For me it was my first time in Delhi and India – and outside of Europe at all. Unsurprisingly, my secondment in Delhi was a challenge which taught me a better understanding of space and time as social categories.
Delhi is an urban space incommensurable to European cities. I would say that there is no real centre and no structure and certainly, Delhi is not made for pedestrians. Of course, there are sidewalk, but sooner or later there is a hole, a booth, some flower buckets or temporary beddings forcing the pedestrian onto the street. On the road, pedestrians compete against cars, motorbikes and auto rickshaws for the next empty meter and at least motorbikes and auto rickshaws are usually quicker. Therefore, walking in Delhi is an exhausting activity.
For me it was a completely new and disturbing experience not to be free to move within a town because there is no structure to do so. I was dependent on taxis and auto rickshaws and to use these means meant new efforts and discontent. Fares had to be negotiated, because the required use of the taximeter is as rarely adhered to as the traffic regulations. But the chaotic traffic and its services are now given order by an app, Ola, the Indian counterpart to Uber. The virtual space, constructed by the app, is quite a relief in the chaotic system of the physical traffic and for the first time in my life, I understood the value of a modern mobile device.
Another surprise for me was the spontaneous appropriation and functional conversion of space. It happened to me twice that places I considered to be arranged for secular historical education (a room in the national museum and an open-air memorial sheltering a stone with an inscription by Ashoka) became places of religious worship. But this is, I have to admit, just the reversion of a process very common to Europeans. After all, in Europe famous religious places are used as secular points of interests for tourists, every day. Only my western perspective and custom was challenged.
Not only the traffic stretches and contracts time, but also the omnipresent bureaucracy: train tickets, library cards, access to archives: everything needs forms, photocopies of documents, signatures. I failed to buy tickets for the railway at the tourist office in New Delhi station after two hours of waiting, filing forms and dealing with the clerk: “No Sir, you are not entitled to buy a tourist ticket. You have a research visa…” I am still waiting for the SMS which should have given me access to the on-line system of the states railway company, after I fed the system a lot of personal data. But again, there is help from the private sector. Via Red Bus, a modern on-line system, it is easy to get tickets for the intercity bus. The buses are rather cheap and comfortable, and the bus terminals are even not as crowded as railway stations are.
The next lesson I learned is that bureaucratic procedures can be shortened, and closed doors may be opened by social relationships. That is certainly true for Europe and elsewhere as well, but I never experienced it intensively. I was lucky and grateful to meet many kind and interested colleagues in Delhi and Chandigarh, to where I was invited for lectures. In discussions and talks, I learned a lot about different views on the archival system in India, but moreover, I got lots of hints to persons and institutions I should have visited and talked too. Unfortunately, there was too little time for so many things I could have done.