Mid-morning in south Delhi, and the air is full of dry, powdery dust, carried into the city by westerly winds from the deserts of Rajasthan, or from the numerous construction sites. Pigeons land on the maidan (field), throwing up small puffs of red ochre dust as they touch down. Tropical trees shade the yard, and little yellow-striped squirrels scamper along the branches. The earth is dry, warm and vaguely spicy, smelling of dust and the faint tang of drains. It feels like a long time since it last rained.
The water comes on twice a day, announced at 5.30am by a man on a bicycle who cycles around the complex hooting a klaxon horn. Later the vegetable cart comes round, the vendor crying out a two-toned, rising call, in which I can just make out the word ‘sabzi’. Then there’s a bread cart with a handbell, which sounds a bit like ‘bring out your dead’. Hooded crows are cawing in the trees. There’s a freshness to the air at this hour of the morning, a slight chill from the cool nights.
Leaving the airport in the small hours of the morning we stopped at an automated barrier, just as you’d get at a car park in England. Except here each barrier was manned by someone, so you pull up, hand your ticket to the guy, and he then puts it in the machine for you. Employment for all.
The traffic is a shock. Ahead of us is a motorbike with a woman passenger sitting sidesaddle. Under one arm she is carrying a small child.They weave in and out of the cars, then zoom up the white line between a bus and a truck. Delhi motorists have solved the conventional problem of only having three lanes on a motorway by driving five abreast on them, with cars straddling the white lines between the lanes. And occasionally using the fast lane as a kind of contraflow to go in the other direction altogether. Street vendors and beggars at the intersections, tapping on windows. One grey-haired lady selling incense has apparently been here since the riots of 1984.
The metro system is brand new, and feels a great deal cleaner than the London Tube. We pass through airport-style scanners which go off for everyone, and get patted down by policemen with short haircuts and blunt moustaches. Mine encounters a bulge in my coat pocket, and pauses. ‘A camera’, I say. ‘Oh, camera’, he grins, waggling his head.
A separate queue for ladies buying tickets, and a separate carriage on the trains as well, to avoid ‘eve-teasing’, as sexual harassment is known hereabouts. K makes swift progress up the ladies’ queue as I am stuck in the slow-moving mens line, suffering a spot of inadvertent groping of my own: personal space is a luxury that has been dispensed with compared to the west. In fact if there is an inch or more between you and the person ahead, someone will try to insert himself into the space, and then bring several members of his extended family as well.
Upon our reaching the counter, a man abruptly pushes in, in the manner of someone asking if this is the correct queue for wherever, but he then starts waving money at the ticket officer and a row erupts. Behind the counter squats an exhausted-looking man, pockmarked and emanating a general air of extreme disinterest. He resembles a particularly malevolent toad. Wearily he takes the notes, digs in a drawer, slaps down a ticket, and awaits the next one.
Cold weather in hot climates always brings out the worst in people’s dress sense. If you ever wondered what became of the hairy brown suits and argyll sweaters of the 1930s, here they are. It looks like an explosion in a charity shop. I am sandwiched between a man in a blue suit who reeks of hair oil – who is leaning his entire body length against me – and a man in a tank top and a scarf round his head who has prominent front teeth and sunken cheeks which makes him look like a famished chipmunk. I cannot move forward. A child clambers over my feet, then looking up to see a white face, goggles in amazement. A tall Sikh pushes to the front and begins an argument with someone about something. As we depart I smirk at our queue jumper who has been sent to the back of yet another queue. On the desk a telephone rings on and on, the red light winking futilely, ignored.
It rains the next day, and we splat muddily along Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, shopping. Lunch at Karim’s, here since Mughal times, ostensibly: spicy mince swimming in oil, called ‘keema’. The toilet has a glass door, frosted from the waist down, opening onto a bustling courtyard. Small shops selling garlands of marigolds, silver, bolts of cloth in glorious colours. Barefoot we tiptoe round the puddles that cover the Jama Masjid Mosque – imposing place, but with a vague feel of Brighton Pavilion out of season, in this weather.