Friday, October 08, 2004


This week, I decided to conclude my sightseeing of Delhi – for the moment – with some more recent history, and so headed off to Purana Dilli last Sunday to pace in the footsteps of British colonial history.

It’s good to get out early on a Sunday if you can, as you find a cooler, less crowded Delhi, and I caught an auto from Sansad Marg. If you come to India, and I hope that you do, you will find that almost every time you venture out there is something to remark on, that no matter how familiar the landscapes and people become, they never become predictable. That can be tiring in some ways, perhaps even unsettling but, at times, I find it refreshing and exhilarating.

Today it was in Maharaja Ranjeet Singh Marg, where on the usual iron fencing on the median that divides the 4 lanes hung white shirt after shirt, white shawl after shawl, for a mile, ½ a mile of shirts and ½ a mile of shawls, a blizzard of white flashing by from my vantage point in the auto, stretching into the distance as far as I could see. The dhobi-wallahs (the launderers or washers) obviously use the convenient hanging space in the middle of the traffic – before giving the garments to the press-wallah. I wonder how many businessmen in the city’s hotels know that their handmade shirts are sitting comfortably in the middle of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh Marg drying with 1,000 others?!

I had finally found a few weeks ago a walking guide to Old Delhi, exactly what I had been lacking, with some clear, easy-to-follow walks. I followed two of them today, starting at Lothian Road, before the war one of the most fashionable of shopping streets for the colonial class in Delhi. I managed to find – just – the Celtic Cross at the start of the walk, which honoured the British dead in the suppression of the 1857 mutiny which, of course, Indians describe as one of the first fights for Independence. The cemetery has become a haven for squatters, and seems in worse shape now than it was when William Dalrymple, that chronicler of Delhi in City of Djinns, visited it about a decade ago. There have been squatters here for at least 15 years, before Dalrymple’s visit. Makeshift walls and roofs lean every which way between tombs and trees, shaking with the passing trains of Old Delhi Railway Station. The tombs and gravestones of the British are now steps, receptacles, and washing places for those who live in the cemetery – click here to see the pictures, which show the children who live there playing amongst the dead!

Nearby are the remains of the British Magazine, blown up to prevent ammo falling into mutineers’ hands. Next to them in the middle of the surging traffic is a memorial to the electric telegraph – a message was sent from here, amid burning ruins, when the mutiny started, which alerted the British Army in the north, so that they could prepare counter-attacks!

Up the hill we are now in the area known as Kashmere Gate, if not actually at the gate itself. The area is now bursting with auto parts wallahs – as you can see from the photos of urban detritus. Across from their shops stands a building that had both Mughal and British connections. It was Dara Shikoh’s library – the same Dara Shikoh, son of Shahjahan whose head, if you recall, ended up on a spike on the Khuni Darwaza outside the Firoz Shah Kotla. When the British inherited it, they built a classical looking skin outside the Mughal walls and used it as their Residency – the Resident was the top British official in any city, apart from the capital, which Delhi did not become again until the advent of New Delhi.

After passing by St. Stephen’s College on the right, you come to the oldest church in Delhi, St. James’s Church, consecrated in 1836. I know it tolerably well as we have there a contact point with the street children in the area. If you move on and walk around it in the backstreets on a Sunday, you will find people outside gambolling with puppy dogs and boys drilling in a courtyard, and a great domed building that is now an Indian Railways office, but was once William Fraser’s. Fraser came to Delhi in 1805 and was Resident for awhile. He was renowned for his preference for an Indian way of life, Indian friends and Indian ways, most unusual for the early Victorian period. Fraser built his house over a previous Mughal palace, and absorbed the palace’s underground passageways to provide a haven from the summer heat.

I then walked over to Kashmere Gate, which is the northern entrance to Shahjahanabad. It is the only gate that ever had two openings. It was the sight of fierce fighting in the mutiny when the British attacked the city to regain it from the mutineers.

North of here is the oddly-named British suburb of Civil Lines, originally built by the British north of the old city, before the advent of New Delhi provided an alternative place where they could avoid living among the natives. Oddly enough, it was also felt by Civil Lines inhabitants that allowing in certain other classes of British workers lowered the tone, let alone the native Indians that started to build here at the turn of the 20th century. It was here that bungalows were constructed (from the word ‘banga’, which means ‘Bengali’, as bungalows were originally based on the design of the Bengali peasant hut!) for the civil servants and administrators of the Empire.

I tried to avoid the delights of the InterState Bus Terminal – now the centre of a monstrous expansion and redevelopment allied to the Delhi Metro project, which starts in Kashmere Gate – which with the driving rains overnight was a slew of earthmovers and people and mud. I managed to make it the other side without being flattened or flipped into a dump truck. Which was great, as I got to end my walk at Qudsia Bagh. This garden was built by Qudsia Begum, first the mistress and then the wife of the Mughal emperor, Mohammed Shah. It once stretched all the way down to the river, but today most of the garden now lies under the InterState Bus Terminal. A stone’s throw from the I.S.B.T. in the garden is a statue of Rana Pratap Singh, commemorated because he was one of the few rulers in the 16th century never to submit to the power of the Emperor Akbar. Oddly, apartheid used to be operated in the gardens, with the morning reserved for Indians, the afternoon for Europeans. Originally, it had a palace, a mosque, summer house, canals, waterfalls, rose gardens, and fruit trees but today, the usual Delhi story obtains, as only the mosque, a lone gateway, and gardens remain.

I have regaled you with transport tales on two occasions in the recent past, first the life-threatening, death-dealing Delhi buses, then the wacky and unpredictable autowallahs. What I haven’t done is told you much about traffic in general, and walking in Delhi itself.

Those with fond ideas formed by walking around European city centres of walkable, blockable footpaths and easy, close-up sightseeing amongst the people and artifacts of those cities will find that Delhi doesn’t lend itself to that kind of sightseeing at all.

Sightseeing, as I’ve said, is a struggle with the transport system, your own temper, other peoples’ temper, and the difficulties and diversions that are put in your way. Add in the heat that prevails most of the year, and you don’t want to be walking for miles around the centre of Delhi. Believe me. The right tactic is to take your transport – whether the “wild thing” number 520 bus, or the autowallah who thinks that you’re paying him in dollars, not rupees – to the start of your walk, or near your monument, and take the same back, then use your energy to do a short walk (as I did above) and see a lot of things. When you reflect on there not being a lot to see in some of the streets, this seems an even better strategy!!!

Now – traffic in Delhi. The traffic in this city is the worst I have ever experienced. The drivers are madder, the collisions more frequent, the deaths commonplace, and the unending gridlock calculated to send everyone into a spitting frenzy. The reasons for this are obvious. A lot of the old city is very crowded, and this spills over onto the roads, which are often narrow. So far, so London. Secondly, there are the types of vehicle using the road, which are the same as everywhere else but add the pesky autowallahs, who swerve and zip their way through the traffic. Finally, there are the drivers themselves. They are the worst, most impatient drivers I have ever seen. No sooner does 6 inches open up between you and the chugging Ambassador next to you when – an autowallah tries to squeeze in!!! Hey, guy, what the hell’s going on??? You can’t possibly get in there…but he tries, and sometimes he does it. Usually, he doesn’t, but who cares?

I was in a car with someone once, someone born and brought up in Delhi, and I said, “I don’t really think that you’re a Dilly-wallah after all. There’s at least 2 inches between you and the car ahead. Are you scared? Have you got no guts? Aren’t you a…Dilly driver???” She laughed – “I’ve got other people in the car and I’m following the van ahead.” Right – so it was an abnormal bout of calm and politeness then…

The drivers enforce their bad road manners and nastiness by honking their horns incessantly, constantly, never-never-never-endingly. It is worse than I have ever heard – from Moscow to Montreal, from Oslo to Ottawa, it doesn’t get worse. All trucks and buses make this worse by painting on a sign, “sound horn” on their rears. People sound their horn just on principle. I’ve even seen someone going down an empty street, devoid of people or vehicles, honking their horn as if they’re in some kind of L.A. gridlock!

The result is that after 2 weeks being here, you completely ignore anyone honking at you. So it’s dangerous, as everyone ignores everyone honking. Even the cows ignore the honking – they continue at their slow, deliberate, purposeful pace.

And the result of all this bad behaviour is that the cars, even the new ones, bear scars and scrapes and dents from being raked by buses, autowallahs, motorcycles. The buses are ramshackle old vehicles with whole panels falling off them and massive dents and gashes along their sides. The autos have so little to scrape, bump or scar, having virtually no outer skin and being exposed to the elements, that they seem relatively unscathed. Any new car looks a battered old banger within 30 days!!!

The ever excitable Times of India did a survey of Dilli-wallah drivers, and the results are interesting: if they are in a collision, 33% will stop to see if the other car’s occupants are okay; 33% will drive away, and 33% said that they would get out of the car, charge in a rage towards the other vehicle, open the door or window or boot or bonnet or whatever, and proceed to beat the crap out of anyone in sight!!! It’s no joke!!! So you don’t retaliate, you keep your temper, you obey the word in the middle of Dilli red lights (‘relax’ it counsels you!), and you sit back and let it wash all over you…otherwise…

Pedestrians you might think are spared all this but, alas, no. Pavements or sidewalks are routinely parked over by cars and bikes and autos and trucks and buses. Or encroached upon by chaat sellers, pakora friers, kitchenware-wallahs, etc. So, like everyone else, you end up walking on the road, very hazardous and subject to swerving, cursing, maniacal drivers. You might think that, even amongst this anarchaos, you might count on something simple, such as driving on the right side of the damn road, but even that cannot be relied upon. I’ve frequently fallen off the bus near a slip road that enters Aurobindo Marg only to find an auto or motorcycle (usually not a bus or car!) honking at me as they’re trying to DAMN WELL DRIVE IN THE WRONG DIRECTION up the shoulder, or, the shoulder that would exist but for the chaat sellers, pakora…you get the picture!

It’s one of the factors that has led me to conclude that, at the end of my attachment, which is today, and the end of my stay in Delhi in a week’s time, I will not qualify, not even nearly qualify, as a Dilli-wallah. I hadn’t in all honesty expected to, and I think that doing so might take another lifetime, or at least, longer than 3 months. I have got to know the city reasonably within the time, have got to see the major monuments and some of the lesser-known ones, and got to know how to more-or-less get around this city and what it takes to live and work here. And next week, I will be reviewing my knowledge and showing off when Helen comes to visit. However, I have of course missed a lot of stuff in the middle which I need to go back and see someday, one year….


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Thank you for sharing your Delhi
experience with us. Enjoy

October 9, 2004 7:39 PM  
Blogger Big Mama said...

You will remember Delhi and its cities and its paradoxes, and your readers will look back on your experiences that you so generously shared. Thank you for sharing.

October 15, 2004 4:49 AM  

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