DELHI – An Assault on the Senses

As had become usual on our arrival in a major city one of our first tasks was to check to see if there was any mail from home. The Poste Restante address we had hoped to use was the American Express Office in Connaught Place in New Delhi, which the hotel manager informed us was only a fifteen minute walk away. We set off through the streets crowded with people, bicycle and scooter rickshaws and wandering cows. There was the aroma of incense and urine mixed with the mouth-watering smells of Indian fast-food cooking emanating from transportable, wooden stalls-on-wheels at the side of the road. The heaving mass of humanity thinned as we gradually found ourselves on wider avenues with space for cars, buses and trucks along with overloaded carts drawn by half-starved horses or straining, wiry, unshaven men in pyjamas. We reached Connaught Place in three-quarters of an hour (slightly longer than the fifteen minutes our hotel manager had suggested) and had no trouble finding the Am Ex where, amazingly, there were five letters waiting for us. What a treat! We ducked into the dark, cool, shabbiness of Keventers Milk Bar and devoured every word over a bottle of ice-cold strawberry milk.

We had hoped to visit the British High Commission for advice on how to go about getting Janette’s stolen Barclays travellers cheques replaced and the Nepalese Embassy to apply for visas. But, on calling in at the Indian Government Tourist Office on Janpath, we discovered that it was Saturday and that they would both be closed for the weekend. I picked up a free street map of Delhi and, with nothing better to do, we browsed the nearby touristy handicraft stalls, admiring the clothes and jewellery.  Everything was incredibly cheap in relation to what their cost would have been in England but we were not buying, just checking out the prices for possible future reference. We came upon a young guy doing a large pavement drawing of Krishna in coloured chalks; he had a sad little sign that read, ‘Please help me’ next to a scattering of coins. The whole area was a magnet for beggars wanting baksheesh from the tourists. Cripples and blind men, young mothers with babes in arms, tiny snot-nosed, barefoot children with pleading eyes held out their hands and tugged at the heartstrings. This was the first time since leaving home that we had experienced begging on this scale and for the rest of our stay in India we made a point of giving a little change each day to someone.

Keventers Milk Bar

We retraced our steps back to congested Old Delhi and the Eagle Hotel, buying a pineapple for a few paise and a clay chillum from a pottery shop. Back in our cell we had a siesta before venturing out again in the early evening to wander the maze of streets and look for somewhere to eat. Once again the sights and sounds of poor, urban India assailed our senses, the sheer number of human beings going about their business was quite unbelievable.  We found ourselves being washed along in the flow and were eventually spewed out on to brightly-lit Chandni Chowk, (Silver Street) where ingratiating young salesmen with oiled hair and western clothes tried their best to sell us silk and saris. For some reason I didn’t feel like eating curry, which was a bit silly because there was nothing else on offer and we ended up back at the Esspresso Coffee Bar and had an expensive vegetable paratha. Our revisit only confirmed what a shit-hole the place was and we swore never to come back. Before climbing the stairs to our cell I crossed the road and bought a coconut, half of which I gave to two guys who worked in the hotel in payment for them helping crack it open.

The following day we were brought breakfast in bed by Ramsi, the cheeky-faced fifteen year-old kitchen boy who looked five years younger and who totally charmed us with his eagerness to please and his ability to screw us out of all our small change. I went downstairs to the cigarette and bidi sellers stall and bought one cigarette, lighting it from a smouldering piece of rope on the rough wooden counter. This was my excuse to simply stand and watch and be a small part of the street scene as I inhaled my first Wills Gold Flake of the day.

For some unknown or unremembered reason we decided that we should do some sightseeing, though this was not something we made a point of doing, normally being content to simply wander rather aimlessly and see where we ended up. We set off for Shahjahan’s Red Fort situated at the far end of Chandni Chowk on the banks of the Jamuna River. Entering through the imposing red sandstone Lahore Gate we were immediately in a calm haven of peace with few other visitors. We walked through the covered area of Chatta Chowk with its arched cells, which was at one time an arcade housing Delhi’s most talented craftsmen . From there we strolled from building to building taking advantage of the shade. There was the Drum House, the Halls of Public and Private Audiences, the Royal Hammams, the Pearl Mosque and The Palace of Colours. The buildings were connected to each other by an elaborate layout of gardens with many pools, unfortunately now empty of water. Many of the interiors were decorated with ornate marble inlay work, sadly in need of attention. We watched as a guy prized out a piece of decorated marble and slipped it into his pocket. In the Palace of Colours the domed ceiling was decorated with an intricate mosaic of tiny mirrors that was quite amazing to look at. In one of the courtyards we watched from a distance as two young boys charmed a cobra and then failed to charm two other snakes, chasing and retrieving them as they attempted to slither away. Visiting the Archaeological Museum we came upon an exhibition about the Indian Mutiny, which surprised me by being so vehemently anti-British, and was a sobering reminder of our colonial past.  By mid-day the heat was becoming very draining and we stopped for chai in a horrible fly-blown café. Here we were joined by a creepy guy who wanted to be our ‘best friend’ and invited us to stay with him, ‘all expenses paid’, while staring moon-eyed at Janette. We left him to his fantasies and plunged back into jam-packed old Delhi.

Intending to visit the Friday Mosque or Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, serving the spiritual needs of the predominantly, but not conspicuously, Moslem population of Old Delhi, we strolled back down Chandni Chowk, getting ourselves hopelessly lost in the Kinari Bazaar. We drifted through the intoxicating aromas of the spice market before miraculously coming out on to an intersection of lanes directly in front of the Jama Masjid. We ascended the main steps and immediately descended when we saw that there was a charge of 50Paise to take in the camera. This wasn’t due to incredible meanness on our part but down to the fact that we had no change, only a 10Rupee note and we knew from experience that finding change would be a big hassle. A young boy would almost certainly be given the note and sent out into the bazaar and we wouldn’t see him again for at least an hour because he’d have a different concept of time to us. We would be struggling to be patient while he would be, albeit unconsciously, patience personified. It was better to avoid our inadequacies.

Around the corner from the mosque a crowd had gathered to watch a trio of street magicians perform. There were two men and a pretty girl of about twelve who were shouting, drumming and sprinkling powder on to a straw basket about two foot around. With lots of flourishing and commotion the girl was placed in the basket and covered with a cloth. There was a bit of wriggling and then she was gone, much to the incredulity of the audience who were totally transfixed.  It was great entertainment and a terrific illusion with the minimum of props. Heading back in the direction of the Eagle Hotel, we checked out a few other alternatives but all were either full or too expensive. I did manage to change all my remaining cash Pounds and Dollars for Rupees in one hotel and got a pretty good deal after some hard bargaining. By avoiding the banks and being willing to deal with shady characters with oily hair in anonymous side streets it was possible to make an extra 2.50Rupees on the dollar such was the demand for foreign currency. Visitors to India had to declare on entry how much money they had and to be able to show, by having exchange receipts, how the money was changed. But I thought it most unlikely that anyone would bother to do this and if they did I would simply have to lie and say that I lost them.

Back at the Eagle, the manager greeted us like old friends, the kitchen boy brought chai up to the room for us and we began to wonder why we‘d been looking for another hotel. Janette had a refreshing cold shower and then sat down to compose a letter to her parents telling them of our misfortune in Pakistan. This was obviously very difficult for her so, as soon as the job was done, we went out and treated ourselves to a meal in a local vegetarian restaurant. It cost next to nothing but didn’t leave us quite satisfied so we had another one in a Sikh run place where the food was even better. Everything was cooked to order on a crude, clay and brick range next to the street. Behind this was the dining area with wooden tables and chairs and, on a large board, the menu painted in Hindi with a vaguely English translation. We sat with the locals and, using our fingers, we stuffed ourselves with a selection of spicy dishes. We were discovering that there was no such thing as what we in the west called curry, this was real Indian cuisine. Old Delhi was turning out to be a vegetarian’s paradise.

Monday morning brought us face to face again with the problem of Janette’s traveller’s cheques. After visiting my new friend, the cigarette seller downstairs and having my morning tobacco hit, I telephoned the British High Commission from the hotel. We were advised to go to the Bank of India in Parliament Street and inform them of the loss. We fortified ourselves with an ‘eggs fried’ breakfast in a nearby restaurant and walked to New Delhi. In Connaught Place we called in at the Am Ex but there was no mail. We sent letters and postcards home at the post office and, after hours of searching, found the bank on Parliament Street. Janette told her story, which was listened to patiently, then we were told that this was the wrong branch to deal with lost traveller’s cheques and that we should go to the Bank of India on Janpath. Feeling ourselves being sucked back into that surreal bureaucratic world we fought back the rising irritation and left. The sun was very hot by now so we treated ourselves to two ‘Choc-o-Nut’ ice creams from a ‘Kwality Ice Cream’vendor and we sat under a tree in the park and chilled for a while. By the time we found the bank it had closed for the day and we were too tired to go to the Nepalese Embassy so we headed back to our temporary home in smelly Old Delhi, stopping off at Keventers for a pint of pineapple milk each. Back at the Eagle I took all our dirty laundry into the cold shower and combined washing my body with jumping up and down on the clothes. We all came out considerably cleaner than before.

In the early evening we hit the bustling streets again and returned to the Sikh restaurant we’d eaten at the previous evening. They seemed pleased to see us, probably because we ate so much. The cooks, in food-stained singlets, sweated over the large aluminium pots and the chapatti man sat cross-legged at the far end of the range rolling out the dough and slapping it on to the griddle. We shared dishes of alu gobi (potato and cauliflower), fried dahl, raita (yoghurt) and parathas all for the princely sum of seven Rupees (thirty-five pence). Once again it was delicious. I suppose that these days people would insist on bottled water but we drank the grubby glasses of liquid that were placed in front of us, everyone else seemed to be. When in Delhi…

After an evening constitutional which involved the usual friendly banter with shopkeepers, avoiding the wandering cows and their piles of steaming dung, skirting the crowds of over-excited young men leaving the cinema arm in arm after having seen ‘Bobby – A Story of Modern Love’, and singing one of it’s hit songs, which had the familiar chorus, ‘Tvinkelee tvinkelee leetle star, how I vunder vot you are’, we returned to our hotel to find that there was a power cut affecting the immediate area. Apparently this wasn’t uncommon and commerce on the street carried on as usual using candlelight or kerosene lamps. It only lasted for about an hour and then Ramsi visited us with chai. He was accompanied by a friend who sold me a lump of black Kashmiri charas which, at nine Rupees (forty-five pence), was a little bit pricey. But it was very, very strong and after smoking a chillum with Janette I found myself virtually incapacitated for an hour. Now that’s what I call room service, (‘Yes, I’m in room seven, could you send something up to paralyse me please?’). Needless to say, Ramsi left with a smile on his face after once again hustling a Rupee’s worth of change out of us.

I was awakened from my stoned reverie by something that sounded like lunatics on acid playing bad Dixieland jazz. It was getting louder so, anxious to find out what was going on we stumbled out on to the balcony overlooking the street. Coming from the direction of New Delhi was a dancing, uniformed marching band in matching red jackets with gold epaulettes, black trousers and peaked caps. They played vaguely familiar western tunes but to a dhol-driven, bouncy, uptempo rhythm. They were really partying. This had to be a Hindu wedding. Following the band was a large crowd of men, friends and relatives of the groom, also dancing and shouting in a wildly intoxicated fashion.  Then came a truck with a highly decorated imitation bandstand built on to the back from which Bollywood music was being broadcast from loudspeakers. In the wake of the truck came the bridegroom, a young man in a gold turban, heavily garlanded and riding a beautifully decorated white horse. Bringing up the rear were the woman in their most colourful saris and jewellery. What a sight to end the day!

We woke up the next day with the best of intentions; we would hit the bank again and see if we could make some progress on the traveller’s cheque refunds. Then we would find the Nepalese Embassy and apply for visas for a trip to Kathmandu.  This was the plan, but the plan completely evaporated after a hash smoking session with the mad Frenchman who slept out on the landing, (he had been sleeping on the roof but the nights were beginning to get too cold). He crumbled a ridiculous amount of dope into the final chillum and, just before putting a flame to it, looked up at us with deep-set, dark eyes and said mysteriously, ‘Now you will see zee real India’.

By now it was nearly mid-day and the street outside was a seething mass of humanity into which we plunged. We were swept along feeling body heat all around. Faces appeared and were gone. Noise all around, voices, cycle bells.  Watching out for cow-horns and hand-carts, shuffling and jostling, we struggled not to lose each other. As we approached Ajmeri Gate the crowds gradually thinned and soon we were out of the old city and back in New Delhi. Still somewhat tripped out, we entered the chilly, air-conditioned bank on Janpath and were dealt with by a very helpful guy who listened patiently to Janette’s story. He informed us that all we had to do was to send another telegram to Barclays in England, asking them to send a refund for the stolen cheques to the Bank of India and they could then pay over the money. He expected this to take approximately two weeks. In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘two weeks my arse’, but left feeling reasonably optimistic that at least things were now moving in the right direction.  We called at the post office and immediately sent the telegram before continuing on to the Nepalese Embassy.  Here we were made to fill out three forms each and attach photos to them before paying 3US Dollars each. We had no cash dollars left and he refused to take Rupees, so Janette gave him a 10Dollar traveller’s cheque. He gave her 4Dollars change in cash, which we sold to another guy (who was applying for a visa and only had Rupees), for 30 Rupees, thus unintentionally making 7.20Rupees on the bank exchange rate. Feeling a twinge of guilt at accidentally becoming stoned capitalists we moved on to the tourist office where we obtained information on travel to Kathmandu from a sing-song-English-speaking lady with a red bindi and a posh sari and then went into the cool of Keventers to spend some of the profit from our financial transaction on two slabs of multicoloured ice cream. Having miraculously achieved what we set out to, we made our way back to Old Delhi by way of New Delhi Railway Station. I had started to become very fond of the old city. There, we were just two more anonymous faces in the crowd, and people were too busy getting on with their day to day struggle to pay much attention to us. If New Delhi was the brain of the city then Old Delhi was most definitely its heart and soul. Once again we had our evening meal at the same Sikh restaurant and sampled more of their culinary delights.

In the morning, (after my street-side cigarette) I approached the hotel manager about changing 50Dollars in traveller’s cheques for Rupees, hoping to obtain a better rate than at the bank. This wasn’t a problem but we had to wait until his friend arrived to take his place at the hotel reception and then he would take us to the money-changer. We hung around until 3.00pm, doing our laundry, smoking hash and planning the next few weeks travelling.  After a quick tally-up of our dwindling dineros it was pretty obvious that it was going to be necessary to try and limit our spending to £2.00 per day each. Then the manager and I endured a hair-raising trishaw ride to Ajmeri Gate (cycle-rickshaws were not allowed into New Delhi), followed by ten noisy, petrol-fumed minutes in a yellow scooter taxi, which took us to the handicraft emporiums on Janpath. For my 50Dollars I received 425Rupees, which gave me a profit over the bank rate of 45Rupees. I walked back alone as far as Delhi College and then jumped in a trishaw for the rest of the way.

The day was slipping away from us and we wanted to see if it was possible to get reservations on the night train to Varanasi intwo day’s time.  By then we should have picked up our visas for Nepal and, after visiting Varanasi, planned to carry on up to the border at Birganj by rail and then on to Kathmandu by road. We had acquired a couple of forged International Student cards and were hoping that we would be able to get concessions on the rail fares.   But this meant that we had to visit the D.S.Office (we never discovered what D.S. stood for), adjacent to New Delhi Railway Station before we could buy our tickets at Old Delhi Railway Station.  Unfortunately the D.S.Office closed at 5.00pm which didn’t give us enough time to get there. We would have to leave it until tomorrow. Returning to the hotel by way of Chandni Chowk we stopped for a snack of dahl and chapattis from a street vendor. The guy was really friendly and, for the same price, gave us rice, hot sauce and extra chapattis too. We ate from banana leaves, standing on the side of the street next to the stall along with all the other customers.

The start of another day in Delhi and we had lots to do. Immediately after breakfast we set off for New Delhi Railway Station, by now we knew our way around pretty well.  As usual, when we arrived we were sent somewhere else but after a short time found the D.S. Office only to be told that we needed our passports for student concessions. That screwed it! Apart from the fact that our passports were at the Nepalese Embassy, neither of them had ‘student’ as our occupation.  I was irrationally, stomping, sulking, bloody livid.  I should have been prepared for the student cards to be of no use, they were crap forgeries anyway, but I wasn’t and it really pissed me off.  At the Am Ex there were two letters for Janette but none for me, which did nothing to calm my irritation, so we tried a little retail therapy. Browsing the stalls on Janpath, I bought a silver earring and Janette bought a lovely orange bead necklace. The guy who sold them to us said that we were his first customers of the day and that would bring good luck for all three of us.  I hoped that he was right.

Our Nepalese visas were not due to be ready until 3.30pm so we passed some time hanging out in the area around Connaught Circus.  We bought some tacky Indian Christmas cards that looked as if they had been made in the 1950s and posted them to our families in England. We also made a great discovery; munagaphali (sounds like moon-fallay when croakily shouted-out by the vendors) which are simply peanuts, freshly roasted in their shells for a mere 60Paise a bag. After having picked up the visas, which allowed us to stay for two weeks in Nepal, we stopped off at Keventers for pineapple milk before carrying on to Old Delhi Railway Station. Not too surprisingly, we found the reservations office had closed early and were told to come back tomorrow. Too tired to wend our way through the narrow streets we took a trishaw back to the Eagle Hotel. When we arrived, the trishaw-wallah tried to massively overcharge me and I got involved in a heated argument, he with little English and me with even less Hindi. I knew that the fare should only have been 1Rupee and I was not going to back down. A crowd gathered to watch the show and things were threatening to turn nasty when my friend the cigarette seller intervened.  The two of them then argued loudly in Hindi, the result being that the trishaw-wallah gave in and accepted the 1Rupee, then cycled away in a huff, mumbling to himself.

Later, after a cold shower and a smoke, we staggered around to the Sikh restaurant whose name we never discovered. It did have a sign outside which read ’Vegetarian Only’, but I took this to be a description of the food that was served rather than what it was called. We were stoned-hungry and ate an enormous meal that came to 8.50Rupees or 42Pence for the two of us. No one else in the restaurant had a meal anywhere near the size of ours and I felt very conspicuous as we stuffed our faces. A barefoot sadhu wearing only a loincloth, a string of beads and an orange shawl, with long, matted locks piled up on his head came to the front of the restaurant chanting ‘Jai Ram, Jai Ram’. The bowl in his outstretched arm was filled with rice and dahl and he left, still chanting. I paid the bill on the way out, dropping a pinch of fennel seeds in my mouth from the dish on the counter, (to freshen the breath) and we returned to the street.

This was to be our last night in Old Delhi and we were treated to the spectacle of yet another Hindu wedding procession (or baraat), lead by a group of dhol drummers who laid down a wild thundering rhythm.  They were followed by the marching band dressed in very threadbare, almost matching, red uniforms and carrying their instruments.  Following the band was a tuxedo-wearing, bow-tied, amplified accordionist on the back of a trailer, accompanied by six shehnai (North Indian oboe) players beautifully dressed in matching long white Mughal coats and turbans. Then came the groom looking cool in a western suit, garlanded with flowers and sitting atop a heavily decorated white horse.  The whole procession was illuminated by hissing kerosene gas lamps carried on the heads of ragged street kids, white toothy grins shining in the glow, jingling baksheesh in their free hands. Suddenly the drumming stopped and the band broke into a bump and grind version of the western tune ‘Tequila’, much to the delight of the accompanying friends and relatives. It was wonderfully bizarre.

Back in our cell at the Eagle we had coffee brought up by Ramsi. He wanted to know what we did for a living and, when we told him that we had previously been working in a hotel kitchen, he flatly refused to believe us. It was beyond his comprehension that we could have been employed at a job not so far removed from what he did himself and be able to afford to travel. He thought that we were pulling his leg, that we must surely own the hotel in which we worked. When I asked him what he earned he told me that the manager of the Eagle Hotel paid him 30Rupees a month. That was five English pence a day and he worked, at the very least, fourteen hours a day. It was little wonder that he didn’t believe us.

We awoke very early the next day and smoked a spliff, returning to a dream-filled sleep until 9.00am.  After packing up our stuff and ordering chai from room service (which turned out to be coffee), we walked to the railway station.  Depositing our bags in the left luggage office we spent the next hour queuing and re-queuing in order to get third class tickets and reservations on the 8.10pm to Varanasi. I hassled the reservation clerk to give us student concessions, but to no avail and we ended up in the station restaurant for an early lunch. Upon sitting down at one of the tables the waiter appeared and immediately announced that everything on the menu was off except for two meals, the meat meal and the vegetarian meal. We ordered the vegetarian which, when it arrived, consisted of three different vegetable dishes with rice and chapattis. It was stone cold but we were too hungry to care and anyway it only cost about 9Pence each.  Before leaving the station we stopped in at the Enquiries Office to confirm that our tickets and reservations were in order. It was a good thing that we did because it turned out that we had somehow been booked on to the wrong train. This required us having to repeat the original laborious process, which took another hour, but at least this time we were, hopefully, on the correct train.

Having most of the day to pass before our departure time we decided to visit the Jama Masjid which was only a short walk away.  We climbed the beggar-lined steps, paid our 50Paise, slipped off our sandals and entered the large courtyard.  The main building, flanked by two minarets, was obscured by rickety bamboo scaffolding in front of which was a pool containing stagnant water in which men were ritually washing their hands and feet.  I should have been impressed by the architecture with its alternate vertical stripes of white marble and red sandstone, but I wasn’t and we didn’t stay long, preferring to spend what remained of the afternoon wandering through the labyrinthine maze of narrow lanes of Delhi 6.  We ate an early dinner at our favourite restaurant and arrived back at the railway station at around 6.00pm where we collected our bags, found the right platform and, double-checking that our names had been posted on the carriage, boarded the train. We had been allocated two seats facing each other next to the window; this having steel bars with no glass but with metal shutters that pulled down.  Every inch of space around us slowly filled up with passengers and, soon after leaving Delhi, with the train rolling through darkness, I eased myself from the seat down to the floor and half-slept to the rhythm of the rails.  Travelling overnight was a good way of saving money on a hotel and but not what you would call comfortable for sleeping.  I did the best I could.

2 Responses

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  1. Gar said, on October 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    “…lunatics on acid playing bad Dixieland jazz …a dancing, uniformed marching band in matching red jackets with gold epaulettes, black trousers and peaked caps.”

    Rolling on the floor laughing. This sounds like a scene from a stoned Doctor Seuss. I’m loving it.

    — Gar the Senior Vagabond

  2. Sameer said, on February 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    My god… I can’t imagine the exchange rates of pounds and dollars. 1 Pound = 20 Rs. & 1 Dollar = 8.5 Rs…. now a days it turns out to be 80 & 50 respectively….

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