Paharganj – Delhi

How not to travel #1

– Don’t assume that because you’ve been to India before that it’s not going to hit you round the head with a culture shock cricket bat. It will, and this time it will hit you harder.

‘Delhi has more layers of culture, civilisation and history in it than any other city in India, arguably the world’ writes news magazine India Today.  There was no denying that Delhi is a fascinating place, fascinating and brutal. No matter how brutal it is, and it is, there is also something undeniably extraordinary about it.

Wandering down the back streets you find a multitude of visual delight; spirituality oozing out of shop doorways, dirt, dust, and lots of people. There’s no where else in the world I have visited that could match the experience I had on my last trip here, except maybe this one.

Wandering down the Main Bazar that old familiar smell hit me. A mixture of revulsion and curiosity resulted. A burnt smell that hangs around the back of your nose and throat, and follows you around as you pass through the busy streets. The smell that lays underneath all of the other smells, goading you, as if you’re about to get deep friend in chemically accented spicy dirt. Feeling a little disorientated I found temporary refuge in a nearby rooftop cafe that preached spirituality in its title.

Sipping on a covertly hidden beer out of a coffee mug (they didn’t have a licence) I tried to pretend that I wasn’t bowled over by the place all over again. I would have probably gotten away with it if only my eyes weren’t bulging slightly. I looked down to the street, trying to take in the spectacle. There was everything. All at once. In a constant motion. All at the same time. Everywhere. I kept my focus on a man selling leaves for a while; a desperate attempt at gaining a central balance perhaps, a central balance that had at it’s centre utter confusion.

Later that evening I decided to go for a stroll through the streets of Chandi Cowk near to the Red Fort, a desperate attempt not to be defeated. Not my brightest idea after an 8 hour, over-night, diazepam soaked  flight. At the time it seemed a better option than staying in the hostel. Online reviews had claimed it was “a more sterile option than others in the neighbourhood” despite the various relics of matter hanging from the walls. Hopping out of the tuk tuk I tried to find my feet as they were swept from under me. I was faced with a circus of beeps, wagons, coaches, fried food curios, and beckoning shop keepers. It was life vomit.

I hurried down a nearby Old Delhi side street, trying to avoid the constant stream of staring eye balls and various objects hitting my rucksack. Someone was actually throwing things at me. I didn’t want to know what. I hurried further and faster, past an old blind man in  a wheelchair next to staring young faces, people selling leaves again with some unknown substance splattered inside, saris, stickers, sufis, a heap of all sorts and everything, all framed with a colossal mix up of wires. Wires without purpose, wires without knowing what they were doing, wires that had been there so long they had their own consciousness. Wires on wires. Wires. JUST KEEP LOOKING AT THE WIRES. Fuck being an electrician in Delhi, I thought to myself as all the lights went out in the street, and the next one.  It was time to venture back to the hostel.

Trying to find my way out onto a main road I scrambled down a small side street and found myself stuck behind a tuk tuk and car pile up. An elderly man had decided to take a nap on his rickshaw in the middle of the street. As I squeezed past him, I could see that he had no urgency to move.  The tuk tuk I had managed to hail down stopped at some nearby traffic lights. A group of children surrounded us, pawing at my arms, begging for money. “My sister, my sister” one girl said as she ushered in the direction of a young drag queen who promptly let out a shrill scream and pulled up his sari to reveal his browned underpants.

Back at the hostel I sipped on dyralites and smoked a cigarette out of the window. The sun had long since gone down. My experience seemed a far cry from the one eloquently detailed by William Dalrymple in his book ‘City of Djinns’ that I had read before arriving. Dalrymple was much better than me. He said, “All the different ages of man were represented in the people of the city. Different millennia co-existed side by side. Minds set in different ages walked the same pavements, drank the same water, returned to the same dust.”

On a neighbouring rooftop I could see the silhouette of a man stretching out his legs to the heavens, settling down to sleep for the night. Surrendering himself to the misty universe above, and as I watched him, so did I. It was good to be back on the road again, even if I did feel like I was about to die.


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