Friday, July 30, 2004

Seven Come Eleven

Now pay attention. This is the real deal. This is more useful than anything you’ll find in a Rough Planet or a Lonely Guide!!!

Getting around Delhi. Is a daunting task. Vehicles in order of size are buses, taxis, private cars, autorickshaws, ordinary rickshaws, motorbikes, scooters, and bicycles. And then there’s walking. Lesson # 1 is how to take the bus in Delhi.

My initial week in June, I didn’t have the guts. Too hard!!! All the buses had a million people on them, spilling out of every window, door, nook, cranny, orifice. They were noisy, wacky, wild, chaotic tin cans, careering through the streets at 50 mph. They reminded me of camellos, the buses in Havana with the big hump in the middle, which the locals endearingly call ‘Saturday Night Movies’ because they’re full of sex, violence, and madness!!! All human life is found there – perhaps too much! In Delhi the buses seemed to be the same.

When I returned, I consulted my oracle, Dr. Dilli, on how I should get to work. Now, I’m taking the bus. This causes much hilarity amongst my new colleagues who think it is amazing: "you take the bus?????" they say, with barely disguised bemusement. However, with a couple of minutes running across life-threatening traffic at either end, there is a bus that takes me direct from where I stay to where I work. But, of course, you know it’s not that simple. Commuting is usually a drag for most people. However, in Delhi, commuting is adventure…

Delhi Transport Corporation or DTC runs about 900 routes, some operated by private bus companies, some DTC. Public ones have a big yellow strip down the side, saying DTC. Except for the ones with the big yellow strip that are school buses – they generally say, “school buses”. Private ones will have a big turquoise strip down the side, and usually have the owner’s name, such as:

Bunty, Nawab Khan, GS Mahalwa, Raman, Jitender Beersingh/Gujjar Boy, Amit Yashtoka, Akash, Deep, Raman, Sofiye, Saini, Jor Bagh Deshwal, Mehl Awat, Taygi, Nikki, Sejwal, Bobby Nagar, Lord Jesus

Well, I guess the last probably doesn’t personally own it!!! At least there’s none of those damn fabricated brand names, such as ‘Arriva’!!!

The bus numbers are in roman numerals. All the destination information, on the sides of the buses, is in Hindi, except for English acronyms such as ‘INA’ and ‘CP’, two of the few I can mull out. The bus shelters – where they exist – have a sign saying where they are in Hindi and English. Mostly. Which is helpful, except when they say things such as ‘G-Block’; however, if you stand at a bus shelter, and don’t know where you are, you probably have even bigger problems than I have! Otherwise, doesn’t help a lot as I probably will eventually find out where I am – though you never know – but it’s where I want to be that’s the difficult one.

However, the language problem is not a big deal. The big problem is the information availability vacuum. There is no bus map. There are no route maps. There are no timetables. The buses seem to run to schedules, but may not. Signs that show which buses stop where are scarce. To be fair, the DTC has a page on its website where you can key in the bus number and get the bus route, which is great if you happen to have a wi-fi facility at your bus stop and your laptop fired up and ready.

There are, in some cases, no stops – you simply stand at the side of the street, normally where you see a number of others and a chaat wallah or a refrigerated cold water wallah, watch the buses come along, stand near your fellow passengers, and wave your arms frantically and yell when your bus is approaching.

OK. So, you wanna go somewhere, such as the Red Fort. Well, you have to ask an oracle, your own Dr. Dilli, which bus to catch, or watch the buses as they pass by your bus-stop-which-you-hope-is-a-stop and look them up on the DTC website at some quiet moment.

Are you still with me? OK, now getting on the bus – pay attention, this is very important!

Simple. You get off the bus at the front, get on at the back. There are no doors, just doorways. Walk towards the bus through the maze of bikes, cycles, autorickshaws, all travelling in different directions. The driver will slow down to allow you to board. Slow down, I said. The driver will usually not stop, and you have to quickly hoist yourself up a narrow step using the metal bars on both sides. Congratulations, you’re now on the bus – although you may not feel that’s much of an accomplishment in a minute.

The private buses travel at an incredible clip, switching and swirling around the roundabouts of New Delhi, so that they can outrace the DTC buses and grab more fares. They race between stops, bombing around each other, seriously burning rubber!!! So, as soon as you get on, try to lower your centre of gravity by finding a seat – women and disabled on the left, everyone else on the right. You might find someone carrying herbs to sell or whatever. Often you won’t be able to find a seat – in which case you stand, crammed in against other hot, sweaty bodies if the bus is crowded, as it usually is – there is no limit on numbers.

The seat not to get is the vertical one over the wheel. The reason is that, with the bus travelling so fast, you’re already banging from side to side, caroming off the walls, bumping into people, losing your balance, arse over tip, anyway, without needing a seat with nothing to hold on to!!!

There are two conductors on the bus. At each stop they yell out in this poetic, euphonic Hindi the stops and the destinations to the running crowds seeking to get on the moving bus – I can’t catch very many of these, other than “Nought Place! Nought Place!” (for Connaught Place). The one at the back collects your fare, and bangs the side of the bus or whacks it with coins to give signals to the driver. The one at the front bangs his hand on the clattery, rattletrap bus frame to give signals to the driver. The driver honks the horn, which lets loose this high-pitched whistle. Whack, bang, whistle - it’s very nutty, and very confusing.

The buses don’t appear to be in the best of conditions. In fact, many have the grille missing at the front, and a few panels and other odd parts. The driver sits in the cab, often with 3 or 4 mates sitting around with him, while’s he spinning the steering wheel from side to side. There may be wild Hindipop music playing, or the radio. Usually the driver has individually decorated their cab – with fishy mobiles, coloured spangles, keyrings with plastic flowers, swastikas, flaming decals, blotchy paintings, bright red hearts, etc. All part of the hexperience.

Getting off the Bus: get up well before your stop. Fight your way to the front – or the back, as people seem to break the rules all the time, because you might get wedged in a tiny corner by a 300 lb. mother and her daughters and can’t get out in time. You then shove other people out of the way towards the open doorway ready to jump off as the bus driver slows down at the bus-stop-that-you-hope-is-a-stop, which I have managed without mishap.

Until today. I was a little late and a trifle polite making my way to the front, so got there as someone was getting on, which they’re not supposed to do, and they push on past me, I mash their face with my knapsack as the bus roars away, and fall off the bus and crumple into a heap in front of four lanes of roaring cars, autorickshaws, and motorbikes, just outside an exit door cheerily labelled ‘Thank You’.

Other than a blotchy elbow, a scraped hand, and a bruised ego, I’m just fine, thanks.

Just as India has one more season than everywhere else in the world, so Delhi has 7 cities more than every other city. Now, of course, Troy had 11 cities, allegedly, and you could easily say that any city reveals its various layers, its various histories, in the same manner – if you peel back the skins of the onion that is London, for example, you will discover its other cities – Roman, pre-Great Fire, post-Great Fire. However, Delhi really has 8 distinct cities founded at one time in its history or another. They are:

Rai Pithora/Qutb, Siri, Tughluqabad, Jahanapanah, Ferozabad, Shergarh, Shahjahanabad, New Delhi

with the last built in 1937 by the British. The legend is that whoever builds a new city in Delhi is condemned to lose it – as the last holders of that title did in 1947.

So anyone travelling to Delhi has to be prepared to deal with its 8 cities – though modern development and lack of funds for archaeology mean that most of the cities have left little evident or prominent remains or archaeological sites.

At the same time, Delhi has a number of other layers – vertical layers, I guess, but that would imply that they intersect the 8, which they don’t, necessarily. The layers are cultural, religious, linguistic, old vs. new, class-based, economic, all mingling and overlapping with each other. It’s obvious that my 3 months here will only be able to give me a sense, an indication, a feel for the richness of life here, but any more will require a lifetime.

So weekends are important, and with a full weekend ahead of me (we work alternate Saturdays), I went out with a couple of my new work colleagues for half of Saturday and Sunday, and the rest of the time visited some monuments in South Delhi, Safdarjang’s Tomb on Saturday, and the Lodi Gardens on Sunday.

Both are from the Mughal period in Delhi. Safdarjang’s Tomb is, as the stone in front says, “the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture in Delhi”. It was certainly the last enclosed garden tomb in the Islamic style, built in 1753 – 54 by the Nawab of Avadh in honour of his father (but remember to ask your autowallah for Safdarjang’s Madarsa, otherwise you could end up at Safdarjang’s Airport, which probably wasn’t built by the Nawab). In fact, it’s one of the last examples of Mughal architecture before the great empire collapsed. If you’ve seen the Taj Mahal, then this is very recognisably of the same style, but much reduced in scale, and not nearly of the same quality: William Dalrymple in his book on Delhi, City of Djinns, says that “the traditional Delhi quarries near Agra were no longer controlled by the Mughals – the road between Delhi and Agra was usually blocked by wild and hostile Jat tribesmen – [so] the builders were forced to strip other Delhi tombs in order to gather the material for Safdarjang’s memorial."

Instead of aiming at the balanced perfection of the Taj, the Tomb seems to be rococo, ornate, overdecorated. Dalrymple tells us that at the turn of the 18th century, Delhi had 2m people, and was the richest, most magnificient and populous city between Istanbul and Tokyo – but 50 years later, it was a city in ruins, the court given over to debauched pleasure and sensuality; music, poetry and the arts flourished while the empire was reduced to ashes.

From an earlier time date the tombs in the Lodi Gardens. The Gardens themselves were only laid out in 1936 around the tombs of the Lodi and Sayyid sultans who ruled north India in the 15th and 16th centuries. They include the tomb of Mohammed Shah, the Bara Gumbad and Mashid, and Sheesh Gumbad, the tomb of Sikander Lodi (see the Indian Summer collection for two more pictures of the Lodi Gardens). Mohammed Shah’s tomb was built in 1444, Sikander Lodi’s in 1517. The battlements for the Lodi tomb still survive, which makes it the more interesting of the buildings. The Bara Gumbad would have been a tomb as well, probably of an important person in the Lodi period, but the grave no longer exists and their name is not known.
The tombs were built in two shapes in this period: square (like the two Gumbads) and octagonal (like the Shah and Lodi tombs). The square ones both have the appearance of being double-storied. The Shish Gumbad combines features of Hindu and Islamic architecture, and originally was faced with friezes of blue enamelled tiles, which gave it its name, “dome of glass”. Most of the tombs would have had tiles, which had long since been stripped off. The Lodi Gardens are a favourite place to go for a walk in Delhi, calm and peaceful, and attract VIPs, diplomats, young lovers, joggers, cricketers, society types, and even elderly gents who exercise their lungs with mirth (and formed the country’s first Laughter Club – really! – in the Gardens). And mynah birds, green parrots, and…eunuchs. Yes, the garden has some resident eunuchs who traditionally have the power to put a curse on whomever they wish - one reason why many are employed by India's cheaper debt-collecting agencies to chase up their dues. In the Gardens the eunuchs collect Rs. 10 or 20 notes from couples, who are then exempted from their curses!

To have a look at Safdarjang’s Tomb (a madarsa was built there as well, hence the name confusion) and the Lodi Gardens (no eunuchs, though!), click here.

[Thanks to William Dalrymple and Edward Luce, the FT’s South Asia correspondent, for helping guide me around Safdarjang’s Tomb and the Lodi Gardens this week, and to The King of Swing for the title! ]


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

I love your 3rd installment.
Very funny. Perhaps not for
you travelling the buses but
very entertaining for me and I
have a greater appreciation for the
buses I travel in Ottawa. Love L

July 31, 2004 6:17 PM  
Blogger Grassy_Plains said...

Hi Tom I am now blogged on.
Chow BH

July 31, 2004 8:11 PM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Have you hired a limo yet?
Love L

August 3, 2004 3:38 AM  
Blogger JandT said...

You've got us waiting for new chapters!! The "transit adventure" rivals NYC!! (or Toronto for that matter) Gonna try and get the letter I owe you out today or tomorrow. Headed for the Picton sunshine Thurs morning.


August 3, 2004 4:47 PM  
Blogger Trapper Dave said...

I have been negligent in my reading as I see this is number three....but I'll try to find the first two later. Enjoying all and wish I was there. Keep up the good work. Remember, just ask a friendly policeman for help. Oh, yes....see if you can find me a nice Mark3 Martini Henry for a decent price...cousin.

August 5, 2004 10:58 PM  

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