An expats guide to surviving Lutyens Delhi
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.
Todays expats are different. They come in varieties far beyond Lutyens imperial mandate: theyre 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 isnt for them if they can afford to live there,they probably dont 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 elses. 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 hadnt lived in India long enough to have braved actual street food,so we headed to this hotel,hoping to discover this chaat thing wed been reading so much about. We had expected the hotel to have handpicked Delhis 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 wed soon learn to enjoy at Nizammudin Railway Station,except for 20 times above the market rate. Thats Lutyens Delhi for you.
Have an exit plan: We didnt own a car when we lived in Delhi; for us,autos and taxis sufficed. This arrangement failed us only when wed visit Lutyens Delhi. Thats 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 dont ply there looking for fares.
Those are long,empty,lonely boulevards when youre 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.
Dont try to walk: Expats love to explore cities on foot. But dont 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. Its pleasant to look at from the back of a speeding vehicle,but its a long and blistery walk between any two points.
Dont 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: its 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 worlds largest democracy impacted by centring itself in 1911s 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? Thats Lutyens,spinning in his grave. Youre not the expat he wanted there.
Dave Prager is the author of Delirious Delhi: Inside Indias Incredible Capital