Fatalism: free will does not exist, history has progressed in the only manner possible.
Whether it is fate or just the consequence of my own travel plans I do not know but I have always loved India, the idea of India, for as long as I can remember and now it is day one in this bewildering country. We landed at 4am and got through the immigration without any fuss and arranged a pre-paid taxi at the counter within the terminal. Cashing travellers cheques (at excellent rates) within the airport was simple. I don’t know where my mind was during the flight and customs experience but just as I stepped into the sunlight I thought to myself “Wow i’m finally in India...” and a fraction of a second later a crowd of shouting men descended on us trying to grab our backpacks and hustle us into various taxis. I knew about “The Mob” at Indira Gandhi Airport but even still it was not so much scary but overpoweringly freaky. We ended up with some smooth talker who took us away from the terminal to a taxi and not just any old taxi but an ancient Hindustan Ambassador – India’s legendary car! I have always wanted to be driven in an Ambassador so one of my wishes granted as we stepped into our first Indian taxi. As everything in life it was nothing like I had imagined, the immaculate dashboard of my mind had been replaced by tangled wires of every color, the chairs were ripped to shreds and the seat belts non-existant.
Driving on the quiet, dusty roads into Delhi I had the feeling that we have sneaked into India while the country slept. The sun crept from the horizon into a pinkish blue smog filled sky. The sidewalks deserted except for groups of construction workers working on the new line of the metro transport system, some women in saris sweeping the street with what seemed like brooms made of twigs and i’m sure I spotted someone walking with no shoes. How to describe the air….diesel fumes mixed with burning cow dung and sewage. The taxi driver got persistant about taking us to a hotel so I told my boyfriend in Dutch to pretend to speak to some Indian guy on his mobile phone who was waiting for us in Paharganj – ofcourse, this worked as the driver didn’t hassle us any further. We got to Paharganj with no idea of a place to stay and stopped the first westerner we saw, a blonde American girl with a slightly harrassed expression on her face. We asked her for advice on hotels and she told us to follow her. While she was telling us about the place she teaches in Jaipur and her plans to go to Bangkok for a few days (to be able to re-enter India on a tourist visa) I spotted a dead puppy with a mangled leg just lying there in the middle of Main Bazaar. I instantly had the feeling that in the wee small hours alot of horrible things must go on here. Nearby a group of men were huddled around a small bonfire drinking tea and noticing my expression were talking amongst themselves in Hindi about who would either call the Animal Ambulance or maybe here they’d just throw the carcass onto one of the bonfires. Our hotel is in a back alley between the Vivek and Ajay Hotels. We asked to see three rooms and still I wasn’t happy but eventually boyfriend chose the room beside the room of “The Agonized Voice” – the voice which every now and then screams obsentities. Why he chose this room I do not know.
Once we threw our backpacks onto the bed we knew we wouldn’t be able to sleep, we had travelled all night and were hungry. The flight on Turkish Airlines had been delayed for hours and my boyfriend at one point sneaked into the galley of the plane and helped himself to a sealed packed meal that must have been reserved for a no-show. We headed towards what I thought was Western-Shopping-Mall-Beverley-Center Connaught Place but C.P. (as it is nicknamed) turned out to be a confusing series of inner and outer streets seperated by multiple rows of cars and in the center of it all a dark, underground shopping arcade called Palika Bazaar. We wandered around Connaught Place and asked passersby for a cafe or a place to buy food. This seemed to cause confusion amongst the Delhiites and no one could give us a proper answer. We found a small hole-in-the-wall tuck shop – the only place open – where we bought Mountain Dew and a packet of chips. I was so hungry at this point we just sat on the steps of a closed store, beside some people who may have been begging, and had our measly breakfast.
In the back of my first auto rickshaw
After our “breakfast” we felt confident enough to head towards Old Delhi and Chandhi Chowk with the knowledge that we would surely find some western restaurant there. We got to Chandhi Chowk and when leaving the metro station we found ourselves on the grounds of a temple and this was the moment that India hit us. People were sitting on the street, some with no legs, others no arms, we saw women with naked babies all pleading to us for money, a group of small children were pulling our clothes asking for money the heat and constant drone of car horns overwhelming. I just thought, “oh God, is this it?” but we decided to visit the temple anyway. As we got nearer the beggars were laughing and signalling at us not to go in and in that moment I had the realisation that maybe we were in some Indian version of a soup kitchen for the destitute. We left and found ourselves in Chandhi Chowk, holding onto each other and trying to cross the road, it must have been mid afternoon and we became aware of the crowds. We visited the Red Fort, while we were resting in the shade of a tree I began to notice the beauty in India, groups of women in vibrant colored sari’s against the backdrop of Mughal architecture, the little kids earning a buck by selling postcards, other groups just staring at us – us as alien to them and they were to us.
We spent a good part of this afternoon trying to get bottled water – can you imagine endless alleyways that sell nothing and I mean NOTHING but engines and carparts or flashing lights that you put on Christmas trees? It is no joke, it really is like that. We couldn’t find water anywhere in the small alleyways of Old Delhi and were becoming desperate. After about an hour we found a shop selling water and that was probably the best part of the day, to find water and to be aware of it’s importance. The rest of the day was spent wandering around Old Delhi, visiting the Jama Masjid mosque and we took a heartbreaking ride on a cycle-rickshaw. Heartbreaking because stepping into the rickshaw we didn’t really pay attention to the drivers age and physique – he was on his last legs! Confronted with the reality of life on the flyover at Gupta Road. Small groups of men with their carts, overloaded with boxes, furniture, trying their best to get across that flyover which for a good part is uphill. I had refused to remain seated in our cycle rickshaw and with boyfriend we helped the driver push the rickshaw across the flyover. Every now and then I spotted overweight smartly dressed people on the back of their cycle rickshaws, seated and adamant, and just thought how heartless of them just to sit there while their drivers tried their best to earn a couple of rupees.
The main street of the backpacker area called Paharganj
Around nine we decided to head back to the hotel, some shops were already closing, the Main Bazaar wasn’t as manic as it had been in the afternoon. While we were walking we noticed a dead man lying in the middle of Main Bazaar. His death was as easy to read as a book – he had been walking and carrying a small plastic bag, and had at first almost fallen on his knees but at the last moment fell to the side. The plastic bag was still clutched in his hand, his shoes exactly on the spot where he had took his last step, a stray dog was barking into the poor man’s face. At first I tried to understand the situation, it was only when I noticed the pool of urine that I realised what had happened. A few meters away a group of police men were standing, talking and now and then laughing nervously and a little further along a group of children were playing as if nothing was happening. A shop keeper came and tried to convince us to visit his store but we pointed to the man and the shopkeeper told us the man was dead and in the same breath asked if we wanted to visit his store. We started walking towards our hotel and I started crying as the ambulance passed us, I thought of the puppy in the morning, and now the dead man. Is this a sign that in India when you think something is bad it can get a whole lot worse? Today Delhi has been nothing but a series of tragic truths about the cruelty of life and the cruelty of mankind towards their own species all set to a backdrop of stunning architecture and telecommunication cables as men tell lies and harass you into buying things that either don’t exist or you don’t need.
After seeing the dead man we have decided to remain in our hotel, I’m really upset, I can’t get the image of the dead man’s gaunt face out of my mind and at the same time have so many questions. Had he come to Delhi to follow his idea of a good life only to die so suddenly in a dusty hell? Was he a refugee stranded here post-Partition? Had the stress of Delhi killed him? Will his loved ones ever know his fate? Realising all of this, I’m thinking now that maybe I should never have come here. Maybe I’m not uncaring enough to cope with this reality, maybe this is a place only for people who like to live on the edge of a materialistic abyss.