Going home

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.

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Swimming class. Sit on the side of the pool and kick your legs, arms extended. Get splashed by the teacher if you are slacking.

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.

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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.

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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.

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This is Jahangir Puri, not Shalimar Bagh.

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.

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Pug owner feeding cows on the central reservation

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.

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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…

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Nicholson Cemetery

This is the main resting place of the British community of Delhi after the disaster of the Mutiny in 1857. It was originally a Mughal garden. It is named after its most illustrious resident, Brigadier-General John Nicholson, “Lion of the Punjab”. He began his career as an ensign in the East India Company Native Infantry. He had a reputation of being courageous, fearless and a brilliant swordsman. Although he was considered just and fair, he also had a furious temper and showed little mercy to his enemies.*

During the Mutiny, Nicholson led a mobile column from the Punjab to relieve the besieging British troops on the Ridge north of Delhi. Some considered his presence equivalent to a thousand additional troops. He bitterly criticised the incompetence of his superiors and was glad to be given the task of leading his troops through the breached walls at Kashmiri Gate. Inside the city, his troops were exhausted and stopped to rest. Nicholson didn’t. Wielding a sword and a pistol, he charged a gang of mutinous sepoys down a street, but was shot in the back by a sniper. He died nine days later from his wounds.

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It is a forgotten wonderland of dilapidated tombs, toppled headstones choked with spiny vines, tangled weeds, and outrageously draped with a riot of red bougainvillea.

There are some graves prior to the Mutiny, with marble headstones set into the red wall of the gatehouse. One plaque was by the 8th, The King’s Regiment, commemorating three lieutenants, 41 non commissioned officers and men, who lost their lives during the siege of Delhi. (The Mutiny Monument on the Ridge (which looks like the Albert Memorial) contains the names of all the British troops who lost their lives during the siege.)

Lots of young British soldiers are buried here, their rank and regiment displayed on their headstones. It is interesting to read the inscriptions: “Erected by his colleagues and friends,” and explaining the cause of death – enteric fever (typhoid) or pleurisy. Sadly the commonest religious message is the fatalistic, “Thy will be done.” I was touched by the gravestone of Herbert Jackson, C Battery, Royal Horse Artillery,  whose age was given as “23 and 11/12”.

Elizabeth Badley Read, of the American Methodist Mission in Lucknow, lies beneath a stone slab which reads, “She loved India”.

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The western half of the cemetery is modern, orderly and well kept. There are rows of marble slabs, beneath which Anglo-Indians are buried along with those who “stayed on”.

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The Moghul Emperors left behind magnificent mausoleums, some of which have been restored to something resembling their original grandeur, others have been allowed to crumble to dust.

The Hindus, Buddhists and Jains believe in reincarnation of the soul, so their dead are cremated to leave nothing behind.

The entropic Nicholson Christian Cemetery is a poignant reminder of the fragile tenure of a century of British Raj. But the legend of Nicholson lives on. There is a tiny cult of tribesmen on the North West Frontier who still revere “Nikal Seyn – the Lion of the Punjab”.#

Et in Arcadia, ego

 

* During the Mutiny, one evening Nicholson appeared in the officers’ mess at Jullunder and said, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting for your supper, but I have been busy hanging your cooks.” He had received word that there was a plot to poison the officers’ food with aconite, so he asked the regimental chefs to taste what they had prepared. They refused. He fed the food to a monkey, which promptly expired, so he immediately had the cooks hanged. He then ate dinner.

 

# For an amusing, account of Nicholson’s life, if you can stand the profanity, look at the website “Badass of the Week”.

Republic Day

January 26th is the anniversary of the Indian Constitution which came into effect in 1950. I would have enjoyed watching the parade in person, but duty called, and I had to work. MSF had donated some blankets and toiletries to the Naaz Foundation, a non-government charitable organisation which is based in the slums and works with the poorest of the poor. I was representing MSF, together with our band of health educators, a couple of drivers and an administrator.

First stop was Burari, where the Naaz Foundation office is located. The weather was grim. Dull, leaden skies with low cloud and episodic rain. We parked up in an unpaved side street and waited for the action to begin. It did,unexpectedly when a gust of wind brought down the canvas awning. We visited the office where Naaz runs computer and IT courses for students in the slums. They guarantee a placement for every student who successfully completes their courses. What a wonderful way to help a young person shrug off the shackles of poverty.

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Whenever I hear of an aid agency giving out blankets, I think of those old grey woollen blankets, which were never that warm anyway. But the blankets MSF provided are thick acrylic blend fleece, called “mink blankets”. I have one on my bed and it is as warm as a duvet, as well as being easier to wash.

The ceremony was delayed because of the weather, and when it did get underway an hour late, it started raining heavily. All the people sitting on plastic stools waiting to get their blankets were getting soaked, so they huddled at the side of a building. Meanwhile, puddles of rainwater were straining the awning. It began to leak like a sieve, trickling thin streams of water down the necks of the VIPs.

I could hear grumbling thunder and there were some flashes of lightning. Then there was a louder, more distinct noise of a squadron of Indian Air Force planes passing over. We couldn’t see them at all, because of the low cloud.

After the photographer had recorded the first half dozen people receiving their blankets, soap, towels, toothpaste and toothbrushes, I had to leave. I was already half an hour late for the Republic Day ceremony at Prayas, a Boys’ Home in Jahangir Puri. The roads were awash with rain, drains were overflowing, and the smell of sewage was overpowering.

Prayas is an institution and looks like a prison without bars on the windows. It has four or five floors, with two covered courtyards. We drove up and I tiptoed through a lake of rainwater to get to the entrance. The lightning had caused a power cut, so it was dark and forbidding inside. The 150 boys living at Prayas were all sitting in regimented rows, facing forwards. As I walked in there was a murmur and a hundred faces turned to see the strange white man.

The residents are children who have been rescued from the street or sweat shops where they work long hours for next to nothing. Their parents may have “sold” them as slave labourers, and they are working to pay off the debt. One child had been pushed off a train and was paraplegic. It was extremely touching how the other boys tended to him, raised his head so he could see the performers and generally befriended him.

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Children performed a song, recited a poem or did a dance for their colleagues. A few pigeon feathers floated down from the high ceiling. The lights came on, to a resounding cheer from the lads. A dozen fluorescent light strips didn’t make a great deal of difference, but at least the sound system worked.

I reflected on what would have happened to these boys if Prayas had not existed – an appalling life of oppression and poverty.

My final appearance was at another Naaz Foundation blanket-donating event in Libas Pur, another slum. The rain had set in for the day and it was miserable. There was no delay to the proceedings and I went directly to the flagpole to unfurl the Indian flag. The flag was tied into a bundle containing rose petals and flowers. The three VIPs pulled the lanyard but the knot wouldn’t slip. When I jokingly offered to shin up the listing flagpole to unhitch the flag, the organisers looked at me in horror. “No, you mustn’t. We will fix it,” they said. One almighty heave later and a clutch of damp petals fell onto our heads as the flag was released.

Everyone sang the national anthem (I was beginning to know the words by now) and we finished off with a few calls of “Hindustan – Zindabad” and “Jai Hind”. We retreated to another leaky marquee and posed for photographs. The people who received the blankets looked rather shell-shocked. None of them was able to muster a smile. They queued in the rain and clung onto their gifts as they shuffled away.

 

We dished out fifty blankets in record time and hurried back to the vehicle to return to the office. I hadn’t had any lunch, so when I saw a crowd of people eating from polystyrene plates, I suggested we stop. “No, Doctor Ian, that is a charity giving away food to the needy on Republic Day.” No wonder it was popular.

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I was soaked when I got home. There had been over an inch of rain, but it wasn’t warm and heavy, like a monsoon; it was more like a constant drizzling Devon December day. My room has an oil filled electric radiator  but it doesn’t give off much heat. I changed into dry clothes and sat down in front of the television to watch the news coverage of the military parade down Rajpath to India Gate. Check out the police motorcycle formation gymnasts and the Border Force Camel-Mounted Regimental Band on YouTube. And the Prime Minister’s very fetching pink chiffon pugree.

Nirbhaya

Four years ago in Delhi, a gang of five men* and a boy raped and brutally murdered a young woman. The internal injuries she sustained from a metal rod being thrust inside her eventually caused multi-organ failure. She died a few days later, despite desperate attempts to treat her in specialist unit in Singapore. The men were all convicted and sentenced to hang; an under-age boy who was complicit in the rape has just been released from a juvenile detention centre. This week, the Supreme Court has been hearing arguments from lawyers appealing against the death sentence.

It is forbidden for newspapers to reveal the names of women who have been raped. This girl was given the pseudonym “Nirbhaya” – meaning fearless one. Her mother has broken silence and named her as Jyoti. The rape became headline news and there were riots demanding justice for all rape victims. There were ambitious plans to help women who had been assaulted, including  “one stop shops” to provide all the care a rape survivor might need. Four years on, and not a great deal has happened.

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Today, on the anniversary of the rape, there were two public events which I attended in Delhi. Narinama took place at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. It was scheduled to start at 10:30, but didn’t get underway until almost 12 noon. Unfortunately for me, much of what was said in the sessions was in Hindi, so I had to rely on a translator to whisper in my ear. I got the jist.

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The first session was with women who were entrepreneurs, talking about their journey to success, and glass ceilings.

An amazing band of drummers from Bihar entertained us. Even though it was 23C, they must have been feeling cold, as all wore heavy jackets over pink and light green sarees. The name of the band was Nari Gunjan Sargam Mahila, nari gunjan meaning “humming women”. They warmed themselves up belting out some drumming humming rhythms.

The second session was called the “Female Gaze”, with an actress (she was in “Brick Lane”), the celebrated film maker Leena Yadav (director of “Parched”) and a former experimental film actress now a feminist columnist called Pooja Bedi. This was more interesting for me as they occasionally spoke  in “Hindlish”. Pooja was very glamorous and talked about being the best you could be, even if this was playing “sexy roles” in Bollywood films. She got married and was the best housewife and mother she could be, until the divorce…Now she is the best columnist she can be, and she drives the same model Mercedes as her ex husband.

Next, a vivacious elderly lady led a troupe of women chanting slogans and singing songs about women’s rights and condemning violence against women. I now know the Hindi word “Ekata”, which means “unity”.

There was no lunch break scheduled, and the event was running an hour late. We slipped out and had some food from a stall in the gardens. Allo chaat, alloo tikki, fruit channa chaat, and daulat ki chaat for dessert. See my Facebook post for menu details and translation.

At 2:30pm we moved to a second, more political event, held near the Jantar Mantar (astronomical garden). There is a designated road where people come to protest and raise issues. It resembles Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. We walked past a rally demanding a homeland for Gurkhas and a group of people protesting about the lack of awareness of autism, before we came across Nirbhaya Chetna Diwas. Television cameras pointed at the stage, reporters were milling about interviewing people, and there were even a few protesters. The mother of Jyoti/Nirbhaya, Asha Devi, spoke for a few minutes, but most of the speakers were politicians. She is wearing a blue and white sari.

Again, it was mostly in Hindi but it was also ear-piercingly loud (PA systems in India are always deafening, probably to counter the constant chattering in the audience). Why has the government not spent the money it allocated to help prevent further assaults on women, like CCTV cameras on buses, additional toilets and fast-track courts? Why have the convicted criminals not been hanged?

A member of parliament (Lok Sabha) for NW Delhi was talking about changing attitudes through education. I smiled when he said, “But we can’t even blame the British for the failings of the education system!” It has been 70 years since independence.

 

We lit candles and took photographs before driving back to the office with a Sikh version of Lewis Hamilton. Honestly, I have to shut my eyes sometimes because the driving is so manic and lawless. I was so drained and exhausted that I didn’t even go to the “Satan and Angels” party at the branch office.

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* One of the men committed suicide in jail.

Diwali

This is going to disappoint Deb, I am afraid.

Here in Delhi, Diwali is dull, crowded, smoggy and very loud. Although Chinese-manufactured firecrackers have been banned, there were intermittent, eardrum-rupturing explosions through the night. I am not sure that this ordinance/ordnance chases away evil spirits, but it certainly kept me awake until 1am.

I went up on the roof to see what was happening while I ate dinner, but the views through the gloomy, polluted atmosphere were uninspiring. There were no firework displays. The exterior lights were just strings of tiny LEDs, hung from rooftops of the smarter buildings. “The Chinese lights are much better, they flicker on and off in patterns. Our Indian lights just go on and off,” said one of our drivers. Even the fancy shopping complex just had some dreary lanterns strung up in the courtyard. In fact, Diwali in Delhi is nowhere near as exciting as it is in Belgrave, Leicester.

Perhaps I don’t appreciate it because I am not Indian. Like Christmas, it is a time when families get together, give presents and eat. I am on my own this weekend, away from my family, with no gifts (apart from to myself from my forays on the Amazon.in website) and I am eating the same rice, lentils and vegetable curry that I eat every day.

I asked someone at work what he was going to do for Diwali and he said that he was going to gamble at cards.”Poker? Texas Hold ‘Em? Seven Card Stud?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “We play whist.” Hmm, whist doesn’t have the cachet that poker has nowadays. It’s the sort of game I’d play with my mother and granny 50 years ago.

The Festival of Lights signifies the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, hope over despair. Traditionally, the lights are small earthenware cups containing oil and a cotton wick. These lamps (diyas) burn until the oil is used up and then the flame dies, signifying that life comes to an end, the message being that you should live life to the full while you can.

Here are some lights on the stairs of our apartment block. And this is an image (rangoli) of a peacock made from coloured powder outside the door.

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The air quality in Delhi deteriorates at this time of the year, mainly because farmers in neighbouring states burn off the stubble in their fields. But the volume of vehicles on the packed roads of the capital and the spontaneous combustion of the mountainous rubbish heaps also contributes. And now we have the smoke from fireworks added to the mix. The air quality index ranges from 0 – 500. The score has been rising in Delhi over the past ten days, with it exceeding 400 in some areas. This is enough to cause respiratory problems even in healthy people. My colleague has stopped jogging in the mornings as a result. Health experts reckon that 50% of heart attacks at this time are caused by air pollution (but I have no idea how they could make that calculation).

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The view from the rooftop of my apartment block at 9am this morning. Poor visibility. But the orange marigolds being sold by the hawker stands out as a splash of colour.

I was on the Metro yesterday and it was very unpleasant because of the crowd. But I was fortunate. In today’s Times of India this article suggests taking a First Aid kit with you if you travel because of the risk of injuries. One man even suffered from broken ribs in the crush to get on the train. It is no better in the ladies compartment, which is equally packed. Women with sharp elbows push and shove as if this is going to increase the space.

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This is an amendment – the fireworks have been relentless this evening, the 30/31 October.Some more photographs.

On the last day of Diwali, people celebrate peace. Every year at the railway border between Pakistan and India in Punjab, the soldiers exchange gifts of sweets. With the continuing fighting across the Line of Control in Kashmir, I doubt that this will happen this year.

From untruth lead us to Truth.
From darkness lead us to Light.
From death lead us to Immortality.
Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

A vedic prayer from the Upanishads

Ajrakh

In Gujerat and Rajasthan there are still a few craftsmen who use the ancient traditional Ajrakh technique to make patterned cotton cloth. It is an incredibly complicated and time-consuming business. There are fourteen steps in the process, but basically, it is a reverse block print, with areas of cloth being treated to avoid dye. The technique is believed to be over 3,000 years old.

Preparing the khadi cloth is extremely important. It has to be washed, steamed in copper vats and then soaked in a mix of castor oil, ash and camel dung. It is bundled up whilst still wet and left until it starts to ferment. When it smells like mango pickle, it is done. The next stage is soaking in more oil and sodium carbonate for twenty four hours, washing thoroughly, and soaked again in a mixture of lemons, oil and molasses. It is finally washed and dried, then pegged out for printing. This is to open the cotton fibres so they will take up the dyes and the colours will be fast.

The artisans make paste of gum, rice flour, fennel, herbs and Fuller’s earth which is applied to protect the areas of the pattern which will be white, red or black. They immerse the cloth into indigo dye and then it is washed thoroughly to remove paste and dye. The next step is dyeing with madder in a copper, and then the cloth is laid out on a river bank. Before it dries completely, it is moistened again, causing the white areas to bleach out as the other colours intensify.

The cloth is covered with the paste again to cover the red areas. They scatter flakes of dried cow dung over the damp areas. Eventually, the cloth goes back into the indigo before being rolled up and washed in the river. Each of these stages takes 3-4 days.

Wood carvers chisel out incredibly precise patterns on blocks, so that when the pattern is applied, it matches up perfectly. Two blocks are made as mirror images. Traditional dyes are used to build up the entire design.

Shelly Jyoti is a textile artist who is campaigning to keep the Ajrakh tradition alive. I visited her exhibition (“The Khadi March: Just five metres”) currently at the India Habitat Centre last weekend. It was superb. I spoke to her for ten minutes about her work. My account of the process is shamelessly cribbed from her description. She has designed artworks depicting the Tree of Life, flags, clothing and patterns. I quite fancied hanging one on my bedroom wall in the apartment, until I learned that the prices start at over £1,000 each.

See more of her impressive work on her website: http://www.shellyjyoti.com/

Almost a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi objected to cheap, mass-produced, British cotton cloth being imported into India, flooding the market and destroying traditional cottage industries. For four months of the year when there is no agricultural activity, farmers could prepare cotton which they had grown to spin and weave into coarse cloth (khadi). This would reduce their dependence on imported goods and give them a source of income.

At one point, it was compulsory for members of the Congress Party to spin cotton thread for half an hour a day in solidarity with the rural poor. The first Indian national flag had a spinning wheel in the centre (this was later altered to a 27 spoked wheel or dhamma). The “just five metres” in the title of the exhibition refers to the amount of khadi cloth each city dweller needs to buy each year in order to revitalise rural cloth production.

Sitting

Sitting around in K Block, Jahangir Puri. These photographs were stolen. This isn’t proper street photography. I just pressed my camera to the glass of the car window as we drove through the neighbourhood and squeezed off a few pictures when I saw something interesting.

Although technically K Block is an “unplanned settlement”, it is developed enough to have some rudimentary infrastructure. It has become established. There is electricity, a rudimentary rubbish collection system, some covered drains and a few water pumps. Some people have even added a second storey to their houses, accessed by a ladder rather than a conventional staircase.

There’s commercial activity, too. A chai shop, a couple of ladies displaying gaudy plastic goods for sale on the pavement or hung from a rope, a chap fixing the chain of a tricycle rickshaw, a barber, a recycler of plastic Coca Cola bottles and three men who seem to have given up trying to mend the axle of a tuk-tuk, which lies lamely on one side, like a beached yellow whale.

Life is also about relaxing and conversing with your friends. Three lads hunker down on their haunches to chat about the day. An old man with a beard dyed ginger fans himself as he talks to a young man (his son?), both sitting on a charpai (woven bed). A man wearing orange pyjamas sits on a pink plastic chair, oblivious to the clash of colours. His drum hangs on the wall behind him. An old man puts aside his walking stick as he eases himself down onto a concrete step for a rest.

All captured by me sitting in the passenger seat.