The system in disguise

Accomplishing simple tasks can be quite an adventure in Delhi. There are no lines to order food from a fly-infested street cart, just as there are no lines to guide traffic on the road. A 10 person pileup at the register at the local market is not unlike the orgy of auto-rickshaws and motorbikes that whittle their way to the front of of the jam and continue to push the envelope of what might just be ‘sticking out a little too far…’

But despite all this mayhem, the more time I spend here the more I notice the skeletal fingers of a decrepit and outdated system poking through the thick layers of dust that have piled up over the years. And just as you might deal with an old and frail being, you are inclined to treat the system with respect and seek to understand it, while simultaneously bottling up your secret frustrations with it’s inadequacies.

But the fact is I don’t really mind the chaos. There is a method to the madness of necessity here. If you want to buy something at the grocery store, you barge your way to the front and set your things down with a sense of respectable demand. If you want to get anywhere on these roads, then you put about 50% of your chance of survival into the hands of other drivers who have the option of stopping for you or crushing you. Usually they choose the former. If you have a shopping list, you go hunting for it, stopping at all the niche markets that might have this or that because there is no supermarket. If you want water then you walk to the corner store and huff the 24 liter jug back to your place because you sure as hell can’t drink the tap. If you want to party, then you bribe the cops. If you want lunch, then you pay less than $1USD for a meal and they’ll deliver it for free. If you want to mail a letter, then you take some dry stamps and dip them in a cup of sticky water and slap it onto your envelope and wave it around to dry. If you want to say hello or approve of something or just impress a local, then you wobble your head smoothly from one side to the other and pretend like you know what it means. If you want to catch a bus, then you run. If you want to stop a bus, then you step in front of it and hold out your hand and act like you’re not scared. If it rains, it floods. If you want concrete then you make it on the street. If the road is soon to be paved, then they pour chalk around the cars that are parked and pave around them. If you want to park for months on end, then you leave your car in one place and come back with a mighty duster. If you want clean feet, then you avoid the dog poop. If you want clean air then you don’t live in New Delhi. If you want to find an address, then get ready to feel hopeless. Streets aren’t really labeled, there are no ascending or descending numbers or letters, nor does anything make sense. Neighborhoods have names, within neighborhood there are alphabetical blocks (not in order though) and within blocks there are numbers for buildings, but no unit numbers – it’s either ground floor (basement), I don’t actually know what the real ground floor is, 1st floor (2nd floor), 2nd floor (3rd floor), etc. Often times auto drivers don’t even know where to go when you tell them the block and so they pull over frequently asking local shopkeepers where the specific “address” if you can even call it that might be.

Laws don’t stand for much here. Courtesy is mostly personal. Yet somehow 21 million people get by, and if you learn to follow the faint outlines of their systems with same ruthlessness it takes to drive their roads, you might just figure it out too…