Final Swim

Today was the last day of September, and according to Delhi Municipal Corporation, the beginning of Winter. The swimming pool which I have been using for the past month is now closed. I took my camera along to record the end-of-term atmosphere with my new Indian friends.

Everyone else had the same idea and there were selfies galore in the deep end. I have put together a few snaps to give you a glimpse of what went on. We all had great fun, and when this lot got out, I swam a leisurely kilometre and was home before 8am.

Here are some diverse photos of divers:

And some swimmers of varying abilities

Lined up along the poolside

Taking photos

Typhoid Masala

I normally eat lunch at our clinic, a simple meal of dhal, rice and vegetable curry. But today the big boss came to pay us a visit, so we went out to a nearby restaurant for some rich Punjabi food.

There is no door. One wall of the place is missing, and that’s where you enter. Forget air conditioning. The restaurant only has half a dozen tables, each with a small glass of thin, green chillies and a plastic bag of paper napkins. The waiters know us, after all, we are the only white folks within five kilometres. It’s a great place to eat non-vegetarian food, as evidenced by a quartet of fat, sweaty coppers eating at the corner table. In the other corner, there was a sous chef topping and tailing chillies and another peeling small onions incredibly quickly, with a well-practised four stroke routine using a razor-sharp knife.

Our waiter knew some rudimentary English, but it was a bit of an ordeal taking our order. We wanted a whole chicken, jointed, cooked and covered in a spicy yoghurt sauce, half an order of rogan josh (mutton curry), tarka dhal (easy on the ghee), two butter naans and a roti.

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This photograph was not taken at the restaurant, but these kebabs look excellent.

The waiter knows we are medical, so he showed me three tablets he was taking. I hadn’t a clue what they were for, so he brought me his doctor’s note. “I have fever,” he said. The note said “Typhoid Widal test 1/80 positive titre”. The big boss stared at the paper and looked concerned. I tried to reassure him saying, “I think his doctor suspected typhoid, but I wouldn’t get too worried at a titre under 1/160. Widal testing is not very effective. They have a fancy IgM test which is much more accurate nowadays.”

We asked the waiter what medication he was taking apart from the white, blue and yellow pills. The big boss said, “I bet it’s cipro!” But it wasn’t a heavy duty antibiotic; it was paracetamol. A nervous silence befell the table. Our bottle of cold water arrived, with three plastic cups inside stainless steel mugs. The big boss’s confidence was marginally bolstered.

The waiter brought us some amuse bouche – a complimentary plate of papaya chunks sprinkled with spicy salt. There wasn’t enough spicy salt on the fruit, so I asked for some more. The waiter went back to the kitchen hatch and came back with a three finger pinch of spicy salt, which he sprinkled on the papaya. We all looked at each other, and then at the papaya. The big boss didn’t eat any. A salad of sliced onion, tomato and cucumber came next with some pale green watery chutney served as a starter.

Full of diagnostic confidence, I ate 90% of the papaya. It was delicious with spicy salt. I had a great view of the kitchen and could see one chef with a metre long stirring spoon, cooking onions in a massive wok. What’s that saying about supping with the Devil?

The chicken was excellent, moist, tender, tasty, just lightly charred by the tandoor. The tarka dahl resembled thick, lumpy, brown porridge and smelled delicious. It was much darker and more viscid than usual. The mutton came last, two chunks of melting sheep meat falling from the bone, marooned  in a maroon-coloured sauce. The butter naans were hot, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, glistening with butter. Excellent.

It was far too much for three of to eat comfortably, but we just managed it. The restaurant is expensive for Jahangir Puri. The bill came to £8 with tip. After the plain fare I am used to, this unctuous food was a real delight. If I ate here every lunchtime, I would soon resemble my fellow swimmers at Delhi Municipal Corporation Pool. Unless, of course, it does turn out to be typhoid…

Light Greens

This is a not a self portrait. He looks green with envy. This is a mask from NE India, in the National Museum in Delhi. Taken with my Lumix LX100 shutter speed 1/10th second, f5.6, ISO 1600.

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On a more serious note, the clinic where I work in Jahangir Puri, North Delhi, for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) is painted light green. The clinic deals with survivors of sexual and gender based violence and is called “Umeed Ki Kiran” (Ray of Hope).

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Rubbish

Every day 10,000 tonnes of rubbish gets dumped at the four major landfill sites around the Indian capital city, Delhi. One of these sites, Ghazipur, has been on fire for the past two weeks. This is not surprising as organic refuse generates methane when it rots. Of course, the garbage has already been picked through for useful items with some cash value before it gets tipped here. But still, there are children wandering about, searching for anything recyclable and pi dogs sniffing out anything edible.

There is a power plant at the site which uses methane to produce electricity, but this is uneconomic as they cannot lay the extraction pipes under the active part of the dump.

 

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The mountain of rubbish at Bhalswa
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A street in Bhalswa Dairy

In the catchment area of our clinic is Bhalswa, one of the other massive landfill sites. This mountain is not on fire. Yet. But there is a huge, black, stinking, toxic lagoon called Bhalswa Lake. This lake separates the bucolic-sounding suburb of “Bhalswa Dairy” from the prosaically named settlement of “Mukandpur”. It reminds me of the toilet scene in “Slumdog Millionaire”. I spent a lot of time on LightRoom editing these pictures to make them look prettier.

Luckily for the local inhabitants, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes prefer relatively clean water for breeding. They transmit dengue and Chikungunya fever. But culicine mosquitoes don’t care; they will breed in any wet filth.

Many of the people in the slums or “jhuggi jhopri unplanned settlements” (JJs for short), work sorting or picking through rubbish. Similar items are packed together in a gigantic sheet or a huge sack, waiting for a truck to cart it all away for recycling. It must be like living in one of Dante’s circles of Hell. The third, probably, without the icy rain.

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Barber’s Tomb

Mirza Nasir ud-din Baig Muhammad Khan Humayun (Humayun, for short) was the second Mughal Emperor who ruled Northern India in the early part of the 16th century. He so trusted his barber that, when he died, a mausoleum was built for him in Dinpanah (“Refuge of the Faithful”), now called Delhi. The layers of marble and stone continue beneath the slab which bears the inscription.

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No snide comments about this barber giving his Emperor “layer cuts”, please

Black and White Sunday

Schools

Private schools are big business in India. They advertise their services aggressively. How about Glorious School, offering horse riding and skating?

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Or Goodley School with its PowerClass?

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Some schools show photographs of students who have scored highly in examinations. The best students are called “Toppers”. I am not sure that they actually attended the schools named on the posters, however. One of my medical colleagues told me that students with excellent results can be approached by iniquitous colleges, offering them money to have their photograph and marks displayed on promotional material.

There are lots of schools in my locality. Each morning at 6.45am on my way to the swimming pool, I see lots of children taking transport to private schools elsewhere. At 7.45am on my way home, I see the children going to local schools. They all wear uniform and are smartly turned out. Yesterday, I missed taking a wonderful picture of a little lad wearing a tie which was so long that his mum had tucked it behind his belt buckle.

Purples in Chandni Chowk

 

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The image of the goddess Durga being carried through the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. Devotees have scattered purple powder everywhere. Drummers keep up a relentless rhythm to draw attention to the event.

Taken using a Panasonic Lumix LX100 at 1/100th second, F5.6 with ISO of 640.

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Five Kilometre Challenge

I hope you don’t think that this is cheating, but my 5km is a mini-biatholon of walking and swimming. Each morning, I walk from my apartment along Gyan Shakti Mandir Marg in Shalimar Bagh to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi Swimming Pool. I set off at 6:40am and reach the pool after fifteen minutes brisk walking. Eighty laps (2km) takes me about three quarters of an hour. I then walk home for breakfast. Combining walking and swimming gets me to 5km.

Gyan Shakti is a straight dual carriageway, with a narrow central reservation planted with bushes. The inside lane of both roads is blocked by cars, usually parked at an oblique angle, to fit more vehicles in, as garages are rare and car ownership is rising drastically in the city. There is a pavement on the right side, which covers an open sewer, but the blocks are broken, making it treacherous to walk. It is also the preferred al fresco toilet of numerous street kids and people living rough. The earlier I leave home, the more likely I am to come across someone squatting and shitting. I am more embarrassed than they are; they don’t bat an eyelid.

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If you are wealthy enough to own a car, you probably have a chauffeur. His job is to clean the car each morning, sometimes with a dirty rag slopped from a filthy bucket and other times with a hose and chamois leather. All but the newest cars here have dents and scrapes because of crazy driving, traffic congestion, lack of adherence to motoring rules and competitive queue jumping.

Moving along the jagged edge of the parked cars, I am more likely to step in cow dung. The street has a resident herd of about twenty cows. The locals feed the cows leftovers from last night’s supper. Cows used to approach me in anticipation, but all I have in my shoulder bag is a towel, goggles and swimsuit. Occasionally cars will stop in the fast lane in order to feed the beasts. I have even seen scooters driving past with their pillion passengers flipping “chapatti frisbees” at cows.

Students are getting ready to travel to private schools all over the district. There are large buses, packed with children, even sitting alongside the driver at the front. Some parents will club together and hire a mini-van which is invariably jammed full of kids. If the journey isn’t far, the children will go by cycle rickshaw, three in the seat facing forward, and a couple on the back, facing to the rear. Occasionally children will get a lift on their dad’s motorbike or scooter, sitting astride the tank or standing in the footwell. The law regarding the wearing of helmets is widely ignored.

Where Club Road branches off, there is a park called Ram Bagh, one of the hundreds of small patches of greenery which make up the lungs of the city. And Delhi really needs them. It has the worst air pollution of any city in the world outside China. The air quality today was poor, 174 on a scale of 0-500. Google tells me that the “main pollutant was PM 2.5” whatever that means, and I should reduce intense outdoor activities. The sky is dull and grey, with limited visibility, but not quite a “pea-souper” yet.

At the park gates there is a crowd of middle-aged to elderly Indian men, who have just done a constitutional walk to try and ward off diabetes or to unclog their coronary arteries. They are drinking fresh coconut water directly from the nut. Few of them use a straw, but most have that “well-practised pour” which gets liquid from receptacle to mouth without their lips touching it. One or two will look through the smog at a pale disc of sun and say a prayer, while sloshing coconut water in its general direction.

Some of the men dye their hair gingery red. I am told that they do it to disguise the fact that they are going grey. To my mind, this just draws attention to the process, especially when the silvery roots start shining through. I thought it was henna, but using the natural dye is so complicated (going to sleep with a hair net to keep the dye moist, for example), that most men use a synthetic dye for convenience.

Further on down the road, there is an open rubbish tip where everyone dumps their trash in a huge pile. There are usually a few cows poking about for a choice morsel, some dogs, rats and the odd crow. See my previous blog “Apocalypse Cow” for more details. It stinks to high heaven, so I prefer to stay on the right side of the road at this juncture. I have seen mini garbage trucks with a lift on the back, but usually there is a sweeper who scrapes the muck together and shovels it into a pickup tricycle. Sensibly, he tucks his trousers into his socks while he’s working.

There is a row of one room houses beside the garbage and a communal washing area, behind a high concrete wall. I can see hair being shampooed and lungis draped over the wall after being soaped. I think that the men and women take turns. As I am the only white man in Shalimar Bagh, I get quite a bit of attention on this part of the street. Young men ask me for selfies, dusty boys ask me for sweets and ladies chewing paan chat happily away in Hindi to me for a few sentences before spitting a thin squirt of red juice into the road.

One grandpa with a white handlebar moustache sits on the roadside with his grand-daughter on his knee, while he massages her feet. A grannie brushes her teeth. A rickshaw wallah lounges on the passenger seat trying to make eye contact with me, even though he knows I am  just another 100 metres away from the pool.

I used to go for the 6am swimming session, but it was too busy. I prefer the 7am slot as it is less packed and I can sneak in five minutes early and knock off the first ten lengths before the regulars arrive. The early crowd are middle-aged men, most of whom think that by chatting with each other while hanging on the edge of the pool will reduce the size of their bellies. They all know I am a doctor, so I get asked about skin problems, how to lose weight, whether ayurvedic medicine helps their blood pressure and diabetes, and inevitably, about their waning sexual prowess. Pointing at their protuberant abdomens, I ask them when their baby is due. All good natured banter.

On the attendance register I notice the name “Dr Sen”. Naturally I assume he’s a medic, but it was a PhD and he’s an economics professor. He offers to bring me some of his academic papers to read. Another chap asks me how to lose weight and it transpires he is drinking a litre of whisky a day. A couple of youngsters ask me where I was from and what was my name. They give their names and say, “Right, we’re friends now. Do you want to come back for breakfast?”

Perhaps because of the high density of population in Delhi, the locals don’t have the same sense of personal space that we have in England. Pushing and shoving in queues at the Metro is normal. Brits tend to go out of their way to avoid touching, but in Delhi, it is inevitable. In the pool, I will be carving out some lengths front crawl, when someone will jump into the water front of me. They can see I am swimming lengths at a reasonable speed, yet they will push off from the side to swim a width on a collision course. Groups of young men congregate around the ladder at one side of the deep end just where I make my turn. In the shallow end, they sometimes just stand directly in front of me, forcing me to take avoiding action. It may be that they want an excuse to strike up a conversation or practise their English, but I honestly think that they don’t realise what they are doing infringes my exaggerated sense of pool etiquette.

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The pool isn’t highly chlorinated, so the local birds sneak down to have a drink. Once I was shocked when I swam past one of the poolside ladders and saw a crow perched there, watching me intently with a beady eye.

But after about ten minutes splashing about, the lads cling onto the rail of the pool and chat with each other until the session closes. That gives me the space to complete my 2km in peace, but I still have to keep a look-out for stray swimmers.

The water in the pool is about 30C, so it is almost too warm for strenuous swimming. I sweat when I get out and need to cool down with a shower. To my intense disappointment, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi will close the pool for the winter next month, “because it will be too cold”. The pool manager will go back to his village in Haryana and grow wheat. I will have to wait until March before the pool reopens, and I can pay my Rs 1000 per month subscription (£11).

Walking home, I pass the Maharishi Ayurveda Hospital, managed by a medical institute and research society (first introductory Yoga session free of charge) and the CGHS Wellness Centre, complete with dog on the steps. Then there’s a street restaurant, with cooks preparing aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato curry) and atta flour to make bread – rotis and chapattis. This is totally different from the fine dining advertised in the poster above – the grand opening of “Spice Sea” (geddit?).

Further down the street there is a Sikh Gurdwara, which always seems welcoming with its sing song chanting of the scriptures to the beat of a tabla drum. I am very wary of traffic in this area as I was nearly knocked down by a car driver who had taken his hands off the steering wheel and pressed them together in prayer by his forehead as he approached the temple.

Among the advertising hoardings, there are faded posters of Hindu Gods, Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna and Radha. There’s a queue for fresh milk in plastic bags at the Kanha Dairy. A chai wallah is selling tea, made from boiling together milk, water, sugar, cardamom, sugar and tea leaves. And sugar. Next is a South Indian restaurant with orange sambar sauce and white idli patties being prepared for breakfast. But not for me. I still have some Weetabix that I brought with me from UK, which I’ll have with a nice cup of Tetley’s tea. Unsweetened, of course.

Apocalypse Cow

A month ago, there was a leader in the Times of India about cows. Or more specifically, about a man with the impressive moniker of Mahamandleshwar Swami Akhileshwaranand Giri. He is chair of the executive council tasked with protecting cows in Madhya Pradesh state. He stated that “the next world war will start over a cow”. As well as causing WW3, he believes that milk and cow shit can cure cancer.

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A prominent supporter of the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), puts cow shit on his mobile phone to prevent dangerous radiation. The Indian equivalent of Body Shop, Ramdev Patanjali, sells some ayurvedic cosmetics and beauty products which contain cow urine.

India certainly reveres the cow. Across the country there are 4,000 cow hospitals, called gaushalas, where sick cows are sheltered. The main threat to cow health is plastic bags. Each morning, well-meaning people bring plastic bags full of left-over food, rice, vegetables to feed the herd of cows that roam the dual carriageway beside my apartment. Plastic bags clog up the cows’ rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum, causing intestinal obstruction and eventual death. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is on record as saying that more cows die from eating plastic than are illegally slaughtered in India (they can only be legally butchered in Kerala and West Bengal).

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The gaushalas get a government grant of 25p per day to feed each cow, but even in India, this does not go far. Cows eat 10kg of food per day when healthy, costing over ten times this amount. Volunteers staff the shelters and often donate fodder, but this is not enough to prevent several cows dying every day in each gaushala.

When I walk to the swimming pool each morning, I attract cows because they think I am bringing them food in my shoulder bag. It just contains a towel and my swimsuit. The most cows I have counted in the street is sixteen. Although they block the road, no driver ever bumps them. Sometimes a vehicle will stop in the fast lane so that the driver can feed the cows. I have even seen a scooter slow down so the passenger can pass out chapattis to cows on the move.

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The road is splattered with cow pats and the smell can be disgusting at times. At the end of the road there is an area where people bring rubbish. It is just dumped in the road forming a series of hillocks for about thirty metres. Most of this is discarded food, coconuts, paper, vegetable peelings and inevitably, plastic bags. People often put left-overs inside a plastic bag and knot it. There are usually half a dozen cows scavenging on the piles when I walk past at 6:45am each morning. I thought that these cows were “wild”, but I recently heard that they are actually owned by someone who sets them loose to graze in the city’s roadside rubbish dumps.

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Krishna is a cowherd in Goloka (“cow planet”). Here he is playing his flute to entertain the milkmaids (“gopis”). This miniature is from the National Museum in Delhi.

There are almost 300 million cows in India, more than in any other country. Just think of their huge contribution to global warming with the greenhouse gases produced in their stomachs. Holy cow.

Bade Ka Gosht

“Bade Ka Gosht” means red-meat biryani. It is the favourite meal of Muslims celebrating Bakr Id (Eid Ul-Adha) today in India. This festival commemorates the Biblical story of Abraham who was about to sacrifice his son to God and at the last minute, God substituted a ram. So mutton is on the menu today.

For the past week, the roadside paths and even the central reservations of dual carriageways in Old Delhi between the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid mosque have become temporary homes for thousands of sheep and goats. Prices are sky high. A rare breed with curly horns and a sleek white fleece, such as a Gangapari or a Bamdolia, can cost hundreds of thousands of rupees. The sheep are pampered for their final days. They are groomed to look their best. Their diet can include grain and tender banyan leaves (at £2 a bundle). Although some might not take kindly to being force fed – see photograph below.

Some people buy a baby goat and raise it themselves at home as a pet. Of course, they become emotionally attached to the animal, so when they come to sacrifice it, they feel akin to Abraham sacrificing his son.

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For Muslims who cannot afford to sacrifice a sheep, there is the option to buy mutton at £5 per kilo, but this is more than most can afford. Buffalo is cheaper at £2.50 per kilo. However, beef – from cows, bulls, bullocks – is illegal. Although India is a secular state, the cow is sacred.  But at half the price of mutton, the temptation is for people to use illegal beef to make their Bade Ka Gosht. Who is going to know?

Some policemen have confiscated biryanis and sent them to a laboratory to determine if it contains cow meat. Other policemen claim to be able to tell by tasting the biryani themselves. It sounds like a great way to get a free meal, quite literally a “biryani takeaway”.

There are some fervent Hindus called cow vigilantes (“gau rakshaks”) who are on the lookout for instances of cows being killed and eaten. In August, some women in Haryana claimed they were raped because the vigilantes thought that they were beef-eaters. Men have been filmed being forced to eat cow dung and the footage uploaded to social media. This is not a new phenomenon. Last March, a 12 year old boy was left hanging from a tree in Jharkhand and there have been other episodes of lynching twelve months ago.

Most of this violence seems to be directed towards lower castes (dalits – the term for untouchables popularised by Dr Ambedkar) and Muslims. If a cow dies, dalits are expected to deal with the carcass after removing the hide. Following attacks by gau rakshaks, some dalits have refused to do this, leaving the rotting corpses stinking in the street.

This morning, so many Muslims went to pray at the local mosque that the authorities had to close the main road. Everyone wears new clothes. People generously give food to those less well off than themselves. It is a joyous, uplifting, spiritual event.