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.

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2 thoughts on “The Impossible City

  1. Hi Jeremy,
    Have read your new blog. I am just back from (also) beautiful Jordan. I will write soon. Have a good time there!
    Cheers, Regine

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