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Yesterday in the Old Delhi market, my experience of this culture reached a more visceral level. I enter it with my son Alex and a grade school friend, Peter Graham. On the borders of the market people live with their families and animals. Cots line the edges of the street where people sleep out in the open. They cook, wash, children run naked, barbers offer shaves or haircuts, and people plead for money. This, however, is the exception, not the rule as one might expect. We were the only white faces among the thousands we could see.
As you venture into the heart of the market, you enter the largest recycling facility one can imagine. Everything that can be salvaged is saved and resold: engine parts, metal scraps, old tools, and hundreds of other things we couldn’t even identify. Cabling is painstakingly pounded apart as each individual layer is separated and resold. Everyone is working. Everyone industriously finds something to sell. How one would chose how to buy a single wrench screw from a particular stall among dozens all seemingly offering the same thing is never clear.
In this maze, one can easily imagine becoming lost. Alleys lead to smaller, narrower and darker passage ways. And with so many people in such a small space we always felt safe. Often overwhelmed, but always safe. While hands pulled at my arm for attention they never ventured toward my pocket, though I found my hand resting on my wallet for reassurance.
As we emerge out into the street, we walk past larger storefronts. Frustrated with our slow progress, we switch to rickshaws, three wheeled bicycles designed to seat two behind the driver, but often accommodating 5 or 6 people, and at times they carried cargo that seems stacked up to 12 of 15 feet high. The pace is quicker. Each rigshaw gently nudges the others forward. Often coming to a complete stop, 4, 5 or even 6 across the width of the street. People run through the maze of bicycles. There are few cars here. The roads are to narrow and congested. Everyone seems fast at work, carrying a load, moving something somewhere, packing or unpacking. You get this tremendous sense of industriousness at all levels of the society. People are ready to hustle at the first opportunity. Yet whether offering ice cream for sale, begging or attempting to coax you into a storefront, after insisting briefly, usually in a soft spoken voice, you are permitted to move on in peace.
The intensity of all this humanity is vastly beyond the scale of a city like New York. While it is more that I can usually make sense of, it is clear something is happening, this nation is growing well beyond its outsourcing, high tech reputation. Building something at all levels. A country of education and of peace, gently lifting up more people every day than seem to fall through the cracks every year in America.