IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Spring)

2012 Letter home from India

By Trustees Fellow Maggie La Rochelle, with input from students David Sze, Ashley Copeland, Matt Schrieber, and Elli Blaine. Thanks to Elli Blaine and David Sze for photos and to the poets listed below for their poems.

Dear IHP Family and Friends,

We’ve completed the second leg of the trip – five weeks in our first international city, Delhi! India country coordinator and undercover superhero Kalyani Menon-Sen and her sidekick Juhi Jain engineered a fast-paced, ultra-stimulating exploration of the city of Dilliwalas (Residents of Delhi; Delhi is “Dilli” in Hindi). Their chosen banner: “What you see is not what you get.”

The political and social milieu of Delhi is a layered one. The urban landscape reflects the nature of this site as a focal point of power, settlement, and intercultural contact, whose diverse history dates back more than 10,000 years. Delhi today is marked by the impacts of alternating waves of accepted cultural pluralism and assimilative violence. This has been marked in the last century by the violence and pride of Independence and the violence of Partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, which fragmented relationships between Hindus and Muslims and whose impacts are only now beginning to be formally acknowledged and studied by historians, academics, journalists, and writers. 

Studying contemporary Delhi was, as Ashley Copeland put it, an “insightful experience peering into a city that is vying for global status.” Tropes of an environmentally-conscious “Clean Delhi, Green Delhi,” Delhi as a “global city” surging into a deserved position of international prominence, and other slogans were canvassed across the city in ad campaigns and imbued in corporate culture.

Through an in-depth case study of one of Delhi’s fastest growing suburban centers, Gurgaon, students explored the degree to which Delhi’s new modern mottos are borne out on the ground. Topics pursued included real estate and housing dynamics, the experiences of migrant workers, malls and consumerism, environmental sustainability, transportation in Gurgaon, and finally, the relationship between the smaller scale, long-populated “Old Gurgaon” and “New Gurgaon,” marked by huge malls with names like Ambience and Sahara, international hotels, and Indian headquarters of multinational companies like General Electric.

One group explored the fantastical real estate and housing boom happening in Gurgaon that draws thousands of Delhi residents to invest in apartments that are rarely occupied but financially lucrative nonetheless. Another group explored the concept of environmental sustainability in Gurgaon, finding the small-scale efforts of some local citizens and the nostalgic images of placid streams and green meadows in stark contrast to the reality of a city that exploded onto the landscape overnight and whose master plan reflects little forethought in planning beyond that of new real estate development, malls, and corporate parks. Interestingly enough, the group exploring “Old” and “New Gurgaon” uncovered “a different narrative of development in Old Gurgaon,” learning a story in which claims on historic ownership of old Gurgaon have enabled longer, tenured residents to retain political autonomy over their area of the city while accessing measured urban development as a result of New Gurgaon’s increasing growth.

In all, the Gurgaon case studies enabled focused lenses for understanding the contradictions of urban development in regard to social justice and political process - what one sees in dominant ad campaigns, the largest buildings, and the loudest voices often obfuscates and oversimplifies voices also existing on the ground and the ways in which so many different people struggle to find footing in Delhi’s grueling development paradigm. “I am still processing how much I got out of [the case studies],” said one student. “And to think that we all got this much out of of it, just from talking to people really encourages me to go out and learn from the world.”

Out of class, highlights for many students were Old Delhi, or Shahjahanabad, with its buzzing, packed markets through narrow lanes and plethora of traditional and rare food stalls (fried paranthas anyone?). Students also explored traditional Muslim neighborhoods like Nizamuddin East, home to an early and much revered Sufi shrine; took taxis and trains to Agra for the weekend to visit the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and Fatephur Sikri; celebrated Holi, the Spring festival of colors; toured on bicycles around Old Delhi, Lutyen’s Delhi, and along the Yamuna River; and accepted the tradeoff of two overnight buses to visit Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s mountain retreat in Himachal Pradesh.

“I would probably describe key academic points [of the Delhi program] as complex, multi-layered, interwoven, interdependent, contradictory, changing" says David Sze. Upon leaving, many students expressed an appreciation for the challenge presented by the city of Delhi and the growth it engendered. “At first I felt extremely uncomfortable being thrown into Nizamuddin [East] on the first day, but after five weeks I think this experience set the tone for my time here in Delhi - definitely a formative experience” says Matt Schrieber. Looking forward, Elli Blaine put it this way: “I know it’s going to take me a long time to process many [things] that I’m encountering now...At the same time, [I am] stimulated to do my best to unpack [and] dissect what’s around me.” This balance between learning “in situ,” as Elli put it, and continuing to glean new lessons out of fundamentally new, vivid experiences over time is an integral part of our learning from Delhi.

On our final class day in Delhi, students wrote individual lines of reflection, finishing the sentence “Delhi is a place where…” as we did in New York, or offered insights on personal learning to date. Afterward, groups worked together to produce poems using these lines as foundations. The result was a fun and meaningful collection of verses on our learning from Delhi and the program thus far. Three of these poems are included below.

Thanks, everyone, for reading, and see you soon for the next letter from Dakar, Senegal!
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The city whispers, yells that some things will never make sense to me.
It is a place where crazy and beautiful collide with hope and faith;
The crash is rotis snapping on the stove, peacocks crying at night.
Yesterday, I danced in the middle of the street to a Punjabi beat, enmeshed in color and peace.
Delhi is a place where the mind travels farther than the feet.
How have we not known each other always?

By Samantha Asker, Emily Bowe, and Jillie Schwiep
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So all you want outta me is poetry?
Delhi is a place where the mind travels farther than the feet.
Stepping up and stepping back, stepping in and stepping out.
Where spectators are spectacles.
Roses, urine, incense, exhaust,
Masala, turmeric, hair pomade.
Smells on smells on smells.

By Christie Chea, John Keenan, and Dan Otte
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Now is my time, my space to change.
As my mind travels further than my feet, some things
Will never make sense to me.

Delhi moves, stops, moves again;
Delhi honks, barks, screams;
Delhi stares, smiles, admires
Delhi lives.

Now is a time of change,
Attachment and transition.
Moving just happens.

By Elli Blaine, Brittney Melloy, and Mary Alice Reilly

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Credits: 16

Duration: Spring, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
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Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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