Monday, June 30, 2008

Our First Day in Delhi

We started the morning at the Fulbright House where we were welcomed by a Fulbright official, Adam Grotsky, and heard from three Fulbright scholars who are studying in India. Together they provided a wonderful introduction to Delhi, and talked glowingly about their research opportunities in India. Then we heard a brilliantly incisive discussion of “Gandhi” by the scholar Vinay Lal. I put “Gandhi” in quotation marks because one of the points implicit in his talk was that there are many versions of Gandhi and that those of us interested in studying him ought to be wary of the standard-issue Gandhis currently in circulation. He insisted that in spite of the voluminous amount of writing we have about Gandhi we have little in the way of interpretations of Gandhi, critical analyses of his thought that move beyond celebration or condemnation, question traditional ways of categorizing Gandhi, and develop what he called a new hermeneutic approach to Gandhi. It was a stimulating and challenging talk, and we had lots of lively discussion afterward. These presentations were a great way to start the trip.

After lunch at Fulbright House a few of us took our first foray out into New Delhi. My little group walked down a large boulevard to Connaught Place, a huge traffic circle and park with one of the central shopping districts of Delhi. Shops ring the roundabout which is teeming with people, and street vendors are everywhere (selling roasted corn, chewing tobacco, sweets, jewelry, fabrics, and books). Busses, cars, and scooters whiz by in a deafening roar. I’ve seen chaotic traffic in lots of places but nothing like here. There is an elaborate culture of honking in New Delhi, not just “watch out” or “get out of my way” but much more subtle, honking that seems obligatory. The lights turn red and immediately everyone starts honking. If you don’t, it seems you’re a whimp. Any way, at Connaught Place young men began to swarm around us, trying to make friends on some pretext or another and then directing us to shop at some particular place. They were our constant companions, partly because we really stood out as tourists, of course. There are very few, if any, American or European tourists in the city right now, so we really stand out. People gawk at as and take our pictures. Here, we are the Other.

In the late afternoon we toured some of the public buildings of New Delhi, including the Parliament building and the President’s palace. These are at the head of a long mall (as in Washington, D.C.), and at the other end is a monument called India Gate. We headed there next. The Gate is the center of a huge public park with ponds and fountains. Even on a Monday afternoon it was packed with people, and the diversity of India was clear, for Sikhs and Muslims mingled with Hindi, some people dressed traditionally, others in western clothes. For dinner we all hopped in four cabs for a chaotic ride through traffic and construction to an absolutely fantastic restaurant that serves Thali, Rajasthan style. This is a traditional style of food consisting of a dizzying array of small dishes, dals, pastes, bread, rice, etc. (think Dim Sum or Tapas). Truly outstanding. And we got to tour the kitchen at the end of our meal, the hottest place on earth and absolutely teeming with workers. We all walked home together and agreed this first day exceeded everyone’s expectations.

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