Delhi observations

Drawing crowds in the Old City

Monday was not quite the hottest day in Delhi so far, but 44 degrees Celsius made it the hottest May 8th for five years and, if the CNN weather maps are to be believed, made Delhi one of the hottest places on earth.

This may in part explain why, when Julian, Gareth and I stood at the closed gates to the Red Fort, the massive brick construction at the heart of the Old City built by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan, we attracted such a crowd. They were waiting to see which of us would faint or perhaps even die first in the heat that was extreme even for residents.

We’d walked down to the fort gate from the Chandni Chowk metro station, passing through the crowded streets filled with rickshaws, cars, scooters, bikes, dogs and people – lots of people. Every space seemed to have been turned to use, shops selling DVD players and video cameras next to old men at stalls repairing watches or polishing shoes, street food being cooked and served, and the occasional medical and dental service.

The culture shock I had begun to experience as soon as I left the metro station was increasing with every step I took, and when we turned off the main drag to wander through the densely packed stalls selling bootleg movies, digital watches, loudspeaker cones, and more stuff than I can begin to remember, I was beginning to reel.

When we reached the fort and discovered it closed – as it is on every Monday – it was something of a relief. I didn’t have to cope with the transition from the real world of old Delhi’s streets to the marbled splendour of the emperor’s house.

So I stood and looked up Chandni Chowk and contemplated the sheer number of people around me in this overheated, dusty, dirty, broken down relic of an imperial city, and let my still reeling mind turn on the fact that this was the poverty in which most of the world lived.

Within a few seconds someone came up and disturbed my reverie by offering us a taxi or rickshaw to get us wherever we were going, since we were obviously tourists who would, as toursts, do, be moving on. We clearly weren’t interested and he didn’t persist, but we then became a centre of attention for fifteen or so men, mostly young, who stood to watch and listen as we answered his questions about where we were from (England), which airline (I was carrying a Virgin Atlantic bag) and what we thought of the fort (magnificent)).  It didn’t feel threatening, and we weren’t being hassled as tourists by touts. We were simply odd, and we were worth looking at.

I didn’t understand why, since we were at the epicentre of the Delhi tourist trail so they must be used to a constant stream of people looking, wondering and gawping at their lives. We were, it is true, the only white people around at the time, since most tourists had clearly had the sense to check the opening times before heading to the Red Fort, but even so it was unexpected.

In fact, I have a horrible fear that the real attraction was my hair. As anyone who knows me or bothers to look at my Flickr feed knows, I have a problem remembering to get my hair cut so at the moment it’s especially long and flowing.  Twice today – Tuesday – while walking from my hotel to Connaught Place people I got into conversation with commented on how fine my hair was – and I didn’t get the sense that they were poking fun.  So I suppose that the residents of the Old City might have found having a great hairy bear in the middle of their part of town a pleasant distraction on an otherwise tediously hot day.

Whatever the actual reason it was certainly an interesting experience, and being the centre of attention without being constantly hassled to buy something made it possible to observe much more about what was going on, so I’m thankful for it.

A working day

We’d ended up in the Old City about about three on, following a pretty full working day as we were recording material for Digital Planet at a showroom for the WorldSpace satellite radio service in a shopping mall about 20km or an hour’s drive in a taxi from our hotel.

It’s interesting to note that I have no idea where we were, or what the mall was called or even which town it was in [actually, I’ve been asking around and have found out we were in the Mega Mall in Gurgaon, if you’re interested. More at]

The reason is that Julian was dealing with this bit of the trip, so I just got into the taxi, got out at the other end and did the gig.  I suspect that I’d decided that Delhi was overloading my systems and so was just going to ignore anything that I could get away with ignoring.

With me, Julian, Gareth and our studio manager Lisa in the taxi it was a bit crowded, and the air conditioning [for which we paid 30% extra] struggled to keep the temperature bearable. It was only when we got out onto the street to wait while it was filled with gas that we realised just how hot it is.

The taxis, auto rickshaws and buses run on compressed gas, which means that even though the streets are completely filled with traffic the level of fumes is much lower than in London.  But there are relatively few places to fill up, so our driver was nervously looking for one as he drove us further and further from the centre of Delhi.

The area we were visiting was open land a decade ago, according to one of the people from WorldSpace. Now it is a major road with ten massive shopping malls already open and another five or six – I lost count after a while – being built. This is where the affluent middle classes come to shop and hang out, with McDonald’s and Benetton and (rather surreally) Marks and Spencer to provide them with their needs.

We arrived around 1130 and did our stuff in front of an audience of about twenty young people, most of them students.  It was fun, and Gareth kept things together nicely, though the focus on WorldSpace, a World Service rebroadcaster which offers subscription-based satellite radio across India on the XM model that is doing so well in the US, was a bit over the top at times. If you’re keen you can hear the show next week on the World Service, or download the audio from the BBC website.

Playing tourist

Monday was Gareth’s last day in India – he was on the 2am flight on Tuesday morning, and should be nearing London as I write – so we wanted to do something with the afternoon, and both Julian and I were keen to visit the Red Fort and see something of Old Delhi.

The Metro to Chandni Chowk was simple and easy, with modern, fast trains and an RFID tag based system for ticketing. At 9 rupees for the trip it was also pretty affordable.

When we’d finished looking at the fort we abandoned our crowd of onlookers and headed across the road, all now able to launch ourselves into the gaps in the seemingly endless flow and negotiate a route to the other side without actually making contact with any of the vehicles.  We headed into the covered market on the other side of the road, aiming to come out somewhere near the Jamal Masjid, India’s largest mosque, built in the 17th century by Shah Jahan. It’s a deeply impressive piece of architecture even if, like all buildings inspired by religious devotion I find it impossible to engage with its purpose or sympathise with its mode of use.

From the mosque we walked back into the maze of streets that make up the old town, and stopped at a shop selling brass ornaments and statues, before walking back to the metro.  The streets are narrow, and crowded with people and traffic, and as we walked past the jewellery quarter a young dog, just out of puppyhood, tried to cross the road. It walked towards the wheel of a rickshaw but backed off when it realised it didn’t have enough time to cross, and as it turned around another rickshaw, coming from the other direction, ran over its torso.

The full weight bore down on the dog, and its left hind leg stopped moving as it crawled towards the gutter and away from the oncoming traffic. Nothing slowed, nothing paused, nothing gave any sign that this mattered in any way, despite the loud and penetrating keening which came from the injured animal, clearly mortally wounded with internal injuries which were probably untreatable even if a vet was available.

It will be dead by now, I imagine. Someone may have killed it to stop the noise, I suppose, or it may have found a place to hide and slowly died there. It was a little death, a small unowned animal failing to manage its way through life in the city, and I am a soft Westerner who, though I don’t like dogs much, feels such things. I do not believe the people who were around me were cruel or uncaring, but in the old city there is no space and no time to care. That is what the grinding poverty, the lack of opportunity and the squalor have done to these people who have just the same potential as me.

And of course, I may have felt bad about it, but I did nothing either, not even a carefully-administered boot to the head to end its suffering. In truth I did not know what would have happened if I had tried to intervene, and let the strangeness overwhelm my desire to do so.

Instead we carried on, back to the metro, back to our luxury hotel, where we all went off to shower before supper and clear the dirt and grime of three hours in the baking sun of the slums from us.

Contradictions made flesh?

After the shower I went down to the bar for a beer while waiting for Julian and Gareth, and walked into one of the more bizarre scenes of my brief time in India – a photoshoot for Maxim magazine. A very lithe and beautiful Indian woman was leaning suggestively on the bar, wearing  only a cut-off brazil top and a pair of Calvin Klein pants that were clearly too small for her.  The photographer, also Indian, was encouraging her to smile more, to show off her abs more, to turn and curve in order to display her flesh most effectively, while his Sikh assistant moved the lights to get the right effect.  The rest of the team, two Indian women in traditional dress and a blonde English woman, offered encouragement and held the model’s cigarette so she could take puffs between shots.

When they finished I talked to them a while, and found out they were shooting for Maxim’s India edition, a publication I hadn’t previously been aware of but will now seek out at the airport, just to see how it compares to its UK parent.

If I’d been in a bar in Manchester or even Cambridge it wouldn’t really have surprised me to come across this sort of event, but yet again my sense of what India is today shifted, and I was forced away from any simple view of this astonishingly varied country.
Leaving on a jet plane

I’m writing this last few paragraphs sitting in the business centre of my hotel on Wednesday morning, just about to check out and head to the airport, and although I know  I’ve only seen a tiny fragment of one city, however large it is, and although I’ve learned conversations with non-Delhi natives that Mumbai and Calcutta have a different feel to them, I’ll fly out with a lot more understanding of the sheer scale of Indian culture. I hope that in future I’ll be a lot more careful about expressing any view that seems to cover India as a whole, a lot more respectful of its variety and the contradictions that it seems able to live with.

If I had to identify one thing that will make a difference to me it is that this first trip to India has reinforced my understanding that we are the same people everywhere, we all feel and suffer and love in the same way, and we all want to be fulfilled in our lives.

What counts as fulfilment may differ from time to time, culture to culture and city to city, but it remains fundamental. Here in Delhi, as in Havana a month ago, I can see that the conditions for any form of fulfilment simply do not exist, that the lives of most people are spent in poverty, squalor and degradation and all that is precious in the human spirit is degraded and eventually forgotten.

It is easy to forget this at home in the comfortable west, cocooned in Cambridge and living a life of ease and plenty.

So I will try hard not to forget, and will try to make sure that this understanding percolates into my work and my writing. And if I start to slip, I’ll remember Balvir Singh Bassan, the taxi driver who took me all across Delhi yesterday and who will be there this morning to drive me to the airport,  and his offer to take me to the Sikh Temple and sort me out a turban for my unruly hair, next time I’m in town.

15 Replies to “Delhi observations”

  1. Hello Bill,

    First and foremost it was good to meet you during the bloggers’ meet on saturday. I am not sure if you remember which one of the 30 odd ppl I was. I am the one who offered you a lift to Turcoise Cottage – though you preferred the company of the pretty lady (and my friend) Diya 😉

    I read all the posts here about your experiences in Delhi. And I must say that your sensed and understood Delhi quiet well. Perhaps your job – which allows you to travel to different parts of the world – helps you appreciate diversity. India is so diverse and so full of contradictions, that even after spending all 28 years of my life in India as an Insider, there still are things, people and events which surprise me.

    You must be suspended in the air – flying back home, as I am writing this. 🙂 Hope you have more happy memories than the not so happy one’s from this trip, and that you have a smile on your face thinking about your adventures in Delhi.


  2. worldspace is very big in south india, a friend who is doing his Medical degree told me that. South india also has a large number of engineering colleges and student population, so worldspace has big following there.

    Delhi has so much variety, simply because of the long history and influx of people from all around delhi.

    But India is like many small indias combined. All very different from each other, DIfferent languages, different food, clothings, houses etc. So there are Himalayas and holy place, the desert of Rajasthan, Coasts and back wates of Kerela, Tribes in north eastern India.

  3. Very nice write-up!

    Most ppl here would feel the same way as you, about the dog you saw, dying a “dog’s death” .. but no one would be really doing anything because there are too many such incidents happening all the time and I guess your reasoning is true – no one really has the time or space to do this, they have too many other things to be bothered about, but then there are ppl who are pretty much into street animal welfare and that is the only thing that they focus on …

  4. Bill,

    An evocative write-up of the assault on the senses that flying directly into the sub-continent can be. This is when culture shock stops being just a phrase and becomes an in-your-face reality for Westerners.

    I passed through Delhi many years ago (1978) and I would imagine that while much has changed just as much hasn’t thus making it even more of a contrasty place than it was in ’78. I arrived in Delhi having travelled overland so the culture shock was lessened – lessened but not eliminated – in the previous months as we headed east.

    My abiding memory of Chandni Chowk was also of street vendors but obviously not selling consumer electronics. The one that really stands out was a kid selling a goldfish in a jar. Not just any old goldfish but a dead goldfish. I never did figure out what use it may be to anyone.

    Thanks for the short trip back to Delhi. I could imagine being there again.

  5. This is probably one of the best posts I have ever read about Delhi. I admire your intent and effort to understand the umpteen shades that India (and probably every other culture) has to offer.

    I simply have to agree with AmitKen’s comment… even though I have lived in India all my life it always manages to amaze me… even on a mundane routine day I come across many things that sometimes shocks me and sometimes makes me smile.

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  7. I always enjoy write-ups by people who are seeing the place I live in for the first time.

    I have to agree with Varun – this is one of the best I have read. You have put down all your feelings and perceptions beautifully. I confess I am amused by how you are totally overwhelmed by “this astonishingly varied country” 🙂

    Worldspace is really catching on, at least in Bangalore, where I live. I own one, and I enjoy the music.

  8. Nice!
    Yes, Bombay and Calcutta do have a different feel to them, and I hope to read a similar post of yours on them some day!
    FYI: It’s Jama Masjid and not Jamal masjid…

  9. Enjoyed reading the rather open and unbiased view. Sometimes an ousider’s view helps look at our own country in a new light. About India being such a ‘varied country’: When I hear Europeans talk about the concept of European Union, I always think, “This is nothing new to us!”

  10. An interesting post. While I do appreciate the fact that your observations have more nuance and subtlety than the average Western backpacker’s India travelogue, there’s still the tendency to parcel out everything in neat dichotomies that is troubling.

    I do not dispute that poverty is a terrible thing, and indeed there is a lot of it in India, in absolute terms as well as relative to the UK. However, you seem to draw all sorts of conclusions about how people might think or behave based on their material status: i.e., their perceived lack of compassion, their lack of striving, etc., which doesn’t seem very logically obvious to me.

    In fact, if I was inclined to be harsh, I would say that I detect a wee bit of condescension, almost smug relief at being privy to Cambridge privilege rather than Delhi squalor.

    “All that is precious in the human spirit” is degraded in many ways, not all traceable to poverty. Otherwise, we’d have the reductio ad absurdium conclusion that the world’s most compassionate individuals reside in the Forbes billionaires list.

  11. It is really disgusting how we have lost respect for any form of life in this day and age… poor dog hope his soul rests in peace 🙁
    You did miss a lot of Delhi though… may be next time 🙂

  12. as someone above rightly said ‘India is made of tiny weeny bits of indias’
    -every state in india is like a Country in Europe with itz own distinct culture and cuisine so much so , that we Indians ourselves are overwhelmed by itz sheer diversity.

    and yes, i do luved ur perception about the ‘curious incident of the dog…’ 🙂

  13. Was here. Enjoyed reading this. Missed the Delhibloggers meet too.

    PS: It’s Jama Masjid (minus the ‘l’)

  14. oh…well, your blog, as I read it, evoked plenty of emotions from me.

    First, about being a matter of curiosity to people on the streets. Well, I’ve lived all my life in this city, and I’m Indian, but I still draw curious stares, especially in Old Delhi :p. I think it stems more from an Indian tendency to stare incessantly at anything remotely curious or out of place, with no consideration as to how it might feel to be placed under this observing radar :p

    Second, about the dog incident- there is no denying that incidents like these are an everyday occurence, but the fact that people just walk away does not necessarily reflect a lack of compassion. Instead, we just turn the other way, as you did, out of a sense of our own helplessness. If I saw the puppy, lying on a random street of Delhi, what could I do? Nothing. I couldn’t take it to a vet, not when I was in a part of the city I ddin’t know. That is probably how it is for the rest of us Delhi-ites. So don’t be presumptuous, okay?

    Third, a realization that a western tourist’s perception of this city of mine is not much different from that of a thinking member of the ‘affluent middle class.’ I was just thinking of all the times that I’ve thought of how all these contradictions coexist in Delhi: slums next to swank malls, naked children scrounging the streets while the middle and upper class flaunt their designer labels. Often, our ability to turn a blind-eye to everything around us is quite disturbing and disgusting.

    Yeah, that’s about all I’ve got to say.

    P.S. The mall you were at was the Metropolitan Mall, not the Mega Mall (I would know- I live there- not in the mall, of course, but near it)

    P.S.S. erm, what’s the Cambridge weather like in July? As in, what would it seem like to an Indian? (and are there any ‘must-see’ touristy things, and not-so-touristy places?)- coming to Cambridge on an exchange programme in a couple of weeks so it would be nice if you could let me know 😀

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