The first sensation to greet me when I stepped into Delhi was heat. This, I expected. A close second, though, was something I hadn’t: the color.
The streets here are dotted with tiny green-and-yellow cabs – or autorickshaws – and their bicycle-rickshaw counterparts, towing their passengers behind them in bright blue carriages. We commute in the mornings past fruit stands filled with bright orange mangos, or snack huts filled with Lay’s potato chips in flavors I’ve never seen – blue “Masala Crunch”, lime green “American-style Cream & Onion”. The women walking next to me are draped in it; turquoise scarves and golden bangles. The flower stand in the neighborhood next to mine has flowers so colorful under the night lights, my retinas don’t quite know how to handle it. Even the plastic siding that shields commuters from the construction is a thirty-foot high wall of blue that’s bluer than Delhi’s (admittedly polluted) sky. It’s a uniquely beautiful city in a way that I’ve never seen a city be beautiful. In its own loud, dusty, bustling way.
I live in two different Delhis, though. That’s the Delhi I walk and eat and sleep and wander in. But there’s another Delhi I read about at work: one painted in black and white letters of court opinions. I’m currently a legal intern at Counsel to Secure Justice, a Delhi-based NGO combating gender-based violence in the city. I’m working on a research project to trace the trends of sexual assault in the court system, which are likely under-reported and moving slowly through the courts if they are. I read judges’ analyses of people’s stories, and somehow seeing that unfold on my computer screen feels very different when my computer and I are sitting in the same city where these crimes are happening with alarming frequency. Monday through Friday, the kind of stories, very tragic ones, that happen in this colorful city are reduced to an “acquittal” or a “conviction” printed in tiny block letters. My work is showing me a very different Delhi altogether.
Still, progress is happening in Delhi, too. India’s lawmakers have taken a hard look at rape policies in recent years, activists are speaking, and organizations like CSJ are supporting victims. Admittedly, my own home in the U.S. is far from faultless when it comes to addressing sexual violence. Still, working on this issue inside a country where something like marital rape remains legal has been an eye-opening experience, to say the least. When I began reading Delhi’s cases remotely back in January from my little room next to the ocean in Malibu, I saw this issue through only a work-lens. Now, being here, I get to see it through a life-lens. I get to play a small, small role in effecting some social change with an amazing organization, and I get to ride home on the back of a bicycle-wagon and eat delicious spicy food (that I’m proud to say my taste buds are handling in stride) and meet a fraction of the terrific and lovely people that inhabit this city.
Yes, parts of what happens here are difficult and messy and hard to look at. And other parts are life and color. Nothing here, or anywhere, is really all black and white.