My City: Delhi
The FT's Amy Kazmin explores the city that has captured her heart, and shows us why Delhi is a city of high art, and high pollution levels.
Produced by Tom Griggs
In this video, I will show you my city, Delhi. Come with me to visit a city that is steeped in Indian culture and history, but where a young population is anxious about the future, and its prospects for a better life.
Delhi is a city with shrines sacred to many different faiths. But India's current government is trying to establish the supremacy of Hinduism in public life. I will take you to meet young women breaking out of stereotypical gender roles, and charting their own course in a patriarchal society.
Though once best known as a centre of traditional music and dance, today, Delhi is a hub of India's thriving, contemporary art scene.
We see the light disappear now. This is like breathing, painting is breathing same time.
It's a city facing serious environmental challenges from air pollution, but which has also proven to be surprisingly kid friendly.
I first came to Delhi in 1994. 23 years on, I'm still here. 50?
OK. Thanks. This is my neighbourhood, Defence Colony. Back then, it's tree lined streets were filled with charming family homes. Today, most of the old houses are being torn down to make way for condominiums with parking garages. But it's not just my neighbourhood, the whole city is in the throes of change.
I've changed too. I arrived alone with just a couple of suitcases. But now, I have a daughter, Anania, who was born right here. In many ways, Delhi is defined by its young population. Nearly two thirds of India's 1.3 billion people are under the age of 35. Many of them are drawn to the capital city in their quest for opportunities and a chance to reinvent themselves, away from the stifling constraints of conservative small towns and villages.
Snigdha Poonam came to Delhi when she was 25 years old. In the eight years since, she has spent much of her time understanding what makes young Indians tick.
There is a lot of like, anxiety about where India stands politically, what-- how the rest of the world sees them. But at the same time, they have like these ambitions to be rich and have these amazing like, lifestyles to travel, to like, own things.
Some entrepreneurial Delhites are all geared up to welcome wide-eyed, young arrivals from the countryside. They induct them into the ways of big city living, for a price.
I remember seeing ads for personality development classes. And I was like, what personality are they developing for like, 2000 rupees a month? So I started going to some of these classes, where-- were mostly like these like young people who arrived in the city from rural Rajistan or Yupee. These would be North in the hinterlands I am talking about.
They were just basically taught how to be in the big city. This was not personality. This was just like a big city tutorial. So they were told how to speak basic English, how to talk to like-- how to sort of boy talk to girl and girl to boy, how to go to a party, how do like face an interview.
Among the youth attracted to Delhi are those with creative inclinations, as the capital is home to writers, intellectuals, and artists, many of whom have achieved international recognition. One of India's best known contemporary artists is my old friend, Subodh Gupta. Subodh grew up in a village in Bihar and arrived in Delhi in 1989, barely able to speak any English. Today, he is best known in the global art world for using traditional, metal kitchen utensils to create spectacular installations.
Utensil is material for me. But what I do with it, that's make art. I used the fry pan. And the fry pan, people make the scratches on it. And when I see those scratches on the fry pan, it's almost like every human being [INAUDIBLE]. In the same way, all the fry pan, they look very similar, but each of them, they have their own character. And when I take photograph and when I come close to it, it's almost look like a cosmos.
But his latest work expresses other ideas, how migrants deal with strange, new environments through an animal that would be utterly out of place in India.
I'm making moose. I never seen a moose in my life. And why am making moose? Even I don't know why I'm making moose. I wanted to make something I'm not very clear about why I'm making it. And I like to be in that area about the confusion.
Though Delhi draws youth from across India to pursue their dreams, it isn't always a hospitable place, especially for women. Nearly every Indian female friend of mine has been groped and grabbed on public buses, or on crowded streets. Authorities typically downplay such conduct as eve teasing. And even I experienced it in my early years here.
But these days, crimes against women in Delhi can be far more brutal. When Indians think of protecting women, their traditional gut reaction is to restrict girls movements, especially after dark, thinking that keeping them home will keep them safe. Mehrunissa Showkat Ali has braved fierce opposition from her authoritarian father and the gossip of nosy neighbours to work as a bouncer in one of New Delhi's most popular nightclubs.
Mehrunissa firmly believes traditional attitudes towards women need to change.
But she also thinks girls should be tough if they want to venture out into what is still essentially a man's world.
Another big problem that affects everyone in the city is air pollution. I worry about its impact on my daughter and her friends. Delhi's air is some of the dirtiest in the world, particularly in Winter, when we often have to wear face masks outside and run air purifiers indoors.
If there is a bright spot, it's that many people here are waking up to the issue, especially young parents.
I think we're living in a time of a public health emergency. My six-year-old knows how to measure the EQI index and the PM levels, as soon as he wakes up first thing in the morning to decide if he can go to the park. I know that his lungs are not developing like those of children in other cities.
So it's really tough as a parent to bring up children in the city that I love and grew up in, but being forced to live in this sort of bubble of air purified rooms and environments, instead of being able to go out into the natural outdoors.
Two years ago, Gauri Rao was one of a group of lawyers who filed a Supreme Court petition on behalf of their children, saying Delhi's filthy air violated their fundamental right to life, and demanding action.
I think the government is not acknowledging that this is a problem. Unless the government does that, it can't be fixed. If the government does stand up, if the PMO does make that decision, I think there is a huge cause for optimism. This problem is completely fixable. It's a long term solution. It requires strong measures, enforcement, and sacrifice. But it can be done.
Despite the air pollution, there's so much that's compelling about this city, especially the way Delhi's history of spiritual diversity is woven into the fabric of daily life. For centuries, followers of different religions have coexisted in India. Today, Delhi residents still flock to sacred sites of different faiths, from a 13th century Sufi shrine, to a golden, dome Sikh Gurdwara, to countless Hindu temples.
There are so many things to do here to lift the spirits. When the weather is good, we have picnics in Lodi garden. And there are always art exhibitions and music and dance performances to enjoy. Do you want to do some ballet? OK. Go ahead.
One of my favourite places is Humayun's tomb, the stunning burial grounds of the mediaeval Mughal emperor. What I love is not just how beautiful it is, but watching the people who come to see it. The majestic monument draws Indians from all walks of life and is a rare public space, where people rich and poor, and of every faith, can spend time with their family and friends.
Here in the shadow of the past, I feel the buzz of centuries colliding, the energy of a vibrant society in flux and fighting for a better future. It has gripped me hard, and is what makes New Delhi my home.