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…

Trucks

Lorries, wagons, heavy goods vehicles, call them what you will. Here are some superb specimens from India. The Hindi slogans are interesting.

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“Don’t smile baby, you will fall in love.”
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“My hard work, your blessing.”

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“Durga, my world is in your lap.”
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“Look! Your lover has come.”

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The detail is fascinating, with tassels, stick-on Shiva lingams and a representation of an eye and nose ring on a headlight. The paint work even extends to the tailgate. “Horn Please” = let me know you are about to overtake, because I am concentrating on the road ahead. “Use dipper at night” = flash your lights when overtaking this vehicle.

Of course, you can sleep in the cab, too.

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Blessing the Chariot

I went out to buy some milk this evening, taking the shortcut down the alley past the Hindu Temple. A pandit (priest wearing the Nehru jacket) was chanting prayers while he anointed a couple’s new scooter with sandalwood paste. Using his index finger, he painted a swastika design below the headlamp, putting a dot in each of the four quadrants. Actually, he missed one out until the man with the goatee beard drew his attention to the omission.img_20170227_181217

All the time, the bike was running in neutral, balanced on its stand, with the back wheel slowly revolving and the headlight on. The pandit wrapped a garland of marigolds around the wing mirrors. I have often wondered why I see motorbikes with dead flowers attached to their handlebars. Now I know.

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The ceremony ended when the couple gave the pandit a box of sweets (special laddoo from Bikanerwala). He removed a pinch from the golf ball-sized sweet and applied it to the centre of the swastika. Maybe it will make the scooter run sweetly.

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What do you do with the rest of a laddoo after using part of it to anoint a Honda? You give it to the foreigner who has been watching the proceedings, of course. And it was very good. I put milk jug between my knees and put my hands together in Namaste. Then I added a little prayer, “I hope the scooter will never break down, never have an accident and retain its second hand value.” I thanked them for the sweet.

If an Indian ever gives you something and you say how beautiful or tasty it was, they will immediately press you to take another. I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for supper, so I declined a second sweet, but the pandit gave me a tilak of my own between the eyebrows. That will activate my third eye.

 

Vintage and Classic Car Rally

The Statesman is holding the 51st Classic Car Rally in Delhi this weekend. In the words of the advertising poster,

“Let these beauties charm you one more time,
For, these are classic and sublime.”

I happened to be walking past Modern School, just off Connaught Place early this afternoon when a poster grabbed my attention. I was hoping that there would be 100 vehicles lined up, ready to be inspected and registered in the rally. There were just two.

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One was a beauty, a 1934 Lagonda with sweeping running boards and painted British racing green. The engine compartment was not as polished and gleaming as it would have been at a rally in UK, but I didn’t care. It had been imported to India after manufacture and had never left.

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The other was a Standard (which looked like a Triumph to me from a distance, with the front superstructure hinged frontwards like a Herald). It had a soft top which had been specially designed for the Indian summer. The owner was a very proud 83 year old. He had done Naval Training in 1951 at Dartmouth in Devon and was a real Anglophile down to his tweed flat cap.

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I chatted to the organisers who were vetting the vehicles. One had a plummy, cut-glass English accent, which matched his cardigan perfectly. I suppose it goes with the position.

Modern School is surrounded by playing fields and a shady, well-kept garden. Why on earth it should have a tank and a jet fighter in the grounds, I have no idea.

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Grand Trunk Road

The Grand Trunk Road connects Chittagong in Bangladesh with Kabul in Afghanistan. I never cease to be amazed at the antics of the traffic on this route which runs past the front of our clinic.

Moving long loads by bicycle can be tricky. This man is shifting metal across two lanes of dual carriageway (each lane usually has two vehicles abreast).

While he is negotiating this, another cyclist comes into view carrying long wooden planks. Trying to manoeuvre so each can pass is not easy. Especially when the lumberjack is intending to take the bike against the flow of traffic on the wrong side of the road.

This blocks the road for both vehicles and pedestrians. Not to be deterred, this chap vaults over the timber to cross the road.

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#incredible india

 

Motorbikes in Manipur

Motorbikes are economical means of transport in Manipur. This photograph is remarkable for two reasons. A driver with just one pillion passenger, and both are wearing helmets.

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These children are having fun riding with their father down the main street in Moreh. I cringe when I see children with their bare feet close to the hot exhaust pipe.

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The child is standing in the footwell of the scooter, holding onto the handlebars and if you look closely you can see another passenger with a yellow hat sitting behind the driver.

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I don’t think that these children are intentionally flicking “V” signs at me. It looks like the first motorcycle with different passengers, but the same driver. Showing off his new machine, perhaps.

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Wet muddy streets in Moreh must make riding a motorbike tricky.

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How do you get your chickens home alive when you are on a motor scooter? Easy, just string them on either side.

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Serendipity

Sometimes you take a photograph and it is only when you look at the image back home on your computer screen that you realise how lucky you have been to capture it.

This man is sleeping on the concrete barrier which separates two lanes of traffic in Chandni Chowk. This is one of the busiest streets in Delhi. OK, pretty good image, but then I saw the marking on the concrete barrier – Him-A-Laya. Perfect.

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Delhi Traffic

I have become blasé about the lawless nature of traffic in North Delhi. I say North Delhi because our drivers say that drivers in South Delhi tend to be more law abiding – possibly because of a greater police presence in Lutyens’ leafy avenues around the diplomatic enclave and the PM’s house. Or maybe because there are cameras on traffic lights at some intersections.

An article in the Times of India earlier this week seemed to suggest that India wasn’t doing too badly in the traffic fatality stakes, especially when compared to other developing countries. I don’t think that this is because of the deterrent of fines for traffic offences. The standard fee is 100 rupees (about £1.13) for a “small violation of the law” such as not wearing a seat belt, jumping the red lights or not having a licence plate. For the past decade, this has been supplemented by an additional levy of 500 rupees. More serious crimes warrant a higher penalty, like this sign warning of the dangers of driving in the wrong direction down a one-way street.

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About 400 Indians die every day on the roads. I am sure that the death rate would be higher in Delhi if there were fewer road users. There is so much traffic that everyone drives slowly, weaving between rickshaws and bicycles. Most vehicles bear the scars of minor scrapes caused by “brinkmanship driving”. However, in today’s paper, there is an article on the front page with the headline ” Ring Roads turn into death traps as city steps on the gas”. The peak time for fatal crashes in Delhi is between  11pm and midnight on the dual carriageways ringing the city. This is when there are fewer vehicles and speeding is rife.

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Two lanes of traffic merging at Azadpur. Often there are bicycles weaving between vehicles in the opposite direction.

What concerns me is that 40% of the fatalities are pedestrians, in a city where there are few usable footpaths at the sides of the road. Another 40% are cycle or motorcycle riders. I have been dealt a glancing blow by rickshaws a few times, luckily without sustaining any harm.

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Tibetan market on the fringes of the outer ring road
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These mattresses wouldn’t help to cushion the blow in the event of an accident

Hard Work – a photographic essay

Poor people in India work hard. Manual labour is cheap. Here are some photographs of men carrying loads on their heads, pushing and pulling handcarts, straining to pedal their human and inanimate loads.

The light was fading as I took the pictures, so they are gritty and grainy, but I think this adds to the character. I don’t use flash in street photography.

What do you think?

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Tins cans of cashew nuts balanced on heads in the walled city.
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The trick is all about keeping the load balanced, with a mate pushing from behind.
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Sacks of pistachio nuts, each must weigh at least 10kg – that’s 50kg balanced on his head. I wonder if his eyebrows are helping to keep the load balanced.
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Working solo
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Pleasantly surprised to be the subject of a photograph. He didn’t stop to sign a release form.
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Working with a smile
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Welcome doormats
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Just how much can a man carry on his head?
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I like the nonchalance of the cyclist’s foot on the crossbar.
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This man looks exhausted.

Too many photographs, so I will put a few compilations below:

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It’s really late and dark, so one last picture of a rickshaw cyclist with a light flare behind his right ear as he pedals through Khari Baoli

Delhi Metro as a Flaneur

Daily Post

I vividly remember the first time I stepped onto a Delhi Metro train at Rajiv Chowk underground station in the heart of New Delhi at Connaught Place ten years ago. It was a shock.

The station wasn’t just clean, it was spick and span. There were no beggars. It was air conditioned. The train was not crowded. And in the carriage, the female voice announcing the stations was speaking received pronunciation, a cut-glass accent, the Queen’s English. Mind the Gap. I remember I went back for another ride just for the sheer delight it gave me. At that time, I think the yellow line was restricted to half a dozen stations on a north-south axis, with the red line running east-west. There are now six coloured lines, over 132 miles of track. And a new pink line will begin service next year.

Now that I live here, I am a seasoned traveller on the Metro. It is the cheapest way to get around the city, and during rush hour (7 – 11am and 2 – 7pm) it is the fastest. The female announcer’s accent has not changed, but the numbers have. On an average day, 2.8 million people ride the Metro, but this can reach 3.3 million on public or national holidays. Even though I usually join the yellow line train four stations after it leaves the northern terminus at Badli, there is rarely a free seat. Last weekend, at Central Secretariat station, I was actually lifted off my feet in the surge to get onto the train. We were packed in like sardines.

Before I saw the sign saying photography was forbidden, I took this photo of a carriage at “normal” occupancy.

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There is a special “sari guard” on the escalators, to prevent ladies’ saris from being snared in the moving staircase. One carriage is reserved for ladies only. Any man boarding this carriage is liable to be fined. Given the crush of passengers, I can understand that women would not want to be groped by men in these conditions. There are also seats reserved for women in the mixed carriages, as well as for those who are “differently abled” or the elderly or even just people who need it more than you.

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A month ago, I was standing, watching a little girl with her mum and new baby travelling on the Metro. Mum had a seat and the little girl had a problem with her shoe, which she couldn’t fix. Her mum couldn’t help as she had a babe in arms. I reached over and sorted out the lining of the shoe, helped her put it back on, and she smiled at me. A man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “For being such a kind gentleman, I think you deserve my seat.” Chivalry is not dead on the Metro.

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There are very few white men riding the Metro in Delhi. I rarely see any. So perhaps that is why Indians often stare at me. I don’t find this upsetting, I just smile back and sometimes try to initiate conversation. I get out my Hindi cards and encourage them to help me with my pronunciation, or I show them photos on my cell phone. Sometimes I help them with their English homework. It is much more fun than travelling on the Underground in London.

Lots of Indians play Candy Crush or other games on their smartphones as they ride along. The latest craze is for Ludo, with couples or families playing while they travel. I like to watch other travellers sneaking a peek at how the game players are doing. It’s a bit like reading someone else’s newspaper on the Tube. Everyone does it surreptitiously. I sometimes cheat by looking at the reflection in the window behind them.

The carriages are air conditioned and often the air smells of deodorant. However, a recent article in the Times of India said that despite this, the air quality in the Metro can be just as bad as above ground. Sometimes it gets unpleasantly cold and it is a relief when the train pulls into a station above ground, the doors open and a blast of hot, humid air enters the carriage.

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There are health and safety restrictions on the Metro. People suffering from cerebro-spinal meningitis, diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis, measles, chickenpox and mumps are not allowed to travel. I’m sure that all patients with meningitis or diphtheria would be too ill to even contemplate travelling anywhere apart from in an ambulance. People suffering from leprosy are allowed, if they get a note from their doctor saying that they are not infectious.

The Metro is incredibly inexpensive. There is a fixed maximum fare and, with a Metro card, I get 10% off this. I usually manage to do about 20 journeys at weekends for about £3 a month. There are plans to increase the prices, so next year this might cost me £4 a month.

Fellow travellers who have struck up a conversation with me always ask what I am doing here. I tell them a bit about my work with the survivors of sexual violence. I wonder if this entitles me to be called a “Metro-Sexual”, but MSF will still not allow me to ride the bus.

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POST SCRIPT – Last night (Friday) was Dhanteras, the start of the Diwali Festival weekend. The Metro was so packed with people that it resulted in gridlock. Two stations had to be shut down for over an hour because of surging crowds at the peak of rush hour.