Sunday, 1 May 2011

A passage to India: the two faces of Delhi

Me and Joyce at Humayun's tomb, the precursor of the Taj Mahal.
© Andy Brown/2011/India

A few days after Songkran, I packed my bags once again and booked a ticket to Delhi, India. It’s a country I’ve always wanted to visit. I have several British-Indian friends in London and have watched countless movies about the country, from Richard Attenborough’s classic Ghandi to more recent art house fare like Earth and Water. I’ve always been intrigued by the country’s rich culture and history.

However, I also felt some trepidation. I’d heard about India’s extreme poverty, with slum dwellings lining the pavements of Mumbai, and had been warned to expect touts, scammers and hasslers. Joyce and I went to Morocco a few years ago and had an unhappy time. As soon as we stepped onto the street, we would be mobbed by aggressive and persistent fake guides, who would swear and spit at us when we refused their services. I was worried Delhi would be the same.

Happily, my time in India turned out to be neither quite like a movie, nor anywhere near as unfriendly as Morocco. However, there were two distinct sides to Delhi and its people. It was like a two-sided Venetian mask - one face smiling happily, the other angry and unsettling.

Happy face

I began in New Delhi, the former capital of British India. The city was built in 1931 on the ruins of seven previous capitals. Like them, it was supposed to last for ever but in less than two decades the British were gone, unable to sustain the costs of Empire after the Second World War. I arrived in Delhi late on Sunday night, got a taxi to my hotel and another to the office the next morning. Both drivers were very chatty so I didn’t have much chance to absorb the surroundings. One UNICEF office looks much like another and I got to 6:30pm without much of a feel for the country I was in. My map showed a route back to my hotel through a park, so I took some bearings and headed down a packed earth path towards Lodi Gardens.

I was astonished by what I found. A series of landscaped lawns surrounded spectacular 600-year-old domed and crumbing sandstone ruins, which rose majestically against the orange-coloured sky. They had elaborate carvings on their walls and the remains of coloured tiles on their ceilings. The trees were full of exotic birdlife, with different species home to different types of birds, including several large eagles. They filled the airwaves with their calls and the sky with their circling flights. Small, striped squirrels scampered around the lawns and walls with a bouncing gait, or climbed up walls and disappeared into cracks between the slabs of masonry.

Local people strolled peacefully amongst this splendour or reclined on the manicured lawns. Most of them wore brightly coloured traditional Indian dress. It’s one of the few countries I’ve been to wear young people choose not to wear jeans and T-shirts. Many had come with picnics and children. Others played sport, with cricket the clear favourite. I spotted two young guys up on the roof of one building, smoking a joint. After an exchange of gestures, they pointed to a stone staircase in the corner of a wall, and I climbed up too. I sat on the edge of the roof, next to a group of large and evil-looking blue-grey birds, and got an aerial view of the sun going down behind a group of children throwing brightly coloured balloons into the air. The air smelt of dry, baked earth and the sounds of children’s voices mingled with bird song and the soft thwack of badminton racquets.

Lodi Gardens - an urban oasis in the heart of New Delhi.
© Andy Brown/2011/India
I felt like I’d somehow wandered onto the set of a Merchant Ivory production, an impression which was more than just a metaphor. “In fact, a lot of movies are filmed there,” my colleague Jyoti said when I described the feeling the next day. “There are often film crews shooting in the evenings.”

As I was leaving the park, a group of Indian boys fell into step alongside me. “Hello, how are you?” one asked. “I’m good, thank you,” I replied. “Do you like Delhi?” “Yes, it’s very nice.” “America is very nice too!” “Not American, British,” I clarified as they disappeared in the direction of a 1950s style ice cream van.

The road from the park back to my hotel was wide and tree lined, with vast colonial-era villas taking up half a block each. There were large birds in these trees too, or so I thought at first. In fact, they were huge, furry bats. They climbed awkwardly up branches, hung upside down, fixing me with stares from their demonic eyes, or glided between the tree tops, casting sinister and unnatural shapes against the dusky evening sky.

On another occasion, I was walking through the gardens on Easter Sunday. There was a huge crowd of people on the lawn, dancing in a circle to a tribal drumbeat. I asked my colleague Shweta what was going on. “These are tribal groups who have converted to Christianity to escape the caste system,” she explained. “In traditional Hindu culture they’re considered Untouchables. In the old days, if their shadow fell on you, you would have to go home and wash. But in Christianity they’re all equals.” This change in status is not always done with pure motives, however. “The church provides education and social services,” Shweta continued, “But they often force people to convert in order to get it.”

If I was surprised and delighted by the ambiance of New Delhi, I was equally captivated by its inhabitants. My colleagues at work were incredibly welcoming and immediately made me feel at home, plying me with samosas, taking me for lunch and picnics and helping me plan my weekend. They spoke English with a beautiful, musical accent, while smiling and waggling their heads in a uniquely Indian gesture. “We lived side by side with the British for 200 years,” said Shweta without a trace of resentment. “I’m going to London in June. I’m very excited because I’ve read so much about it. I want to have tea and scones for breakfast and visit the Queen in Buckingham Palace.”

In addition to their hospitality and generosity, my new colleagues also had a wicked sense of humour. After one training session, I put people in pairs and set them the task of building an HTML email from a template, using stories from the UNICEF India website. Priyanka and Shweta instead made up their own stories about the ‘Web Guru’, using pictures of a mustachioed Mike Myers and links to my personal website. As their work was technically correct, it was hard to mark them down for it.

Angry face

If New Delhi represented the happy side of my Venetian mask, Old Delhi was its evil twin. I was well aware that I was living in something of a bubble among the broad boulevards, whitewashed mansions and trimmed lawns of New Delhi, so when Joyce came out for the weekend, we decided to spend a day visiting the Red Fort, Chandni Chowk market and Jama Masjid mosque in the less salubrious old town.

The Red Fort is a huge Mughal-era building, with imposing walls made from red sandstone around white marble palaces and British army barracks. The Mughal Emperors ruled India for over three hundred years from 1526 to 1858. Originally descended from Genghis Khan (the word 'Mughal' is a corruption of 'Mongol'), they soon adopted Indian culture and Islamic religion. The most famous Mughal Emperor was Akbar the Great, brought vividly to life in Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence. Passing through Lahore Gate you enter a covered bazaar where shopkeepers used to sell silks and jewellery to the Mughal's important guests. Their descendants still provide essentially the same service for modern tourists.

Outside Lahore Gate is Chandni Chowk, the heart of Old Delhi. Here, streets are narrow and buildings are dilapidated. The roads are lined with clothes and food stalls, the latter selling produce that is virtually guaranteed to bring on ‘Delhi belly’ in anyone not brought up on it. Between the stalls were a dense crowd of people and animals, including goats with full udders and carts drawn by large oxen, which battled tuk-tuks, cyclists and 1950s-style Hindustan Ambassador cars for command of the road. Disabled beggars limped between vehicles chasing a few rupees and a naked man with wild hair wandered down the middle of the street. It was hot, noisy, chaotic and bewildering.

A rickshaw driver followed us for a while, pushing his services. “Where are you going?” he demanded, reeling off a list of tourist sites. “You cannot walk here, it is too dangerous.” We managed to shake him off among the stalls and skirted the side of the market, heading for the tall minarets of Jama Masjid mosque, which was built by Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar, in 1656. We’d been warned to expect scams here, so I was alert when a brusque and aggressive doorman tried to charge us 200 rupees each to enter the free-of-charge mosque and, at another gate, someone demanded a highly improbable ‘exit fee’ to leave. “You’d think people would behave better in a mosque,” Joyce said.

Jama Masjid mosque, the view from the minaret, and the marketplace outside.
© Andy Brown/2011/India
The mosque itself was an architectural marvel in red sandstone and white marble, with three large domes and two tall minaret towers. We had to take our shoes off and the hot stone ground scalded the bottom of our feet, except where a tatty, threadbare strip of carpet had been laid out. In the centre of the courtyard was a dried out pool of green sludge that was being raked by youths and put into small plastic bags, possibly for sale. A crowd of children watched this odd activity until a bearded mullah in a white robe came over and chased them off, shouting at them and threatening one with the back of his hand.

We were charged another 200 rupees to climb one of the minarets. It was a health and safety nightmare – a narrow stone staircase that emerged into a tiny, crowded turret with no railings. There were spectacular views out across the marketplaces of Old Delhi, to the Red Fort and the Yamuna River beyond it, and back down into the courtyard where foreshortened figures has resumed their sludge raking. There were around a dozen of us up there, all standing on narrow window ledges and clinging onto the metal grills. We quickly took a few photos and headed back down, squeezing past another dozen people coming up. Clearly, no one was counting.

We also skirted the edge of Delhi’s infamous railway station, travelling on its little brother the Metro. It was like a nightmare version of the London Underground at rush hour. Getting on or off the train was nothing short of warfare. As the train approached the platform, the ranks of ‘on’ and ‘off’ lined up, determined to give no quarter. As the doors opened, both sides surged forward. Elbows, shoulders and bags were the weapons of war and no prisoners were taken. Even women and children were not spared. There was nothing for it but to barge with the rest or never leave the train. The crazy thing was that as we emerged, beaten and bruised, onto the platform, we saw that the carriages on either side of us were half empty. The whole battle had been completely unnecessary.

Although I found Old Delhi fascinating, it was hardly a relaxing place to be. “I think I’m more of a New Delhi type,” I said to Joyce as we headed back to my comfort zone. “You’re such a colonialist,” she laughed.

Delhi Daredevils

The other thing I wanted to do while in India was go to a cricket match. I’d heard that these were very different to the stuffy, upper-class events at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. In India, cricket is the game of the masses, like football in the UK. One of my new colleagues, Ashok, was a cricket blogger and he quickly found a match for us to go to – the Delhi Daredevils vs. Kings XI Punjab. It was a choice between this and a day trip to the Taj Mahal. Clement, head of the fundraising department, was incredulous at our choice. “What, you’re not going to the Taj!” he exclaimed. “Are you crazy? It’s a monument to love! It is so much more romantic than a cricket match. But then I am French,” he added with a shrug.

We caught a tuk-tuk to the stadium but as we approached it the traffic ground to a halt and we got out and walked with thousands of local fans in Delhi Daredevil colours and red plastic horns. It was like the time I went to a football match at Wembley Stadium (Southampton vs. Carlisle) but much more chaotic. The path to the ground went through a slum area with makeshift stores and street kids. The atmosphere inside the stadium was, for lack of a less-clich├ęd term, electric. People danced and sang and stood on their chairs to get a better view of the cheerleaders, who were wearing red hotpants and white vest tops. Joyce had been to a match in Mumbai where they were much less popular. “People booed and threw things at the cheerleaders,” she said. “They were scandalised by their outfits.”

The Delhi Daredevils in action (this is not my photo!)
© Delhi Daredevils/2011
The crowd was much less tribal than in the UK, where football fans are segregated to prevent violence. Our stand was mostly Delhi fans but there were a few Kings XI supporters, including an extended family a few rows in front of us who would go wild whenever their team won a point. Nobody seemed to mind. “In India, people are more interested in the stars than the teams,” Ashok explained to me. “When a famous player comes on, everyone will cheer for him until he’s bowled out. Then they’ll go back to supporting their own team.” Sometimes this hero worship gets out of hand, however. “When India won the World Cup, there were temples set up so people could worship the players,” Ashok said.

Not being cricket fans, we struggled to follow the match but it soon became clear that the Delhi Daredevils were on course for a major victory. Australian batsman David Warner hit a string of sixes, which sent the ball arching high into the air above the floodlit stadium, coming back down to Earth to land in the crowd. For more match information, see Ashok’s blog at Web Umpire.

On the way out, we gave our tickets to an excited group of street children who gazed wide-eyed at the floodlit stands, and listened to the roar of the crowd from inside. Sadly, a used Delhi Daredevils ticket was the closest they were ever likely to get to their country’s national sport.

On balance, despite its rough edges and occasional shady characters, I really liked Delhi. It also resisted easy generalisations. Although taxi and tuk-tuk drivers were often the worst scammers, we also met some charming and friendly exceptions. On Sunday we went to a place called ‘Olive Bar’ in the far south of Delhi with only the vaguest of directions. The driver, a jovial and chubby middle-aged man called Johar, had to keep getting out to ask people if they knew where it was. “No problem: your problem is my problem,” he said as he eased his bulk out of the small tuk-tuk and we tried to apologise.

On the way, Johar told us his family history. “My grandfather was friends with a British colonel during the Second World War,” he said. “After the war, he went with him to visit London. It took a month to get there on a ship but he only stayed for 15 days.” I asked what his grandfather did in the army. “He was a storekeeper,” Johar replied. “He was in the army but no fighting!” Joyce found him delightful. “He was like a big teddy bear,” she said. “I just wanted to hug him.”
'Untouchables' congregate in Lodi Gardens for their Easter Sunday celebratio.
© Andy Brown/2011/India
For more photos, see my Facebook photo gallery.

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