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Letter From India: Jitters Over Hosting The World

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now we have a letter from India, as we do from time to time, from NPR's Philip Reeves. It's about the capital Delhi and how people there act. The source of worry is how the capital will look to outsiders when a huge athletic extravaganza is held there in less than a year.

PHILIP REEVES: The people of India can be a little touchy sometimes. They generally don't take kindly to being criticized by outsiders. Who does? But they're very happy to criticize themselves. At the moment, they're doing so with unusual gusto.

The targets of their criticism are the inhabitants of their own capital, New Delhi - millions of souls, now being characterized as the rudest and most boorish people in the country, if not on earth. India's commentators have been competing to find words that capture the full horror of the capital's failings.

Delhiites have been called aggressive and vulgar, arrogant and ill-tempered. Newspapers have printed lists of examples of their uncouth conduct, including atrocious driving, spitting, urinating in public and speaking too loudly on cell phones. Rudeness is in Delhi's DNA, India's Mail Today bitterly declared the other day.

This bout of national introspection is taking place for a reason. In just one under year, New Delhi is to stage the Commonwealth Games. Thousands of athletes will arrive from dozens of countries, mostly formerly part of the British empire. With them will come hoards of officials, journalists, sports fans and hangers on. Everyone here is worried that New Delhi won't be ready in time.

You only have to take a short drive through town to see their point. Every other road seems to be dug up to make way for new drains or flyovers or metro stations. There are potholes, traffic jams, stray animals and sometimes giant puddles of water.

The authorities are reassuring everyone that everything will be okay in the end. They're organizing etiquette courses for New Delhi's notoriously grumpy rickshaw drivers. That hasn't stopped people worrying that even if New Delhi is ready its citizens won't behave properly when the guests arrive.

For an outsider like me, this is all a little mystifying. I've been asking Indian friends why the people of New Delhi are seen as so obnoxious. Aren't there lots of capitals whose residents drive like maniacs and talk too loudly on cell phones? Isn't it unfair to blame Delhi's men for urinating in streets when there are far too few public amenities?

Aren't most of these criticisms, in fact, coming from the affluent middle class, and are aimed at the city's multitude of migrant poor? What about the artists and intellectuals; are they uncouth too?

My questions have been brushed aside. You don't understand because you are a foreigner, said one friend, sounding distinctly irritated. You have no idea what people are really like.

As I said, Indians can be a little touchy sometimes, even when you're not criticizing them.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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