The Belly of Delhi

I simply couldn’t resist that play on words for the title. Delhi is famous for giving its visitors the Delhi Belly, which for those who received this gift would tell you that it’s no laughing matter. Like this, so many other aspects about Delhi and India in general leaves me with a sense of conflict. Recognising the effects of the caste system while noting the awkward balance it provides as well. Or seeing the beautiful structures left to ruin from the neglect of complacent or downright lazy hired help, while fending off beggars that rely on irritation and annoyance as a reason for you to part with your rupees just to get rid of them. The overwhelming sense I got though, when visiting Delhi and later Agra, is that it’s a distracted place.

I thought the irritable hooting from the Arab driver behind me at an intersection in Arabia was annoying, but that fast became a cherished memory in the face of the incessant hooting that has become the staple language with which drivers communicate in India. Unfortunately the hooting is needed because road signs, traffic signals, and general rules of the road are merely suggestions for normalcy, but are rarely observed or enforced. At a single intersection I witnessed a driver take a u-turn in front of us while another cut in from the oncoming side, while we cut in front of a third driver that actually had the right of way, all in the space of about 1.5 seconds. In South Africa, someone would have likely been severely injured or killed at that intersection from road rage. But that’s the difference, in a way, between South Africa and India.

When I look on the faces of drivers in South Africa, I see signs of life, mostly in the form of aggression, expectation, entitlement, or sometimes composure. But there is always an expression of emotion, which I interpret as life. In Delhi, the drivers probably make the best poker players ever. Regardless of how reckless the manoeuvre was of the person in front, the most it would solicit is a lotus flower-like twist of the fingers in that universal gesture of WTF. You know, palms facing up while fingers gesture as if unscrewing a lightbulb? So when you see that, you know it was really bad. The rest of the time it’s emotionless as if resigned to the fact that nothing more should be expected. Closer to the important truth in this I believe is the fact that it’s not rules or constraints that determine harmony in society. Those merely dictate an unnatural order. Collective subscription to a set of norms is what fosters the harmony that we all seek. In other words, if everyone collectively subscribes to the same version of chaos, is it really chaos? It stands to reason then that disruption or upheaval in society is caused when norms or standards are imposed on an unwilling audience. Hence your leaders are as you are.

That there is a potential for greatness in Delhi is no less true than the potential for greatness in the most rural villages in South Africa. Unfortunately, too often I find that we’re trying to subscribe to a set of laws that are unnatural, or to be part of a system that is exclusionary by design, but we do so anyway because that is the prevailing perception of success. Such thinking is not what leads to ingenious outcomes. When we subscribe without true conviction or understanding in the underlying purpose, we lose ourselves in favour of the version of us dictated by that system. Stated simply, we forget who we truly are when we focus on meeting expectations rather than living with conviction. Defining our worth based on these external and unnatural systems, usually capitalistic in nature, distracts us from defining who we are as human beings. This is what I see on the faces of so many around me, whether in Delhi or Johannesburg. There is a vacancy of the self, but an abundance of need for acceptance or celebration. In Delhi it’s expressed as complacency in the face of the overwhelming odds that stifle any desire to change it. In Johannesburg, it’s the excessive aggression towards each other which in essence hints at a belief that we are robbing each other of success, rather than a realisation that our collective subscription to a set of governance that erodes our self-worth is why we are so quick to launch the first offensive.

I would never have guessed that the Delhi Belly will come to symbolise the core of what is wrong with the human condition as we experience it today. We all partake in the consumption of things that we believe are needed for our sustenance, but are internally rejecting its origins or composition. Those that know better will subscribe under duress and will be more prone to the effects of such imbalance, while those that expect nothing more assimilate and become more efficient at processing the unpalatable. Such adaption might prove useful in the short term, but it lowers the bar in the long term.

Intolerance to a pervasive vice or imbalance may seem idealistic and naive, but having the courage to recognise a vice as a vice is all that stands between us and the rest of that slippery slope of decay. We’ve become so good at adapting that we’ve given up on idealism or conviction. Those that speak of old school values are shunned as out of touch while those that lack it complain bitterly about the state of the world. Such are the distractions of arrogance. When we assume that the technological advancements of the current generation implies moral superiority over the previous ones, we deny the next generation the benefit of finding a wholesome balance between the two. But just as decay is generational in nature, so too is rebirth. I believe that the human spirit will only tolerate the stench of immorality and imbalance for so long before the innate intolerance for such states drive us towards a resurgence of balance and harmony. The absolutists assume that such a return to old school values implies an abandonment of progress. They’re the ones that are most deluded. They’re the ones that contribute to the excess that we experience as the Delhi Belly.

I see it as being no different to cow hands working the farm and growing immune to the stench of the manure. They only realise what they’ve grown accustomed to if they remove themselves from it for long enough to grow accustomed to more pleasing aromas. And so it is with human beings. We’re collectively obsessed with competing for self enrichment while ignoring the greater purpose for which we exist. That is, the upliftment of those around us which automatically elevates our own condition. But in the absence of trust, we share a mutual contempt instead.

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