Living in Delhi: An Expat Guide

Our Delhi correspondent offers a definitive guide to life in the Indian capital, from finding a flat and a job to navigating the myriad food and drink options

Feature by Charlotte Chalker | 26 May 2016

People mainly look baffled when I say I live in Delhi. India they can sort of understand – Goan sunsets, limitless curry and Julia Roberts lost in an ashram. But isn’t Delhi a filthy sprawling metropolis of inequality, crime and double-ended tummy bugs? Yep, no denying it. But the capital of the largest democracy on earth is also an addictively sociable, dynamic and vivacious city which will absorb you into its layers of perspective and never really let you go.

There’s as much history as you can handle, a vibrant art scene, an expansive international community and rich cultural undertones to daily life. If you want to make a lot of new friends on an adventure where possibilities are limitless then welcome to the team. We’re a pretty unique bunch.

Help, I’m in Delhi and everything is mental! 

Yes, it is. You land and you’re instantly in a traffic jam surrounded by near miss car crashes and cows. Welcome to India. Life doesn’t hide here – people surround you, the streets are literally alive and you can’t hide from reality. Sit back and laugh at the fact you’re volunteering to be part of this spectacle.

But once you start to recover from the initial sensory assault it’s fairly straight forward to get yourself started. Delhi is a city of people so finding a flat, finding a job, finding a social life and decent-ish coffee all happens through talking to your new friends.

Defence Colony. Photo: Vladislav Bezrukov [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Finding a home in Delhi

No Foxtons here, hooray. Instead you can call up the estate agent mafia who know everyone and everything, are great at cutting deals, and will henceforth bump into you at house parties and give you a knowing wink because they literally do know where you live.

Basically, they’re good guys. They charge one month's rent to find you the right place and have saintly patience. They’ll happily show you hundreds of options – this is a city where people understand the need for home to be a haven – so don’t settle. It’s cheap to rent, but London prices to buy.

Main expat areas include Defence Colony, GK, Nizamuddin East, Hauz Khas, and Green Park; if you’re weighted with cash head to Jor Bagh. There are also helpful and very active Facebook groups (try Yuni-net) where people post new flat shares daily. Expect to pay anything from around £250 pcm upwards depending on area, size and how fancy you are.

Lots of people have roof terraces which boil in summer and become venues for the continuous winter house party habit. Gurgaon is a planned suburb of Delhi which operates as a neighbouring city and houses multi-national companies, shopping malls, water shortages and a lot of traffic. Don’t live there. Just trust me on that one.

Finding a job

The vast majority of expats arrive with jobs. This is an Embassy-heavy city and diplomats are everywhere with their lovely flats, special passports and funny number plates. Other people are attached to big organisations and are doing their India stint. Fear not though, you don’t have to be – I wasn’t.

Depending on what your interests are you can write to companies in your sector, engage with the British Council (who are increasingly active) and/or just take every opportunity to meet people and ask. There’s a constant demand for native English-speaking international employees and you’ll be in demand. It’s very possible you might end up doing something you’d never imagined. That’s the secret here – be open, grab opportunities and see your horizons shift.

Getting around Delhi

This isn’t a walking city. In fact there aren’t even really pavements. Traffic is a part of life and a Delhi-ite learns how to negotiate it. Some expats drive and deserve kudos for courage and survival skills, but on the whole we aren’t brave/mad enough.

Auto-rickshaws can be fun, adventurous and good photo ops but in the long term they are frustrating, often not the cheapest option and a bit of a pollution trap. If you do want to take them then try hard to get the driver to use the meter (basically by saying the word ‘meter’ at least three times quite loudly and possibly doing a pantomime exit). Without the meter you’ll get stung on a sliding scale.

If you’re travelling with the old GBP then it’s affordable – it should be between 50p and £2 for most journeys but of course a lot of foreigners end up handing over fivers. Auto drivers haven’t got a great reputation and watch out for them spitting in the wind. It makes the backseat less than desirable.

Delhi Metro. Photo: Sd280391 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re travelling from South Delhi to Old Delhi (which you should as often as you can face the poverty-stricken chaos) then the Subway is by far the best option. It’s cheap (roughly 15p), efficient, air conditioned and if you’re a girl then you get the added benefit of a segregated carriage where there is generally enough room. You’ll get stared at, a lot, but you’ll be used to that by now.

Above all, your best friend is Uber – or the alternative, Ola. It’s cheaper than an auto-rickshaw, reliable, the drivers generally speak a little bit of English and despite initial security problems (have a Google but don’t get too scared) they have had to really toughen up their act.

Photo: Marco Zanferrari [CC BY 2.0]

Food and the dreaded Delhi Belly

No, you aren’t ill all the time and yes, you can eat street food.

You have to be sensible and learn some of the tricks but eating out is of course one of the true delights of India, and Delhi is a great place to explore the diversity of true Indian cuisine. Head to Old Delhi (Karim’s is the most well known) for the classic Mughal dishes – mutton kebabs are worth the journey alone. Many local markets will have good local restaurants where you can explore the menu with confidence (try Swagath in Defence Colony).

A great city secret is eating at the state boarding houses around Delhi. These institutions provide accommodation for visiting civil servants from around the country and have basic but authentic canteens with really affordable local food. With a few quid you can transport yourself around the country – try Goa Sadan for delicious fish curries and Andhra Bhavan for one of the best thalis in India – eat as much as you can for about £2. True story. Aside from these, if you have a calling for delicious Keralan food then go straight to Coast in Hauz Khas and when the sweet tooth calls try the Bengali Sweet House.

Inevitably you get sick of Indian food at some point. Head to Khan Market, Defence Colony, Hauz Khas, GK or one of the many hotel restaurants where you can find some really good international options. La Bodega in Khan Market and Bistro du Parc in Defence Colony are top affordable tips, or splash out on the tasting menu at Indian Accent in New Friend’s Colony.

Paani Puri. Photo: Suyash.dwivedi [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Street food is a great part of life – embrace it. Paani Puri, Chaat and Aloo Tikki might sound like Star Wars characters but they are actually delicious snacks which you’ll see at stalls around the city. If you are worried then staying down the vegetarian route is generally advisable.

On the whole Delhi-ites love to eat at home; it’s the freshest, healthiest and cleanest option. Many people employ housekeepers who will also cook for you, and dinner invitations are frequent and a great facet of Delhi life. Take a bottle of imported wine and you’ll find your phonebook fills up very quickly. There’s nothing people like more than new faces around the table so get your chat ready.

If you do get ill then don’t grin and bear it, go to the doctor. Illness is real here and it’s worth being checked out without being sensationalist. After a bout of you-know-what, always rehydrate with a visit to the coconut wallah on the street corner – 40p and he’ll machete a fresh coconut for you.

Drinking in Delhi

Delhi is a party town and Delhi-ites are pro party players. House parties are a big thing and you’ll start to collect invitations fairly quickly. These can range from mega bling in the farmhouses of the rich and decadent, to an expat rooftop with dubious booze and all night dancing. Don’t be scruffy but do be thirsty – hosts make a big effort and fun is hard to avoid.

If you’re heading out then there are a few areas where bar density is high and the alcohol is of a drinkable quality. This isn’t really a pub kind of city, hence the popularity of writing your own rules at home, but there are lots of bars which are popular and have a good atmosphere. Hauz Khas Village is an infamous drinking honey pot for 20-something locals and there are some decent bars, but it’s a traffic nightmare and Friday/Saturday nights are particularly tacky.

Spread your barfly wings and try Khan Market for more of a laid-back dinner and drinks situation (Town Hall, Perch and Public Affair). Head to GK for trashy-ish nightspots with dance floors, and when only a dive bar will do, there’s 4S in Defence Colony (chilli chicken and cheap beer ahoy). Hotel bars are often a popular option for treat night or if someone else is paying. Have yourself a martini at The Leela Palace, Lodi or Imperial.

Booze at home is a mixed bag of pleasure. For an anthropological experience head to the ‘Government Wine and Beer Shops’ in local markets where they’ll be a huge queue of thirsty Indian men buying cheap whiskey. I have never seen another woman in one of these, oops.

Otherwise the biggest choice is in the fancy wine shops in big shopping malls, but you’ll pay. Wine is ridiculously expensive, tax is enormous and they seemingly only import the shit stuff. You’ll pay £12 for something that’s a fiver at home. It’s slightly soul destroying and you will rapidly make friends with Indian wine. Sula is drinkable, make it your second glass. The Indian version of Moet Chandon is a good tip – it’s just called Chandon (clearly) and sells for about £12 in beer and wine shops.

And as a final note for the uninitiated, beware of government-enforced ‘dry days’. These are more frequent then you care to imagine and ubiquitous for fucking up plans. You will not be able to buy any booze and as Brits we can’t really live like that and maintain our reputation for being the drunk ones who can’t dance at the party.

Photo: Ville Miettinen [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The sobering truth of Delhi

Alongside the effervescent, full and busy lifestyle that every Delhi-ite leads runs a stark reality. This is a city with obvious problems. These aren’t ones you can ignore if you don’t read the papers, these confront you as soon as you drive away from the airport and stay fully in focus in your everyday.

Somehow you learn to find your place amongst them, you choose how to contribute and you remain very aware that this city is bigger than you are. You become accustomed to tiny children begging at your window or following you down the street. It never feels anything but heart-breaking and you never lose your will to help.

But that’s the most difficult bit – how to help. Try not to give money to the people at traffic lights – these groups are often slaves to gang-lord dictators who go to unimaginable lengths to make their workers more alluring bait for your spare rupees. Sometimes, of course, your heart jumps out of you and it’s impossible not to. One option is to carry some food with you to give those who ask – just some water or leftovers from your dinner. In general donate to NGOs such as the brilliant Salam Balaak or volunteer where you can. You can easily find people working in particular areas or tackling specific challenges who would hugely appreciate your time or money.

Also, be safe. Delhi’s biggest press has come from the tragic rape and abhorrent treatment of unfortunate people. You don’t have to be scared but you do have to be sensible. If you’re a woman on your own, don’t get in a rickshaw on your own when it’s late and you’re drunk. Aim to move around with friends after dark.

When people stare it isn’t usually threatening, but be aware. You don’t need to dress like a nun – frankly this is a city where people love fashion – but the less flesh you show the more people understand you. It’s only with time that you begin to understand the culture but always respect it.

Ultimately Delhi offers you whatever you wish to take from it. From dancing in a sari at three-day Indian weddings to walking through monsoon drenched mango orchards, it wants to give you everything it has. On top of that remember that you’re in the heart of India.

In the sweltering heat of the summer head north to the tea gardens of Darjeeling or the colonial hills of Shimla and in the cold Delhi winter (it gets really chilly) join the Delhi set in Goa or feast on pineapples in Keralan plantations. Rajasthan is on your doorstep and you’ll often find yourself on weekend adventures in the desert or at moonlit music festivals in the medieval fort cities.

Before you head over, read some of the brilliant work by Delhi authors and contextualise the Mughal ruins and colonial Lutyens bungalows. It’s only a matter of time before you bump into William Dalrymple at an art opening or book launch and claim to have read his entire back catalogue.

There’s a particular kind of person who thrives in this city, when you find them then together you unlock all sorts of secrets. See you at the bar.