'Work in Progress'
20.04.2010 - 30.04.2010 42 °C
John:....there was little that was particularly remarkable about the upright man sat outside the jeweller's shop in Khan Market. He looked to be in mid 60s, smartly turned out and with a well tended moustache shading his top lip. His security guard uniform was neatly pressed and the sort of thing we have grown accustomed to seeing throughout our travels. It was not even remarkable that he was armed; most security guards we have seen at banks and jewellery shops have been. What was remarkable was that he was armed with a vintage double barrelled shotgun; one adaptation up from a blunderbus. As old as this venerable weaponry was, it was polished 'museum shiny', just lacking a label telling us its provenance.
The Government car nudging its way through the grime of the Delhi traffic was just like any other such vehicle; white, a ministerial flag on the left front wing lifeless in the heat and stillness of the grindingly slow moving vehicles, shiny and polished with a driver in the front seat and a shaded, important looking person in the back. The difference was that although shiny and new, this car had few stylistic changes since its predecessors were manufactured in Morris Motors factory in Cowley many years ago. The Hindustan Motors Ambassador was the first car manufactured in India and like its two wheeled counterpart the Royal Enfield motorcycle Classic 500 appears, on the surface, to have been frozen in a bygone time. http://www.royalenfield.com/default.aspx has lots of interesting data on the Royal Enfield Motorcycle Company if you're interested. (Attempts to modernise the style of the bike look singularly unsuccessful to me).
For most of our travels around the city we take a Tuk Tuk. A three wheeled vehicle that makes the Reliant Robin I once owned look sophisticated. Originally built by an Italian company and now manufactured in India these are, essentially scooters with two back wheels and a covered in seat behind the driver. At a squeeze we can get three in. The cheapest motorised transport in the city with the benefit of not being totally closed in you can feel very close to what is going on. These vehicles are usually owned in large numbers by businessmen. The drivers have to pay the owners a daily fee to drive them, in the region of 300 rupees plus 100 for petrol. With a 15 - 20 minute journey costing around 50 rupees there isn't much of a margin for the drivers in this.
All the cliches about India have been over used and exhausted. The origins of the cliches are obvious however. Glimpses of bone grinding poverty are everywhere. A stop at the traffic lights will bring small numbers of children and adults to your vehicle with roses, electric fly swats, model aeroplanes, feather dusters; under the flyovers and in shady spots homeless people are sleeping rough on the ground. Shacks built by itinerent building labourers are thrown up by the side of the road, housing whole families and soon becoming small communities. When the building work is finished they may move on....when the building work is finished? There's an interesting concept.
There are so many unfinished building projects underway here in Delhi that it is hard to think of anything ever being finished. The current rush of building jobs in New Delhi has the Commonwealth Games as its focus. Due to take place just 6 months from now I can't even begin to imagine how they will be finished in time. In fact it will be a remarkable feat if all the pavements are intact before October. There cannot be a single intact pavement in the city. WORK IN PROGRESS is proclaimed on signs and hoardings that barely conceal the building sites dotted around New Delhi as everything from athlete's accomodation and stadia to metro stations and roads are being constructed or modernised. Ancient temples and other historical sites are being rennovated in the stultifying heat. Labouring seems to be a unisex activity with beanstick thin men stripped to the waste and blackened by the sun and, incongruously, slender women in beautifully coloured sahris mix concrete, carry bricks on their heads and lay kerbstones. The tools in use are basic. No or little mechanisation but lots of people working; and may be that's the point. Perhaps the anxiety about finishing anything is about "...and what would we do then?'
A gentle sand wedge shot from one such scene is the Delhi Golf Course (where one might see the occassional white ministerial Ambassador car) and the Delhi Public school...so close and yet the poor and very very wealthy almost invisible to each other, living in parrallel dimensions. An owner of a dress shop in the Hauz Khas village summed up his India when he told us that all of India is imeasurably better than it was a few years ago...."now you can sell people expensive things and next time they want something even more expensive". Delhi has a population of approximately 12 million of whom 4 million live in slum dwellings.
We have had a wonderful first week here in Delhi. Staying with our good friends Amanda and Matt has been a very gentle orientation to the city. We have been glad to avail ourselves of their experiences here, not to mention their air conditioned apartment, Amanda's workplace swimming pool and their kindness and generosity as hosts.
Our initial visits were to a very different side of Delhi to the poverty striken one described above. Lunch at the Canadian High Commission restaurant and dinner one evening at the Italian Embassy restaurant were luxuries that we could afford in our itinerary because we are in India for twelve weeks. I referred to the ANZAC day dawn ceremony in my previous posting; another very special occasion. Since then we have been planning the rest of our time in India and enjoying many of the sights, sounds and tastes of the capital city.
The civic plan for New Delhi was designed by Lutyens, variously described as architectural genius, buffoon and bigot (he claimed that Italians must have helped with the design of the Taj Mahal because the locals at the time wouldn't be clever enough). The drive in to the Civic Centre, Lutyen's masterpiece, from our temporary home takes us through the Diplomatic Enclave, past the huge embassies and High Commission buildings along Shanti Path. A few roundabouts later the full splendour of Lutyens plan is revealed. Spacious parkland and magnificent structures, the buildings are of Agra sandstone with darker rose pink at the base and paler stone at the top of the buildings to make them appear lighter. We have yet to explore this part of the city but will write it up in the next week or so.
We caught the semi-finals and the final of the Indian Premier League 20-20 competition soon after arriving here. Before seeing any cricket, the front pages of the Times of India and The Hindu and The Indian Express were full of scandal stories about alleged corruption in government circles, at the top of the IPL organisation and so on. The pantomime continued into the semi final we saw between Deccan and Chennai...rendered almost unwatchable on TV by the constant advertising and owing much to pantomime and Bollywood with dancers and singers getting plenty of coverage. With all the press speculation about 'baksheesh' and flawed bidding for teams it was not hard to speculate about whether or not catches were dropped 'to order' or by sheer bad fielding. Dropping several catches that my 2 year old grandson would have held I did wonder if the young man at gulley would be chastised or paid a bonus. The conspiracy theorist in me is hard to supress sometimes. Soap operas are huge over here and the 20-20 IPL seems almost to be another one...still exciting to watch but is it really cricket....?
The food has been a high spot of our first week. From the vegetarian North Indian restaurant in the Defense Colony to the South Indian restaurant in Hauz Khas the food has been outstanding. Masala Dosai, Dal, Rasam...all delicious. Apart from one evening meal our food has been largely vegetarian. We haven't missed eating meat at all when it hasn't been on the menu. I think I will devote a whole blog posting just to food; there is so much to write about it. One tale I will tell now is actually about beer....
In a restaurant I ordered what is probably the best Byriani that I have ever tasted and asked for a beer to go with it. "Domestic or overseas" asked the waiter. "Domestic please" I replied. "Fosters or Budweiser" the waiter continued. "No, domestic please, these are Australian and American beers". "No sir, they are brewed and bottled in India". I had a Fosters...it was dreadful, as predicted; just like it is back home.
Highlights of our monument and museum visiting so far; the truly magnificent Humayan's Tomb, set in acres of formal gardens and parkland and, like the rest of the city, the beneficiary of 'WORK IN PROGRESS' from the Commonwealth Games organisers. It was hard to hide the beauty of this building with a few workmen and a pile or two of stones. With our characteristic skill and timing we arrived mid morning and the heat was furnace like....
From there to the understated jewel that is The Craft Museum. With that title I expected to see lots of people making things but on the contrary. There was some of that but the main part of the museum is a collection of fabrics, ceramics, frescos, wooden buildings, paintings, chariots that have been rescued from various parts of India. We highly recommend this as a place to visit and, having just visited the National Museum would say that if you can only visit one then the Craft Museum is the one to visit....having said that the minutely detailed, vividly coloured miniature paintings at the National Museum are stunning...
...after that where else but into the pool!
If you are planning to visit India, I have found the following books really helpful:
India After Ghandi: Ramachandra Guha is a fairly hefty tome but surprisingly readable. It helps to explain the politics and other things that make India possible....against all the odds.
Shantaram: Gregory David Roberts...we haven't reached Mumbai yet but a ripping read about the other side of the city.
William Dalrymple: City of Djinns...is the story of Delhi. Beautifully written and very accessible. Could be used as the basis of a tour.
VS Naipul: An Area of Darkness/A Bend in the River...I haven't read these yet but illustrates what a great place India is for books. Delhi is filled to bursting with bookshops. The Indian Government has arranged with many publishers to sell 'Indian Editions' of books at a fraction of the overseas prices to beat the bootleggers.
In the next posting, our four big trips from Delhi. They have taken some planning but if they work out as planned each trip will be very special. From tigers to tea, camels to forts, mountains to the Ganges...all that and more. Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.