Delhi is a jungle posing as a city. The dogs own the street space, wilting like flowers under the haze.
Poet, Rabindranath Tagore said: Never be afraid of the moments. Tagore’s words are helpful. As a foreigner to the city, my moments are often uncertain, but Delhi seems to have taken on softer, blurrier edges, or perhaps it is my own peripheries that have started to slip.
They include crossing the road when I am a ragdoll on an eternal motorway of traffic, losing my footing in Delhi’s potholes.
Homogeny only exists in India to the untrained eye. Pizza leaflets are thrown at workers as they leave the metro station in the morning.
Behind the village barriers of Hauz Khas, a miniature Freida Pinto look-alike poses in the afternoon shadows.
You can acquire a kilo of mangoes, that sweat and ooze out of themselves before they get home to the kitchen knife.
Street dogs howl and slump on street corners, guard banks with their static laze.
I am soaked in a storm that takes Delhi-ites by suprise (it never rains in April here). With each lightning bolt hanging on the skyline, l sense the strangeness that unfurls. Locals avoid the rain. They hang in doorways or nestle under umbrellas. The roads become more jammed, the metro steamed up. I am slick between other bodies in the women’s carriage waiting for our stop to rise out of the smeary evening.
For a moment Eliot’s question springs to mind ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’
The places I inhabit have distinct qualities:
Nehru Place is the king of the software market. Vendors shout ‘sim card’ ‘laptop’ ‘keyboard’ as we trek past, winding through piles of shoes (100 rupees) and alarm clocks set to different times.
Khan Market is a luxury bathing space: Geetanjali salon is always busy, offering diamante manicures and snazzy haircuts. The women use their blackberries whilst getting a massage, there is no stopping anyone from moving forward- Delhi demands that. Along the same street is ‘The Big Chill’ restaurant with a few outlets in the city. This is the place for milkshakes, cheesecake, pizza.
Lajat Nagar is where you go to get lost. The central market winds around a strip of streets, fairy lit, intangible Disneyland. It is one of the leading clothing markets in South Delhi and stays open until late. Gulab Jamun are served on the street corners, syrup drips to the ground sealing into road dirt.
In Jasola, be charmed by the ice cream wallah, who sits in the darkening street and digs around in his refrigerator box, Nokia phone between his teeth searching for a Cornetto in the Kulfi mass. Then watch controlled fires burning in gutters at the gated compound entrance, bow namaskar to the dozy security guard sitting at a gate that is always half open.
Crowds of cycle rickshaws gather around as workers pour out of Jasola metro station in the evening. In India, you pour out of crowded places, moved with the density of pushed particles, unable to pull back if you wanted to.
I glimpse the Lotus temple near the Save Mart superstore, that sells unmissable Neem biscuits loaded with seeds and chocolate chip edges.
Robert Rowland Smith said, Sleep is the pause between being yourself and being yourself again. In a land where reincarnation is a common belief, India is the pause between being yourself and being completely dismantled. As Cheryl Matherly says ‘India remains an opportunity wrapped in a riddle’ .
On National Rail trains in the UK posters advertise aid for dogs: ‘Give £2 a month to help the street dogs of Bulgaria.’ There must be some flush dogs in gold plated jackets roaming around Bulgaria if this marketing campaign has worked. This is one strange correlation to India. There is need, yes but you don’t see people asking for it, especially not for dogs in a country miles away. Mark Tully in his book ‘No Full stops in India’ commented in response to ‘how do you cope with the poverty?’ ‘I don’t have to, they do.’ As a resident in India’s capital, it’s not my place to issue crocodile tears to the pile, but my conscience is raised when I walk past a man splayed out on the street wearing his only torn shirt.
So of all the ‘things’ I see every day, at home and abroad, they create impressions. Artists call this process of filtering divergent thinking. Impressions make us scared of losing our balance. How can we know if we are about to cross an invisible line with no way back to the start?
With press around India often geared towards the poverty, on my fourth visit, I had not been expecting such richness. Richness that comes from the sharing of everything from food to soul. Lunch times in the Sannam office are serious meeting points. This is when news is shared, or lentils split, or the chilli challenge issued. Heaps of pots, filled with rasmala rice milk, salad and daal scatter across the tables. When we leave, the uneaten remains of curry sink, relieved into corners.
To understand richness, I practise balance in the apartment, ‘frontal brain clensing breath’ kapala bhati takes me back to the fundamentals. In the soft foot falls of morning in Jasola, I practise how to breathe.
On my first visit to India in 2010, I wrote these words:
For me, India will always be
a red sari dissolving
black mosquitoes, full with the scent of skin.
Mangoes exploding when cut open,
not with pulp
It is three wheels
on a yellow tub
hooting against a maze.
Threaded hair on street mass,
lust on market faces,
a bulging doctor’s satchel.
I know now, there is no certainty on what India will always be, but today I am thankful it is here outside my window.