Turning Point

Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi – 30th January 2016

Morning in the Impossible City. Car engines are thrumming into life around the colony. The army of domestic workers are taking up their positions for the day ahead: five different men wielding large wet rags are wiping down five different cars, all conversing loudly with each other. Each are employed by different residents – as garage attendants, parking guides, drivers, perhaps. They wipe off the Delhi dust that accumulates in layers on everything – a mixture of concrete from the endless construction sites, assorted industrial pollutants and a pinch of Thar Desert blown in from Rajasthan. The maids begin to appear, slopping along in flipflops which are easy to kick off upon entering people’s houses. Soon the residents emerge from their apartments, duck into cars and a vehicular ballet commences, a pas-de-deux of incompetent reversing accompanied by a refrain of bleeping and chirping from the reverse warning alarms that so many cars here possess. A traffic jam is achieved before even reaching the main gate of the colony, and they embark upon the first furious hooting bout of the day, as an overture to the main act, out on the road itself.

The scene repeats itself in reverse every evening as cars return after dark, and the owners, nerves frayed from hours battling with impossible congestion and lunatic driving begin to jostle for parking spaces. One car in particular is a serial hooter, a large silver sedan with Kashmiri number plates. The owner is an old uncle in white kurta pyjamas and khaki bush-jacket – off-duty militant chic, as it were – and if someone is in his space (marked with the sign “No Parking: Tyres Will Be Defeated” – a misprint of deflated, I assume) he will sit and hoot for twenty minutes or so. On one particular evening the owner of the car occupying his space happened to return, and a furious row ensued: the Kashmiri jumped out of his car and was yelling at the other driver, who, not to be outdone, yelled back. They circled each other and made threatening gestures. The Kashmiri’s wife hopped out of the passenger seat and offered her own shrill contribution. A small crowd formed, roughly dividing itself in loyalities between the two parties. Heads began to emerge from the balconies to watch the evening’s entertainment. The Kashmiri shouted something particularly incendiary and the other driver, who had begun to swagger away, returned with a vengeance, until a wispy man half his size blocked his path and began to physically lead him away. He made a show of resistance but it was all a bit half-hearted. The Kashmiri, sensing victory, advanced with a new show of boldness, which petered out when the other driver shook off his assistant and returned anew. Round and round it all went, for a good quarter of an hour, like players taking their places in an operetta, or birds-of-paradise posturing, watched by a diverse audience: the veg stall guy, a couple of lads on a motorbike, assorted passers-by and hangers-on, a group of Afghan women in headscarves peering over the balcony opposite, and one solitary gora (white) clutching a notebook in his hand.

I later got the translation of what had been said that had been so incendiary, and it went like this:

“You have insulted me.”

“You insulted me first!”

“You are a mannerless person!”

“No, you are a person without good manners!”

All this yelled at full volume. Imagine a fight in the UK where two burly men scream at each other from inches away: “You’ve just got no manners!”

Similarly, one of the most common cries in the little flare-ups that happen with queue-jumpers, for example, is “Do you know who I am?” It’s a reiteration of self-esteem, a marking out of one’s position in a city with a vast hierarchical scale – “I am an important, influential person, and you are just a low caste nobody with no connections”. I heard a variant of this one from a young man who had dinged his motorcycle on someone else’s. “Do you know who my daddy is?” he shrieked quite unselfconsciously. To which I muttered as we passed, “No, do you?”

The dogs are as much characters of the colony too. They are stray, for the most part – one might say communally owned and communally neglected. “All life is sacred in India except human life,” as someone once said. Occasional kind-hearted souls go out to the park with food for them. The dogs spend their days lying in the sunshine or patrolling in packs, picking up any vaguely edible morsel that may have fallen off a passing cart. But one dog never joins them. It spends most of its time sleeping on top of the steps leading up to an apartment block, and sometimes can be found sitting on top of the roof of a car. It turns out that it is paralysed in its rear legs – run over by a car as a puppy; how it gets itself onto a car roof is remarkable, and must involve dragging itself up over the bonnet and windscreen by its front legs alone. We always stop and say hello, patting and stroking, and it shuffles itself upwards into a sitting position, thumping its tail, looking both abashed and delighted somehow, its useless rear paws folded demurely together beneath it like the ankles of a lady in a short skirt trying to sit on a low sofa. An aunty in a nearby apartment puts old blankets out for the dogs in the winter months, and the dogs dutifully tear them into strips and bury the remnants in the park.


Zainabad, Gujarat – 4th Feb 2016

We met three young students at an ancient step well – a series of ornately carved pillars marking out the layers as the stone steps descended into the cool depths. A couple of lads and a girl in a headscarf, they were studying at the art college in Ahmedabad, but all came from elsewhere in India; she was from Uttar Pradesh, which, with a population of 215 million, would be the fifth largest country in the world, if measured by population – behind Indonesia and slightly ahead of Brasil. The other two students came from Jharkhand and Bihar respectively – both bywords for corruption and impoverishment; they were like three ambassadors for the failed states of India. The lad from Jharkhand was the boldest, and approached us, asking where we were from: K’s fair skin and general air of bohemian cosmopolitanism marks her out as being as good as foreign in some parts here. I’d never been to Jharkhand, I told him. What was there to see? Should I go? He waggled his head, laughed ruefully and then said: “Not really. Coal mines. We have lots of coal mines. And dirt.”

They asked how London was. “Cold,” I told them. “Cold and grey. This would be an unusually warm summer day there.” They found this hilarious. So we chatted for a while, then they all shyly shook hands with us and went on their way.

North of Ahmedabad the landscape began to change, becoming more arid. We passed enormous hotels in the middle of nowhere that advertised conference facilities. These were incongruous enough already, but the sight of a local man dressed in baggy white homespun and enormous scarlet turban herding brahmin cattle across the forecourt of one such place rendered the scene positively surreal. Soon we left the hotels behind and entered a thorny semi-desert with occasional villages. Small round huts like African rondavels had mirror-work embedded in their mud walls which glittered in the sun. The people wore brightly coloured costumes – mauve and lime green together, or scarlet and purple.

Cranes are flying overhead in skeins, with watery cronking calls. They migrate here from Siberia – an inconceivable distance. And there are other migrants too – some of the waterbirds bobbing on the lake or wading through its shallows might have been at Minsmere in Suffolk last year. The sky is pink, apricot, lemon-tinged. “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” A girl pads across the dust of the maidan with a yellow swirl of skirt around slim brown legs, ankle-bracelets jingling gently with every step. The locals here move languidly, accustomed to great heat, as if performing a slow dance. This is still winter, and the temperature is 30 degrees at dusk, though the nights grow cold in the hours before dawn.

Soon the sky is strewn with stars. In the darkness of the narrow lanes the cows are going home, soft-footed through the velvet desert dust, and there is the smell of woodsmoke in the air. The trees are singing as we pass them, leaves shining silver in the light of the moon, each one alive with the susurrus of insects, as if the song were part of the tree itself. There is a deep hoop-hoop-hoop of a nightbird in the distance and then the faint, high cry of an owl. Nightfall on the Rann of Kutch.12647025_10208860133970572_223341529751489771_n


Haus Khaz, New Delhi – 13th February 2016

Hauz Khas – which sounds like ‘Horseguards’ – was heaving on a Saturday night. We’d previously visited on a sunny afternoon and walked round the lake, along with countless others: families enjoying the sunshine, solitary pensioners hobbling bravely along, young couples shyly holding hands, gangs of young men practicing their swagger, with quick eyes sliding furtively over any passing female. But at 9 p.m. on the weekend it was clearly the place to be in Delhi. A line of cars half a mile long queued to get in to the complex. Motorbikes zoomed suicidally around them, swerving to miss pedestrians by… not inches, but an inch at most. One bike misjudged a gap between a parked auto rickshaw and an SUV in the queue, and bounced off the rickshaw with his luggage rack; his female passenger casually lifted her leg out of the way to avoid it being removed at the knee. A small white Suzuki Maruti Swift announced its presence with deep booming bass notes. Inside were three college boy types, the interior lit by UV neon, and they had some gadget attached to the suspension which caused the car to bounce up and down on its springs. They bayed lustily along at the top of their voices to the Punjabi hiphop the speakers were belting out, heads going back and forth as the car bounced, its small size barely able to contain such an excess of testosterone. Around the cars girls in high heels and miniskirts picked their way with well-practiced expressions of scornful disdain. Dozens of touts lined the street, gathering around potential clients as they approached. A young man swayed in front of me, voice hoarse with faux excitement: “Secret Bollywood party happening now, mister! Top celebrity guestlist!” I ignored him. The next one offered a free drink in an establishment of dubious merits. A third blocked my path like a mugger and shoved a flyer at me offering a romantic Valentine’s day dinner. I shouldered him impatiently aside.

Leaving after dinner in a fancy rooftop restaurant full of expats, we hit gridlock – again – in the Impossible City. We inch forward, stop, inch forward again. At a red light, everyone switches off their engines. We sit for five minutes. Then the light goes green, everyone starts their engines and a chorus of hooting breaks out. Everyone is hooting, nobody is moving. We begin to inch forward again as motorbikes slalom between the cars. Once the traffic is moving things begin to resemble one of those car racing computer games from the 80s – the kind where everyone passes on the inside, the outside, anywhere they can, in order to get ahead. There is just no concept of lane discipline at all. If you wanted a snapshot of Indian driving, it would be five lanes of cars all swerving wildly around each other while hooting simultaneously. And at the traffic lights where we all grind to a halt yet again, we are ambushed by the impoverished: small children, usually, tapping on the windows, or on your knee if you are in a rickshaw. Look away, shift your gaze, concentrate on the middle distance, or your phone. If you pay them anything you keep them here, condemned to a life breathing this toxic fug of exhaust, lead, cadmium, covered in dust and filth, occasionally being run over. It kills something inside you every time.

At M-block market one evening, nipping outside the Costa Coffee for a cigarette (140 rupees for a cappuccino – one pound forty, or a week’s earnings for some of these kids – a small child came up accompanied by a granny. They murmured beseechingly as we stood and smoked. I brushed off a small hand that tugged at my sleeve and turned my back, feeling an utter bastard. The child moved away to try someone else. Then one of our group, a local guy, fished out ten rupees and gave it to the child. Immediately the granny took heart. She stood and murmured, just on the edge of our consciousness, not quite daring to make contact but hovering enough to make her presence felt, to establish a sense of collective guilt in us all. We continued our conversation in slightly raised voices, trying not to notice. On and on and on she went. “I just gave to the child!” our friend eventually remonstrated from sheer exasperation. It had no effect. Eventually, to get away, we cut short our cigarettes and went back inside, humanity dying by degrees.

What is ten rupees? Ten pence. How could I begrudge her that? I often pay over the odds here, just because it seems so churlish to haggle over pennies. I refuse to be one of these travellers who not only bargains for ages with some desperate local but then takes a perverse pride in bragging about how they pay local prices for things. But there are begging rings, there are children kidnapped and disfigured in order to improve their earning power. If you hand out money to them you are not only keeping them on the streets but also perpetuating the whole industry of it. The charities who work with such people say you shouldn’t give to beggars. All this you know…

The problem is, there is no solution to the problem. And the full implication of that struck me later that evening as we sat in the traffic. On the edge of the kerb sat a little girl, about ten years old, hair in bunches. She was hugging herself defensively, while simultanously rolling her eyes in despair at the endless mechanical stream of toxic traffic going by. We halted a few feet away. And then I saw, in the glare of the streetlight, a solitary tear trickle down her face, leaving a track through the dust on her cheek. It’s a little girl, on her own in this city, looking at the traffic and crying. Anywhere else – not even in an ideal world, but just a normal one that has a shred of humanity in it – seeing a lone child crying on a roundabout, someone would stop and help her, call the police, who would alert social services, whatever. But here nobody looks. That’s how it kills us all inside. And if you ever see such a child in distress where you live, I urge you to stop and help them, not shamefully look away, as we do in the Impossible City. Otherwise one day everywhere will be like this – all kids so alone, all cities so harsh, all onlookers so dead inside.


 


 

Turning-Point – Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

***

The road from intensity to greatness

passes through sacrifice. – Kassner. 

***

For a long time he attained it in looking.

Stars would fall to their knees

beneath his compelling vision.

Or as he looked on, kneeling,

his urgency’s fragrance

tired out a god until

it smiled at him in its sleep.

***

Towers he would gaze at so

that they were terrified:

building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!

But how often the landscape,

overburdened by day,

came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.

***

Animals trusted him, stepped

into his open look, grazing,

and the imprisoned lions

stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;

birds, as it felt them, flew headlong

through it; and flowers, as enormous

as they are to children, gazed back

into it, on and on.

***

And the rumour that there was someone

who knew how to look,

stirred those less

visible creatures:

stirred the women.

***

Looking how long?

For how long now, deeply deprived,

beseeching in the depths of his glance?

***

When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home –

the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom

moody around him, and in the avoided mirror

once more the room, and later

from the tormenting bed

once more:

then in the air the voices

discussed, beyond comprehension,

his heart, which could still be felt;

debated what through the painfully buried body

could somehow be felt – his heart;

debated and passed their judgment:

that it did not have love.

***

(And denied him further communions.)

***

For there is a boundary to looking.

And the world that is looked at so deeply

wants to flourish in love.

***

The work of the eyes is done

now go and do the heart-work

on all the images imprisoned within you; for you

overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.

Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,

the one attained from a thousand

natures, the merely attained but

not yet beloved form.

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The Impossible City

Nine hours on Air India to transition seamlessly (more or less) from one life to another. Chetan from Leicester in the next seat shook my hand, asked me in the morose accent of the Midlands if the food was safe on Air India and sank three beers in quick succession (“It’s really naughty of me, I know,” he told the stewardess, “but could I get a brandy?” She smiled thinly at such English self-effacement and brought him one). He was of Indian origin himself, travelling on to Ahmedabad (pron. “Amdabad”) to visit family with his little girl, who like him appeared Indian but was British in every respect – accent, dress, manner, conversation – and he was asking me for advice on how to cope. Most of his stories seemed to have but one theme: what a great bargain he had got. When it turned out my ticket had cost fifty quid less than his own he lapsed into a troubled silence and apologetically ordered another brandy.

It was 7.30pm on a Monday night in Delhi, toward the end of January. A chill in the air, about 9 degrees, everything covered in a thick layer of grey dust. We found an auto rickshaw (tuktuk) to take us south to Alaknanda for ten rupees over the meter, which seemed fair. We buzzed along for a while, bumping over not so much potholes as entire sections of road that were missing, through clouds of dust and exhaust fumes, in this, the world’s most polluted city, then hit total and utter gridlock. Five lanes of traffic on three lanes of road, none of it moving. Next to us on one side was a top of the range Mercedes. On the other, three lads on a small motorbike. Ahead one motorbike decided to bump over the verge onto the pavement, and proceed that way. Others quickly followed suit. Then a rickshaw saw a gap it could get over and also went onto the pavement. Five more followed. Soon the pavement was a line of motorbikes and rickshaws and bicycles, all slowly edging forward.

Then I saw him. A man in a knitted tank top and grey slacks. He was trying to walk. This particular section of pavement had some fume-blasted trees on it, and he had to dash from one to the next, seeking cover as a tide of vehicles edged around him on either side. The kerbstone had crumbled at one point and one joker in a car decided he’d make better progress on the pavement too, so he bumped over it, scraping his exhaust. One bike had to edge so far left that his mirror dragged down the wall of the building overlooking the road. And it struck me then, with perfect clarity: this is it. Total and utter capacity. Every inch of the road was locked solid. The pavement was jammed with snarling vehicles. Even the narrow cobblestone divide between road and pavement had bicycles wheeling along it. And this one guy, who had foolishly tried to walk down a main road in Delhi, was left scurrying from tree to tree, marooned by an endless tide of traffic. If it becomes so congested that you can’t even walk any more, what sort of city have you got? One that has become impossible.


And yet, and yet… Woken by raucous cheers and whoops at 9 in the morning. The uncles are playing cricket on the maidan playing field – uncles being a generic term for older men (it’s nice that we are all related in this way, but I notice with mild misgiving that some are clearly younger than myself). They wear an odd assortment of old tracksuits and tank tops, with an utter lack of self-consciousness – big, paunchy men with moustaches and a waddling gait. There’s a constant babble, a joyful ebullience, laughter. The traffic on Alaknanda road is but a faint rumble. The leaves of the peepul tree overhead whisper dustily. There is the scent of incense from the small shrine in the hallway where the maid crouches, murmuring invocations. Next door the neighbour is singing his prayers, on and on. In the background comes the call of the muezzin from the mosque. Three different religions intertwining simultaneously. I peer through the window next to where I lie wrapped in the patoo. Here in the colony there are small, yellow-striped squirrels that chitter around the trunks of the trees, mynah birds crying to each other and sometimes monkeys in the foliage above.

I hear the mellifluous burble of two ladies talking in Hindi on the steps outside; they sit in the sunshine wrapped in voluminous shawls and will talk for an hour or more, in great rolling sentences that unspool like colourful strands of yarn. What tapestry do they weave with them? They are domestic workers in the nearby apartments, and are the ones who really run this place, catering to the whims and needs of the ostensible owners, raising their kids, packing lunches for the office, doing the laundry. One I know lives in a small shack in a slum with a tarpaulin overhead. After a while, about 9.30am, there’s a honking like the horn of a clown’s car: it’s the subji (or sabzi) guy – the veg man. He tows his cart of vegetables around the alleys by bicycle and maids shuffle into the lane to make their purchases. He has upgraded in the five years since I was last here; he’s bought a bigger, louder klaxon for his bicycle. At night the chowkidar, or night watchman, walks around the compound blowing his whistle and thumping his stick to warn of his presence – or perhaps to reassure himself against the dangers of the night.


Walking round Humayun’s tomb – a sort of miniature Taj Mahal in red sandstone, described unforgettably by Mr William (Dalrymple) as possessing a sort of “blowzy Mughal rococo”, one saw a quite different Delhi – beautifully symmetrical gardens through which small channels of water trickled. Little yellow-striped squirrels tentatively lowered themselves over the edge, hanging by their back legs to drink. Young couples walked around and sat quietly on benches together, glad of the privacy offered by a ten rupee ticket (or 250 for foreigners). A group of boys played a game called “gilli danda”, similar to cricket or rounders, whose tools were two sticks – a small one as the ball, and the larger one as the bat. The interior of the tombs possessed a deep, sepulchural chill at this time of year, the sun filtering through the latticework windows, making the marble of the coffins gleam. This was a Delhi which was known for its poetry, its ghazal singers, its dedication to the arts, its nautch dancing girls who moved with a liquidity and seductiveness to melt the hardest of hearts. (“I see you dance from place to place…”) There was peace, tranquility, if only for a while. Seven cities have arisen and fallen on this spot over the ages, and now we are in the era of the eighth.

Leaving the tomb we emerged back into the mayhem of modern India. The auto drivers. These ones were used to preying on tourists, and circled like sharks. How much to Khan Market? 50 rupees. Outrageous, K snorted, and slopped off in her red slippers. “TK, TK, Madam – 40 rupees and we go to a nice shop on the way.” This was so ridiculous that even the newest arrival on the subcontinent would have been advised by their guidebook that it was a trap. We walked along the pavement pursued by one auto. “Khan Market? Very far. Not possible to walk. Only 50 rupees. Standard price, fixed price, meter price.” When we declined he U-turned in disgust and went back in search of fresh pickings. Besides, I wanted to walk.

In a city of extremes, people tend to move from one insulated bubble to another, sticking safely to their chosen method of conveyance. You might use your own car and driver (most middle class families have one), or get an Uber or an Ola cab. You can use a pre-paid taxi of the Delhi Police booked from a stall. Or you can try your luck with the autos who can be hailed off the street. But what few people do is actually walk – not least for the reasons above; that sometimes it is physically impossible, it is often searingly hot, that it is never particularly pleasant, but most importantly, because it crosses the invisible barriers that separate the different layers of this city. At Humayun’s Tomb coaches drew up in the car park and disgorged tour groups. We crossed the road, and there, just the other side, was a slum. And what a slum.

Jhuggi. Bustee. Zhopadpatti. Remember the words. They describe hell on earth, and all mean slum. This city has the dubious distinction of having slums as bad as anywhere – perhaps worse. And this is just one of dozens, hundreds, of these torn cardboard and tarpaulin encampments in Delhi alone. Each city in this country has the same. How do they get here? How do they live? It’s like the aftermath of a battle. People lie on the pavements on their backs with their knees raised in attitudes that are alleged to ward off the worst pangs of hunger. There is a bus stop here and in it are a business man with a briefcase, a college girl playing with her phone, two labourers, and amongst them on the floor lie three men wrapped in rags. There are shacks that aren’t even shacks, made of cardboard boxes and torn plastic sheeting. There’s a mountain of rubbish and a man… asleep? Drunk? Dead?… on top of it. Chickens peck around him. The stink is unbelievable – you don’t even want to breathe. It curls into your mouth with a fetid reek, through the scarf you cover your nose with. Here on the pavement are three bright pools of scarlet liquid. Paan juice? Blood? It is not clear. A horribly crippled boy crawls along begging from some equally destitute-looking people, illustrating the subtleties of the hierarchies at work here. A woman is shrieking, waving her hands dementedly. The water tanker has arrived, the driver running a hose out from his truck, and a queue rush to line up with pots and pans. It’s a garbage mountain crossed with a sewage farm, and there’s a line of washing hanging out to dry between two decaying trees. You have to look – you can’t look away. And across the intersection a boy is washing himself with a small jug of water and singing. On the pavement sit two dead-eyed derelicts, a man and a woman – she with matted hair, huge, prehistoric gnarled feet, and both of them are covered in dust as if they’d been rolling in it. Try to see the beauty in everything, the sages advise; we are all of this world. But there is no beauty here – only horror.

Across the road are two giant billboards. One offers spiritual enlightenment courtesy of a well-known guru, for a suitable fee. The other shows a minor Indian actor, son of a more famous actress, scion of Bollywood’s dynastic nepotism, striding across Waterloo Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the background – taken from roughly where the number 4 bus meets the 172. His coat is open to reveal a smart suit, and he looks serious, businesslike, slightly pissed-off. “Bahaar Paan”, it says in Hindi – the spicy, mildly narcotic nut confection that people eat which produces vast quantities of scarlet-tinged saliva, pools of which are notably absent from Waterloo Bridge. “Bahaar Paan. The Measure of Success.”

In quite literally the next street were smart apartment buildings with security guards at every gate, and frequently cars with diplomatic number plates outside. Surely nowhere else has such inequality in such proximity? Khan Market is a kind of upmarket shopping centre, identical to many others around Delhi – Hauz Khas, Greater Kailash (known as GK 1 and 2) and Defence Colony, shortened inevitably to Defcon 1, are all cut from the same pattern. Small boutique-style shops, selling clothes, books, cosmetics, shoes. There’s a yellow metal entrance gate on rollers bearing the logo of the Delhi Police (“True, We Slow You Down, But We Try Not To Let Criminals Slip By”, it ruefully acknowledges) and usually three or four machine-gun toting cops hanging around it looking bored. There are cafes and fast food places: Pizza Hut, Cafe Coffee Day, Amici. Everywhere is overstaffed – it’s not unusual to find shop assistants outnumbering the customers, and there are always various people hanging around who may or may not work there. There’s usually someone crouched on their haunches sweeping dust around with a bundle of twigs, all over your shoes if you have just entered – but there’s usually someone outside who offers to clean it off again for a suitable fee. The cafes have become the hangout of choice for the young, middle-class Delhiites; where they went before such places existed a few years ago is something of a mystery. Round each other’s houses, mostly.

And it’s pretty good really; there’s usually a charming level of ineptitude, but they do try. Outside the main urban centres the concept of customer service doesn’t really exist, and you may wander into a restaurant to find yourself the object of unflinching scrutiny of the eight or nine staff who spend their time hanging around waiting for something new to look at. So these markets are where the affluent go, playing with their phones, swapping gossip, and they talk about the same sort of things as their counterparts in other large cities around the world, although with a certain local idiom. “Shruti’s gone to UK,” someone says. “PhD.” Everyone nods approvingly. “I heard Raj is in the US,” says another. “He’s working for Google! now.” The name Google is inevitably followed by an impressed exclamation mark, as is Microsoft! They are the international generation, the globetrotters, and they’ve got money, but it’s still not a level playing field, and it would be easy to read into it the notion that success comes only with getting out. Bahaar Paan. No globetrotter would be seen dead using it.

And somewhere in all this you have to figure out how you fit into it. You’re going in the other direction, so to speak – turning your back on the places that so many are aiming to get to. The place is an antidote to self-consciousness by magnifying it to such an extent that you’d go mad if it bothered you; the staring, the people whose heads swivel as you pass, the guy on a bike who damn near crashes into the car in front so mesmerised is he by the sight of a foreigner, the guy at the next table who just stares and stares and stares, and when you greet him, stares a few seconds more then breaks into an astonished smile and returns your greeting. It’s like being a celebrity perpetually on stage, and you have to get over any hint of stage fright before it takes you over completely.

Invited out to “The Club”. Not some techno-pulsing nightspot, but the colony club – colony being the residential neighbourhood complex. Originally a British institution which locals were barred from – George Orwell satirised perfectly all the petty snobberies and prejudices in “Burmese Days” when the club’s denizens were scandalised by Flory inviting in his friend Dr Veeraswamy – it has retained all the same essential attributes; only the characters have changed. Dinner was pizza, but with a distinctly local flavour; the choice was veg or non-veg. Non-veg pizza had chicken tikka on it. The veg had cubes of paneer – the Indian cottage cheese. This was consumed to a soundtrack of 80s hits while businessmen in blazers sat around discussing oil prices and correcting each other in that vaguely admonishing style that is so common here, while their wives sat on looking decorative, swathed in yards of gilded silk, like a shelf-full of ornamental hens. Occasionally one interjected with an anecdote about a child who was doing particularly brilliantly, or who had just been accepted at a US or UK university, or got a job offer. (Google! Microsoft!)

“Oh, I love London,” someone says. “Where do you live?”

On hearing the Barbican a row of immaculate foreheads pucker slightly.

“Is that near Knightsbridge?” someone else asks.


Such was my arrival. No matter how many times you’ve been before, India still hits you if you are arriving from more organised, sanitised locations. The smell, the chaos, the scale of it all, the noise – every vehicle hoots, incessantly, all the time. And yet somehow you find yourself simultanously horrified and charmed: the stink of open sewers is just about masked by the coiling wafts of incense, the lunatic driving is somehow offset by the garlands of flowers across the dashboard, the hooting is reflexive, not aggressive, as in England. The sign on the ATM that warned of “Miscreants attempting to befool with offers of easy puzzles” while relieving you of your wallet. The anachronisms, the archaism, the quirky, jaunty, colloquialism of it all. “Thrice,” they say here, for three times – something that hasn’t been used in England since the days of Dickens. There’s a distinct lack of the garish brand-names that decorate every English kitchen cupboard; here everything is stored in little glass jars or steel “vessels”. Tea is made in a stainless steel pot on the gas ring, picked up with tongs. Milk must be boiled and strained. One showers by putting the geyser on, filling a large bucket and using the accompanying jug to tip water over oneself. It’s like living in a museum. Everything feels like it belongs to an earlier era – one in which things work perfectly well, just about, so why change it?

On July 10th, 2013, sitting in my flat in London, blind in one eye from a piece of flying grit, 10kg thinner than usual, with my wallet full of rupees and pockets full of sand from the Nubra Valley in Ladakh, I wrote this:

The Delhi Police run a pre-booked taxi company, and they are generally cheaper than the private operators, so I tottered up to the stand and ordered a cab to Lajpat Nagar. 275 rupees. The private firms had wanted 400 (although that was negotiable). The driver looked about 15, and had a thin, wispy moustache and the half-famished look that comes of generations of grinding poverty. The car was a small Maruti, the name written on the steering wheel in Hindi script, and looking around the interior I realised what it was that I liked about this city, and indeed this country, so much. Everything was broken. Everything. The speedo needle sat stubbornly at zero. The windscreen was cracked. The knob to the fan was snapped off and stuck on cold. The rear seat was exuding a mixture of stuffing and springs. My window didn’t go up. The car shuddered and lurched round the potholes, and we weaved from lane to lane, missing other vehicles by inches, and all of this in slow motion, never exceeding 30 miles an hour. Everything was broken and yet everything somehow still functioned. We drifted like a shoal of fish across an intersection where the traffic lights flashed amber endlessly. A motorcyclist passed with a six-foot plank sticking up out of the back of his shirt. Green and yellow autorickshaws crawled up the hill of the flyover, barely holding together over the bumps. A truck reversed down the hard shoulder having missed a slip road. The slip road itself was missing about 5 metres of tarmac, and the patch of dirt was pitted with potholes.

We passed yellow police blockades which said: “True, we slow you down. But we try not to let criminals slip by.” I loved the rueful honesty of it. Yes, we’re crap, but we do what we can with what we’ve got. It was like a metaphor for the whole city. Two tousle-haired little girls in pyjamas rushed up to car windows at an intersection and tapped on them, trying to sell pens. Grain covered the pavements on both sides of the road, pecked at by hundreds of pigeons. A man crawled along the pavement, spine twisted by some appalling condition, his spindly legs dragging behind him. College girls in jeans and flip flops waited at bus stops and talked endlessly on their mobile phones. A long-distance truck, short wheelbase, orange and with gaudily painted sides ground along leaving a cloud of black smoke belching out behind it. Punjab, Haryana, All India. Green buses packed to the gills, every window open, the pixel signs on the front advertising their destinations in Hindi: Okhla, Defence Colony, Hauz Khas, Lajpat Nagar, Khan Market. A Sikh in a turban and face mask on a 125cc Pulsar with his wife in a sari side-saddle behind him, and a small child tucked under one arm. Three girls colourful as birds all sitting on a scooter, going tripsies, the one at the back flicking the long plait of her hair back over her shoulder as she texted on her phone with the other hand. Delhi, Dilli, दिल्ली. I love it, I hate it, I miss it, I’ll be back soon.

Well here I am.