Saturday, 28 October 2017

Destiny Delhi

Imagine London 50 years from now, baking in a sweltering, climate-change-induced 40 degrees centigrade. With a population exceeding 40 million, social order has largely broken down. The people have been granted their wish and largely govern themselves. It hasn’t worked out terribly well and chaos reigns across this once great metropolis. Icons of it’s illustrious past – Westminster, St Pauls Cathedral, Tower Bridge – still stand. Faded, coated in soot, enveloped in an all consuming cloud of red, earthern dust churned up by hundreds of thousands of insanely decorated and customised vehicles of every type you could think of. It’s a scene reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. There’s a maelstrom of human activity around them, but few people take the time to look at these forlorn reminders of an age gone by. Time is too short and life too busy.

Alternatively, let your imagination rest and instead travel to Delhi today. A veritable feast of chaos, served with a side dish of calamity and liberally sprinkled with a heady and sometimes overpowering pinch of insanity. A thriving vista of apocolyptic urban mayhem awaits you.  Charge past the glorious monuments of the British Raj in your chauffeured tuk tuk, come tourist guide. The India Gate, Parliament and train station survive as testament to one of many foreign powers that have made India its home over the centuries.

Each one leaving its mark, but they were ultimately only temporary interruptions as the peoples of this giant country continue on, assimilating what is beneficial, discarding what is not. But there is order in this chaos. There is some divine force making things work in spite of it all. Everything we found in Delhi seemed to be on the brink of disaster, but the city’s inhabitants seem to have mastered the art of survival. It’s a miracle anything functions. That virtually everything, somehow, functions – well that tops even the Taj Mahal in the list of the wonders of the world.

There must be something masochistic within most of us that makes being consumed by all that chaos a fascinating and enthralling experience. But we could take only so much before we needed some respite. And we found several tranquil oases to rest our senses and recuperate. The first was Lodi Gardens, a large and green park in the south of the city, containing several tombs and a mosque. Delhi, despite the clouds of dust, is surprisingly green. And the parks, with their walls separating them from the hurly burly of life outside, are greener still. We enjoyed a long walk, climbing up, into and over the monuments and ruins. We were kept company by chipmunks, which ran amok everywhere we went. Liberated from the constant cacophany of combustion engines, we could even hear some birdsong. And we especially enjoyed an ice cream from a vendor on our way out.

The Lotus Temple provided another refuge from the hubbub of life. Like many things in India, it’s best viewed from a distance. Not, on this occasion, because of the litter. But because the mystical magificence of the temple is diminished somewhat when viewed up close. It ceases to be a beautiful lotus flower and turns into a shapeless assembley of concrete blocks. The scale of the structure remains impressive though. The interior is no Catholic festival of brightly coloured icons and gold leafed emblems, but has a more Protestant sparcity about it. Still, we sat for a short service, under the watchful eye of the Prayer Police who are ready to pounce on any infidel daring to try and leave before it has ended. 

We were well behaved. And appreciative of being able to sit and rest a while. I also enjoyed reading some of the religion’s favourite phrases. Most of them made reasonable sense. Two of them caught my eye. The first concerned harmony between religion and science, asserting that a belief that runs contradictory to science is nothing more than susperstition. Quite so. The second suggested that if one cannot educate all your children, educate the daughters. For they will become mothers and will educate the next generation. A noble sentiment, bursting with logic. Yet I’m not sure this works somewhere as misogynistic as India’s. Indeed, poorly educated men who utterly dominate society seems to me to be one of the key problems that the country faces. Indians ask/wonder why China has left them so far behind. I’m inclined to believe that a significant part of the answer lies in how each country views its womenfolk.

Onwards we marched, for there are more temples and tombs to be seen. Next stop, the resting place of Humayun. Pointless fact – Joanna Lumley’s father proposed to her mother at this tomb. It is a grand looking place, so why not? Humayun’s Tomb, along with Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, stood out amongst the many sights we visited. For they are well maintained, rather than falling into ever more desperate states of disrepair. It’s a popular destination, but still retains an acceptable level of quiet. The views from atop the structure are worth the sweaty climb in the soaring midday heat. 

One must return to face the throng of the outside world eventually though. So we tuk-tuk’d over to Connaught Place. You can picture these grand white buildings in their heyday during the British Raj. If they’d been kept in tip top shape, they wouldn’t look out of place in a swanky part of London. But they haven’t and their heyday was clearly a century or more ago. Still, this is where the most extreme examples of India’s economy clash. The lame, the limbless, the hopeless gather outside stores selling the world’s leading fashion brands to Delhi’s nouveau riche. The hungry, with their rags barely hiding their exposed rib cages, beg for morsels outside some of the trendiest restaurants. And a Nandos. A Nandos in the heart of Delhi – who knew?

Unsettled by the shocking economic disparity, we settled for a thirst quenching frappe at Starbucks and moved on. Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is the number one Sikh temple to stop off at. Inside is a square pool of water, apparently fed by a well and popular with adherents of the faith because of its healing properties. I imagine that the most popular requests are for new lungs and sinuses. We enjoyed the scene greatly, walking barefoot around the marbled temple and pool. But onwards. Time is short. Green Park was our next destination. Whilst not quite as upper class as it’s London equivalent, it hosts a stretch of high street which just about resembles what you might find in the west. We ate delicious dosas in a nice restaurant there and relaxed a while in semi-familiar surroundings.

If you are travelling with a lady, as I was, then you will almost certainly nned to do some clothes shopping. We were guided to Sarojini Nagar market by the owner of our homestay. It was excellent advice, and Mrs P spent two hours examining dresses, fabrics, scarves and pants in numerous outlets and haggling acceptable prices. I spent two hours whining that I wanted to go back to our homestay. But I accept that it was a very grand market by any standard you wished to compare against.

Our time in Delhi was done. Truth be told, we were done. We’ve since watched Sue Perkins series ‘Ganges’ on the BBC. She spent two weeks in Varanassi, which quite frankly looks like Delhi x ten. She got to the stage where she just couldn’t take it anymore. She loved the people she met and valued the experience, but she really needed to move on. We understand her sentiments entirely. We’d had over two days in Delhi, but it was time to find a new Indian adventure.