Sunday, November 06, 2005

New Delhi, First Impressions

Beyond the doors of the Indira Ghandi customs shed, 'eau de third world' meets the nose, a smell composed of old cook fires, exhaust, the faint bouquet of uncollected ordure, and, sometimes, like tonight, a hint of gunpowder. In other times and places, the addition of that acrid odor means revolution. But in New Delhi on 4 November 2005, just past the 15th day of Kartika, it signifies only post-Diwali fireworks.

Cars don’t travel in orderly lines here. Creative driving rules. In the white, midnight light around the terminal, vehicles lead with their noses, behave like molecules of water coursing through rapids, hurtling sideways around obstacles (a bus or bicycle rickshaw), braking just a hair before crashing headlong into a rival passenger door, easing cannily over a center line to charge into a five-foot gap. Parking space belongs to the imaginative, the innovative. Confusion is universal.

And the people; the cacophony of voices. Is this what God had had in mind when he created the Tower of Babel? Eighteen languages with an alleged one thousand dialects are spoken by the 16.7% of the earth’s population that inhabit India. They seem to be all represented here tonight.

Space. It’s the illusion of the western mind bred from vast frontiers and empty acres, of dry, crystalline air and limitless sight. Take those away, and the elbow (already bruised from the airline's idea of space) becomes the weapon of choice.


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