Extravagant Egalitarian: Delhi of Dreams

Extravagant Egalitarian by Azwa Petra – A LoyarBurok series featuring Azwa’s jaunts and jottings, with a take on human rights and putting it all in context with the social development of Malaysia.

In Delhi of Dreams, Extravagant Egalitarian takes us through a journey of architectural wonders – from regal structures of an empire past, to Lutyens’ Delhi of colonial days and the slum phenomenon of present time – and leaves us thinking about how Malaysians view and treat migrant workers.

Incredible !ndia as the tagline goes and indeed it is! I started reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns around the same time I first started going through New Delhi as a transit city when I was based in Kabul. The flight times were such that I would always have at least half a day to discover one by one the historical sights and architectural wonders in Delhi and boy, were there many!

Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid

Safdarjung's Tomb

Safdarjung's Tomb

As much as I hate to admit it, I only started learning about the Mughal Empire from “City of Djinns.” Wow! It spanned over three centuries beginning from Emperor Babur whose famous gardens – Bagh-e-Babur (also where his last resting place is) – I was fortunate enough to visit in Kabul. Many of the palaces, tombs, and forts built by the dynasty still stand today all over India, the most known of course is the Taj Mahal but there are several notable ones in Delhi. These include the Jama Masjid as well as Safdarjung’s Tomb and even more which are UNESCO World Heritage sites like the Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb and Qutb Minar.

Red Fort - front

Red Fort

The arrival of the British, among others, accelerated the declining empire and brought in renowned British architect Edwin Lutyens. Sir Edwin, who was made responsible for designing the new seat of British power in India – moving from Calcutta to New Delhi, was said to have disliked Indian architecture. He was nonetheless made by the then Viceroy to incorporate native elements into the design of the Viceroy’s House – now the Presidential Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan).

The Presidential Palace, said to be the world’s largest residence of any Head of the State, covers 330 acres and has 336 rooms including halls. It is linked by Rajpath (King’s Way) to India Gate, a memorial for Indian soldiers who fought in WWI and also designed by Lutyens. These landmarks are all part of Lutyens’ grand vision for the central administrative city in an area now referred to as Lutyens’ Delhi. I saw the India Gate from a short distance but managed to tour the Presidential Palace including the Palace gardens.

India Gate

India Gate

A good friend who previously worked in the Presidential Office helped arranged my visit to the Palace; and so, not only did I have my own personal tour guide but also a personal photographer (as photos were not allowed to be taken inside)! I had access to the gardens in December when it is usually only open to the public in February and even had tea in one of the holding rooms! While some consider Lutyens’ Delhi as British’s finest colonial architecture, others see it as a symbol of British excess. Some argue the sight of still many colonial buildings and white bungalows around Delhi is an embarrassment in a country that faces a growing gap between the rich and the poor.

While my favourite pit stop is Hotel Imperial, proud to lend itself to Lutyens’ grand vision with its blend of Victorian, Old colonial and Art Deco styles, I remembered when I stayed once at The Oberoi, there was a sizable slum area just opposite it across the highway. New Delhi, which is hosting the Commonwealth Games this year, is also host to millions of migrants from the rural areas who live in makeshift slums all over the city. The slum phenomenon in India inadvertently came into the limelight through the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, with its share of criticisms and controversies amid global success at the box office.

Humayun's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb

Ahead of the Commonwealth Games, the authorities had intended to resettle these slum dwellers to the outskirts of the city but with time running out, they opted to erect bamboo poles to instead hide the slums which they were not able to relocate. A friend who just came back this month from a memorable holiday in India nonetheless remarked, “Nothing is ready for the Commonwealth Games. The stadiums are leaking from heavy rainfall; much money ferreted away and beggars apparently will be made to leave Delhi. Workers were still busily painting incomplete roads and the Metrolines are also hastily being completed. It’s a huge mess, and the television and newspapers were full of it. Quite a shame.”

Qutb Minar - World's Tallest Brick Minaret

Qutb Minar - World's Tallest Brick Minaret

Rapid increasing poverty in cities is not unique to India of course. As of 2007, one billion people live in slums, 90% of whom are in developing countries. Yet it is argued that the potential benefits of urbanisation, such as easier access to health centres and education, still far outweigh the disadvantages. That is why people from rural areas continue to move to cities and migrate to other countries in search of better opportunities.

Malaysia deemed one of the more developed developing countries has her share of migrant workers coming from many parts of the region and even beyond. Awhile back when I was still working in Malaysia, I marveled over how some of the migrant workers from Bangladesh for example had picked up the Malay language easily to adapt to their life in a foreign country.

Moti Masjid at Red Fort

Moti Masjid at Red Fort

However, much more recently, i.e. after being based abroad and having to speak English practically all of the time, I got rather frustrated that I was unable to communicate in Malay despite being back home with presumably more newly arrived migrants working in the restaurants and food stalls who have not learnt the national language. One of my immediate thoughts was of course, “…they come to my country and cannot even speak a rudimentary form of my language?”

I also began to hear regular referencing to these foreign workers by friends as “Indons”, “Banglas”, “Pakis.” Aren’t these pejorative terms for them? How criminal activities have risen in Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur because of these “foreign elements.”

On one hand, you have the argument from employers that locals/Malaysians refuse to deign themselves in low-skilled jobs; on the other, it is easier for employers to exploit foreign migrants who cannot speak the local language or are afraid to go to the authorities due to their illegal or “alien” status.

Are we getting too comfortable in our lives in our country to appreciate the harsh life faced by some of these foreign workers in Malaysia? We are only ready to hear how they make such a better life in Malaysia as compared to their lives back home that we forget there is another side to this world. In an SMS poll conducted by The Star last year, more than 75% of the 769 respondents are against the idea of granting “maids” a day off every week. Majority of us apparently expect domestic workers/helpers to be at our beck and call 24 hours, 7 days a week!

Some of us might want to recall how when studying or trying to work abroad, we faced similar prejudices. We were supposedly the cause for rising crime in a particular area; how we did not put in as much effort to assimilate into the local cultures; how we had to work so much harder than the locals to get paid the same wages. We reproached, even cursed, these supposed narrow-minded bigots then.

Are we at risk of becoming these same people we ranted against in our own country? Shouldn’t we treat foreign migrants the same way we would like to be treated when we reside and study or work abroad?

LB: The views expressed here are solely of the author’s in her personal capacity and not necessarily those of her employer organisation.

Azwa Petra was (recently) described in a Star article as being, “[At] 38 and still single, … already far beyond the average age at which Malaysians are expected to get married.” When not deluding herself that her day job will win her the Nobel Peace Prize, Azwa is continually planning her next travel escapade and spending money taking photography lessons which she forgets the next day. She loves dancing salsa and samba de gafieira, and her latest passion is trapeze flying.

See Also:

  • Extravagant Egalitarian: Wonder Lakes of Afghanistan
Mosque at Safdarjung's Tomb

Mosque at Safdarjung's Tomb

Diwan-i-Khas at Red Fort

Diwan-i-Khas at Red Fort

Jama Masjid - interior

Jama Masjid - interior

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Posted on 20 August 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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2 Responses to Extravagant Egalitarian: Delhi of Dreams

  1. Sheeva

    Nice article Aunty Azwa!

    The ignoramus who commented above is quite obviously, well, biased, if not racist.

    Oh well.

    :) Beautiful pics!

  2. Ahusni

    Oh yes… immigrant Indians have every right to be proud of their mother land… They can migrate back to their homeland if they wish, nobody will stop them..