Monday, 22 February 2010

A day in old Delhi

On my first day in Delhi I decided to walk the 3.5km from my hotel to the Red Fort – a path that led me through an intricate maze of bazaars selling everything from nuts and spices to filthy motorbike parts and stunning handmade wedding invitations. The streets in Delhi are in constant motion, brimming with thousands of people busy making their way through life. Handcarts piled high with hessian sacks of grain are pulled by slender, wiry men; cycle rickshaws laden down with three male passengers struggle to meander through the bustling streets, whilst motorbikes and auto-rickshaws honk their horns and swerve violently in and out of pedestrians and stall holders.

Passing through the spice bazaar, large colourful pyramids of spices are piled high in shop fronts and you’re invited in with the scent of cinnamon and cardamom. Lining the streets, chai wallahs and the owners of food stalls do a roaring trade as people stop briefly to sup on chai and eat the sweet scent of sugar and oil thick in the air.

A man sits next to a stall and has his hair cut, women chattering and giggling disappear excitedly among swathes of material in glittering sari shops and men sit on beds with shop owners sipping on chai and doing business for the latest mobile phone. Above, a tangle of electricity cords hangs low and gathers at poles in a massive, dangerous knot of wires.

Emerging from the bazaars, you end up on Chandni Chowk – the main shopping street in Delhi that leads to the Red Fort. Glass fronted shops sell plasma TVs, mobile phones and washing machines, there are designer clothes stores and even a McDonalds. This street is the perfect example of India today: a unique juxtaposition between Asian powerhouse and spiritual centre of the world. On this single Westernised street in Delhi, the cultural and spiritual roots of India are still firmly cemented into its foundations. At the end of the road is a mosque, a little way along there’s a Sikh temple, on the opposite side of the road is a Baptist church, then a Hindu temple, culminating with a massive Jain temple that stands directly opposite the Red Fort. Few Western cities could boast such cultural diversity on a single street.

The Red Fort is impressive in its scale but lacking in its content – the rooms inside were stripped of their luxurious treasures long ago, leaving the visitor to meander around the outskirts of the various buildings within the fort wall. My timing was poor. Despite it being a Saturday morning, the place was heaving with school children all dressed in brightly coloured uniforms. And, unfortunately, this made me (single, white female!) the main attraction. I lost count of the number of hands I shook or the times I heard: “Miiiiiss, miiiiiss, photo miss” (they all wanted their photos taken with me). I soon reached my threshold of interaction and was glad to escape!

From the Red Fort, I decided to make my way down to Jama Masjid – the largest mosque in India. At full capacity the mosque can hold a spectacular 25,000 worshippers. As I made my way through the ammonia-ladened air of the open urinals (they are actually official urinals and you see men lined up there peeing against a nominated pee wall at the side of the street), and through stalls selling leather goods and food, I got chatting to Karl and Haley – an American ‘couple’…or so I thought (it was only the following day that I discovered they were actually just friends).

They very kindly invited me to join them for the afternoon and I jumped at the chance: it had been over 4 days since I’d spoken to anyone who spoke fluent English and it was bliss not to have to resort to international sign language for a while.

The mosque is truly majestic, dominating the surrounding area with its domed roof and minarets carving its defining silhouette. Unfortunately, the majesty of the building itself was not quite replicated by the men who managed it. Haley and I were given a hard time of it for being ‘inappropriately dressed’ – in spite of the full length jeans and long sleeved tops we were wearing – and were aggressively handed weird gowns to wear. The men then grabbed our bags and started to rifle through them demanding 200R to take photos (extortionate in India where you usually pay a maximum of 50R for the privilege) so we gave our cameras to Karl to look after.

A young boy came up to us and starting speaking to us in English. He was very sweet and told us all about his mosque. He suggested that we went up one of the towers (at an additional cost!) but the sign saying ‘All women must be accompanied’ soon put an end to that consideration. In the corner of the courtyard behind a grille – with an uncanny resemblance to a cage – was the women’s prayer room, whilst the men were allowed in to prey in the ornate main building. As we wandered about having a look round, a man walked up to us and shouted at us angrily saying ‘prayer now, you go, you go!’ and jabbing his finger towards the exit. With that we’d had enough and were happy to leave.

This experience felt very much at odds with India as a whole. On my wanders around towns and cities, I’ve always popped my head in to have a look at temples (Buddhist, Jain, Sikh or Hindu) or churches and I’ve always felt very welcome; at the mosque, I felt like an unwelcome intruder. It was really dispiriting to be treated with such contempt not just because of my differing beliefs but also because of my sex. It certainly wasn’t a particularly engaging or welcoming introduction to Islam.

We spent the rest of the afternoon winding our way through the tiny maze of alleyways in the area absorbing the innumerable sights: a man sat on a stone step, a goat beside him with its neck slit and bleeding; a live chicken stood atop a pile of ‘freshly’ prepared chicken pieces; metal workers hammering aluminium and copper into the shape of bowls; a kitsch statue of a Hindu god draped with marigolds and fragranced with incense; and a small girl squatting to pee into the open sewer running along the length of the alleyway.

Haley, Karl and I arranged to meet the following day and I walked with them to their hotel before setting off back towards mine. My plan was to pick up a cycle rickshaw to save having to walk all the way back but, as is often the case in India, my plan fell through.

I found myself back on Chandni Chowk but instead of the chaos of two lanes of cycle rickshaws, cars and buses, the road was roped off with police turning cars back at every junction. People lined the pavements, waiting in anticipation for what turned out to be a religious procession. The noise – it was in no way music – was tremendous. Two marching bands in dramatically colourful regalia marched one behind the other. Both were attempting to play different ‘tunes’ and outcompete each other in the volume and out-of-tune stakes. Rather like Indian driving, these musicians insisted on playing their instruments at full pelt with little regard for what the other members of the ‘band’ were playing. The result was a cataclysmic collision of sound that played havoc with eardrums; nevertheless, the locals were enthralled.

Mid way through the procession was a carriage of holy men in bright pink turbans. They handed out alms of food and the locals flocked to receive it. At the back of the carriage was a golden statue seated in a silver throne bearing lions. More ‘musical’ entertainment and flag bearing individuals followed the carriage. The procession slowly made its way down the street whilst at each junction, chaos ensued as cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and handcarts were all attempting simultaneously u-turn whilst ever more vehicles joined the fray.

I made my way through the packed street until I made it to the other end. Having given up on my chances of getting a rickshaw that could actually move, I stood in a shop doorway and waited the procession out. Finally, the clogged up arteries of Delhi’s roads slowly began to flow once more. I found a rickshaw driver and haggled for a reasonable price (down from 10x local price to 5x) for the remainder of my journey.

It was the first time I’d taken a cycle rickshaw and it will certainly be the last. Unlike the cock-sure, muscular, well-fed rickshaw drivers in London, these rickshaw cyclists reside very near the bottom of the social pile. They are often men who left the countryside in search of a more fruitful existence in Delhi. The work is exceptionally difficult and the money they receive for it less than minimal. Many of the rickshaw cyclists don’t have a home but live in rickshaw communities where a group of cyclists congregate at night and sleep on or under their rickshaws. I found it deeply uncomfortable sitting in a rickshaw whilst a fellow human toiled away, standing his full weight on each peddle in order to get me back to my hotel. As he struggled up a hill, I had a real urge to jump out of the rickshaw and lend a hand but, in truth, I was the least of this man’s worries: I was only a single person (I’d seen entire families being carted around on a single rickshaw) and I was paying well over the odds (enough for two decent feeds). Nevertheless, I didn’t find any enjoyment in the experience.

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