The New Normal

deserted padmini


I’ve been living in Delhi for 3 months now, and everything seems to have become “normal” quite quickly, at least compared with when I first arrived in India over 2 years ago.  Some things have normalised remarkably fast; some of them less so.  

An example of the former would be the daily commute to and from work on the metro, which has changed  from:

being an empowering novelty—Independence!  Efficient, clean, reliable public transport at last! (Are you listening, Bangalore?)

to being a curiosity—Trying to read all the signs and notices in Hindi for the practice; similarly listening to all the canned announcements, from the only-in-India ones: “Passengers are requested not to sit on the floor of the train”, to the more sinister ones: “Any unattended or suspicious article such as briefcase, bag, toy, thermos or transistor could be a bomb”.

to being an annoyance—Being completely surrounded by men all picking their noses as if it were an olympic event; or having to literally fight fellow passengers to get on and off the train, especially at Central Secretariat station where the violet line terminates and so the entire train empties and everyone on the platform rushes in try to get a seat.

to fading into the background—In the past week or two I’ve noticed myself day-dreaming or thinking about work stuff, and not paying much attention to what’s happening in the train at all.  (Except for when I have to fight people.)

I’ve been extremely busy with my new job, especially over the past few weeks, so I’ve not really had the energy at weekends to see much of Delhi  yet beyond a bit of shopping, and a stroll in Lodhi Gardens once.

And the temperature has kept on rising, a degree here and there every 2-3 days.  Last Tuesday was the first day this year that it got to 40 degrees.  Most of the day I’m hidden away inside an air-conditioned office, but I occasionally have to walk 5 minutes to another building, and at 1pm I can say that it was pretty uncomfortable—a bit like standing in front of a furnace with the door open.

Meanwhile the last week has been quite eventful here in many ways.  Apart from reaching the 40-degree mark last Tuesday, the same day there was an Earthquake, which turned out to be on the Iran-Pakistan border, but widely-felt across Northern India.  I was in a meeting at the time, and although I didn’t feel it myself others in the room said they could.  In some parts of town people ran from their buildings into the street.

On Saturday night I saw my first city-centre elephant being ridden down a highway.  I was in a taxi heading South with a friend who had just mentioned that she’d seen both a camel and an elephant that same afternoon.  And a few seconds later, just as I was expressing my surprise, there was this other one.

Before I had a chance to marvel at this, we went past another curious and much more disturbing sight.  A couple of Outside Broadcast TV vans, with satellite uplinks on the roof, were joined by more and more until there were about 20 all parked continuously by the side of the road we were driving along.  And then, at a gate, scores of photographers and TV cameras, all set up in the darkness, waiting for someone or something.

This was the main gate of the  nearby AIIMS Hospital, and it suddenly dawned on me that the reason they were there is because a 5-year old girl, who had been kidnapped and raped the day before, had been taken there in a critical condition.

Just before I came out to Delhi—16 December—the now infamous gang-rape and murder of a student here attracted global attention, while in India it resulted in a huge outpouring of anger, as well as debate in the media about violence against women, and the incompetence and apathy of the police.

This latest tragedy is almost impossible to comprehend.  Apart from the act itself, when the parents discovered what had happened they tried to register a case with the police station, but the police allegedly tried to bribe them Rs 2000 (£24/US$36) to keep quiet.  When protesters turned up at the police station, one of them—a 17-year old schoolgirl—was slapped across the face by the (male) Assistant Commissioner of Police, and supposedly left bleeding.  This was even caught on camera.

All of this while memories and discussions of what everyone is calling “the 16th December” case, and while the trial of those apprehended for that is still going on, have understandably built a new wave of public outrage.  Three metro stations were closed today because of protests taking place around the city.

It’s almost impossible to find the words to talk about this.

Before I came to Delhi some female friends told me they wouldn’t want to move here because they wouldn’t feel safe.  Things have now surely got much worse, at least in terms of people’s perception through media coverage.  (Delhi has been called India’s “rape capital” for some time.)

This article in today’s edition of The Hindu newspaper pretty much sums it up, and especially the wider background of violence against women, including dowry deaths and “bride burning”.

So, while many of the daily quirks of living in Delhi have become routine, there’s also this other side which I’m really struggling to come to terms with right now.  If I were female I might be seriously thinking about going home.  Then again, female friends who do actually live here seem fairly stoical about it.

If it’s possible that anything remotely positive could emerge from any of this, it is that the issues of violence and sexism against women are moved to the top of the agenda, and finally some significant changes start to be made.  There is actually a general election coming up next year, although the silence from politicians about reforming the police is particularly noticeable right now.  Ultimately we would need to see a huge shift in the values of Indian society.  That would be quite something.







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