I know it’s a cliché, but it seems like only yesterday that I came to live in Delhi.
I will miss my work colleagues who have been very kind to me. I will miss the historical sites of the capital, that I have come to know so well. I will miss the food. I won’t regret leaving behind the heat of summer in the city.
I do stand out like a sore thumb, being the only white male in the village. Doubtless, more locals recognise me than vice versa. Over the past year, I have become acquainted with some of the inhabitants of our part of Shalimar Bagh. I am the fruit and vegetable buyer for the team, so the vendors of the Monday evening street market know my face and what I tend to buy (not bitter gourd). I get preferential service but not local prices, though.
My fellow swimmers at the Municipal Swimming Pool know me well enough to have a chat with me between lengths or while we are waiting at the poolside. I won’t miss the dirty, used Band Aid / Elastoplast which has been on the side of the pool at the deep end for the past eight weeks.
Early each morning, I walk down the Gyan Shakti Mandir Marg, the dual carriageway outside our apartment. The instructor of the Hunny Driving School always gives me a wave from the passenger seat as his learner driver pootles slowly past. The men washing parked cars acknowledge my greeting with a nod and a smile, as they slosh murky water over dented vehicles. One of them respectfully calls me “doctor sahib”. A night guard salutes me and smiles every time I walk past.
A cycle rickshaw peddler (or should that be pedaller?) sleeps on the pavement beside his bike. Earlier in the year, when it was colder and the sunrise was later, I would pass him while he was still asleep. Now, he is wide awake, doing his ablutions al fresco, or cleaning his rickshaw. There was rain last night, with rolling thunder and intermittent lightning flashes, so I suppose he didn’t get much sleep.
By the jhuggi, I used to see the same school children, smartly turned out in clothes that are often too big for them (especially their shoes). They would have been waiting for the school bus. But it is the summer vacation, so public schools are closed and the children are already playing cricket in the school yard. The school bus drivers and conductors know me too, but they are gone now.
Bill Bryson in his book, “Notes from a Small Island”, writes about becoming acknowledged by the villagers in Malhamdale, Yorkshire. When the locals have accepted you, they greet you with a tiny finger wave, extending their index finger from the steering wheel of their car as they drive past you. It meant a lot to him and it means a lot to me when the men sitting on their cycle carts put their hands together in Namaste greeting to me, as they wait for customers to come their way.
I am amazed by the sweepers who clear up the massive pile of rubbish in the street, wearing flip flops and one who has a pink shirt uniform. How do they tolerate the stench? They scrape up the stinking mess into piles which they load onto three wheeler cycle carts. I have no idea where they dump the refuse, but I suspect it is Bhalswa Trash Mountain.
I am on “nodding terms” with the old Sikh man with a flowing white beard, who sits on a bench by the chaiwallah, sipping his tea. The gurdwara is close by with its free clinic. I’d stop for a cuppa, but although I enjoy the spicy masala, it is usually much too sweet for me.
I am beginning to know the animals on the street, too. The cows often have a rag tied around their neck for identification and ownership. It reminds me of nondescript black suitcases with a red swatch tied to their handles as they circle the carousel at the airport.
Some cows have small bells, others have a cord tied around their tails. One has a necklace with green stones. I know some by the deformed shape of their horns.
I know some dogs, too. There are pets being brought out to do their business by their owners and others which are streetwise and feral. Twice during the past year I have seen a bitch with puppies, and it has been satisfying watching them grow up, forming a pack.
The barrow boys are selling whatever fruit is available. They call me over to taste and try. Now it is mango season, lychees are just appearing and bigger peaches compete for space on their carts. Ridiculously, red apples from Washington State are cheaper than apples from India. Coconuts are always on sale for drinking and puja. I usually have a chat with the sellers as I walk past, looking to see what’s worth buying. I might also make polite conversation with other customers who have completed their morning constitutional walk around the park. I nod, but don’t engage with Delhi Policemen who man a portable roadblock and never seem to stop anyone.
The barbers start work at 7am, so I see them when I am walking back from the pool. They are always trying to entice me to have a trim and a shave. Or even a henna colour. Perhaps before I leave…