January, 2000: Paharganj, Delhi, India
Impressions of Delhi.
Arriving in Delhi by bicycle fills cyclists with a sense of foreboding. Long before reaching the city outskirts, it's impossible not be absorbed by one of the main arteries insatiably feeding the capital with traffic. It's an arrival that is both shocking and captivating; sweeping boulevards lined with high rise buildings juxtapose the squalor of makeshift homes, culminating in gridlocked trucks, buses and cars. It is a journey that leaves you wanting to scrub the pollution from every pore.
Most travellers head for Paharganj, the city's cheapest accommodation, a constant hubbub of energy and life situated just beyond the main railway station. But for all the modernity of New Delhi, a few days of wandering the streets of Paharganj's main bazaar is enough for the majority to escape this congested city so heavy with raw pollution.
Tourist restaurants, guest houses and internet cafes bustle with people coming and going on their travels around India. Street kids somersault on the dirty road for a few rupees or a chapati. Women clutch babies in rags, hands outstretched. Amputees rattle up and down on their wooden 'skateboards,' displaying fingerless fists.
The volume of noise is a reflection on Indian life and daytime levels are always at a maximum. Motor rickshaws are nose to nose on market day, their buzzing horns clearing a path amid a sea of people. Cows holding up traffic on this narrow street lined with shops, stalls and unlikely characters. Drivers thrown into a state of frenzied horning, adding to the background din of market sellers, music stores and street hawkers that go hand in hand with any Indian city.
It's a place where sight-bytes abound; a mob pouring onto the street from a Hindi cinema, a woman balancing a sowing machine on her head, a Sikh with waxed beard tied below his chin, a cow nudging fruit off a juice stall...
But it's the background setting of intense sales assaults led by the countless shops and businesses that I found most maddening. Sir! Do you remember me? We spoke yesterday - come and see my shop! Or - Change money? Good rate, dollars! - followed by a hushed - Hashish? Opium? It's almost threatening, impossible as it is to catch anyone's eye without being shouted at to enter their shop, or trailed incessantly by a bongo seller.
As night falls, the pace shifts over this hectic tangle of backstreets. In response to the frequent power cuts, the drone of generators fills the air, thickening it with diesel fumes. Neon signs flicker into life. Street sellers cook up fried potatoes served on dried banana leaf dishes.
Delhi sleeps early, and as the mists descend, so too does the silence. Pencil thin drivers retire to the backs of their cycle rickshaws, wrapped from head to toe in blankets. Cows stand as still as statues, their horns twisted in the most peculiar shapes, gashes evidence of tussles with other road users. Omelette stallholders cook by the light of kerosene lamps, late night telephone and internet businesses entice the last few customers of the night and straggling street kids desperately beg for the last few chapatis before heading for 'home' - wherever that may be.
Morning comes with a gradual stirring of life. The first few travellers creep in from overnight buses as shopkeepers clear away the street debris of the previous day. Rickshaw drivers unwrap themselves from their foetal positioned slumber. Shutters open with a clatter, fruit and vegetable stalls reposition themselves and touts resume their street patrols - Hey, friend! First time in India? My brother runs a cheap hotel!
And with this the cycle of Paharganj continues...