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Lutyens’ Delhi survival guide (my article from Indian Express’ Eye Magazine)

This article was originally published on Dec 11 in Indian Express’s Eye Magazine.

An expat’s guide to surviving Lutyens’ Delhi

by Dave Prager

Lutyens’ Delhi was built for expats. British ones, specifically: those early 20th-century genteelfolk who knew exactly which fork was meant for eating crumpets while riding down the Rajpath in a horse-drawn carriage, and for whom the word “genteelfolk” was surely invented.

Because these expats had made a long ocean journey from home, Lutyens’ job was to make them comfortable in this strange land. Which is why he gave them so much room for strolling under lace parasols, for fanning themselves demurely, and for beginning every complaint about the weather and the natives with the phrase, “I daresay.” In other words, Lutyens built New Delhi specifically to insulate his expats from the actual Delhi around them.

Today’s expats are different. They come in varieties far beyond Lutyens’ imperial mandate: they’re bhang-dazed hippies, budding middle management, Rhodes scholars, and grandmothers on packaged tours. They come to India for India, not for the Crown. And when they go to Lutyens’ Delhi, they generally go as tourists.

This article, then, provides the tips they need to survive their visit. (There are still expats who live in Lutyens’ Delhi, but this survival guide isn’t for them — if they can afford to live there, they probably don’t need much help surviving the city.)

Watch your wallet. One hundred years ago, Lutyens’ Delhi was built to facilitate the extraction of wealth out of India and into England. Today, it exists to extract wealth out of your wallet into everyone else’s. Hotel rooms, bottled water, taxi rides — anything paid for here comes with a surcharge.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to south Delhi, we saw an ad for a street food festival at one of Lutyens’ Delhi’s fanciest hotels. We hadn’t lived in India long enough to have braved actual street food, so we headed to this hotel, hoping to discover this chaat thing we’d been reading so much about. We had expected the hotel to have handpicked Delhi’s finest street vendors, transplanted them to its manicured lawn, with filtered water and organic vegetables for them to make their magic. What we got were the aloo tikki and gol gappas we’d soon learn to enjoy at Nizammudin Railway Station, except for 20 times above the market rate. That’s Lutyens’ Delhi for you.

Have an exit plan. We didn’t own a car when we lived in Delhi; for us, autos and taxis sufficed. This arrangement failed us only when we’d visit Lutyens’ Delhi. That’s because everyone else there has a car, a driver, and a second driver to drive the first one to the car — which means autos and taxis don’t ply there looking for fares.

Those are long, empty, lonely boulevards when you’re searching for autorickshaws to take you home, and all you can hear in the quiet of the night are the solitary autos put-putting half a mile away. When they finally chug into view, the dark shape in the passenger seat reminds you that next time, maybe you should remember to pay the driver who dropped you off, to wait.

Don’t try to walk. Expats love to explore cities on foot. But don’t try it here. Lutyen’s boulevards are mathematically precise and horticulturally identical, which means every street looks like every other street, with every roundabout offering five other directions of the same. Even the trees seem strategically placed to avoid shading the sidewalk. It’s pleasant to look at from the back of a speeding vehicle, but it’s a long and blistery walk between any two points.

Don’t assume ‘historic’ means ‘good’. The marble and granite that Lutyens laid over 10 square miles of farms, villages, and bits of the Old City may be aesthetically pleasing, but expressly imperial: it’s specifically intended to intimidate anyone not travelling in a gold-plated, stallion-drawn carriage. His goal was to insulate the powerful from those over whom they have power. What could be more undemocratic than a capital designed for an empire? And how is the world’s largest democracy impacted by centring itself in 1911’s equivalent of Mordor?

Fortunately, the expats for whom Lutyens built his Delhi no longer run the show. Those who go there today are driven by cultural curiosity, not by imperial decree. So if you decide to go for high tea to one of its fancy hotels, have some fun with history: deliberately eat your crumpets with the wrong fork. And then get very quiet. You hear that faint whirring sound? That’s Lutyens, spinning in his grave. You’re not the expat he wanted there.

Dave Prager is the author of Delirious Delhi: Inside India’s Incredible Capital.

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