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Hamilton Court: Gurgaon, the New York Times, and us (again)

For the second time since we’ve arrived, the New York Times has profiled a part of India that is also part of our lives. The first time was when the Times discussed the power and infrastructure issues facing Gurgaon, the tech hub to the southwest of Delhi, illustrating their story with photos of the building in which I worked. Today the Times has done another report on Gurgaon, this time exploring the gap between the rich and the poor by showcasing the high-rise monstrosity in which we lived for our first six nights in the country. (Pics here, here, and here.)

It only took one evening for us to realize we didn’t want to live in the company apartment in Hamilton Court. (It took us five more nights to find a flat in Delhi, which is why we stayed so long.) Gurgaon itself is a miserable cancer of construction dust, gleaming shopping malls, and failed infrastructure. Private industry has operated on full throttle here in a governmental vacuum — absent both regulation to check growth and infrastructure to support it. The group of a dozen skyscrapers in which I worked until last week (we moved) is served by a single four-lane road that is a parking lot for eight hours a day. During my time at the office, the landscape was torn up to build overhead power lines — either the city hadn’t built underground cables, or had built cables with no thought for expansion.

Hamilton Court itself was, to us, a parody of what striving Indians must imagine Western success to be like: tall, impersonal, impressive from the outside but soulless on the inside. My company had leased and hastily furnished a four-bedroom, 4,500 square foot duplex on the top floor of one of the Hamilton Court towers in anticipation of a regular stream of expat workers that didn’t materialize. The master bedroom, where we stayed, was an 800-square-foot echo chamber that was completely empty save a bed, two chairs, a television, and the stench of car exhaust. The building’s elaborate lobby was completely empty, lacking even a token couch. Outside, children would periodically play on the lawn and healthy-minded Indians would walk laps around the building, but the smell of pollution was too overwhelming to enjoy the great outdoors for long.

The New York Times rightfully acknowledges that for many Indians, this is paradise: a sign of success that has been achieved for the first time in a hundred generations. I don’t think it’s fair for the Times to dramatize the fact that the slums lie just outside the building — this is the case for every neighborhood in India. In fact, I think it’s one of India’s strengths that the rich can’t remain ignorant of the poor, unlike America where our poorest live out of sight and out of mind. (Although seeing dire poverty every day DOES quickly desensitize one to it.)

Moreover, I don’t think it’s fair for the Times to criticize the pockets of wealth that are springing up around the country without providing some positive context for it. “But today a landscape dotted with Hamilton Courts, pressed up against the slums that serve them, has underscored more than ever the stark gulf between those worlds, raising uncomfortable questions for a democratically elected government about whether India can enable all its citizens to scale the golden ladders of the new economy.” The flipside of the equation is this: look how many more people can now afford to live in comfort! In spite of a government that fails at providing infrastructure for the single most visible symbol of the country’s future, the city is still attracting people and business and creating vast pockets of wealth. Imagine what India could do if the government actually supported its own growth.

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