Nell got the shits on day 2. I got the shits on day 3. That pretty much took care of the next few days in Delhi. Our trips away from the toilet were, of necessity, short and close by.
On day 3 we moved to a more comfortable hotel, just for a change of toilets. It was right next to the old part of Delhi which, although we thought we had seen the worst, was worse. Narrower, busier, more confusing, dirtier and felt more dangerous, although, we noticed on our brief excursions, a lot of well dressed people shopped in the specialist bazaars here. So during the day at least, it was safe enough.
There was some sort of festival on, as there always is in India [if it is not one religion, it is another which would be celebrating], so some of the nearby monuments were closed. We did get to the Red Fort one day which we shuffled around like invalids, with half a packet of Immodium tablets inside us. Security was strict after the terrorist bombings, with several checkpoints and sandbagged gun emplacements placed in strategic locations. The fort is impressive in scale but we could only walk the bare minimum, to the other side and back. It was steamy hot and we were weak as green tea. In fact we were mostly green tea, as that was one of the few things we could keep inside us.
Despite our condition we enjoyed it, especially the little Chipmunk like creatures and the peace and quiet of a different, historical, India to that seething just outside the gates.
Akbar was one of those seethers; he had led us to our hotel when we could not find it, tucked down a dark alley, behind the Bicycle Bazaar.
Ever helpful, chatting away merrily, he only once mildly suggested that he could take us on an interesting tour of Old Delhi. We liked him, so we accepted the offer. “As long as tour is only for one hour, we have very bad tummy,” we explained, already adopting our Indian Colloquial. As it turned out, it was a very interesting ride through the narrow alleys, barely wide enough for a rickshaw and a pedestrian to pass one another. Each alley [or bazaar] would have a different theme. One was weddings, another jewellery or yet another, religious iconry. [Iconnerie – French joke]
Climbing up onto a roof for the view, we saw some of the worst slums. Old buildings, once elegant were crumbling and mouldy. There were tarps, garbage and bits of washing as evidence of habitation. Occasionally a grimy face loomed from a dark window. Dank passages were used as public toilets. Akbar warned us of the vicious dog lurking around and picked up a length of wood to ward the beast off. We were cautious about leaning against the parapet five floors up, in case it crumbled away. It was a pleasure, feeling slightly separate in the rickshaw, not having to find our way and yet still fully involved in the hubbub; we saw places we would never have discovered, or dare to go into on our own.
When he was “seething” outside the gates of the Red Fort and not ferrying a sick old couple around sick Old Delhi, Akbar was one of the many people competing for a limited market. In Delhi there are thousands upon thousands of rickshaws; thousands of Tuk Tuks, thousands of taxis, minibuses, midibuses, maxibuses, underground and overground trains. OK, so it takes a lot of transport to move people around in a city of 18 million, but the vast majority of rickshaws and taxis seem to be standing idle for much of the day. It keeps prices low [for the locals] but encourages aggressive touting; not a pleasant experience for the tourist. Going for a short walk, one gets accosted from all sides. Rickshaw pushers stay alongside for many metres, offering “good” prices for a tour. “We visit Nain temple, very old; we go up very high tower, best view, see everything. I can take you to jewellery market, wedding market, very cheap.” These are of the Irritant Caste.
Or they have developed great diplomatic skills; subtly, almost casually, being in the right place to offer advice, gaining your confidence, asking friendly questions as if curious to know all about you. These are of the Trickster Caste, the clever ones who can waste a lot of your time with their engaging chatter until they finally reveal their true purpose. They lead the conversation around to it in the end and you have to remind yourself that you did not really want to buy a Pashmina shawl.
Did I say Caste? Oops, politically incorrect! It is easy to forget that it has not been recognised in the Indian Constitution for many years. On the streets of Delhi, the poor Rickshaw Pusher or Tuk Tuk driver is not interested in the Constitution and all that. Their hope of improving their lives no longer lies in how good a person they are, but in how well they compete against the rest; in how they can afford to feed their family living in the distant shantytowns of the city. Their hopes are to own their own rickshaw business, just like the ones they are wearing their bodies out for at present.
The dirty C word has been replaced by other, more complicated ones. Capitalism, Commerce and, of immediate relevance to the average Rickshaw Pusher; COMPETITION.
It is easy to be irritated, and I have been many times, but you have to remind yourself that earning a living is extremely hard; that these touts probably do not like the way they behave themselves, but that they have no choice. They do the best they can. If they don’t try to promote themselves then someone else will get the job. Some of them are more clever at it than others, that’s all. They know that you know, they are only trying for business. A knowing smile and little shake of the head is often enough to let them go. You already understand that if they don’t perform, their bosses will punish them.
This, the poorer strata of society, has not changed but has gone from the caste system [used by the privileged to control the poor] to another, equally unfair one where the rich get richer on the exploitation of the poor, and want to keep it that way. The film “Slumdog Millionaire,” which by coincidence I watched on the plane to India, portrayed the situation clearly. Even the beggars on the street are controlled by fat businessmen and crooks living in their million dollar mansions. There is only one hope for the poor; to win the big prize. The gap between rich and poor is possibly greater than ever, despite the economic boom in the country. Only now, for the Rickshaw Pusher, there is the extra frustration of knowing that you are not born to be like this. Perhaps they would rather believe in something else...
You've got to have steel balls if you want to be a Rickshaw Pusher.
WHAT TO BELIEVE.
Only once could I not control my irritation at these touts. Nell and I were discussing an important decision that had to be made immediately. The street was noisy anyway and we were being assailed by a gaggle of them, one of which was literally shouting at the top of his voice into my ear. He was no more than a metre away from me and I could not hear what Nell was saying. With my face set in anger I swivelled deliberately towards him, stared into his eyes and, giving him a taste of his own medicine, shouted back at him; “SHUT UP! WE CANNOT HEAR ONE ANOTHER!”
He was gone in a flash; and so were the rest of the touts.
We did not see the “nice part” of Delhi and I am glad. Who wants to see that? The same kind of surface gloss that hides the heart of many countries in the world. The glossy cover that hides the tale. The glossy fur that hides the meat.
We never did find the HoHo bus. It must be a joke. The metro was good though, just like a brand new London Tube, although there were not enough maps in English [for the benefit of all tourists, not just me]. We emerged near Parliament House or Central Secretariat, which retains the scale and power of the British Raj, with its architecture, parks with fountains and tree lined boulevard.
On our walk to the National Museum we passed the Ministry of Environment and Forests building along Rajpath. Pushing our way through weeds and rubble we noticed that a number of people seemed to be living in the derelict park. Some were cooling off, washing their bodies in the green slimy water of the canal. But the Government had provided a toilet block at least. Underneath this block, a huge pool of runny shit stank in the midday heat.
The Museum was a fine circular building, with a courtyard in the centre. The best exhibits were the long galleries full of fabulous [usually religious] sculptures displayed roughly in chronological order, starting from the early Indus civilizations such as the Arrapans up to contemporary from Ladakh. At one point I mentioned to Nell that they looked remarkably like classical Greek sculptures. They were restrained but beautiful representations of the human body. A few minutes later I read that this was the Gupta period of sculpture [4th century AD] which indeed had similar ideas to the Greek sculptors; the idealisation of the human body, the physical tension created by subtle shifts of weight, the body revealed as much as possible without obstructing drapery and so on... I could not help thinking that they must have seen some earlier Greek sculptures somewhere, especially when you compare the hairstyles of the most beautiful and simple examples. I recognised those tight curls. But then... didn’t Alexander make it as far as northern India and leave some of his soldiers behind?
Overall our visit to Delhi was not a good one, we were too ill most of the time to see much, and what we did see was only occasionally nice. There was always a great deal of the dark side of this city. The social and environmental problems that are not mentioned in the tourist brochures.
WHAT TO BELIEVE when you see the Government catchphrase of “Incredible India? Take your pick from the dictionary definitions;
1] So extraordinary as to be impossible.
2] Not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable.
On day five, we were driven in our drove to the airport at 3am. We were shocked by the many thousands of people sleeping in the streets. Sometimes families were huddled together on the road itself, so we had to swerve around the ragged bundles with their meagre possessions and smallest child clasped in their arms.