It’s seventeen degrees Celsius in my hotel room on the sixth floor of Shangri-La Hotel in New Delhi. The room is just starting to get warmer as I’ve turned off the air-conditioning, but it’s unlikely to approach the searing temperatures on the road outside, where yesterday’s peak of 44.5 was the highest in the city so far this year and prompted health advice from the local government.
I was out there earlier today, walking around the relics of colonial Britain and admiring Lutyen’s parliament building, set among the wide tree-lined avenues of Connaught Place. Every now and then a motorised rickshaw or taxi would slow down and ask to take me somewhere – anywhere – for a few rupees. In the end I succumbed, partly because it was getting warm and partly because things were rather more spread out than I’d imagined from the tourist map I had consulted, so I got a quick tour to the Sikh temple and the triumphal arch of the India Gate, ending up in a craft shop where I bought some souvenirs for my family.
When we stopped at traffic lights small children would come over to beg a few ruppees, one showing me her congenitally deformed hands with fused fingers to elicit my sympathy and encourage greater generosity. And knowing that I could never give enough money to make a difference I adopted the standard tourist defensive posture and ended giving them too little to make me feel even remotely good, and too little even to make a difference to them for the rest of the day.
It shouldn’t have bothered me, since I’m not here as a tourist, not here to wonder at the beauty of the city, not here to feel those delightful pangs of liberal guilt as I see the stark contrasts between those who have enough and those who have nothing, or seek some ersatz spiritual enlightenment from a culture which my country spend over a century trying to eliminate.
I’m here to work on a couple of shows for Digital Planet, here with the BBC World Service as a working journalist on assignment and therefore, surely, off the map of conventional morality that would cause me disquiet? Or perhaps not, because the kids did bother me and the extra 30 rupees I gave to my motorickshaw driver as a tip didn’t help at all.
Popping down to the swimming pool for a dip later in the afternoon probably won’t make things easier either, I suspect, but as a representative of the Western liberal media I’m used to living with contradictions.
And I managed a week in Cuba last month, where the contrast between tourist affluence and local poverty is made only more extreme because it goes along with freedom of expression and movement that are denied those servicing our hotels and cooking our meals. India should be a doddle after that, but instead I’m finding it harder, perhaps because India and its colonial history occupy a special place in the English psyche, and I can’t blame either the US or the Spanish for what I find here.
However I should be careful. This is the first time I’ve visited India, and so whatever I may write has to be seen as the early impressions of one who observes but could be completely mistaken about what is seen. I am an unreliable witness with the journalist’s tendency to generalise, extrapolate, infer and draw the most profound conclusions from tenuous evidence.
The Scottish 18th century philosopher David Hume argued convincingly that we can never have complete faith in induction, that just because something has happened many times before that does not mean it will happen again. I believe him, but still fall into the commentator’s trap of believing that everything I see, however unusual, expresses a universal truth which I am obliged to share with others.
The first twenty-four hours in a new city, new country and new continent were always going to be challenging. I came over on the overnight flight from London with Virgin Atlantic, and landed around 1100 local time having slept a bit on the plane. By 1230 I was checked in to the rather luxurious Shangri-La hotel, booked for me by the World Service and clearly an excellent choice. I met up with Gareth and Julian, both of whom had come over earlier in the week, and over lunch we talked about the plans for Digital Planet.
They had already recorded several items for the coming week’s show, so we needed to do the bits that introduced each package and the conversations between Gareth and me that attempt to put interviews and reports into a broader context. Julian had the idea of doing something at Nehru Place which he had been told was a great place to buy computers and bits of computers. We didn’t know what to expect but, as so often in this job, decided to busk it and see what we came up with. If it was useless there was still time to go somewhere else or even record material back at the hotel.
Once we’d sorted out the kit we needed we headed off in a taxi to Nehru Place, about half an hour’s drive through traffic that seemed fierce but was, according to Julian, a lot lighter than the day before when he had made the same journey. At Nehru Place we drove around a little, wondering if this really was one of the centres of Delhi high-tech commerce, but once we saw the signs for laptops, computer repairs and cartridge refills plastered over the sides of this concrete tenement it became clear that we’d arrived.
Nehru Place is a concrete canyon, [see my Flickr photoset] a street between two six story blocks of flats placed about twenty metres apart to provide a very effective wind tunnel effect. Every space on the ground floor and balcony is colonised with shops, most of which seem to be selling old bits of kit – monitors, printers, power supplies, peripherals of all types. Some have new fascias and new machines – the latest laptops and mobiles from the big brands like Lenovo and Samsung. On the balcony small entrances lead to a rabbit warren of tiny rooms, some piled high with rescued circuit boards, most occupied by groups of younger men who are somewhere between working and hanging out.
Gareth’s polite request to talk to someone about the kit they sell and how much a motherboard would cost was greeted with suspicion and rejected. It seems pretty understandable, as we must have looked like a strange bunch and clearly had no real idea what we were looking for or doing there. At first this unsettled me, but like all scenes of intense human activity this one begins to come into focus after a while, and the chaos resolves itself into a vision of an efficient distribution system in operation. Everyone walking around seems to be carrying something, for those who come here do so with a purpose and not just to hang out. It is not the mall, it is the market.
You can buy new here, and that is clearly part of the attraction since the shops with the latest kit have people in them looking at what is on offer. But it’s also a space where use is made of all that can be used, where computers are stripped down like dead animals so that all the parts can be properly dealt with.
And just as the practice of making good use of every single part of an animal’s corpse is a way of showing respect for a creature that died for your benefit, Nehru Place shows far more respect for the effort, creativity and scarce natural resources that went into making even the simplest and oldest computer than we ever seem to do in the UK.
It felt very, very foreign at first, and I felt extremely exposed as we got out the recorder and microphone and started making radio. It was noisy, with occasional motorbikes, banging hammers and the general hubbub around. It was hot, with a wind that blew like a blast from an opened oven and made you hotter not colder, and a baking sun high in a clear sky. Some young children emerged at one point, begging for coins, but I had no small notes or change and we were working and so they drifted away. I didn’t look too closely or think too much about it then, partly because my focus was elsewhere and partly because they didn’t look that different from kids playing in the mall in the UK, so I wasn’t forced to consider what their lives are really like.
We did our stuff, and some people slowed down to watch us but we were only moderately interesting. It felt perfectly safe, and as what was happening around us came into focus, as I’ve described it, it also felt like the right place to be. I don’t actually need a new dual core Pentium, but if I did then Nehru Place would be the ideal source.
Off to meet the bloggers
Our Sikh taxi driver had waited for us, probably reckoning that two guaranteed long trips with journalists on expenses were a better bet than looking for business in the area, and he took us to our next stop, a meeting of the Delhi Bloggers’ Association which we were going to attend. It took place in a remarkable complex of buildings called the Habitat Centre, on Lodi Road – and I wrote it up earlier.