Old Delhi On High

Old Delhi from above_MG_4169January 16, 2013

There is something about a bird’s eye view to make a city feel smaller.

Old Delhi from above_MG_4166January 16, 2013

Old Delhi from above_MG_4156January 16, 2013

The roofs of Old Delhi are covered in day-old roti, roti being the less well-known but far more plentiful cousin to India’s most famous bread: naan.  I asked why so much food was wasted in a city so full of hungry children always coming up to car windows begging for 10 rupees to buy a chapati (chapati generally refers to a whole-wheat version roti).

It’s for the birds, of course.  In a city where so many believe that they might be reincarnated in animal form and that suffering in this life will grant them a better chance in the next one, I suppose I can dimly grasp at the logic of feeding birds instead of children.  But not really.  No, not at all.

There is always this moment in a foreign country in which the prevailing customs and beliefs swirl and churn their way into my consciousness,  lapping at the sides of my own moral ship and finally rising up over the deck to smack me down in a wave of pure shock and just a touch of fury.

To my way of thinking, this bit of shock and awe is a good thing.  The unfamiliar ills of a foreign society are to wandering souls what koans are to Buddhists–paradoxes unsolvable and yet instructional.  Pondering the same societal riddles over and over again helps me to see my own faults and America’s faults in a new light.  They force me to move past certain caricatures of “India” and consider the unique opinions and viewpoints of everyone I meet.

I was talking with our housekeeper the other day about the role of grandparents in different cultures.  I was telling her how many grandparents in China are the ones to raise their grandchildren while their own children go to work to support the entire family.  I asked her if families in India were like this.

No, she said.  She leaned back on the kitchen counter, looked up at the ceiling and sighed.

In India, the role of the grandparents is to criticize the daughter-in-law, she said.

But it won’t be her role.  She’s already told her sons that she will never live with them after they marry, if she can help it.  She does not want to make the lives of her daughters-in-law as miserable as custom would dictate, but she knows how easy it would be to fall into this societal pattern were they all to live under one roof.

So instead, she and her husband have a mortgage on a plot of land where they will build a home when they retire and where their grandchildren can come to visit them.  She said she would rather break with tradition than live to glimpse her future daughters-in-law making long faces behind her back.

Just one more reason to remember that nothing in this country is ever entirely as it seems, as it is said to be, as it is “supposed” to be.

A few more photos from Old Delhi below.

Old Delhi from above_MG_4174January 16, 2013

Old Delhi from above_MG_4170January 16, 2013


6 thoughts on “Old Delhi On High

  1. Where were you at to get the views below? I think you’ve hit something very true in looking at how people and cultures deal with poverty, surplus, and relationships. It is so easy to judge from the outside looking in, harder to understand the whys when we don’t or can’t agree with them, rarer to find or take the time to find the exceptions and nuances within each human spirit, and a challenge to each of us how we will change, how we will choose to live now and when we finally move back ‘home’ for good how we will question our own cultures, values, and actions. I love that you are sharing your insights of discrepancies around you through your amazing photos and observations. I hope I can learn to love and embrace Turkey the way you are embracing India – with your whole heart.

    • On a rooftop in Old Delhi, above the spice market! A photog friend showed us through a doorway to the rooftop. Thank you for your sweet comments! It’s hard to balance learning and judging sometimes, hopefully I can err on the side of learning more often!

  2. There is no other place in the world I’ve been where I experienced more cultural “shock and awe” than Delhi. My five senses were overloaded during my visit in 2003 – I found myself having to recover even after I returned from the trip! Your photographs are wonderful and capture the vast array of sights and sounds in Delhi. Thanks for taking me back!

    • It is interesting how many people say that about Delhi and India as a whole. For some reason this country is just so much more gripping than any other place I’ve been to and its so interesting to hear other people’s similar reactions. Thank you for reading!

  3. But why must it be either/or? There are lots of hungry children in Delhi (specially Delhi, because so many poor migrants from the countryside wash up in Delhi to find work) but there are also lots of hungry birds. And while lots remains to be done, there is lots going on already. It’s just that Indian charity isn’t organized around social climbing (you don’t build social capital that way or become the hostess/fundraiser-with-the-mostest) so the approach to charity and charitable giving is quietist rather than self-promoting. Go, join forces with the Ramakrishna mission, Mobile Creches, GiveIndia dot org, ashanet dot org, pratham dot org, I mean there are literally countless organizations. You may not be a good fit because the dominant medium may be Hindi or the local language, but under the English-speaking or French-speaking radar, there is a lot happening.

    • You are absolutely right. There is a lot going on already in Delhi to feed children (and yes, this city as a destination for everyone from rural Northern India makes the problem that much more challenging) and there are many, many wonderful organizations in this city quietly doing amazing work to help the less fortunate. And while this may be true, standing up on a high rooftop in Old Delhi, I simply had a very visceral reaction to the thousands and thousands of pieces of bread I saw on the rooftops. There is so much good being done in this city and also so much more that remains to be done. Thank you for taking the time to comment and for sharing your recommendations of organizations to look into. With so many supposedly “non profit” organizations in India it’s sometimes difficult for a foreigner to tell the really great ones from the ones that are charitable in name only. I’m excited to look up the organizations you’ve mentioned and grateful to know of them now.

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