I’m writing this after a day spent in Delhi - without doubt the hottest place I’ve ever been. It’s not so much the raw temperature, which hovered at about 35°C all day, but the fact that you never stop sweating. Even in an air-conditioned hostel room the humidity is so high that you constantly feel damp, and walking outside the air feels almost too thick to breathe. There’s even a damp smell, like when you climb into the attic on a warm summer’s day, and I’ve constantly got shirts hung up to dry ready to put on when the current one is wet through (usually after an hour or two). I knew India was hot, and I imagined that after visiting Singapore I knew what to expect, but nothing prepared me for the wall of humidity hitting me as I stepped out of the airport.
Most of my preconceptions about India were formed after reading Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. It’s a novel (which some say is semi-autobiographical) about an escaped Australian convict on the run, who flees his home country and winds up in Mumbai in the mid-1980s. Over ten years in the city he experiences all walks of Indian life, from a tiny village in rural Maharashtra, to the sprawling slums surrounding the Mumbai world trade centre, to the centre of the Bollywood film industry. After an unexpected trip to prison he is introduced to the head of the city’s criminal underworld, where he eventually becomes a pretty influential figure. The book is a sprawling epic of some 900 pages, and outside of the main plot the author draws an incredibly detailed picture of India from street-level. Heading to Delhi, I was keen to find out how much of it was true.
Walking the streets of Delhi was like seeing the world in colour for the very first time. We only have twenty-four hours here, so it’s hard to say how realistic my perspective of the city is – however its intensity is obvious from the off. Auto-rickshaws with their green and yellow paint combine with yellow and black striped kerbs, deep green foliage, a hazy sky and an orange sun. Car horns honk incessantly over engine noise and birdsong. The whole place is a cacophony of visual and audial commotion.
We’re staying in the embassy district and the streets are chaotic, but not packed with people and animals in the way Shantaram describes. They’re wide colonial boulevards, edged with trees at regular intervals, and the traffic flies through them with nothing but a constantly blaring horn to show any kind of consideration for other drivers. Among the cars can be seen occasional daredevil cyclists on rusty old delivery bikes, taking the roundabouts at their leisure, showing no reaction to the chaos unfolding around them. As a pedestrian, the only thing to do was show confidence and walk with purpose. Hopefully the drivers could see you and didn’t want to damage their paintwork in a collision (the condition of said paintwork seemed to suggest that this was unlikely).
Before heading to India, everyone told me about poverty. During this first day in Delhi it hasn’t struck me as hard as I expected. I’m sure the authorities do their best to keep the beggars and pavement-dwellers off the streets in this upmarket part of town though, and I’m willing to bet we’re not seeing the half of it. We did drive past a small slum area on the way into town from the airport though, and I couldn’t believe that people really lived in what to me looked like a ramshackle pile of old shopping bags and bits of brick.
In a way it makes you re-evaluate whether these lofty goals we set ourselves in the west, whether personal or financial, are really that important, considering the millions of people around the world who live out their entire lives in places just like that. How many births, deaths, romances, marriages and parties have taken there, with the occupants in that moment just as happy as any of us who live in the developed world. Of course, the average day in the life of a slum-dweller is incomparably hard compared to a day in my own - the sight of the conditions in which people live made me nothing but grateful for the opportunities I have had in life - but it does make you wonder how much we as humans really need at a fundamental level.
One place Shantaram has it right is the genuine and shocking enthusiasm people in India have for meeting ‘goras’ like us. Auto-rickshaw drivers kept stopping and offering advice on what we should see in Delhi, and even after we had turned down the offer of a ride they kept talking to us about where we were from and what we were doing in India. Our group may have represented a good business opportunity for them, but their smiles were nothing but genuine. By far the most amazing experience of the day, and I wouldn’t have believed it had others not been with me to see it, was meeting a long-bearded holy-man sat cross-legged on the pavement in front of us. I offered him a greeting of ‘Namaste’ and he cocked his head quizzically at me, before his whole body convulsed in fits of giggles, showing white teeth ear-to-ear. I could never work out if he was happy at my attempt to speak Hindi, or laughing at my terrible accent, but his smile will stay with me forever.
I was underwhelmed when I arrived in Delhi, but sat writing this and reflecting on the day I can feel the curiosity building in me. We have scratched the surface of an amazing place and I know I have to come back here one day for longer and attempt to truly understand it. As I write I am looking out the window at an intoxicating sunset; a burning gold sun in a sky crossed with wispy cloud, listening to crows cawing in the strange trees across the hostel courtyard, and thinking back to the last time I saw that kind of particularly Asian sun in Taiwan. We’re up at 2am to get our flight to Leh so I should go to bed soon, but it’s reminding me of previous adventures and reinforcing how great it feels to be travelling again. I think anticipation might make for a sleepless night.
Published by Sam Nunn