Recreation, Relaxation, and Poverty

She felt bamboozled. She did not understand why, or more accurately she did not wish admit that she understood why. As she traveled through Delhi, making her observations, asking her friends innocently what did they think of nature around here, she began to collect certain truths that seemed so blasphemous, dangerous even. She fell into deep conflict with what she had  experienced in the US, and what her brain was seeing here. She continuously told herself, Teona nature is a social construction. 

Delhi’s nature was too real. Reality designed the trees, influenced the river, and created the hills and mountains. Parks were both places to relax and to sort trash. People lived by the river both out of convenience and because they could not afford to live anywhere else. Even if you did have a decent amount of funds,  Delhi’s nature was not a place that you frequented. There were too many other places to see, too many other things to think about. Maybe you went biking, maybe you planted trees around your house, maybe you had lunch in the park. Maybe all these things made you happy. Maybe nature was a place to socialize. Maybe you did not mind the smells or the garbage or the noise. Maybe it was still beautiful. Maybe she had to redefine her conceptions of beauty.

She was being too harsh she knew it. She needed to appreciate how honest Delhi was. It was helping her re-think concepts that she swore by. She sat outside what looked like park to finish Fountainhead. It was not exactly peaceful or even relaxing, but it was comfortable. She was invested as much in the book as she was in the space. It was perplexing. She had never experienced nature in this way before. There was shanty like houses, people hanging up laundry. It was  increasingly intoxicating. She ended up sharing her lunch a few times with the women construction workers, who chipped away at rocks in the park. They would play in her hair, share their rotis, speak to her in Hindi. She  smiled, laughed, and held their babies as they worked. It was not a peaceful getaway, but at least she had met some nice friends.

The marginalized of Delhi did not lack access to nature. They were surrounded by it, and they used it to make their lives a little more bearable. While some of my Delhiwallas complained about urban floods, I saw the urban poor rejoice in them. They collected the water, and smiled as their children bathed in the flood water.

Maybe that was what was so confusing about exploring green  spaces within the city’s confine.  It was not really an utilitarian approach to nature. People were not hacking down trees to build industries. It wasn’t really a dependency either, there were plenty of people sleeping in the  subway tunnels. At the same time people were not writing sonnets about trees and flowers. It all seemed to be a mix for the groups I encountered. Here at Chintan, I was connected to watsepickers. People who collect garbage and live by landfills. From multiple conversations I had with a couple of wastepickers it actually made sense to me. You slept in the park because it was more comfortable than the landfill. In that nature was both beautiful and useful.

Even the wealthier Indians made use of public spaces. I noticed that parks were always full of a mix of people. There were young couples cuddling in obscure places. Women selling freshly cooked corn on the cob. Men playing cricket, Young children chasing stray dogs around. The parks in Delhi reminded me of little communities. No one seemed to mind the trash or the noise. That was Delhi- loud and aggressive. Why should a few trees change that environment?

The poverty bothered her. She read reports from NGOs claiming that rapid urbanization and poor people building informal settlements in Delhi was removing the natural forces to  prevent urban floods for devastating the city. She wondered have they even been in one of these informal settlements? Did they see that people were washing in the river not because they were too cheap to pay for water. Water was a luxury that not everyone had. They had nowhere to go. Guilt flooded her heart. She was one of those westerners. Assuming that homeless people stained the parks back at home. Here in Delhi the marginalized added flavor to outside. Soon she too would be able to ignore the incessant traffic surrounding the park. And like her counterparts in Nizamuddin, when the floods hit she hiked up her dress, and began to use the water to scrub off the dirt from her legs and feet. You have to get clean somehow. 

Okay, so maybe Delhi’s entire impoverished population would not gallantly follow behind me as I led them to a 1400.00 USD, 7 day ski trip. I could let that go. I could even re in vision a nature that was more functional than pristine.

Even if the majority of my Indian friends here had no interest in camping in the hills with me, at least I had convinced some of my new friends to lie in the grass and read during our lunch break.Baby steps 🙂