New Delhi : Where the Streets Have No Shame
New Delhi Travel Blog› entry 223 of 268 › view all entries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.