I visited India for the first time in November. I was there for only three days, so it would be presumptuous of me to claim that I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of this amazing, complex country that shimmers with great beauty and at the same time seethes with contradictions. I suspect that even if I had lived there for many years I would not fully understand the cultural, social and historical accretions that have made India and Indians what they are today.
All I can offer, therefore, is a diffident account of what I was able to see in a few very brief hours. My visit was confined to Delhi: I spent my first two days there working, so my taste of the ‘real’ India (as opposed to the cosmopolitan experience that is pretty much the same across the world for all guests staying at business hotels) was almost entirely crammed into a single day. I was fortunate in having as my guide an Indian colleague based in Delhi who not only spoke several languages but understood how to deal with the myriads of rickshaw drivers and sellers of goods of all kinds who continually accost those walking through the streets. It’s no exaggeration to say that I felt protected by being accompanied by one who knew their ways, but it would be wrong to suggest that I was frightened: despite the horror stories we read in the British press of attacks and muggings, it was my impression that what these people most wanted was the opportunity to earn an honest living. The problem was that there were so many of them it was difficult to know which way to turn. The only word that serves to describe a walk through an Indian street – or market – is ‘overwhelming’.
Indians from all walks of life emit enormous energy: they’re constantly moving, they speak fast and all of the time they’re taking in their surroundings – no mean feat, as these are perpetually shifting, too. Even the most modestly-situated street sellers demonstrate an optimism, an upbeatness, which inspires admiration rather than sympathy. They seem determined to conquer life’s adversities by being cheerful and, above all, persistent. This is even true of the small children clutching bundles of pens which they press passers-by to purchase for a few rupees each. It’s heart-wrenchingly sad that these children clearly don’t go to school, that they’re grubby and often without shoes and that they’re out in the streets both early and late. Some undoubtedly sleep in the open. Yet they don’t seem deflated: on the contrary, they possess a resilience which convinces that at some level they will succeed.
The first stop on my itinerary was the Red Fort.
This is a seventeenth century fortification set on a hill and now famous for being the first place at which the flag of India was hoisted after the country gained independence in 1947. The fort fronts a whole series of royal palaces
and ornate gardens, the latter containing trees of great age whose time-thickened trunks are gnarled and twisted with creeper. The gardens are home to some of the stray dogs that roam the streets and public places everywhere in Delhi (though they don’t seem to work in packs, like the ones I saw in Quito, and therefore don’t intimidate).
The dogs beg shamelessly from picnickers, but most Indians have no compunction about roundly shooing them away. People are kinder to the chipmunks that also abound,
perhaps because they’re ‘cute’, whereas the dogs are skinny and bedraggled. The roofs of the palace buildings are thick with pigeons, while above them circle ‘eagles’ – as Indians often call the black kites which can be seen across the whole city.
Inside, the palaces contain so many glass cases filled with artefacts that it’s difficult to take them all in. I found the fine silk and damask nineteenth-century garments particularly striking, especially the tunic and trousers that had belonged to a princess described as being a rare beauty. (These clothes would have drowned Queen Victoria herself!) There were many weapons, some of them primitive and barbaric, though none that would have killed as efficiently as the Gatling gun, a British-supplied relic from India’s contribution to the First World War. One of the palaces housed ancient manuscripts, the calligraphy exquisite and perfect.
A visit to the spice market followed, a noisy place teeming with humanity. It contains row upon row of stalls piled high with spices, nuts and teas,
some facing the main thoroughfare, others hidden away in tunnel-like passages. We tried to penetrate one of these and were quickly driven back on to the street, eyes and noses stinging and streaming from the overpowering impact of the spices. I bought a kilo of green tea (a kilo of tea’s a lot, I realised belatedly!), a classic Delhi curry mix, the spices still whole, and half a kilo of unground turmeric.
The street food looks and smells wonderful: chapatis containing all kinds of meat and vegetable fillings, sliced melon and coconut, flavoured naans and chicken prepared as numerous varieties of finger food – but so many seasoned European travellers had warned me not to be tempted that I didn’t succumb. Residents of Delhi are evidently immune to ‘Delhi belly’, but our digestive tracts haven’t benefited from the same training. Lunch was at the Connaught Gardens, quite a famous spot which is run like a gentleman’s club. The food was classic – much of it vegetarian – and delicious.
Having realised from my experiences in the spice market that I am quite incapable of bartering, I was relieved to be taken to one of the government-approved shops that sells high-quality goods at fixed fair prices. I bought a few things there before going on to another street market.
By this time, it was almost dark. The market was beginning to fill up with people leaving work. Some street acts appeared: musicians and conjurors. Suddenly tired, we decided to round off the day by visiting the Indian monument. There are, in fact, two of these, one a traditional-looking building that has been conceived as a beautifully-sculpted gazebo, the other a large square triumphal arch, akin to both Marble Arch and the Arc de Triomphe, which commemorates by name every Indian soldier killed in the India-Pakistan war. As the darkness descended, the floodlights came on and both structures were suffused with an eerie beauty: a fitting end to my excursion into Delhi.