Mornings are a good time to be out and about in Paharganj. The streets have been sprinkled with water and there are only the beginnings of traffic and more space to walk freely. The power is routinely cut off for half an hour or so at 8.30am and the generator fumes fill the air blending with the usual tinge of incense. People trudge around swathed in shawls and peeping out of blankets wrapped tight. Backpackers fully loaded up move on to the next place. Small crowds gather around the chai wallahs and steam rises from their battered pots broiling and rolling with bubbly milk and tealeaves. The first jaleebis of the day bounce and toss in their tubs of boiling oil. A nearby cow insouciantly splays shit on the street and dogs timidly weave in and out of trouble.
Being a creature of habit I head off to find my coffee man, followed by Sam’s Café for a cinnamon bun. As I stride down the street I am passed by a rickshaw wallah with a sack of tiny doe-eyed children in the back all decked out in crisp clean uniforms with beanies on their little noggins to keep them warm. Clearly the school bus.
Today I have the ambitious undertaking of walking all the way to the Red Fort in Old Delhi. If my sense of direction or distance fails me, I figure I can always hail a rickshaw. I follow the rail line for what seems like miles, searching for a right turn. I pass men overturning rickshaws to fix them, men pumping up their tyres and a huddled little group with their heads bowed over some foil heating up their heroin. Nice. Obviously I’m in a good area. Finally I come to the right turn. Before long I am on Chandni Chowk, the major road leading to Old Delhi. It is teeming with people. I am constantly surrounded by a hexagon of humanity who have no choice but to stick with me as I stick with them. Thank god for being tall, I mutter to myself for the umpteenth time. It also allows me to see there’s a point to following the crowd, as I can see ahead of me the walls of the red stone fort emerging from a curtain of smog.
I pay my money and line up at the queue outside Lahore Gate. Again, my height allows me to see there are actually two queues. The long snaking one I have joined is for men. Way up ahead the female line has two adherents. Yippee. Revenge of the women’s toilet queue, I think smugly. I submit to being felt up by a woman who comes up to my navel, and continue on through.
Inside the grounds I remember how wonderful open space is…and bliss! Soft irrigated grass to walk on. I bet Indians pay their 100 rupees just to come in here and lie down all day listening to the sounds of birds cawing and twittering away from the cacophony of the street. Chipmunks scamper in all directions and I even spy a peacock mooching around on the roof of an outbuilding.
The milky white pollution gives the place an air of early morning without the dew. I have to keep looking at my watch to remind myself it’s mid afternoon. I try not to think about what it is doing to my lungs – maybe I will take up smoking when I get home to clean them up a bit. It is interesting (just as an aside) that smoking is actually not as ubiquitous as it is in China and the Middle Eastern countries I have been to, although the Indians could certainly compete with the Chinese for spitting…
Moving right along. I sample the Archaeology Museum, and view the marble pedestal where the peacock throne used to sit in the Hall of Private Audiences. It was solid gold and the peacocks that stood behind it were studded with precious stones. Between them was a parrot carved from a single emerald. Imagine that. Well, it was too over-the-top to be held onto and Nadir Shah nicked it in 1739, dragging it off to Iran where it was dismembered and distributed. A pity. I really would have liked to see that parrot.
The War Memorial Museum only serves to remind that men have developed more ways to chop up and kill other men than time can tell. The 1914-18 section shows Indian uniforms from WWI and inexplicably there is a mannequin wearing a NZ army uniform. Not everyone realises that Ghurkhas fought with us at Gallipoli, but they are Nepalese I think…but there were also Indian medical officers and such. Just look for the turbans in the old photos.
I sally forth and wade to the Jama Masjid. I give up my shoes so I can gingerly pick my way barefoot through the pigeon pooh covering the main area of the mosque. Much to my annoyance, being an ‘unaccompanied female’ I cannot go up the tower and see the view. Sour grapes tells me I wouldn’t have seen far anyway. The red ball of a sun is starting to sink into the milky soup, so it is time to run the gauntlet of the narrow street that leads to the main road.
People packed as tightly as can be and not moving. I feel like a snake trapped in a drainpipe. How the little children scamper backwards and forwards between legs and wheels without getting mashed is a mystery to me. Eventually we all spew out onto the main road and I can start bargaining for a rickshaw. I finally find the poor sorry man who will have to drag my sad and sore 80kgs all the way back to Paharganj. I clamber up and brace my broad western posterior on the narrow little seat. After walking all day it feels like we are flying when we take off. One misplaced rut and I really will know what it is to fly, I think. My bottom is flinching with every bump and judder in the road, but on considering the narrow hips and bony end swaying from side to side in front of me, better my amply padded arse than his, I concede. We enter the mass of traffic and I repeat the mantra that my driver doesn’t want to kill himself any more than he does me, so we will be fine. His brakes are good, humdoolillah, and he really knows what he is doing when it comes to weaving between the big buses and other vehicles (those times I can bear to watch, that is). Like Dr Seuss' poor Ali Sard, he certainly earns his ‘pifflous pay of two dooklahs a day’.