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The city of djinns

September 29, 2013

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Hauz Khas in Old Delhi offers perfect spots for budding musicians as the acoustics are amazing. -Photo by Vaqar Ahmed
Hauz Khas in Old Delhi offers perfect spots for budding musicians as the acoustics are amazing. -Photo by Vaqar Ahmed
I land at the airport of a city in a foreign country. The airport is spotlessly clean, the lines for immigration are reasonably orderly, and the immigration process is smooth. I sail through the customs green channel. Taxis are waiting outside in an orderly manner. The road from the airport is wide and lined with trees. The city is very green. I encounter a traffic jam at one location but otherwise the ride is unhindered – It is a good start.

The city I am in is not somewhere in Europe or North America; actually, it is just a two hour flight from Karachi. I am in Delhi.

What stands out in the few hours in Delhi is that the city infrastructure works well. The bus system is excellent. There are both air-conditioned and regular public buses that ply the wide roads. The buses are comfortable, frequent and provide proper seating. No one hangs out from the doors or rides on the roof. There is no wild racing for grabbing more passengers as the buses are run by the public sector and thus the enterprise is not for profit. At some of the bus stops, there is an electronic information system that gives the arrival time of the next bus.

While the roads and the bus system are impressive, Delhi’s subway system is up there with the best in the world. Yes, it can be quite crowded during rush hours but it functions smoothly. All subway stations and trains are air-conditioned and clean. The network is extensive, with a typical frequency of the trains at 2 minutes.

The railway system is no less impressive. The Rajdhani Express that I boarded from Delhi, left at the precise time and arrived in Mumbai (an overnight trip) exactly on schedule. The train was comfortable and the staff polite and professional. There was no manic disorder inside the train or on the platform as the passengers boarded the train.

The significant presence of women in public spaces is very refreshing – particularly for a visitor from Pakistan. Both young and old, stylishly or simply dressed, apparently well off, not so well off and downright poor; all are seen brushing shoulders with each other and with men in the streets. There are women driving motor cycles or riding at the back in the normal astride position. Many are dressed in jeans and t-shirts, while others are attired in the traditional shalwar kameez, sometimes without dupattas or chaddars.

There is a life for young couples in the city. They can walk around holding hands or sit in the beautiful historical Hauz Khas complex, on the lake built by Sultan Alaudin Khilji (1296-1316) for water storage. The walls and the door and window openings of the surrounding old buildings looking out on the lake provide perfect seating spaces for the amorous.

While the visual evidence in the more affluent neighborhoods indicates that the women in Delhi are free and safe, the frequent acts of rape point to another reality. The women with lower social and economic standing face this cruelty more often than their well-heeled sisters. But the women there are certainly fighting to keep the turf that they have gained in recent years. The very strong reaction to the recent Delhi rape and the resulting death sentence of the perpetrators is a clear signal that Indian women are determined to achieve their right of safety in public spaces.

The ugly sight of hundreds of armed police and private guards and myriad security road blocks so pervasive in Karachi, is absent in Delhi. While armed personnel are posted at important sites, there is no sense of menace or impending doom. The substantial number of female police officers further softens the effect of the cold barrel of a gun.

The major historical monuments in Delhi, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri that I visited are well maintained. However, those working in the area of preservation of the historical sites talk of serious neglect by the archeological survey department that is responsible for the upkeep of the monuments.

The day I am to return to Pakistan, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the head of the Agha Khan community, Price Karim Agha Khan are commemorating the completion of the project for the restoration of the Mughal Emperor Humayun’s Tomb. I have visited the tomb a week ago and can attest to the absolutely impeccable renovation work. The buildings have been restored to their old glory, the many lawns and garden are maintained to perfection and the premises are clean and tidy.

The notion of India Shining notwithstanding, there is substantial and apparent poverty in Delhi that is further highlighted by the extreme disparity. India’s days of Gandhian austerity are mostly gone. Lean, emaciated men driving cycle rickshaws jostle for space with late model BMWs, Mercedes and Audis, large slums start where super posh shopping malls end, and there are families living on the sidewalks and road islands even in the posh southern part of the city.

But while all shades of rich and poor coexist, there is a palpable sense that things are changing for the better. And there, to me, lies the main difference between Karachi and Delhi. In Karachi, the state has completely abandoned the people while in Delhi, the state does deliver to some extent thus improving the lives of the denizens and giving them some hope for the future.

Karachi, the city of lights is becoming a city of darkness and Delhi the city of djinns has many a demons to deal with, but it seems to be doing so with some success.