The worst of the East and the West: Expatriates Debate the Nature of Their City

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Author: Ben Poor

I celebrated Holi this year in a magical neighborhood of Delhi called Haus Kauz. Considering its relative safety, high number of gelaterias and the very presence of restaurants that serve pork (among other trappings of Western culture), my traveling companions and I all agreed this was a nice break from being in India for a few days. According to those who have been there, the atmosphere is comparable to Key West.

The Best of the East and Key West

While anonymous children water-bombed us and Indian men who had a little too much color in their cheeks put some on ours, we eventually encountered a quartet of fellow Americans looking for fun as well, including one who had grown up in Delhi. We ended up traveling with them to a five-stage music festival, where the colors washed over everyone, the alcohol flowed freely from a poolside bar and the pizza was the greatest I had ever tasted. If not especially Indian, we certainly loved our experience.

Having only seen to a bus station that was more of a parking lot and this contemporary Eden, I was eager to ask Rohan about the city from someone whose parents still resided there. Eager, however, was the last word to describe the Stanford graduate and 12-year San Franciscan’s response.

“Honestly, I’m ashamed to be associated with Delhi,” Rohan said. “Things have changed,” he said, “for the worse.”

While Delhi has had a sizable population even before lakhs of Hindu refugees flooded the capital following the Partition of India and Pakistan, the economic liberalization of the ’90s set off a population explosion. Today, the population is almost 9.8 million. Although the Delhi government keep track of official poverty numbers, a voluntary child welfare organization estimates more than half of that number – 64 percent – live in poverty. The economic conditions that prevent these people from rising above are one-half of what Rohan despises about this city; the other half is those that benefit from those policies, a group he unhappily identifies with. He can no longer stand the friends he went to school with, and rarely returns to India at all.

For Rohan, Delhi is “the worst of the East and the West.”

Is fair to put Delhi at the nadir of two courses of civilization? According to another expatriate, no.

“It’s not just Delhi, but all major metropolitan areas in India,” economics major Sid Saravat (junior) said. “Everyone goes shopping, and there’s a huge bar and clubbing culture anywhere there’s been an influx of foreign direct investment.”

Saravat attributes the hate Delhi gets to its prominence as the nation’s capital.

“People know where it is,” he said, “and that puts it in a spotlight.”

Does this newfound wealth have any benefit for those who aren’t participating in bar and clubbing culture? To an extent, Saravat says.

“Delhi is better than the rural areas for the middle class, and on gender issues,” Saravat said.

Saravat also acknowledged that this wealth was certainly concentrated in a particular group. “There are definitely big slums,” he said, quickly adding, “but it’s not like Mumbai.”

The Occidental student closed with some self-reflection.

“There’s a superiority of Indians who go abroad,” Saravat said. While it’s easy to be critical from San Francisco, it’s hard to resist the culture when you’re actually a part of it, no matter how long you’ve been away. Despite Rohan’s frustrations, were he to return full time, he might not be so different from the friends he now holds in contempt.”

“Put an ex-pat back in Delhi,” Saravat says, “and they act exactly the same.”

Ben Poor is a junior American Studies major studying abroad in Hyderabad, India during the Spring 2014 Semester. He can be reached at benpoor1@gmail.com or on Twitter @WklyBPoor.

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