Neither, I might add, is Gurgaon.
Yesterday I landed in Delhi and finally arrived in Gurgaon. After racing through customs and quickly gathering my luggage, I found my cousin Rubal waiting for me at the arrival gate. It was the first time a whole entourage of extended family was not there waiting at the gate where you make your spectacular entrance into India. At Indira Gandhi International Airport, one cannot help but feel like a celebrity as one takes that dramatic walk out the arrival gate, with dozens of drivers perched at the sides, holding signs with last names written on them, looking anxiously at you, or family members waiting with baited breath for long-awaited relatives to disembark. Walking down that opening, it feels like everyone is watching your every move with anticipation. For my part, I was glad that it was only Rubal waiting to pick me up. It guaranteed a very nonchalant arrival on the subcontinent, and it also meant that my unpracticed Hindi wouldn’t be strained by having to explain ten times over to each relative how long my journey was, how tired I am, how happy I am to return to India after five years (too long!) how hungry thirsty excited sleep-deprived…
As we waited for Rubal’s driver to come around the front entrance of the airport to take us to Rubal’s flat in Gurgaon, the beast of India was already unleashed on me. The countless young men that aggressively attempt to take care of your luggage, even as you decline their services over and again. The utter shock of being surrounded by scores of brown people, much darker than you. Even greater shock at seeing white people in India too, even a few Asians and Africans. So India finally has globalized, I thought. And then there are the loud car horns that unendingly blast at each other, not so much out of spite, but just for mutual acknowledgement of each others’ existence. One must quickly get used to the sheer noise of India. It does not stop until late into the night, and begins all too early the next morning. Even as I write this at 1 a.m., I hear old Hindi film songs blasting loudly out of a nearby car speaker, as drivers clean their employers’ cars in the cool of the summer night.
After waiting about 10 minutes in the front entrance of the airport, talking story and catching up a bit with Rubal, the driver came, and we both took a seat in the back of his air conditioned car.
I’ll admit it. I must have it easier than most foreigners who arrive in India. Even for those who travel for business and eventually stay in luxury hotels, the first hour of arrival must be a mess: locating luggage in the hot and hazy craze of Indira Gandhi Airport (if they’re landing in Delhi), withstanding long lines to get your visa stamped, resisting the hordes of people that are asking for your money, finding a taxi, not freaking out as your driver dodges bicycles, cows, rickshaws, trucks, buses and other cars on the way to your place of stay. For me it was much easier, almost routine, and once in Rubal’s car, I could sit back and look out the window as Delhi’s night flashed by my eyes.
Exiting the airport, we entered into South Delhi, and Rubal asserted proudly how much things had changed in India over the past five years, though just as he said this, he had to bite his tongue: we were driving past a dilapidated row of shacks and shanties that had probably only changed for the worse over the past two or three decades—I can hear John McCain’s monotone in my still America-centered head: “That’s not the kind of change we can believe in.” But still, once we exited South Delhi and entered into Gurgaon, which is directly adjacent, through an extended toll plaza with surprisingly slick, modern architecture, it became clear that we were coming into the India I had been reading about for the last several years. This excited me. Indeed, it was surreal passing all the new office buildings that I had only beheld and apprehended through google images and newspaper articles before arriving. These glass and aluminum structures, many built by the real estate and construction conglomerate DLF Limited (whose motto is “Building India”), stood out from their surroundings, oblivious of their immediate context, as if to say, “No, this is no mere simulacrum, this is real, and there’s much much more to come!” Looking out the window on the way to Rubal’s flat, I was surprised to see that the built environment was very dense, not merely isolated buildings but thick networks of very modern, and if I can say, neoliberal, architecture (architecture that is exceptional to the surroundings—shanties, torn tents, and dilapidated shacks surrounded them and us in all directions). These glittering towers produced something of a city skyline to behold as we sped down National Highway 8 across Gurgaon’s sprawling urban/suburban terrain. But it was ten o-clock at night by this point, so the precise details of these buildings were a bit unclear to me. I’ll have more to say about them in the coming days and weeks.
One thing that struck me in our half-hour ride from the airport was how spread out Gurgaon has become. My project entails documenting Gurgaon’s growth, not only economically (in terms of production, consumption, accumulation) but also in terms of its physical space. Twenty five years ago Gurgaon was a small industrial village, located on a dusty plane just to the south of Delhi, surrounded by farmland. Now it is a glittering metropolis that seems to go on and on and on. NH8 is the main arterial highway that takes you past rows of newly built corporate buildings, shopping malls, and high rise apartments/condos, all to your left as you drive away from Delhi. But these are in the background. They are foregrounded by more familiar third-world sights. Shacks and low-rise brick structures with corrugated roofs. Parked rickshaws, buggies, stalls, and the expected assortment of urban Indian wild-life: dogs, cows, pigs, donkeys, monkeys could also be seen closer to the road. Between the enclave spaces in the back, there are flat, undeveloped areas, with dirt and trees and shrubs. It is almost as if they are cleared out for a purpose. And indeed, in several of these desolate spaces, new structures are currently being built. Gurgaon is a city that is under construction, being built from the ground up, and everywhere you look there are concrete structures with iron rods protruding in all directions, enormous cranes everywhere, and workers’ shanties on the side of the road that remind you that the cost of construction here is cheap, and the supply of labor plentiful. These are all signs of future spaces to be built for the expanding “professional” class of this city, that either works in Gurgaon itself or in Delhi (like my cousin). Most of the billboards are oriented towards the future, assurances that the discomfort of the present is but a transition, and the now-time of Gurgaon is one characterized by future-anticipation.
Rubal’s flat is spacious and equipped with amenities I was not used to finding in India. It is on the first floor of a new gated community, called “Parkview City Apartments,” opened up three or four months back. After unpacking, Rubal’s cook made us an excellent vegetarian meal, with fresh, hot rotis to go along with buttery Paneer, Dahl and yogurt. It is hard to say “no” to someone serving you fresh rotis and delicious Indian fare, even if he is only a fifteen year old kid from Nepal.
After dinner, Rubal gave me a tour of the premises. In the neighborhood itself, inside the gates, there were several high rise towers. Between these buildings, a trimmed lawn with a basketball court in the middle, a garden, and a pool (so far unfilled with water). “We have 24/7 electricity and water, 365 days a year,” Rubal boasted. This is indeed a most coveted luxury in India. Later on that night, when we were watching a Hindi movie on his new plasma Television (a flat-screen wall-hanger), the lights went out, the TV shut off, and everything turned to black. “Just wait two or three minutes,” Rubal assured me, “they’ll come back on.” Then he corrected himself: “no, even less than that: a few seconds.” And, in fact, just seconds later, the lights were back on, and we resumed the Bollywood masala flick. But the incident served as a reminder. In this country, electricity is the greatest of privileges. This, of course, is part of the larger infrastructural problems that haunt neoliberal India: inadequate electricity and water, unpaved roads, no sewage and waste treatment, animals and beggars everywhere…what will the West think of us?! The current talks of a nuclear agreement with the U.S. for the selling of uranium for “peaceful” (alternative energy) purposes is meant to deal with the energy problem directly. But it is said that even if this agreement goes through (it is currently up for vote in the US Congress) India would still be five to ten years away from benefiting from added megawattage. And by then the demand for power would only increase exponentially, what with the booming and consuming “new Indian middle classes,” as well as those in the lower rungs who increasingly find ways to access the basic utilities that simple, rational economics desires so desperately to deny them (through the logic of privatization and the market).
But in Rubal’s flat, such realities seem a world away. “When the light goes out, the underground generator turns on automatically,” he tells me. “And it generates enough power to allow everyone in the neighborhood to run three air-conditioners in each apartment.”
Perhaps this blog should be re-named “Life inside a Gated-Community.”
Neither, I might add, is Gurgaon.