New Delhi : Where the Streets Have No Shame

New Delhi Travel Blog

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New Delhi railway station scene

Oh boy, oh joy, oh boy.  Back in 'The Gunge'!  My semi affectionate nickname for Pahar 'The Gunge' Ganj.  The bazaar; the writhing Double Helix of humanity that runs from Delhi travel guide">New Delhi railway station at one end to Ramakrishna Ashram Marg Metro station at the other.  Two ribbons of tourists and trades people entwining and twirling about one another.  Inextricably linked.  Fundamental to one another's existence. 

A grubby but seemingly necessary little tapestry of life and labours.  The dirt, the litter, the noise, the colour and chaos, the crowds and constant importunities.  All of this buffets you about.

Arial view of part of 'The Gunge'
  Waves and eddies of people and conveyances washing around, upon and over you.  Probably going places (often that place being you) or going nowhere fast (often you) attempting to swim against the conflicting tide pulls of the maelstrom.  Each little trip up or down 'The Gunge' a white water rafting experience for the soles of your feet and your soul on the street.

And then suddenly surfacing from the broiling mass of peoples, here she comes, 'Dost! Hey dost!' ( 'Friend! Hey friend!' ).  Oh no.  With large gold nose stud glistening and baby clung in perpetuity to her right shoulder it's Arthi the indefatigable street beggar.  Nope, she never forgets a 'friend'.  Especially one from whom it's been proven that with enough persistence a tooth or two of generosity can be painfully extracted from his sympathy.

Litter or Faith : often randoms piles of crud, litter discard and plastic bags acrete at the base of trees in India leaving you unsure as to whether it be a shrine... or just a pile of crud?
  'Namaste Arthi.  Aap kaysee?' ( 'Hello Arthi.  How are you?' ).  'Tige dost' ( 'Okay friend' ).  'Acha.' ( 'Good''Dost m'baby small milk, milk m'baby, m'baby no father... small rice... small small chapatti dost... no money chapatti here...' she reads from her usual script whilst pointing a convenient street stall out. 

As she persists and we progress her sisters in seeming suffering - other raven-haired ladies clutching other curly-haired babies - slink to the sides of the street.  It's territorial.  I'm Arthi's fish and she swims along artfully, tighter to me than my own shadow.

Cinema Neon
  The right hand supporting baby, the left held high towards me, cupped in a gesture of plea but skipping skilfully away to hitch her sari up at moments to help it avoid the worst of what substances the street has to offer below.  Flashes of her bare feet at these moments.  And I'm thinking 'Bare feet?!  How in heck can you stroll along this assault course of crap bare foot?!'  But she skips and glides along without a flinch.  But then that's India.  Or a small part of it's character anyway.  Necessity for these women.  A certain toughness yet dignity born of poverty.  A certain slight grace in shame.  A trace of elegance in shamelessness.  'Dost?!'  Oh AAAAARTHI!!! How much will it cost to be shot of her this time?  20 Rupees (25p).
Lesser mausoleum in the grounds of Humayan's Tomb
  She slips back into the stream.  Back into 'The Gunge'.

New Delhi.  New Delhi.  Hmmm?  A city I can't quite get into, though a city that creeps unbidden into all of your senses whether you invite it to do so or not.  By the time of my third trip to Delhi (I will return here again in about three weeks time) I have spent a total of two and a half weeks in the capital but am truly unable to begin to foster any particular fondness or feeling for the place.  Which surprises me as it has bags and bags of the kinds of things I normally respond to.  History, social chaos and colour and running sores, architecture both grand and beautifully ramshackle and degraded, expressions of mysterious faiths and sprawling crawling bazaar streets etc, etc.  But I just can't quite key into it.

Spidey comes to pay his respects to his ancestors :D
  And would possibly even go as far as to say that I don't particularly like it.  Rare for a traveller used to extracting silver linings from clouds that others have long since run away from using their Lonely Planet guidebooks for umbrellas.

But I will one day I'm sure come to appreciate its rapidly-being-buried treasures.  Delhi needs time and understanding and knowledge for context.  With its historical gems masked so thoroughly by the decay of age and the inverse glittering cultural decay of modernity it requires an expert eye.  Even Mr William Dalrymple - famous contemporary British chronicler of all things India - though giving his first book on the nation City of Djinns the subtitle 'A year in New Delhi' actually took over half a decade living in and researching the city to produce his excellent tome.

  I strongly advise you to read this book before travelling to New Delhi if you're to have a cat-in-Hell's chance of contextualising and actually beginning to understand the city, its culture, its social characteristics and colourful (violent) histories.

But it can be just such a darned frustrating place to be!  Take just one example.  Trying one day to visit the famed Lakshmi Narayan Temple not far southwest of 'The Gunge'.  At the entrance four dossers sit around by a small table smoking, laughing etc.  'Can I just go up and look inside the temple?'  'Baksheesh.  You give baksheesh... money.  Money.'  I'm pretty sure that isn't required of such a holy place.  'Baksheesh.

  Money.'  He's beginning to remind me of the feckless 'munny munny munny' street brats of Eastern Turkey.  This shameless, profane, personal profit-seeking tainting of something supposedly sublime.  'Money for Shiva' he continues and that does it!  Money for Shiva my ass.  A line of Bono's from an old U2 LP skips through my mind 'Well, the God I believe in isn't short of cash Mister!' *  and I'd chuck it right at 'em if it weren't for the fact it'd be lost on 'em and I ain't (yet) got no God anyways.       

And even if I did that'd be just one God when Hinduism reportedly lays claim to over 33 million of them!  Don't flippin' ask me how that figure's arrived at.

3 ladies an a tomb
  I ask a religious Rickshaw driver in Dehradun how many he knows a few weeks later, 'Fifty, maybe sixty.'  Good effort.  Only 32,999,950 to go pal.  But c'mon guys.  Couldn't Shiva just ask his pal Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth and prosperity) for a loan if he's so short?  Or how about those 33 million Gods just pass the hat for Shiva?  Even just 1 Rupee each and that's 33 million Rupees!  That's 3.3 crore** Rupees!!  £412,500!  And I don't have to be pestered any more.  Yeah, likely!  I just turn from the temple in mild disgust and go to take coffee with m'pal V.S.Naipaul in Connaught Place.
The rather fab coloured Humayan's Tomb - the clear architectural precursor to Shah Jahan's Taj Mahal.
 

In my two returns to New Delhi, as before, there are partings and greetings with friends.  A final farewell to Gray my Korean travel pal, accompanying him to his train to Kolkata (Calcutta) from where he will fly out and begin his homeward journey through Southeast Asia.  Another reunion with ex-house mate Nick, coming to the end of his researches on the last British Governor of the Punjab.  This time accompanied by his Missus Louise - flown out for a 10 day whirlwind holiday in India.  Much cherished "Hellos!" and hugs with my pal Vanesha whom I travelled with in China and who, via the Internet, I've helped/ pestered back on to The Road after a brief recovery session back home in Britain.

Humayan's Tomb (detail)
  It's great to see her again!  She soon disappears up to Srinigar in Kashmir to take in parts of the country I won't see this time around.  And on my third visit here, I'm accompanied back from Amritsar by my new buddy Jantine from Holland who - bless her - is knocked out by a rogue mango juice quicker than you can say 'Imodium anyone?' and spends our time in the city needing to learn how necessary it is to have a close and loving relationship with your toilet in India.

Her troubles don't stop there either.  Poor thing.  On one day - one where she felt safe at proximities of greater than 100 yards from a crapper - she accompanies me on a return to Old Delhi and the bazaar districts of Chandni Chowk.

Humayan's Tomb
  Whilst we have an interesting enough time waltzing along the throbbing roads and paths, spinning around and out of the way of cycle-rickshaws animals and a plethora of pedlars and passers by in the usual manner of traversing Indian streets, the experience is marred significantly by a constant stream of sexual harassment that Jantine becomes victim of. 

It's Sunday so the roads are nowhere near as crowded as they'd usually be but that doesn't stop men in the throng or just casual passers by pinching or groping her ass upwards of 6 or 7 times in our hour and a half or so in the spice market and other bazaar districts.  By the end of the whole experience she's understandably tired and thoroughly p*ssed off.  She even manages to verbally apprehend one offender, caught red handed.  But he just turns, smiles broadly (seemingly supported in his jaunty posture by all other males in his proximity) laughs, turns and carries on his way.

Green Feathers on Red Stone
  This despite the fact of my male presence; her brother, boyfriend or husband for all he knows (or cares to know).

It's important to add - and it will come as no surprise - that such infringements of female sovereignty are not the exclusive suffering of 'foreign' women.  I know from conversation with a 20-something Delhi-ite lady of the predicament such male attitudes and behaviour frequently leave them in too.  Girls/ women in jobs such as coffee bar baristas or bar and restaurant waitressing roles are routinely subject to sexual slander of a verbal or physical nature.  This because they are considered to be in menial jobs of low social value that must indicate low social status.  This often seems to validate male sexual transgressions in the offending party's mind.  So we have social casteism/ classism mixing with sexual bigotry.

The multi-faith Lotus Temple
  As it so often does the world over.  Nor is sexual indiscretion the exclusive moral failing of the Indian 'man of the street' or lower ( 'cruder' ) social strata.

This situation creates a double-edged blade of social disenfranchisement for the lady/ victim.  Firstly economic.  She needs work.  That job is necessary.  Waitressing may be all she can do for the time being to make ends meet or support her struggling family.  Times are tough after all.  But this leads to the second problem.  Taking the job is deemed (by some of the male arbiters of society) to be a choice to put yourself in a demeaning position; 'in the firing line' of such promiscuous advances so you become viewed as morally questionable and potentially an 'unsuitable' girl for marriage (which leads back to point one and fears of financial security for the future).

Lotus Temple(detail) : somewhat reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House
  This the opinion, no doubt, of the same men pinching your butt and asking you 'What time d'you get off work gorgeous?'

Yes, life on and around the streets of New Delhi can be tough.  A stark reminder of this comes for me when one evening returning from the cinemas of Connaught Place (CP) at the opening of Chelmsford Road - in theory a road but seemingly a gigantic open latrine that runs and smells all the way from CP, past 'The Gunge' and onwards to Old Delhi - I spot two men standing over another.  A policeman and an official photographer are here to record the sad but probably daily event of a man having died upon the street.  The photographer's flash bulb illuminates the night and the crumpled form of the poor old boy momentarily.  His first portrait for many years.  And last.

My ole China travel pal Vanesha finding New delhi (as with so many new arrivals) quite an unplesant assault on the senses :)

Upon seeing him I'm mindful of a conversation I had already had somewhere in India with someone on the subject of poverty's victims.  I described how in our wealthier, 'developed' societies one always assumes, or at least hopes, that the societal safety nets - be they family and friends, charities and churches, philanthropists, Samaritans the local council or state institutions - are strong enough and their mesh woven fine enough that it seems quite unlikely that even the lowliest unfortunates and destitutes will ultimately slip through the bottom and be lost.  Of course the sad truth is that they still do all the time.  'But' I said 'as with everything in India, the safety nets are probably so tattered and torn and rent with holes; in need of replacement or having been stolen all together that it is inevitable that countless individuals, even whole families and communities of lives less fortunate will just fall straight through the gaps without society paying heed.

Belts for sale in 'The Gunge'
'

Just like this poor chap.  Yep, he fell all the way through and down to the pavement.  And from the looks of his final posture, broke his back upon landing there.  A curious posture in death.  Lying on his back but with one arm outstretched stiffly skywards and with both his legs angled and bent slightly up off the pavement, his left foot planted a little way up and upon the street wall.  Almost as if his heart gave out in attempting to make his first step towards climbing to the moon.  Perhaps he got there in the end anyways.  Or passed it by on his way elsewhere...


* Bullet the Blue Sky (Live) from Rattle and Hum.
** The Indian system of numerical denominations leaves the Romanic (?) one behind after denominations of up to 999,999.

'One day my head might blossom too' :)
  It then continues to count in lakhs (100,000 each) and then crore (10 million each).  So for example, the recent award winning Danny Boyle movie was entitled Slumdog Crorepati in the country of its setting.

globalodyssey says:
amazing...i feel like i was just in delhi, carried by your words
Posted on: Dec 06, 2009
dothoin says:
Our numeric system is Arabic in origin Steve, another amazing blog buddy
Posted on: Dec 06, 2009
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New Delhi railway station scene
New Delhi railway station scene
Arial view of part of The Gunge
Arial view of part of 'The Gunge'
Litter or Faith : often randoms pi…
Litter or Faith : often randoms p…
Cinema Neon
Cinema Neon
Lesser mausoleum in the grounds of…
Lesser mausoleum in the grounds o…
Spidey comes to pay his respects t…
Spidey comes to pay his respects …
3 ladies an a tomb
3 ladies an a tomb
The rather fab coloured Humayans …
The rather fab coloured Humayan's…
Humayans Tomb (detail)
Humayan's Tomb (detail)
Humayans Tomb
Humayan's Tomb
Green Feathers on Red Stone
Green Feathers on Red Stone
The multi-faith Lotus Temple
The multi-faith Lotus Temple
Lotus Temple(detail) : somewhat re…
Lotus Temple(detail) : somewhat r…
My ole China travel pal Vanesha fi…
My ole China travel pal Vanesha f…
Belts for sale in The Gunge
Belts for sale in 'The Gunge'
One day my head might blossom too…
'One day my head might blossom to…
Indian National Railway Authority
Indian National Railway Authority
All Aboard! - my carriage for th…
'All Aboard!' - my carriage for t…
Stevie and Jantine (and beard) upo…
Stevie and Jantine (and beard) up…
Bangles
'Bangles'
Street vendor squeezes Jalebi mixt…
Street vendor squeezes Jalebi mix…
Marigolds for the market.
Marigolds for the market.
Chandni Chowk spice bazaar
Chandni Chowk spice bazaar
At rest from labour
At rest from labour
One Man and his Dog
'One Man and his Dog'
Puja petals for the market.
Puja petals for the market.
All sorts of Stuff for sale in Pah…
All sorts of Stuff for sale in Pa…
New Delhi
photo by: peeyushmalhotra