India must be one of the few countries in the world that can leave such a strong impression on you in just a matter of days. When I was told we were flying to New Delhi for the weekend to play a wedding, I didn’t expect we’d see any of the ‘real’ Delhi, or any of the things most people might associate with travelling in India, typically a month-long excursion. Though the experience was brief, it was one of the most intense trips we’ve had to date, and certainly the most surreal. New Delhi provided an entirely new attack on the senses; some of these senses I wasn’t even aware I had.
We arrived at our hotel on Saturday morning, and a couple of hours later found ourselves on a bus heading straight to the venue, where we would spend the next ten hours or so. The journey there wasn’t exactly smooth, as we braced the crosstown traffic, roughly ten lanes-worth of cars, busses, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, bikes, mopeds, tractors and brave pedestrians attempting to squeeze down a dual carriageway with no actual lanes. This may have seemed like the perfect chance to catch up on some sleep, waiting in heavy traffic for an hour or two, but I quickly learned that there was simply too much to see and, in a more practical sense, the horns honking were so loud and constant from every single vehicle that peace and quiet was not a option.
One journey seemed so remarkable that I felt compelled to make a list of things I saw as we passed them; the more we saw the more chaotic it seemed to get: masses of people, fruit vendors selling coconutswatermelonspapayabananas, new housing projects, old slums, cars ceaselessly beeping, old-fashioned steamrollers, tractors, skinny cows poking their noses through mammoth rubbish tips, stray dogs, men sleeping under trees or in wagons full of building materials, motorbikes, pushbikes, cute schoolboys enthusiastically waving, women carrying huge bags of grain on their heads, shopfronts completely submerged in advertisement signs, half-finished building sites already inhabited, men sitting on the roofs of moving trucks, tyres nesting in trees, bamboo ladders, pot sellers, more cows, men playing cards, barbers giving customers a shave by the side of the road, four children on a bike, five women on a scooter, more cows, dusty yards covered in temporary homes, a grand and incongruous Hindu temple, giant gods sitting happily amongst it all, piles of bricks, bicycles pulling bigger piles of bricks, men napping in a JCB, nuts for sale, rugs for sale, litter and cables among the plants, endless queues of rickshaws… All the while our coach driver and his friend indicated with flailing arms out of the front windows, presumably to replace the coach indicators which were either broken or ignored. Then, a right turn and a brief moment of calm: a young boy and his father resting together in a trailer full of coconuts. Just a stone’s throw from the slums, another right turn, and suddenly there were fewer people, sparser traffic, neater hedges on rural roads, and many more tall walls with grand gates, presumably housing huge properties, or ‘farms’, owned by the implausibly rich. Further down the road, a tree offering shade to another working man stopping for a rest in the oppressive midday sun. It was shocking to see a contrast so blatant.
And at night time, around 11PM, when an exhausted bunch of performers fell into a post-rehearsal slumber on the return journey, I managed to keep my eyes open for the exact moment that an elephant passed us in the street. I looked around inside the coach, searching for another conscious human to verify the experience. Fortunately, someone in the back, equally as delirious, piped up, ‘Can someone just confirm that was actually an elephant?’. All those who were awake let out a simultaneous sigh of relief and a stifled squeal of excitement as it was acknowledged, no, I’m not so tired that I’m having stereotypical hallucinations of things one might see in India, and yes, that was actually an elephant, something I’ve never seen before in real life. I grinned with delight, then stared at the sleeping performers around me and thought, they’re going to hate me in the morning.
Further down the road and still there was more to see; I didn’t dare close my eyes for a second after the elephant incident. At night, it seems, Delhi only gets busier; when the sun has disappeared and it’s easier to breathe. The moon was beaming bright in the black sky, outlining silhouettes of wild dogs feeding off mountains of rubbish, like the perfect backdrop to a film, and still there were people everywhere, some sleeping, others still working, others playing cards and out for the night.
Our stay was punctuated with delicious meals highlighting the best of India’s culinary delights: a huge variety of curries, with chicken, lamb, vegetables and paneer, the flavours of which seemed to get better every day; followed by tasty cardamon-based desserts and masala chai. Every exchange with the cooks, waiters and other Indian workers was interspersed with characteristic head wobbles: neither a nod nor a shake, but a general acknowledgement that initially leaves outsiders a bit confused about how the conversation was concluded.
All I can say of the gig itself was that it was surreal, monumentally huge, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Being a private event, there’s not much more I can put into detail, but please take this as an opportunity to ask if we happen to communicate in person. After a long and utterly bizarre night of performing, dancing, and gawking at the incredible absurdity of it all, we had one day off to explore New Delhi. After wandering around for some time we eventually found the metro station, marked by a single broken signpost on the side of a temporary fence, and paid the equivalent of 20 pence to hop on a plush train between stations that looked more like high-budget airports. The first train from the outskirts was relatively quiet, but nothing could have prepared us for the following connection, which was comparable only to rush hour on the London tube times a million, after a huge concert, when all the other lines are down. ‘Is it usually this busy?’ our friend innocently asked a stranger on the other end of his nose. ‘Yes, always.’ Still, a good service all the same.
Stepping out of the station between security guards with large guns and stray dogs passed out in the afternoon sun, a stranger approached, affectionately shouting, ‘Welcome to India!’ as if we’d just arrived on a train directly from England, before continuing on his merry way. We walked cautiously through male stares from every direction towards a long line of tuk-tuks by the side of the road: these little green and yellow auto-rickshaws would become our primary form of transport for the rest of the day. With two tuk-tuks, three passengers squashed into the back of each, we were hauled to the centre of town in the most chaotic whirlwind fashion imaginable, the driver laughing maniacally as he swung the steering wheel left and right into oncoming traffic just for fun. Our shrieks and screams only encouraged him all the more.
When we arrived at our mystery destination, flustered, exhilarated, amazed (at still being alive), we stepped out to see what must be the world’s largest Indian flag flapping in the wind in a large park in front of us. After a few moments the second tuk-tuk pulled up, now with an additional passenger: ‘Alright guys, this is John.’ John, or Uncle John as he later called himself, was a friendly old man from Punjab, who had decided (without anyone asking) that he would be our city guide for the day, and proceeded to show us around various parts of New Delhi, a place he may or may not have known very well. He was a gentle and garrulous character, who liked to shout on the telephone and then tell us random facts about his family and his cooking and places not in Delhi, before swiftly moving on to the next tourist attraction.
On our way past a strange mix of colonial-style buildings, fruit sellers, beggars, an outdoor office with a ringing landline, and the United Colours of Benetton, we spotted a musical instrument shop and ran excitedly towards it. It was only a small shop, but somehow grandiose, decked out in shiny, dark wooden panelling, with hundreds of photos of famous Indian classical musicians lining the walls. There were glass cabinets all around, housing sitars, tablas, tanpuras, harmoniums and various tuned percussion instruments. The man at the counter stood tuning a sitar, and two other men stood by the entrance fixing up instruments, making new parts and carrying out repairs. We quickly learned that this was the instrument specialist in Delhi, a highly respected manufacturer of North Indian classical instruments, and a former contact of George Harrison and the Beatles, as shown off by the photographs of the band’s visit hanging by the door.
After eagerly quizzing the shop manager about local music and tentatively trying out one or two of the instruments, we headed back out into the streets, satisfied and grateful. John got us straight back on another couple of tuk-tuks to head to a Hindu temple three kilometres away. For less than 50 pence that seemed pretty reasonable. The temple itself was right on the roadside next to a flyover and a steady flow of insane traffic. Though parts of the building were ornate, with stone pillars carved in meticulous detail, I couldn’t help but notice the unbelievably enormous vermilion-red monkey-like deity standing up tall in the sky, the foundation upon which the whole building was constructed. And then there was the fact that, after removing one’s shoes, you entered the temple through the giant mouth of another monkey, whose head was positioned directly between the red deity’s legs. Inside the temple was a shock of colour in every corner, brightly painted statues of gods and paragraphs of information written in Hindi on the walls. Unfortunately this meant we couldn’t read it, and so we wandered around gazing at things and having our foreheads marked with dots (bindi/pottu) of kumkum (a turmeric-based paste) and our hands filled with holy water, partially wondering what it all meant and desperately craving an explanation. But there was no time to find out, as it seemed life in Delhi didn’t slow down even in a temple, and rather than the peaceful break from the mad metropolis that we’d been expecting, we were rushed through each room and eventually led down to a kind of cave, where we were briefly met with more deities of a darker, more deathly nature, before almost crawling through a low tunnel until we arrived back outside via the mouth of a lion. Surreal? Yes. At times I felt like an oversized ball on a crazy golf course, and at other times fascinated, though frustrated by my own ignorance. Next time, I’ll do the appropriate research in advance.
Our second to last stop was at an Indian fabric wholesale store, where the shop assistant generously offered to make us every possible item of clothing from the finest materials in a single day, but alas, we had not the money nor the time. Then it was one final exhilarating tuk-tuk ride (we’d grown fond of them by now) with the most flattering and mild-mannered driver, before we paid up – it was all a clever hustle after all – and wished him and our Uncle John a final farewell.
To conclude the day we got back on the busiest yet most efficient metro and headed to Chandi Chowk. Here we walked through the bazaar, taking in the best and the worst of the sights and smells, from great temples and food stalls to limbless beggars, from the sweet scent of incense and cardamon to the lingering stench of urine. Walking through this lively nighttime playground was the most intense experience of the whole trip, as the crowds of fast-moving people seemed endless, the stares a little more intimidating, the beeping horns louder, and never a chance to stop and take a breath. There were so many photos I wanted to take of this incredible amount of life on a single street, but there was barely a chance to stand still, never mind get a reasonable shot of anything. With every turn it seemed ten people crashed into you, all in a hurry to get somewhere, though where I’m not so sure. It seemed there wasn’t a single empty space, and every parked rickshaw or wagon or space on the pavement was filled with someone either sleeping or selling something. We almost had ourselves another Uncle John outside one temple, a friendly old man who began talking in depth about the local tourist sites, until we informed him we weren’t looking for a guide at the time, to which he replied, ‘I’m not your guide, I’m your friend.’ Our friendship blossomed quickly but was sadly short-lived, as we were conveniently moved by the crowds via more fruit stalls, rickshaw jams and shouting tradesmen.
Returning to the hotel provided the kind of respite one usually gets from escaping to the countryside. There was suddenly so much space, and it seemed so peaceful and simple by comparison. But in a way I missed the chaos, and still do. Arriving back in my suburb of Newcastle was like returning to a quiet country village, which is undoubtedly easier to live in but not nearly as exciting. Our tiny experience of India was exactly as we’d been warned yet nothing was as we could have expected. Surreal, overwhelming, beautiful and turbulent – I could definitely go back for more.