ehirunner said...

I think the Metro is up and running for something like 6-18 months now? The max fare on the bus is Rs 8, and usually a bike rickshaw goes 10+, so 8-18 is not too bad. On the other hand, yes, since day labor gets about 100/day, you could blow 33% of daily income on transportation without much effort.

ehirunner said...

I think the Metro is up and running for something like 6-18 months now? The max fare on the bus is Rs 8, and usually a bike rickshaw goes 10+, so 8-18 is not too bad. On the other hand, yes, since day labor gets about 100/day, you could blow 33% of daily income on transportation without much effort.