Delhi, as Seen From My Rooftop

A writer finds respite from the heat and humanity on a second-floor `barsati'. TRAVEL: INDIA

THE old saw about India's being a land of contrasts is all too true - and nowhere more so than the twin cities of New and Old Delhi. Like India, the capital has a dual personality: Old Delhi is a hubbub of cluttered streets, lively bazaars, and relics of three centuries of resplendent Mogul rule.

To the south is New Delhi, planned and built earlier this century by the British as an imperial showcase. This more modern, soulless city is one of wide, shaded avenues, pretentious public buildings, and too many bureaucrats.

For centuries, Delhi has been the subcontinent's magnet. During the past 1,000 years, it has been the capital of eight empires and a crossroads of history.

Today, metropolitan Delhi is the fastest-growing city in the world's fastest-growing country. Still considered a provincial backwater compared to cosmopolitan Bombay or cultural Calcutta, the city increasingly sets the pace for politics, culture, and business in a modern, yet traditional, India. Eight million people strong, Delhi is flooded continuously by rich and poor seeking jobs, amenities, and power.

But, under the crush of India's population, such go-go growth is taking its toll. Like other subcontinent cities, Old Delhi has an air of growing frenzy. The graciousness of imperial New Delhi is being obliterated by high-rises, sprawling concrete-box suburbs, pollution, and traffic-choked streets.

Inevitably, Delhi's overcrowding spills into the streets. Illegal slums multiply. Too many faces peer from pavement hovels. Beggar children haunt street corners.

Nowhere is the human press greater than Old Delhi (the Walled City, to natives), which abounds with color, smell, noise, and activity. A visit to its bazaars assaults the senses and tests endurance. One is constantly jostled - not out of rudeness, but because there just isn't room.

Khari Baoli (Spice Street) is one of the most vivid markets of the East. There, pungent ground spices are mounded like huge, fiery-tasting gumdrops: chili powder, tumeric, anise, and cumin.

Commerce fills every inch of space. On the sidewalk, old Tibetan women sell asafoetida, a spice from tree sap important to Indian cooking and said to have aphrodisiac powers.

But there's no magic here, only business: ``If you're not going to buy, move on,'' barks an elderly woman with a deeply lined face.

Like the twin cities, Delhi's residents mix the old and new. When I first came to India more than four years ago, I rented from Shailendra Kumari, a stately middle-aged woman who descended from an erstwhile maharajah and still insists on being called The Rani (Princess).

Mourning the maharajahs

Today, The Rani and her husband, Himmit Singh (also an Indian blue blood), manage their extensive real estate holdings, splitting time between a high-rise New Delhi apartment and a small palace in Rajasthan state.

They mourn the maharajahs' passing and feel adrift in a new India where democracy is supplanting feudalism. ``My childhood was a golden time,'' recalls The Rani. ``That India is gone.''

My present landlord, Rishi Raj Bakshi, is of a newer breed. A retired army colonel, he manages a garment export factory, buys his wife all the latest household gadgets, and breezes about town in a Maruti - a Japanese-style compact and symbol of middle-class ascendancy.

Many of Delhi's Westernized nouveau riche are known as Puppies, an acronym for Prosperous Urban Punjabi. They hail from the northern state of Punjab, and many were destitute immigrants from what is now Pakistan when the British left and the subcontinent was divided in 1947.

Not unlike Americans who experienced the Great Depression, these affluent Delhiites take refuge in conspicuous consumption. They live high, hoping to blot out painful memories of Partition, when millions fled and died, and to find shelter from the poverty, backwardness, and violence that haunts India today.

I, too, am a new-breed Delhi resident, living in an Indian-style loft known as a barsati. Once these rooftop nooks had limited use: Families slept on the terrace during the hot weather and retired to the attached small rooms during the rainy season, or barsat.

In today's Delhi, barsatis are hot property. With people flooding the capital, rents and land prices are soaring. And, after scrambling to secure a place, many tenants refuse to budge - or at least not without a fight. A cardinal rule in this crowded country of more than 800 million people is ``stand your ground.''

Armed with a stringent law that blocks landlords from raising rents and evicting tenants, many people stay put. Court battles over property are as common as cows wandering the streets here.

One lawyer acquaintance of shady repute boasted that he held out in his small house for months, without electricity and water, until his landlord paid him 100,000 rupees (about $6,000) to go away. He then built a new home.

Not surprisingly, India's intensity - and heat - drives people inside. There, a more languid pace prevails. Officious bureaucrats and inefficient office workers loll at their desks, sipping tea. Tourists collapse in relief in the cultivated tranquillity of luxury hotels. Foreigners and rich Indians take refuge in air-conditioned houses behind high walls.

Others retreat upward. In Old Delhi, rooftop respite is particularly popular. There, residents pursue hobbies of competitive kite-flying and pigeon-racing.

Often, Old Delhi is at its best when seen from above. From the ramparts of the 17th-century Red Fort, one can scan the Sunday market and its spectacle of snake charmers, musicians, and performing monkeys and bears.

Air-conditioned hibernation

From the terrace of my second-story New Delhi barsati, I can sample the hurly-burly of everyday India, yet remain detached. In early morning, before the clamor begins in earnest, the cadence of street vendors floats up from below. At night, the terrace shines with moonlight.

But a barsati is not a penthouse. On the roof, Delhi's water and electricity shortages seem particularly acute. In winter, roof life is brisk. In the summer, the 110 degree F.-plus heat is especially brutal: One spends half the year hibernating with an overtaxed air conditioner.

Noisy and nosy neighbors are another problem. When I came to my rooftop, there was not a soul in sight. Now, the surrounding barsatis are full of Afghan refugees, boisterous Indian children, and leering teenage boys who light firecrackers and shoot birds with pellet guns.

Always hospitable, Indians are skilled storytellers and never-tiring talkers. Questions abound, and doors are rarely shut. Ventilation, socializing, and curiosity keep them open.

One of India's strengths is a deep attachment to family. On the ground floor, 12 members of the Bakshi family share five rooms, a not uncommon middle-class arrangement. Crowding takes its toll, and tension often flares. But no one ever moves out.

Shammi Bakshi, my landlord's nephew, explains. A 28-year-old businessman, he spent several years in the United States and had the opportunity to marry an Indian woman there.

Instead, he returned to India, moved back home, and married the woman chosen by his parents. ``Being separated from your family is so difficult,'' he says. ``What if my wife and I have a fight? If parents aren't around, how do we settle it?''

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