There is a very special street in Delhi that is a curious mixture of the old and the new, the best and the worst of what the city has to offer. It’s called Pahar Ganj or Main Bazaar and I always want to substitute the word ‘bizarre’ in its place.
Let me take you on a tour. We arrive by train and fight our way along the corridor and out of the carriage. Indians generally see little point in queuing and if they refuse to wait then we’d be foolish to stand on ceremony. As soon as we step out onto the platform we’re swarmed by porters in blue shirts and red caps – they see that we carry no luggage and mutter in annoyance.
We walk out through the station and pick our way around the families eating packed lunches on plastic mats laid out on the floor. They wait for their train with a kind of resigned fatalism that makes news of 12 hour delays a little easier to handle.
The worst of the heat has passed but the sun continues to stew together with the dust and the pollution and our sinuses are suffering already. With every vehicle pumping out black smoke all day long I never saw the point of smoking cigarettes in Delhi. You need only put a straw in your mouth and inhale the air of the street.
Pahar Ganj begins on the other side of the road. But whilst we’re waiting to cross the merciless, multi-direction flow of traffic every rickshaw driver in sight has his hopes up. The poorer models pedal towards us and ask us our destination in hopeful Hindi whereas the motorized 3 wheel monsters pull up almost on our toes and shout:
“Where you want to go? Come, I take you to good jewelry shop!”
There’s a sudden window in the traffic and as we scurry across the rickshaw men aim obscene remarks in our direction, trusting correctly that we won’t understand anyway.
The street entrance is thronged with miscellaneous market stalls selling everything from nail clippers to glow-in-the-dark Shiva keyrings. We walk briskly on but in our haste almost upset a cart of fried potatoes that someone wheels in from the side. You need eyes in the back of your head just to take a stroll here.
“Hi, man, how are you? Long time, no see, right?” The well-practiced American accent and impressive command of the language warn us about the origins and intentions of the man who approaches us. He is a Kashmiri. He is also a tout and the combination means that he is one of the smoothest talkers to be found on the street. If we pay him any attention at all then he’ll urge us to accompany him to his office where he’ll pull out pictures of his beautiful houseboat in Srinigar, Kashmir. Since the civil war began tourism has slacked off to almost zero in Kashmir and now they have spread out all over India to make money from tourists in any way they can. They all have families to take care of.
The thing is, Kashmiri businessmen have the worst reputation of all con men and sharks in India. I heard of two Swiss girls who were talked into staying on a houseboat on Srinigar’s Dal Lake. Their host family rowed them out far from the shore and the next morning announced that war had broken out in the streets of the city.
The only safe place to stay was on the boat. Naturally, though, all the food and laundry now cost four times as much, what with the danger involved in bringing it from shore. And the funny thing is that the supposed riots ‘ended’ three weeks later when the girls ran out of money. They had to fly back to Switzerland, cutting short their planned six month holiday after just three and a half weeks.
The young, trendy Kashmiri is still at our elbows, chatting away as if we were the best friends he had in the world. We keep quiet, not even giving him the encouragement of eye contact. After about thirty seconds he realizes that we’re familiar with his ruse and drops back, quite unoffendedd by our silence. It’s just business.
The shops to either side of us on this narrow, noisy street sell everything: from textiles to kitchenware to cheap shirts that will bust open at the armpits within 24 hours or your money back. But they’re all doing well; no matter how much of a slum this street might look it’s actually hot property in terms of commerce.
And just ahead of us is an outlet for the biggest business in India: the cinema. There are around 70 men in the queue, lined up chest-to-back-to-chest-to-back. There is not an inch of space between them and every few moments they move forward like shock wave towards the door. It’s one of the few pastimes that most people can afford and Indians love nothing more than to escape from reality for a while. When you live in a city like Delhi, you have good reason.
But now the first guesthouses and cafes begin also – for Pahar Ganj is also the most popular place for backpackers to stay when passing through Delhi. Rooms range from one dollar to fifty per night, from a bedbug-ridden bunk in a concrete cell to a room with air conditioning, satellite TV and attached bathroom. Almost nobody wants to stay here longer than they have to, though. They’ve either just flown in or are flying out. They’re going north, south, east or west. Failing that they’re waiting for a replacement passport, a visa or money to be sent from home. Who would stay in a place like this when they could be in mountains, desert or beaches?
The Charm of Pahar Ganj
Yet not a few also recognize the charm and magic of this frenzied city street. Just walking along requires a degree in chaos theory – rickshaws, bicycles, dogs, cows and salesmen dart out at you from all sides and it’s necessary to zig zag one’s way along, ever ready to jump to the side at the blast of a horn or the bellow of a bull.
Late monsoon has filled the pot holes with murky pools that have collected all the rotting vegetable matter and oil deposits available. But as we skirt along the side, trying to keep our feet dry, we suddenly see the true face of Indian Progress: a cycle-rickshaw is trundling past with a load of twelve computers piled up on the seat normally reserved for passengers. There is perhaps a few thousand dollars of hardware at stake but the owner has elected to save a few rupees by transporting them in the cheapest, most hazardous manner possible.
It’s the sight of that kind of thing that keeps me coming back to India. Everything is possible here, maybe even probable. But there’s worse to come and we’re only half-way up the street.
Before we can walk any further up Pahar Ganj, perhaps the most chaotic street in India, if not the world, a familiar cry descends upon us.
“Hello, Baba! Baksheesh?” A woman stands in front of us with a baby in her arms. She plays out a series of well practiced expressions of need to beg for our rupees, her hand miming the motion of feeding the babe.
My lack of sympathy might be better understood that the baby in her arms belongs to someone else. The infants are rented out on an hourly basis as it’s well known that foreign tourists are occasionally moved to great generosity by such a spectacle. To prevent the baby crying too much they sometimes administer sedatives mixed with milk.
There are others who really do deserve our help. We give a few rupees to the polio victim who possesses just two developed limbs. He lies on a home-made skateboard and chants the name of God incessantly, not even registering when someone gives him money. And then there are those who need another kind of help. We take a couple of the street kids for breakfast. If we gave them money they’d spend it on glue. This way we make sure they get a good meal in their stomachs and can also give them a little attention and affection. After all, no one else is going to.
In the cities at least, Indians often demonstrate a starting lack of sympathy towards each other. I’ve seen people hit old bicycle rickshaw drivers over the head when he came too close and no one thought it was outside the order of things. And no one except the tourists loses any sleep over those who have to live in the streets.
From a Hindu perspective, I suppose they might argue that the unfortunates of this world merited their lowly births by way of all the bad karma they accumulated in their past life. But I suspect they’d rather just not take responsibility for anything that goes on around them.
A classic example of this is cleanliness. Most Indians spend hours fastidiously cleaning themselves every morning but happily walk down streets that ‘filthy’ doesn’t begin to describe. The buildings are all smudged black from the traffic fumes and the sight of a bin would almost merit a photograph.
We’re wandering from the subject but digression is at the heart of Pahar Ganj. At any given moment a swarm of sensory data demands your attention and after half an hour you’re dreaming of secluding yourself in an immersion tank. The sheer density of people walking, standing, buying, selling, cooking, eating, living and dying is just too much sometimes. Some unfortunate business once kept me on Pahar Ganj for three months and I almost had a nervous breakdown. I remember coming back to my hotel after one particularly infuriating day and I met the manager, Mr Shwarma, gazing out of the hotel lobby window with utter serenity.
“How do you do it, Mr Shwarma?” How can you have lived here for thirty years and still be so calm?” I asked, actually trembling with frustration.
“Oh,” he replied, waggling his head and smiling, “There is no use in struggling against it all and getting upset, there is simply no use.”
We now approach the fruit market and a few hopeful cows loiter near the banana stalls. But something captures our attention from a nearby rooftop. It is only a man shaving but he does it with perfect disregard for the passing crowds. Everyone can see him but, denied the luxury of solitude in this overpopulated country, he simply constructs the borders of his world around himself, impervious to the outside.
Onto the ledge now steps a woman in a bright green sari and she hangs out some clothes to dry. Most Indians can’t afford to own many clothes and are obliged to do their washing on a daily basis. A toddler clings to her legs and I hope he has enough respect for gravity to stay away from the edge.
As if in reply there is a small explosion from the power supply opposite, raining a light shower of sparks on the street below. No one blinks an eye lid. he source of the electrical turbulence is a voltage box from which come an impossible tangle of wires, bringing to mind a kitten with a ball of string. There are probably about three genuine, paid-for connections but about fifty others have pirated their electric by means of home made hooks and wires. An electrician from the West would just shake his head and walk away. But now the power’s gone off in the street anyhow. The neon signs stop flashing, the tourists are getting nervous about the milkshakes they ordered and, for a few precious moments, Pahar Ganj seems almost peaceful.
But where there’s a will there’s a way and the expression would seem to work in reverse also. At least to judge by the glee with which the cafe boys roll out their generators onto the street. It looks like they’ve been itching to start these kerosene monsters all day.
Within seconds conversation is only possible if one shouts – sorry? I SAID WE HAVE TO SHOUT IF- But now the power comes back on unexpectedly early and the managers yell at their workers to shut down the generators, dammit, you’re wasting the kerosene! Sometimes after a long day, I love to expand on the theory that there is one big generator in all Indian cities. Someone forgot to turn it off years ago and now it just vibrates all day long, pumping out tension and stress into the streets. If only we could find it and hit the big switch then the whole city would feel this great wave of relief and we’d have a fighting chance of restoring sanity.
The Magic of Pahar Ganj
It’s been a long day and I’m in no mood to deal with the Sikh who now approaches us.
“Ho, sir! You have come to India to learn great wisdom!”
He’s got a sales pitch longer than his turban and we don’t want to get him started. He’s good at what he does though and I have to respect the ease with which he extracts the rupees of the tourists. He introduces himself as an astrologer/mind reader/wise man and he asks you to write your favorite colour or the name of your mother on a piece of paper. The he tells you correctly what you’ve written.
The thing is, I can’t remember if I wrote down the answer or he did, whether he read the slip of paper or if I was holding it all the time. I suspect he should have added ‘hypnotist’ to his title.
I feel a little corny ending our tour of Pahar Ganj with such a cliched character, bristling with magic and intrigue. But India is like that. Yes, it’s full of injustice, filth and sorrow, yet there remains elements of the comic and the mysterious in the everyday life of the street.
And why should one thing have to exclude the other?