Exploring the bustling streets of India’s capital

Posted: January 16, 2011 in India
Tags: , , , , , , ,

After a surprisingly convivial few hours at the Bangladesh Embassy on Wednesday 12th, chit chatting with a lovely French couple, we were competely fleeced by the rickshaw wallah to get to our hotel in the Paharganj district, home of beloved backpackers and sin seekers alike. As soon as the drivers see a gora (white boy) the meters suddenly stop working and the price is hiked by at least 50%. You can’t blame them really as they earn peanuts (meter rate is R19 for the first 2km = 30p) but it is rather galling. There is a tourist police number you can call to report the rickshaw driver but they face a hard enough life as it is without us piping the righteous protest tune. We opted for a chilled intro to Delhi life and mooched around the Main Bazaar market street for a few hours, then visited the Salaam Baalak Trust, a local NGO that takes street children off the street and gives them shelter, support, healthcare and education. We booked ourselves a street tour with some of the children the next day and hit our room for HBO film indulgence.

Seeing Delhi’s streets through the eyes of its homeless children

We decided to book our train tickets to Amritsar before the street walk. Easier said than done. We had been forewarned about people misleading us and sending is in the wrong direction but it was too early for us to compute. We ended up wasting 25 mins on a wild goose chase for the Tourist Reservation Centre. One chump pointed us down the street away from the station and when we discovered this was completely the wrong direction, Muneeza marched back up to him and shouted “loser” in his face. A small moral victory.

Tickets finally in hand, we met up with our guides from the Salaam Baalak Trust. Satendra and Ajay had both left home, for different reasons. I’ll focus on Satendra as he recounted his story with incredible frankness. From an early age his father beat his Mother and the kids. His Dad was a violent alcoholic. His brother developed eye problems and, instead of spending money to resolve them, his father left him to go blind in 6 months. He then left his brother alone in a dark room and  he subsequently developed severe mental problems and was no longer able to look after himself. His father increased the beatings and one day, in a drunk rage, beat his wife so severly that one crack to the head against a wall killed her. Satendra resolved to run away and this he did, taking spare clothes in his school bag and, under the pretense of needing the toilet, got off the school bus and ran. He continued running and eventually made his way to Delhi by train, sneaking into the train toilets to avoid the guards. At Delhi station a man offered him work on his food stall in return for some desperately needed food but after 4hrs of working he refused to feed him. When Satendra attempted to evade the man, he grabbed him and beat him in front of commuters. Nobody did anything because there is a negative attitude to the street children here, there are so many of them. To cut a long story short, someone from the Trust found him and gradually gained his trust. He has since completed college, now speaks fluent English albeit it was a strong Indian twang, is the master of his own destiny and now dreams of running his own business. To say that this was another humbling experience wouldn’t do our reactions justice.

Satendra and Ajay took us on a 2hr tour of their streets of Old Delhi, showing us the plastic recycling shacks where runaways can make R10 per kilo of collected rubbish and the video games arcades where they choose to spend their money to escape the brutal reality of street life. What saddened us the most was to hear of the brutality of some police officers to these children; they are seen simply as a nuisance and regularly beaten, then forced to move on from whatever meagre shelter they have found. You can measure the heart of a man by the way he treats the poorest of souls.

We finished the walk by visiting the Trust’s main centre and there we met a classroom full of young boys, those fortunate enough to have been given a glimpse of the greener grass. They were so much fun and loved having visitors. They were eager to show off their English and reading/writing skills. We were told to ask any questions we wanted so I piped up with “Who is the best student in the class?”: immediately 30 hands shot up and they all shouted “me”. It put a smile on our face and warmed our hearts to see them genuinely happy and in a secure, protective environment. We made a little donation and left glad to have had the experience.

The long walk – Paharganj, Connaught Place and New Delhi

After lunch we embarked on the latest walking odyssey from Paharganj, down through the shopping district of Connaught Place and into New Delhi. The afternoon was a whistle stop tour of some of the key tourist sights of New Delhi. We started on Rajpath (Kingsway), the main road that runs from the Presidential Palace up to India Gate and along which preparations for the annual Republic Day parade are taking place.

The Rajpath area was designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens when he constructed New Delhi between 1914 and 1931 to demonstrate the might of the British Raj as the capital was moved to Delhi from Kolkata. Ironically, 16 years later the British had been effectively booted out as the march to Independence loomed. At the eastern end of the road is India Gate, a 42m high stone memorial arch that pays tribute to around 90,000 Indian army soldiers who died in WW1. It’s rather contentious as most people in India resented the conscription of Indians into the war.

From India Gate we walked down to Purana Qila, the Old Fort. With massive walls and beautiful gateways, it’s a fine demonstration of 16th Century architecture, having been built by Afghan ruler Sher Shah. We moved on and walked south west to the Gandhi Smriti, the poignant memorial where Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by a Hindu zealot on 30th January 1948. It’s a sobering thought that a man who eponymised peaceful protest and non-violence should meet such a violent end at the hands of one of his own religion. It was Gandhi’s tolerance for other religions and view points that earned him some enemies. When you read some of the quotes from his life, you start to realise how inspirational and intelligent he really was. He understood people, the human condition, and he put people ahead of politics. How refreshing.

After the Ganshi Smriti we took a rickshaw to DilliHaat, a large open air market south of New Delhi that offers food stalls from all of India’s regions, a smorgasboard of culinary temptation. Here we met Mujtaba and his wife, our Indian friends from South Africa. They treated us to dinner and introduced us to the delights of Rakhastani cooking. We had an awesome catch up and hopefully will be able to return their hospitality when they visit London later this year.

Old Delhi – cut short

We had planned to do an equally adventurous tour of Old Delhi on Friday 14th but it was sadly cut short. The previous day the local Government had demolished a mosque, allegedly built illegally. Naturally it provoked outrage and sharp protest amongst the predominately Muslim community of Old Delhi. The result was a tight security cordon and the main roads into the heart of Old Delhi blocked to non-locals.

Instead of soaking up the market atmosphere and legendary Jama Masjid, we took a circuitous walk around Old Delhi and explored the outer parts of the Lal Qila, Red Fort. The fort was constructed by Shah Jahan in the 17th Century but by now we had seen so many forts that the impact was dulled. Not overly inspired, we walked down by the river to the Raj Gaht where there is a black marble memorial commemorating the place that Ghandi was cremated. An eternal flame burns nearby. Over the road is the impressive and free Gandhi Museum, offering great insights into his life and work. What I never realised was that at the heart of his philosophy was the belief that by empowering Indian people to weave cloth and work to earn and encouraging Indians to buy from other Indians, not cheaper and better foreign produce, India would emerge to be the great nation that it so often promised to be. That is why he always wore the simple cloth and regularly span cloth with local villagers on his walks. A very humble and honest man.

At night we returned to Lal Qila for the nightly Sound & Light Show (anyone else remember from French lessons the old ‘Spectacles de Son et Lumier’?). Billed as an excellent intro to the history of the fort and Delhi itself, it didn’t live up to expectations. Though fun, it was comically low grade and the light aspect of the show consisted of ground lights occasionally lighting up parts of the building. At one point the commentary announced, “As we reach the end of this century…” – not updated for over 11 years then!

And onward bound to the Punjab

We awoke early again on Saturday 15th for the 07.20 Express train to Amritsar, hoping that for once we would get an easy ride. Next blog hits the Golden Temple and the border closing ceremony.

love jamer & muneeza x

  1. ZW says:

    hahaha… muni you make me laugh.. good on ya – that ‘loser’! the best way to get train tickets etc is to go to an agent they will sort you out which may cost tad bit extra but atleast you dont waste your time and call people losers haha!!

    amazing thing to do – with street children.. can you not sponsor one of them?

    • jamerguk says:

      Hey Zainab
      You can donate to the Salaam Balaak Trust but we’ve got a few charities in Malawi and Nepal we want to support first, then we’ll look to do something in India. As you well know there are so many excellent charities, trusts and NGos that need help, it’s impossible to do it for everyone. Thanks for the comments, hope you are well. Muneeza is missing you all
      take care, love james x

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