The City: Delhi, MMonster Metropolis

Article excerpt

Byline: William Dalrymple

delhi has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. The horrific gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman on her way back from seeing Life of Pi has lifted the lid on the casual violence of the Indian capital. For the rape is very much a Delhi story: while violence against women is a problem everywhere in India, it is generally agreed that women are most in danger in this vast, rough, messy megacity that I call home.

No one really knows how big Delhi is. Delhi the federal district has about 11 million inhabitants, but that figure disguises the fact that over the political boundaries in neighboring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh there sprawl suburbs that together contain millions more. By some estimates this greater urban Delhi contains more than 21 million people and is one of the most populous urban areas on Earth.

As the city has expanded it has swallowed up hundreds of ancient villages, where people's lives and attitudes have changed little since the Mughal Middle Ages. It is the cheek-by-jowl coexistence of a deeply conservative patriarchal rural society alongside the very different world and moral norms of a modern urban city that has helped create the tensions that resulted in the recent tragedy.

These enveloped villages can be sad places. There are two near my house: Shahpur Jat and Khirki, both of which have been swallowed alive. Shorn of their fields and exploited by corrupt bureaucrats and unscrupulous real-estate agents, the villagers now find themselves besieged. Shahpur Jat has undergone a "boutiquification," and its ponds full of leathery water buffaloes are now bizarrely edged with designer shops--which are visited by women in short skirts, high heels, and Dior sunglasses--while the villagers remain deprived of even the most basic facilities.

Yet these villages, with their old courtyard houses and ancient ruins, are one of the reasons I love this city as much as I do. Of the great cities of the world, only Rome and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of his toric remains. For miles in every direction, half collapsed and overgrown, robbed and re- occupied, ne glected by all, are the remains of 600 years of trans- Indian imperium--all that is left of the vanity projects of centuries of Delhi's emperors. …