Saturday, October 8, 2011

India: In your face trip. 1988

Here are some excerpts that were part of a letter sent to Mark Holmes and Valentina McLeod who are en route to Lisbon. This is from my Indian diary that I kept during my 1998 trip to the Indian subcontinent.

New Delhi, February 21st, 1998.
Hello, I just got back from a whirlwind tour of the deserty Rajasthan India-type place. Boy but what a disappointment the capital city New Delhi has become in the interregnum since my last trip in 1982. Long time—lots of changes—perhaps, for the worse?
It appears that India has regressed since my last visit. Is it possible? I asked myself this and then enquired of other travellers if they felt the same way. Most of them hadn’t been to India before and those who had stayed on were in no shape to offer any insights. Funny how time changes one’s perspective and shrinks the reality of what little memory or bytes we already have or had? On first glance, it appears that New Delhi has shrunk or that it has become overcrowded—maybe a bit of both. However, I fear that the latter is true: too many people, too little space, too many cars and subsequently, too little oxygen.
In the old days, they use to call this phenomenon—the ‘carrying capacity’ of the land.

In layman’s terms, ‘carrying capacity’ means that a certain number of people and animals could be supported on a finite area of land; hence, the land has a certain ‘carrying capacity’. Perhaps, this needs to be revalued in regards to the overpopulation of urban areas. There must also be a ‘carrying capacity’ for large cities, to the point where they are unmanageable. A metropolis will only be able to handle a certain number of people and then after that it is anarchy. The introduction of automobiles in urban areas should be factored into this formula. As such, the ozone factor is a new crinkle in the formula in determining the ‘carrying capacity’. In New Delhi, there are just too many people, animals, cars, smog, concrete and not enough arable land to support either this combination.

Back to New Delhi, the air was putrid if not downright nasty to my sensitive sinuses. It didn’t help matters that people had little, if any, regard for pollution control apparatus. This is especially true on their diesel-laden Indian-made Padmini cars and Maruti taxis or tuk-tuk scooters, which crowd every conceivable niche in Delhi. Downright rude would be the description of New Delhi and probably any other large Indian cities in the supposedly largest democracy and second most populous place on the planet. In Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, the city fathers and mothers had the audacity to put up endless billboards, which had the moniker- “Green Agra-Clean Agra”. They could start cleaning Agra by reducing the amount of signage and indeed, one might be able to see a “Green Agra”.

My first impression of New Delhi ranged from negative to abysmal. I got into Indira’s airport at the lovely hour of 2 am. It’s the only airport that I’ve been in, where you had to duck your head upon entering into the “Customs Area”—the place must have been built by midgets. I changed about $200 US at the Thomas C[r]ook Money Exchange and I thought I was a millionaire, ok, a thousandaire. I never had this many Indian Rupees the last time I was here in 1982. I proceeded about my business, making sure to duck my head as I left the terminal.
Outside, there were touts galore and other tourist pirate highjackers who hid in the shadows, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting world travellers—“there otta be a law” as Mark Holmes would say. I had been told at the ‘Tourist desk’ inside, that I should take the E.A.T.S. bus to Connaught Circle in New Delhi. So, being the world traveller and an old Indian hand, or thinking as such, I opted for a local taxi.

Did I make a wrong turn or what? I thought I was en route to the Ringo Hotel in Connaught Circle, but it was not to be. I was abducted by one lout who drove me at breakneck speed (that is for a diesel Padmini), about 40 kms/hr around darkened fog-enshrouded streets of Delhi. It didn’t help matters that the taxi had rear and side windows tinted—so it was much like wearing Foster Grants at midnight. It reminded me of Corey Hart’s song—“I wear my sunglasses at night”. To make matters worse, I was transferred to an open tuk-tuk, which caromed all over the show. For those of you who are not familiar with the dreaded tuk-tuk, it is a cross between a Vespa scooter (with the heart of a Harley) and an open rickshaw, but it is built with a tacky cover. The tuk-tuk driver likened himself to Michael Schumacher but drove like Freddy Flintstone—his brakes were non-existent. The tuk-tuk is only big enough for one hearty westerner and his pack, but it is normally accessible to 9 or 10 Indians, all clinging for dear life to the landau roofing with their asses hanging aloft. I got the distinct feeling that I was getting the ‘Delhi go-round’—how could they?
We passed by dark shadows huddled in lumps around stinky bonfires made of plastic containers and styrofoam boxes—basically, anything they could light that would provide heat. Can you imagine the stench? It literally brought tears to my eyes. It looked like the aftermath of a ‘nuclear winter’ with a grey blue moon looming overhead. It wasn’t a Mannerist setting. It was, in fact, a living hell and I guess there are between three to four million souls living this daily existence in Delhi. Packs of pariah dogs roamed the streets, scavenging for a free midnight meal or trying to pick a scrap with other rogue dogs that ran through the dimly lit streets of Delhi.  A few brave souls, cloaked in their own mystery, drifted into this ‘twilight zone’ and they appeared like zombies out a scene in Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”—‘werewolves of Delhi, oww-oooo!’.

We clobbered a speed bump and that promptly awoke me out of my gloom. I was starting to get sick of this misadventure and told the driver that I wanted to go to bed, as it was approaching 4:30 am. By now, I was thoroughly frozen to the bone and my teeth started chattering as teeth are wont to do. The outside temperature was hovering around minus zero and my chintzy Dubai fleece and open-faced Teva sandals were doing precious little to keep me warm. I was starting to fade back into unconsciousness and the cabbie offered me a beedie to warm up. I bundled around the lighter to eke out a little bit of warmth. I was taken to a place that was called the “Official Tourist Information Bureau”. It seemed funny that a place would be still open at this ungodly hour. It was just a front for more rip-offs by cheesy Kashmiri swindlers who offered sickly sweet chai and hyena smiles. Among them were a bunch of neo-hippies who were enjoying the charade, either that or trying to score some skanky weed. I’d had enough of their shenanigans and told my driver that I wanted to find a hotel as quickly as possible.
On our way again, we had difficulty getting to Pahar Gang as there was some bloody curfew, which didn’t allow taxis, or rickshaws access to certain streets—which just happened to be the streets that we needed. The ruse involved pulling up to a supposed closed street and one man asking a policeman if the street was open. Undoubtedly, the answer was ‘no’ and we would end up hurtling down another street in search of the elusive route. I was then taken to numerous hotels around Connaught Circle, but they were full or at least that is what the managers said or were told to say. We went to the Bright Hotel (which it wasn’t nor was the concierge):
Are there any rooms available?” I asked.
No, sir everything is full.” he countered
You must be careful, there are dangerous people around” he told me.
Yah no kidding. And there are dangerous drivers too.” I added.
It seemed very strange that a manager would be waiting around outside a hotel at four in the morning? I felt like I was an extra on a gloomy set of either “The Village of the Damned” or “Strange Days”. I had really wanted to get to the New Delhi train station where I thought I could get a bed in one of the dormitories. At least, there I could hang out in the ‘waiting room’ until morning and take the first train south to Jaipur but it was not to be.
We stopped at what was suppose to be the New Delhi train station—funny, but I don’t remember it being in a forested area? On that matter, there are hardly any forests in New Delhi city proper. Nevertheless, there was someone standing in the shadows, so I enquired—
Where is Pahar Ganj?
This was met by dead silence—this was not a good sign.
 You know the main bazaar-Pahar Ganj”, I finally croaked.
The shady character lurched out of the shadows.
It is very dangerous to be out at this time of night, especially in this area”.
You know, there is a curfew now in New Delhi
Somewhat taken aback, I barked:
What curfew!” I yelled “and, where the hell are we anyways—this isn’t the New Delhi train station?
There is a curfew because of the upcoming election”, he countered.
By this time I had woken out of my daze and I continued to question the blaggart.
Is this a city or a jail?” I was starting to lose it.
He replied, taunting me—“Are you crazy?
Yes, I am feeling a little crazy and I’m getting sick of this fucking bullshit about a curfew for an election.”
It is rather odd that there had never been any prior mention made of a curfew in Delhi in any of the UAE newspaper prior to my leaving. Something smelt rotten and I wasn’t in Denmark. It was a ruse, a way of getting you to go to the hotel of their choice. Some dosshouse I guess, where the taxi or rickshaw wallah would get a big fat commission for depositing the unsuspecting traveller at a hotel doorstep.
This tout thought that he could scare me but I was ready to throttle the bugger.
Fuck you and let me out of this goddamn tuk-tuk”. I muttered stepping out of the cramped tuk-tuk.
It was a good excuse to stretch my legs and kick him in his balls (which I didn’t do but felt like it just the same). After we exchanged hostilities, we cruised on down the highway to the next roadside attraction. By this time ice was forming on my nose and I needed a place to warm up at any cost. Either that, or crawl under one of those ratty blankets and warm my teva socked feet around a cozy Styrofoam fire. I was tired, cold and it was late. I chose to go to a hotel of the driver’s choice—my resolve was fading.
The driver found some dump in the middle of a wooded area in the suburbs—the Crystal Hotel where we woke up all the guards and the Tibetan night clerk. The staff slept with the same ratty looking woolen blankets pulled up over their heads. The Tibetan night clerk quoted me a price of 1200 rupees or the equivalent of $35 to $40 US/night. I was stunned by now and utterly tired, I could care less and handed over the loot. I stumbled up the marble stairs to my cubicle. My bed consisted of a plywood sheet, a cement bag for a pillow and a ragged woolen blanket, which reeked of mothballs. The room had the charm of an abattoir. Everything was gerry-rigged with wires strung helter skelter and a grimy fluorescent overhead light, which provided the ambience. I set my alarm and crashed—fully clothed! I could care less about brushing my teeth, as I feared they might shatter from all the arctic blasts that I had subjected them to since getting off the plane.

At 9am, I was rudely awakened by the night clerk who told me that he was going off duty and that I owed him an additional 300 rupees—I blew him off, especially after such a hellish night. As I went downstairs, the night clerk informed me that there was a phone call for me. It turns out that it was one of those buffoons at the ‘Tourist Information’, wanting to know if I had decided where to go in India. I told him where I was going and also told him where to go and it wasn’t in India. I didn’t doddle too long outside the hotel and I eventually hailed an auto rickshaw.
Do you know where the New Delhi train station is?
Yes I am knowing.” He answered
You know the one near Pahar Ganj?” I prodded halfheartedly.
He just wagged his head from side to side and that was enough for me—I was satisfied.

Driving in a New Delhi morning traffic jam is quite an experience—especially, if you survive to tell about it! This morning trip was an epic and I did survive it. The drivers seem to be suicidal: they are either manic-depressive types or just plain maniacs. It was very much like a scene out of a rolling movie, filmed across a sea of humanity and humility. Everywhere I looked was like a photograph: every scene imitated a live video and every frame had a story of its own to tell. The traffic congestion was unbelievable, as if I was re-entering some kind of hallucinatory dream-state. On the contrary, I was not on drugs, in actual fact; I suffered from sleep deprivation as I only caught three hours sleep.

Riding along in the tuk-tuk, I visualized an amazing kaleidoscope of the ‘great unwashed’; colours, smells, activities and light. A virtual video of my minds eye was broadcast through me. There were overpowering, fleeting images of reality in the fast lane of this burgeoning world power. Pedal rickshaws bobbed to and fro with olive-skinned schoolgirls in pairs of threes and fours replete with uniforms of red dresses and white ties. The pedal rickshaws tried their best to fight for space alongside overloaded auto rickshaws that contained some rather serious-looking businessmen in frayed tweeds, who clutched nervously to their battered faux leather attaché cases. They had an air of self-importance but maybe they were only carrying a toothbrush, tea cup, a small package of betel nut and a comb or brush inside their satchel. Amidst the cacophony, raven-hair brave maidens were oblivious to the fact that their long flowing, carmine saris were hanging dangerously close to the bike’s gears. Nevertheless, they clung desperately to their boyfriend’s thigh as they guided their under-powered Vespas in and out of traffic much like a Spanish matador does at a bull-fight. It was a free for all—an Indian version of the Road Warrior.

Did I mention cacophony? It was more like a symphony of car horns, toots, bike bells, cow mooings and the odd curse muttered aloud by the various combatants. Occasionally, an old sacred Brahma cow would decide to cross the busy road and this caused no end of excitement and ensuing panic on behalf of the drivers. If you were to hit one of these prized bovines, you’d most likely be killed by the throngs, and this would certainly mean an end to any kind of earthly favours in the next life—bad kharma, bubba!
Moreover, the traffic had its own kind of hypnosis but there was an entirely separate existence on the periphery of my eyesight. The sidewalk was starting to erupt with Italian sculptor Giacometti’s skeletal figures shaking their limbs after a night on the cruel and unbending, cold pavement. Old flea-bitten, woolen blankets were being tossed aside and equally rough looking characters were emerging from under them. Some older men men propped up their tired bones on discarded cardboard boxes while others leaned back against crimson fire hydrants and puffed furiously on some old beedie that had been tossed away by some wayward stranger. Others found solace in the form of a nearby chai wallah, who warmed them with a steaming hot glass of chai masala or in our parlance—spice tea. The image of a hot tumbler of spicy chai and a crispy pakora was starting to make me feel a tad peckish myself but we beetled on through the morning din.

We halted at one of the many traffic circles in New Delhi and I noticed a group of scantily clad men in their native raiment, the cotton doti, who were washing themselves in the cold, bracing water of an open main. You could see the steam rising off their supposed warm bodies—it looked cold, it feels cold and hell, and it is cold! The rest of the traffic was oblivious to their predicament and I felt that I was the only one who was the recipient of their bewildered stare. A little further along, we drove by men who were still sleeping on the concrete median that separates the two busy roads. They slept whilst diesel and dust billowed over them, like a sort of diaphanous blanket. We slowly wended our way out of the chaos of downtown Delhi, past a flotilla of Independence Day floats which comprised the pantheon of usual Hindu deities: oversized elephants, grotesque monkey gods and supersized grotesque plaster busts of its newest members to the pantheon—Gandhi, Nehru and Patel.

Since I was last in India, two Prime Ministers named Gandhi had perished at the hands of assassins. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards who were seeking retribution for her part in the bloody takeover of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the Indian Army. In 1991, her son and PM at the time, Rajiv Gandhi was the victim of a deadly bomb blast by the Tamil Tigers or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) while attending a political rally in Sriperumbudur, southern India. Now, there is a new generation of Gandhis who are fighting to restore the power and credibility of India’s oldest political party—the Congress Party (Cong-I) which was initiated by their grandfather Pandit Nehru. Much of the ballyhoo in this upcoming election revolves around the emergence of grandson Rajiv Gandhi’s widow—Sonya. Many in the opposition are against her role in the election because she is not a native-born Indian, she is Italian. However, by virtue of her marriage to Rajiv and her devotion to India--she is every bit an Indian. She has a son and daughter who are Indian and they have accompanied Sonya on the hustings. It is curious that at the end of the last century, most Indians were trying to get rid of a colonial foreigner who controlled their destiny—the British. Yet now, it will be an odd twist of fate if it takes a ‘foreigner’ to steer India through recent troubled times and into the next millennium.

It is true that India is sometimes a place that can easily get under your skin, but it is always a difficult place to forget. Yes, I was indeed back in the Indian sub-continent after a 15 year absence but as my good Indian friend, Jag Bhatia from Jaisalmer used to tell me—
In India, anything is possible!
Ain’t it the truth!

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