TS Eliot wrote that “April was the cruellest month”. Even though he studied Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit at Harvard, he obviously hadn’t visited Delhi in May. The heat is oppressive, touching mid 40s Celsius in the afternoon and barely dipping below 30 at night. Google says the temperature is 44, adding the rider that “it feels like 44”. Thanks for pointing that out, Google.
So the best time of day is the morning. I enjoy walking to the swimming pool at 6:40am. It is surprisingly busy at this time of day. Official yellow buses (one is called “Lily”, another “Aster”) pick up children from Shalimar Bagh to take them to private schools. There are also unofficial mini-buses, jam packed with kids, their satchels and knapsacks piled onto the roof. I know they are unofficial because they usually don’t have yellow licence plates used by public service vehicles.
Often dad will take his children to school on his motorbike (child straddling the petrol tank) or scooter (child standing in the foot well). Sometimes, there is another child on the back. The children rarely wear helmets.
At 8:45am on the way to the clinic, we sometimes pass a bicycle towing a tin cage, complete with bars, filled with children of kindergarten age. It reminds me of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But this Shalimar, not Vulgaria. It is my ambition to capture a photograph of it before I leave Delhi.
Boys and girls at junior schools have matching uniforms – grey trousers or skirt, with purple/white tartan-patterned shirt. Some have an elasticated tie, which often hangs down very low, past their crotch. The boys have gleaming, oiled hair, neatly combed with a parting and usually a few errant clumps of hair sticking up at the back. Many girls have long plaits with ribbons. Our local secondary school uniform is white. Schools must have flexible scheduling because some pupils enter the gates before 7am and I see others entering at 8am when I am on my way home from the pool.
The cows are out in force, scavenging on both sides of the dual carriageway. If, like me, you are carrying a bag, the cows think you are fair game for a bit of begging. The trick is to avoid eye contact and just keep moving. If they think you might have some food in the bag, they are onto you and will hunt you down. Other cows see you are being trailed and think they are missing something, so they join the posse.
At the roadside rubbish dump (there is no municipal collection of garbage in our district), there are cows competing with scavenging humans for edible or saleable debris. Sadly, the cows can’t open plastic bags containing waste food, so they eat the lot. The plastic bags clogs up their stomachs and can result in starvation and death if they are not admitted to a cow hospital. This is India; there are more cow hospitals than children’s hospitals.
There are no public toilets on Gyan Shakti Mandir Marg, so people from the slum use the pavement. I try not to look as I walk past, but occasionally a child will give me a friendly wave while he or she is squatting at stool. There is a plastered brick wall which clearly indicates the average groin to ground distance of Indian men. Interestingly, the yellow gate in this wall now has a blue sign advertising a new school – “Neo Arts Co-Ed Middle School” fully recognised and aided by Government. But looking through the yellow gate there is nothing but an acre of waste land with a few lean-to huts on one side. I saw one chap urinating onto a wire cage which contained an electrical transformer; he was due for a shock. “Warning: 1,100 Volts” says the sign.
On the way back from the pool, I bought some small peaches, about the size of an egg. They don’t resemble peaches much, being green and firm. I don’t think that they will grow much bigger either, because some are riper than others at the same size. You can buy mangoes, coconuts, bananas, pineapples, apples and other fruits outside one of the public parks. The barrow boys hang out there to pick up trade from healthy walkers, practitioners of yoga and grim joggers. There is also kombi van which has been kitted out with a blender, doing a roaring trade serving fancy drinks like “wheat grass” and aloe juice. Good for detoxing your chakra, but I don’t understand this stuff.
It is quite dangerous walking down the street to the pool. The pavements are unpleasant, being blotted with hanks of faeces, or unsafe, with broken slabs over the stinking drains. Pavement space gets misappropriated by micro commercial enterprises. The way is blocked by stacked pots, motorcycle/scooter mending tools, crude barbers’ chairs, tyre repair paraphernalia, chai vendors and even blocks of ice, covered with tarpaulin.
I tend to walk at the side of the road, but cars are usually double parked close to the residential areas, sometimes parallel but usually at an angle. Pedestrians have to dodge around the ends of the vehicles, keeping a look out for speedy motorbikes nipping past on the inside of slower three wheeler vans. As the street is a dual carriageway one might think it is safe to walk facing the traffic, but drivers don’t respect the Highway Code and often drive the wrong way, against the flow.
In places, the road surface is pitted and potholed, so smaller vehicles swerve out of their lane to avoid the bumps. This is very scary for pedestrians. Occasionally, a rickshaw will brush against my shoulder. I have been bumped once or twice, but not enough to knock me over. Indians don’t seem to have that sense of “personal space” or even road safety, which we have in Britain.
Flamboyant trees are in full flame-coloured blossom, but the Purple Bauhinia tree outside our apartment is past its best. The laburnum-like Golden Shower tree seems to produce raceme after raceme of bright yellow flowers. Bougainvillea flowers virtually all year round, reds, purples and white being the predominant colours. The cows have eaten or destroyed all the shrubs planted in the gap between carriageways. Oleanders survive best, possibly because they contain a chemical related to digoxin, a cardiac glycoside named oleandrin.
Sometimes I will see a dog perched on the roof of a car. Perhaps it is cooler up there than in the dirt. Less frequently I see large, black, hairy rats scurrying back into the storm drains. At least they haven’t started begging from me yet.
Shantih Shantih Shantih.