I’ve said it before, Delhi is no different than any other big city – except that it’s in India.
It has all the same petty theft, traffic, pollution, and impolite attitudes that you’d find in New York City, L.A., or London – with a spicy, head-bobbling, chaotic twist.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Delhi, then it’s safe to say you’ve seen it all: Bentley’s rolling through the capitol’s streets, naked children washing themselves in a puddle of rain water, cows grazing through piles of garbage, construction workers standing on bamboo scaffolds precariously affixed to unfinished buildings…
It’s such a bewildering place that in order for your brain to process everything it’s taking in, it can only being by making generalizations.
So the first time you get ripped off by a rickshaw walla, your brain automatically says, “All rickshaw drivers must be cheats”. Or when you get cut in line at the store, you think, “All Indians are cutters.”
Right or wrong, at the time, that was the easiest way for your brain to comprehend what in the world was happening. And it’s those first quick and over-simplified assumptions that slowly begin to feed your overall perception of the culture.
But to make a generalization in the first place means you have to be able to distinguish a commonality or obvious pattern over time.
And commonalities in Delhi are like the mythical unicorns of sociology. They’re elusive and rare.
So the moment you think you’ve finally reached the bottom of the matter and decide that, yes, all rickshaw drivers are indeed scam artists, you have a freak occasion that flips that generalization upside down on it’s head.
This is extremely rare, but it does happen: You might be haggling with a rickshaw walla who comes right out and tells you you’re offering him too much.
It could be the sum your offering him is so outrageous that even he couldn’t allow himself to take you for that amount of money.
That’s when your brain explodes.
You think: What the…? But you guys are all supposed to be sneaking, hustling, scheming, cheaters that are only after my money because I’m a “whitie”.
So then it’s like you want to suddenly hug this greasy, lice-ridden man and get his number and take him home to be your personal rickshaw driver for always.
You get in the rickshaw, riding the high that you found the one and only honest rickshaw driver in all of Delhi.
The sun is suddenly shining a little brighter. The sky is a little bluer.
Then you get to your destination, pull out your rupees to pay him, and as you’re climbing out of the rickshaw, he reaches out to grab your leg or breast inappropriately (you can never be sure).
Now this man you were ready to let sleep on your couch not 20 minutes ago, you want to thoroughly kick in the stomach.
As the Lonely Planet Guide calls it: The “schizophrenic capitol” of India.
One minute your heart is breaking as you watch poor, filthy, naked children playing in the street. The next minute it’s appalled because those same children are swarming you, digging their hands into your pockets trying to steal whatever they can get.
For every step forward it feels like you take 10 steps back. Just when I think I have this place figured out, it bowls me another curve ball. (“Bowling”, by the way, is cricket terminology for all you Americans out there.)
So I’ve learned to laugh.
Sometimes it’s out of incredulity, sometimes it’s so I don’t cry, and sometimes it’s because I genuinely find the situation funny.
But by trying to find the humor here, I’ve slowly been able to move past the generalization phase of my culture shock and start viewing my interactions with people and situations and their own specific instances.
I’ll never fully “get” India, and it will always leave me feeling dazed and confused, but I don’t have to let the negative things overshadow the positive things.
Delhi isn’t a city that asks to be understood as much as it simply asks to be experienced – no matter how mind-boggling (or is that head-bobbiling?) things may get.