Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Delhi - Golden Triangle 1

We fly to Delhi. Happily, so does our luggage. This is where organisation ends, though, since the promised car – the paid-for car – fails to materialise, and we have to cram ourselves into a taxi. First, we melt into the tarmac of the taxi-rank, for ten sweating minutes, while raggle-taggle drivers argue about whether our cases will fit into the trunk of the designated taxi, which would accommodate rather less than my fridge, by the look of it. In a language you don’t understand, people sound like they’re arguing, when they’re not, I’ve noticed. No actual physical blows are exchanged, but a sprinkling of policemen get involved, and our luggage is finally stashed cosily round a bottle of LPG in the more capacious boot of the next taxi. “It’s ok, Andrew,” I say, “it’s empty.” He looks at me, horror-struck. Empty’s worse. We lurch off, gears crunching, horn beeping, missing Monu. This driver has patently been a paan-lover since he was about 12 – either that, or he moonlights as a punchbag. His smile is mesmeric.
The car doesn’t have seat-belts, let alone aircon, so we’re beyond discomfort and well into hysteria, by the time we pull up outside the Taj Palace Hotel. The doorman, in feathered turban and snowy puttees, sweeps open the barely-attached door of our shabby taxi, and we fall out, grubby and red-faced. If he notices, behind his immaculate moustache, it doesn’t show. They take meeting and greeting very seriously, in India. We limp up the marble stairs, out of the used air of Delhi, into the scented foyer. I’m too tired to carry a tune, let alone a suitcase. It’s possibly the swankiest hotel I have ever been in. I see, from our multiple reflections in the mirrored lift, that we’re all going for le Look, Oxfam Shop today. But we’re English, and abroad, it’ll be what they expect.
Sanjay, our new driver, enjoys the benefit of perfect teeth, spotless white Nehru jacket with matching cotton gloves, and the Delhi Knowledge. He’s bemused at first – we have the wonders of a whole new city to explore, yet we want to photograph tuk-tuks. Well, in Delhi, they’re green and yellow, not black. We exclaim and point, as if admiring the carved tracery of some eleventh century temple. In Mumbai, we can’t take a photo of anything – bullock-cart, mosque, street-barber – without a tuk-tuk nipping into frame at the last nanosecond. Now we’re pointing the lens at them good and proper, they’re hard to catch.
Delhi’s physically a bigger city than Mumbai, its location allows room for growth. This kind of expansion isn’t possible, with the island-chain geography of Mumbai, and yet two or three million more people call it home. Small wonder, then, that Mumbai’s poorest citizens live under bridges, or beneath flaps of tarpaulin at the roadside. There are beggars and homeless people in Delhi, just not whole slumsful of them. As far as we can tell, at any rate.
Delhi’s a city of two halves, ancient and modern. Old Delhi’s much like Mumbai, teeming streets, rows of tiny shops, gutters full of yesterday’s flowers, and piles of forgotten rubble. People here squat on kerbs, too, chatting, drinking chai, passing time. New Delhi could not be more different. Most of the people we see here are tourists, or soldiers, policing the government blocks or the presidential palace. The new part abuts the old, you couldn’t get the click of a camera lens between them. The streets are broad, the buildings imposing, the gardens manicured. The overall impression is of space, and light. It looks as if someone’s taken a blank canvas and a pile of green Monopoly houses and red Monopoly hotels, and designed a whole new town at a single sitting – which is exactly how it was, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Much of New Delhi was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, using the same pencil throughout, by all appearances. In his defence, he worked hard to accommodate the many relics of antiquity in this area, so the new fits round the very old, rather than overlaying it. How high-handed is the whole concept, though - during the Raj, the British decided it would be easier to run India from a capital in the North, rather than from Calcutta in the East, so they made the change, and built the city. I’m surprised we don’t get pelted with dry chickpeas, every time we show our pasty faces on the un-Indian, tree-lined boulevards. Before construction was complete, however, the Raj was over, and New Delhi belonged to India again. Quite right, too.