(Usha Alexander's periodic musings on her life in India. She moved there in mid-2013.)
So here I am living in Gurgaon for the last four months. We arrived in the hottest days of the year and to summer’s sweet deluge of fruits—mangos, lychees, jamun, watermelon—which we enjoyed daily. Within three days of arrival, we found a furnished rental with adequate water and power backup, and we lucked upon the services of an excellent cook and a cleaning woman, both recent migrants from West Bengal. We soon identified some take-out places, a barber, dairy outlet, and other services in the small bazaar two streets over. And we found a gleaming mall with a modern gym, theater, grocery stores, bookstores, and electronics, just a 15-minute walk from our door, across lots filled with cows, stray dogs, mansions, and shanties.
In our earliest weeks, we spent a lot of time reconnecting with old friends and family in the area. We had to relearn how to get around Gurgaon, which has reconfigured itself in the grand makeover this so-called Millennium City has undergone during the seven years since our previous stay here. Most of these changes have been very useful, from our perspective: the completion of the Delhi Metro line serving Gurgaon; the impending completion of Gurgaon’s own Rapid Metro; improved roads (apart from those still under reconstruction); and the easy availability of familiar international products, like fresh basil and avocados in the grocery store, and hummus and falafel takeaway. So in many respects, our landing has been soft and picking up new rhythms of life has been easy.
The most difficult part was the fair amount of officialdom and red tape to untangle, which Namit took on single-handedly. I was useless in these tasks, being both unable to drive and unsure with my Hindi, let alone entirely ignorant about how these things work in India. So armed with his parents’ insider advice, Namit made his way around to the various agencies and businesses to set things up, including health insurance, phone and internet service, cooking gas permit, electrical billing, ID cards, police verification, tax filing, bank accounts, and other essential mundanities. None of these things are to be had as straightforwardly as in the States: one must produce official documents, various proofs of identity and residency, forms in triplicate procured from one office and stamped by the clerks in another, multiple properly framed and sized headshots, and the names of dead ancestors. All this for a cylinder of propane for the kitchen.
The adjustment might have been more difficult, though. Happily, we have no children, which means, among other things, we aren’t agonizing about their health with each sip of water and every mosquito bite, nor are we selecting schools and private tutors to ensure the right college admissions, as we see other middle-class parents doing. This alone collapses our risks and costs immeasurably and increases our freedom. Just as much, we are fortunate to not have to seek conventional employment—provided we live modestly—which means we avoid the grind of daily commutes, workaday insults, and the weariness of mounting the career ladder. The upwardly mobile, family-oriented lifestyle emerging in India seems even more of a rat-race than it is in the US, and a good part of our secret to gladness in being here is that we are not pursuing it.
Instead, we have come with the hope of taking advantage of what India perhaps uniquely offers: regular encounters with the self and the other, across almost every dimension of experience. India at its best is both confrontational and abundantly flowing with experiences. It challenges and feeds the heart and the intellect at once. It is an excellent place to learn to pay attention, if one can afford it. But more about this as it comes; here I am about first impressions.
I’m sure I’ve never seen a city with more birds. Mynahs and parrots, sparrows and crows. Pigeons, of course, and many other species I can’t name. They sing constantly and enliven the streets with their color and movement. They also leave their crap on every surface.
Their plentiful presence here might have something to do with the amount of greenery that gushes up exuberantly throughout the city, even in the dry season. Not only compared to other metros in India, but compared to any of the overlarge cities in the world, I’d wager greater Delhi is among the prettiest for its verdure. And in our little enclave, most neighbors are devoted to their trees or their balconies and lots crowded with potted plants, haphazard and lush. But plants grow even where one wishes they wouldn’t, from the cracks in a rooftop or the side of a building.
Then of course, there are the monkeys, amusing and adorable (from a safe distance). They move through every few weeks in large bands, ranging about the rooftops in the mornings and evenings in search of food or adventure, it’s not clear what. As they pass, they wreak havoc as a matter of course, flinging pots or clothes or whatever catches their momentary interest, tearing open trash bags, uncovering rooftop water tanks. For the most part, people have learned not to leave things on the rooftops and batten down their water tank lids, but one can’t always be careful. And sometimes the monkeys come down even to individual balconies and compound walls.
All the plants, the birds, the monkeys, the loitering cows, stray dogs, wild boars, and feral cats, preserve a whiff of wilderness, a remembrance of disorderly nature within this fully urbanized zone. This is something completely absent in the ordered cities of the West. Here is a daily exchange with chaos, as its tentacles seek to pull apart all that you have built, to muck up all that you have neatly tended. Here is a constant conciliation with uncivilizable agents. Traffic cannot flow smoothly not only because people drive disastrously, but because one must make way for the animals, who take no heed of safe crossings or the difference between the middle of the road and the side of it, when divining the perfect spot for a nap. For the most part, these animals are not sweet and compliant pets, but executors of their own agendas, having no regard for ours. Yet there is no cultural idea that this nature will be finally conquered, rather that space must be left for it, that this negotiation will always continue. And while nature can be exasperating and even dangerous, it’s also completely enchanting; it not only enlivens the urban environment but purposefully contradicts it, like Shiva wagging his finger at young Murugan, full of his own power.
But there seems another side to this urban disorderliness, which is the trash and rubble that invariably clot Indian pavements and open spaces. Though no one dares to say it, I suspect India is the filthiest country in the world in terms of on-the-ground waste, and this is among the first things a foreign visitor will notice. While there has been some improvement in this regard over the past two decades—and this despite a whopping increase (nearly 25%) in the population—there is no discernible change to the essential dynamics of the way it happens, the way it does or does not figure into urban sensibilities.
Yet just when one shakes their head with hopelessness about the matter, a clean space appears! Many gardens and parks are reasonably free of waste. In the Metro, no one drops anything, nor even spits. It’s as though, being in a clean space, people behave with care, but once on the grimy streets, everyone returns to their most careless selves. Perhaps it is another face of this uniquely Indian negotiation with chaos that allows Indians to tolerate disorder and disruption from the human horde (including themselves) the same way they tolerate it from natural agents. If that is so, it is a sad thing, for to change one might require the other to change also.
In any case, for now I am trying not to look down at the trash, but to look up at the flowering trees and soaring raptors, at the green flash of parrots against the red sandstone and the simians leaping about the skyline.