My Saturday lunch with Amit, Ashish, Abhishkek, and Ajay was postponed until Sunday. So I decided to get on Delhi’s new(ish) metro and get off at a random stop. I took the blue line to the eastern end, to Indraprastha, once the capital of the Pandava Kingdom in the Mahabharata epic, and today just another Delhi suburb along the banks of the Yamuna River.
The metro ride itself was pretty smooth and, mercifully, air-conditioned. Depending on the length and cost of your journey, you have to purchase a different colored token which I assume uses RFID to automatically open the gates. From Rajiv Chowk (Connaught Place) to Indraprastha cost me 9 rupees, a sky-blue token. The token seller found my request for two tokens just as ludicrous as I found the fact that you have to wait in line every time you want to travel on the metro. “But sir, you are only one person,” she told me, startled, as if I believed there was an imaginary friend by my side. “I can’t have two tokens? You mean I have to wait in this line again to come back?” “Yes sir, that is correct.” A cheerful smile.
When you get off at Indraprastha two things immediately catch your eye. One is a giant blue and white building, which it turns out is the Indian headquarters of the World Health Organization. Directly behind this behemoth of paper moving bureaucracy is a large slum with barefoot kids flying taped-together kites. The contrast of the new Japanese-designed metro line and a large slum, all in the shadow of one of the largest international do-good organizations, was, as so many things are, a photogenic depiction of modern India. I walked along a dirt path that serves as one of two entrances to the labyrinthine slum and pulled out my camera to take a picture. In the amount of time that it took to snap the picture — one-five-hundredth of a second, according to the picture itself – I was surrounded by ten boys asking me to take their portraits while they posed like teenagers in a Southern California mall.
After I took pictures of them and they took pictures of me I was greeted by Khan, a truck driver who said he wanted to show me his neighborhood. “It’s nice neighborhood,” he told me, “you are very safe.” By the end of our walk, I couldn’t disagree with either sentiment.
I apologize for all the times I repeat what Khan tells me and for all my stupid “ah … OK’s.” As you can see, Khan and I had some communication problems. Besides, as an American, it is my duty to sound as idiotic as possible. Sorry also about the picture quality – because of the slow connection I had to upload the smallest file possible.
This is fourth slum I’ve seen. On the one hand, it should serve as a reminder to Americans who like to chant “we have poverty right here at home!” that American poverty and third world poverty are two very different things. On the other hand, like the previous three slums I’ve seen, I left Khan’s neighborhood thinking, well, aesthetics aside, they have pretty much everything that most neighborhoods have. A school, clean water, a hospital, a small market. Hell, they even have a Chinese restaurant. (That is, a grease-filled wok on someone’s porch. I politely declined an invitation to chow mein.)
There was another familiar observation: Unlike La Jolla, Beverly Hills, or Bellagio for that matter, Khan’s neighborhood was full of smiles and laughter. Makes you wonder what, if anything, needs changing.
“Why do you Americans always romanticize the happiness of poor dark people in foreign lands?” I was asked once by a wealthy friend from a developing country.
“Probably because they are happy,” I replied.