Honk for Paradise
Changing notions of time, religion and money in Delhi
9th February, 2004
India. The most fascinating, colorful, confusing and above all, smelly country I have ever seen. It's brilliant. Disturbing. Full of religion. Full of naked greed. But everywhere, everything is interesting.
You don't need to visit anywhere special in India. Just ambling down an ordinary street will provide a world of fascination, layer upon layer of culture, of colour, of the unknown. Indeed, the word street has a different meaning. In the West, a "street" is simply a route from one point to another. In India a simple narrow alleyway might contain:
a) ornate Jain temples of the lightest filigree right beside
b) enormous mounds of shit
c) a marriage procession of wild colours and traditional costumes fighting to get past a rich merchant in his 4x4
d) dozens of stalls set out at random cooking food, making tea, having a laugh right next to
e) enormous mounds of shit
f) markets of women and men happily squatting in the dirt to sell vegetables as their ancestors have done for millenia
g) tiny shops carved out of cupboard spaces where the proprietor will happliy discuss the latest mobile phones
h) plastic refuse, tossed anywhere
i) spittle, tossed everwhere
j) cows, wandering free, staring, standing around, staring, refusing to move, staring, oblivious to everything but their own importance.
It's pretty odd playing second fiddle to a cow, believe me.
Rich Western Sucker
I emerged from my flight jet-lagged and grimy. The weather in Delhi was cold, grey and rainy. Ha, ha, I thought, Virgin has played a final prank and brought us back to London. But no. The roads turned into a mayhem of traffic, knots of sari-clad women, trucks stuffed with turbanned labourers, motorbikes with the standard three passengers, and reaching through everything, the smell of the east. The instantly exotic and unforgettable mixture that brings all travellers back to the orient in a flash: spice, traffic fumes, putrefaction and human dung.
The smell, chaos and strangeness of Delhi hit me like a wall, and I spent the first day locked in
my hotel room, watching HBO and frantically applying hand sanitizer every time I touched any surface. Then, having recovered from jet-lag I summoned my nerve and went out. Recovering my strength, I felt that a mild walk down the street could do no harm. Big mistake. A tourist newly-arrived in India is as naive as a new-born babe - not yet having learned the proper value of things the honest locals will cheerfully apply a vacuum cleaner to your wallet before you wise up to it. You might as well have the words "Rich Western Sucker" stamped on your forehead in bright, glowing letters.
"Taxi tour, sir? Only 1100 rupees!" Why, that sounds like nothing, I'll take it! (True price, 500) Rickshaw sir? 200 rupees! Why, that sounds like nothing! (true price: 30 rupees) "Temple tour sir? Only 200 rupees!" Why, etc. True value: nothing.
You learn fast.
I spent several days terrified by the India traffic system. If you can use the word "system" for thousands of busses, lorries, cars, pedestrians, cycle rickshaws, and, most important of all, cows, all fighting desperately for space, weaving in and out, cutting crazily across each other and always, always, blowing their horns or shouting like mad.
It seemed like madness, like murder. I would stand and wait for a gap in the traffic that would never come, wondering how anyone survived it at all. Eventually, I just followed the locals - who amble across without even looking left or right - and just plunged in. And, like magic, the traffic parted. The cars, the bikes, the herd animals seemed to diverge by tiny degrees and miss me by inches.
It must the horns. By a force of natural selection, the Indian car horn has evolved beyong a mere accessory into a navigation aid, a full three-dimensional echo location device that permits the driver a view of everything around him.
Of course, all that chaos leads to a continual, 24-hour traffic jam on every single Indian road and alleyway. That does not matter much. They weren't going anywhere fast anyway.
Noone hurries here. Indians will get up at a brisk, early hour, eat, wash and pray vigoursly enough and then amble off, to nowhere in particular. They amble to their shop, open up, sit on the floor, and have a cup of tea. Time passes. Eventually a customer may amble in. Time passes. They amble off, have a pray and go to bed.
You venture into a hotel. The desk manager will look at your passport, show it to his six fellow desk managers, ten bellboys, and a few friends that are just hanging around. Time passes. Not much happens. At last, they will decide which out of the sixteen will write your name in the book, and wander off in search of a pen. It's important never to be in a hurry in India.
You too, learn to amble, not to make any sudden moves. Indeed you begin to fear what would happen if you did. I think the sight of someone rushing in India would cause such a mass panic
you might be forced to look before crossing the road.
The Mystery of the Orient
With all the ambling, it's amazing that any of these little shops can make any money at all. Certainly, if a Rich Western Sucker, and pays a thousand percent markup on a used dog's blanket thinking it's a pashmina shawl, then all the shopkeepers could close up and amble home early for the day. But there aren't anough tourists to go round.
But not only do they make maney by the handful, they can afford to employ sixteen relatives at the checkout desk. It's a mystery. Add to that the normal oriental practise of locating all businesses of the sme type beside each other on the same street, so that a jeweller will be found
with thirty direct competitors on either side, and that the shopkeepers spend most of their time just hanging out, chatting to their competitors and having a relaxed time, you really wonder how it all works.
India has nothing to fear from Western commercialism ruining their spiritual identity: they thought of it long ago. Making money is a vital requirement of both Hinduism and the Sikh religions, and they pursue it here without an ounce of shame.
The most popular Hindu gods include Ganesh (good luck), Lakshmi (wealth) and Krishna (having 16,000 girlfriends). The people here are friendly, very gentle and non-threatening, and will happily con you out of
every last pice in your wallet if you let them. And, as the gods have ordained it, who can argue?
Intrepid Old Me
I am such a hardened traveller at this stage, that the first thing I did in India was to join a guided tour. I choose Intrepid Travel because of the catchy title. I'm off on a three week Rajastan Adventure. Desert fortresses, exotic temples,
Our first excursion was to Old Delhi, to visit the chaos and colour of the spice market, the Sikh temple, the Grand Mosque and the tiny ancient streets filled with tiny ancient shops. I had already been in the city three days, so by now I knew not to pay their asking price for anything. I haggled. I knocked 50, 75% off everything. I walked away from Old Delhi feeling triumphant, feeling that at last I was getting to grips with Indian society.
Behind me was the gentle, non-threatening sound of laughter as all the shopkeepers drew down their blinds and ambled off home, closing early for the day.
Hat & Spoon