Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Days 1 and 2 (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Matt Faherty on his journey through India. From Lucknow, he travels to Delhi.]

Delhi Days 1 and 2: Matt Sees Dead People

My first impressions of Delhi were good. Second impressions… Mixed.

It’s nice to be back in some semblance of civilization. Delhi is the first city I’ve travelled to on this trip with a real metro system (Calcutta had a single line I didn’t use). I was even able to bypass the exploitative airport taxis by taking the metro straight to my hotel. On the above ground portion of the metro ride, I saw one of the biggest traffic jams I have ever seen, but at least it consisted entirely of cars.

I got off the train and had only vague directions to my hotel. Fortunately, a random pedestrian pointed me to an official government tourist office. I entered and was surprised to be a guy on staff at almost 9 PM. He was in his early thirties, good looking, and immediately stood up and smiled upon seeing me. He quickly blitzed me with the usual questions: where are you from, when did you arrive in India, how much longer are you here, etc. It turns out that he had lived in New York City for a while and was familiar with my tiny home town, Garrison.*

I asked for a map of Delhi. He dug through his desk and pulled out a map that was clearly printed off the internet on regular paper. He asked me if I wanted to go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. I did. He told me that was a good idea, but that contrary to what most people say, I should definitely stay a day or two in Agra, a greatly underrated city. He booted up a program on his computer and immediately began looking for hotel rooms for me.

Wait a minute…

None of it added up. This guy was way too cheerful and talkative to be a government bureaucrat. This was not a real, or by any means official map. And now he’s trying to sell me train tickets and a hotel room, after meeting me three or four minutes ago.

Another goddamned subcontinental scam.

Writing this at the end of day two, I can confirm my suspicions. These fake official tourist offices are EVERYWHERE. Sometime there are literally four or five offices on a single block all claiming to be the official government office. I bounced between a few, well aware of their nature, in an attempt to get a decent map. One office had a big sign outside saying, “free maps,” and then inside nobody could find a map. Two other offices gave me the same shitty print out map. Finally, another office gave me a slightly less shitty print out map which I am currently using. Every single office asked the same exact questions and made the same exact Agra pitch. Eventually, I did find at least one real government office where I bought tickets to go to Agra. I know it was real because it was in the New Delhi Train Station and looked exactly like the DMV. Also, sole employee there was nowhere near as enthusiastic about his job as his false counterparts.

Delhi is like a hybrid of Calcutta and a more civilized Chinese city. It has a business district with a handful of skyscrapers, and it has plenty of government built or maintained monuments. The streets are still not exactly clean, but they are cleaner than Lucknow or Calcutta.

The cost of this slightly nicer city is even more annoying scammers. Aside from the fake tourist offices, I am constantly getting approached by rickshaws, random merchants, and beggars. The rate of random people walking up to me and asking where I’m from has probably doubled. The rate at which those people then ask me to visit their shop, has probably quadrupled. However, I’m finding myself to be increasingly resistant to these tactics. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell by an individual’s voice and mannerism whether he is really curious about this random white guy, or if he just really wants my money.

I woke up at 8 AM and after fooling around with the malfunctioning internet for a while, I made it to the metro by 9 AM. According to Wikipedia, the busiest metro in the world is in Tokyo. I’ve seen it in person, though not during its peak hours when it employs “people pushers” whose job is self-explanatory. That said, I have never personally seen metro crowds as bad as Delhi’s. It was bad enough to make me miss the first two trains that came because I failed to stuff myself and my small backpack into the train. People literally stumble out when the doors open.

The last two cars on every train are dedicated to women. This doesn’t help the congestion, especially when probably fewer than 20% of the people on the subway at any given time are female, but it’s also kind of understandable. India has a massive problem with rape and the general sexual treatment of women. Not long ago, there was a high profile case in India where a woman was gang raped to death while riding home on a bus at about 9 PM. ** The metro has signs all over the place which read, “protecting women’s safety is our top priority” and list a substantial fine for men who use the women’s cars.

I eventually squeezed onto a train and rode it until the very next stop (at a cost of 8 rupees). I got out in an upscale shopping area where I was accosted by merchants and fake travel agents multiple times. I got some useless maps and one good one, before making my way towards the Hindu Laxmi Narayan Birla Mandu Temple.

Throughout my travels, Hindu temples have been a disapointment. They have some cool designs, but none have come close to the best mosques, cathedrals, or Buddhist temples. Granted, the vast majority of Hindus are in India, so maybe I’m being unfair.

The Laxmi Temple was the first great Hindu Temple I’ve seen. It’s another site which is difficult to describe with words, so you should Google it. The Temple is four or five stories high, brown, and consists of dozens of labyrinthine floors, towers, and stair cases. And of course there are swastikas everywhere.

Laxmi Narayan Temple, “Birla Mandir Delhi, a panoramic view” by Vinayaraj – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

One odd part was separate entrances for foreigners and locals. The foreigners just left their shoes on the sidewalk, while I got to place my shoes (and was required to place my camera) in a lockbox in an office room. Is the assumption that foreigner shoes are more likely to be stolen and locals don’t have cameras?

After spending an hour at the temple, I made a lengthy trek to Old Delhi. To be clear, I do not currently know the differences between Old Delhi, Delhi, and New Dehli, and I keep forgetting to look it up. I think Old Delhi is a district of the city where Delhi used to be centered, Delhi is the entire city, and I really don’t know what New Delhi is but I’m sure it exists.

On the way, I happened upon the Kamala Market. This was the first of two times today I would strike traveler-gold with my random wanderings. Kamala Market is a wholesaler and manufacturing center based out of some sort of old British building (my guess is either a post office or train station). I wandered through the market and saw stacks upon stacks upon stacks of air conditioning units, refrigerators, fans, toaster ovens, and various other consumer appliances. The whole place was even grimier than regular markets, but I liked the entrepreneurial energy regardless.

Make shift stores were crated out of ridges in the wall, and unlike regular stalls, these things had legitimate sounding company names listed on signs above them. In some of the stores, rows of men were actually building the appliances. It’s very weird to me to think that some middle class Indian’s air conditioning unit was built by one of these guys kneeling on a dirt covered floor in a place like this. I guess I always imagined these things were built in giant factories with machines, but apparently not always.

There is a very important difference between the old parts of cities in Europe and in Asia. In Europe, they are usually quaint displays of the past with some nice modern comforts thrown in. For instance, old Edinburgh is a bunch of hostels and small shops in a castle. In Asia on the other hand, old parts of towns are far shittier versions of the newer parts with modern technology awkwardly slathered on top. Old Delhi is no exception, but I still really liked it.

Old Delhi is like India on steroids. There’s more traffic, more people, more rickshaws, more dirt, more mud, more stagnant pools of water, more obnoxious merchants, and less order. The streets are narrow and windy, so navigation is impossible for a newcomer. There are some old British buildings which were pretty once upon a time, but now have been subsumed in the muck. As or the modernity, Old Delhi’s electrical system looks like it was “designed” by an extraordinarily incompetent electrician with way too much money. Enormous piles of huge wires line and crisscross the streets throughout the district, sometimes to the point of blotting out the sun.

I saw an old Indian guy sitting on the sidewalk. There was a child inserting and twisting a long metal rod into his ear. It didn’t look comfortable.

Within Old Delhi lies the Jama Masjid, which I think is India’s largest mosque. It was built during the 17th century at an excruciatingly slow speed because every single one of its stones had to be blessed or whatever by an imam. Upon my arrival, it was closed for prayers, so I had to go elsewhere and return.

“Jama Maszid” by Nimitnigam – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

I made my way to the nearby Red Fort, a massive red fortress built by the Mughals in the 17th century as well. It also housed a Mughal palace and a massive bazaar in its time. From the outside it looks like a five or six story Red Wall which stretched about half a mile before wrapping around. Pretty cool. Entry cost 250 rupees, which made it the most expensive site in India up to that point, so I was expecting a lot. Once again, the foreigners’ entrance was separated from the locals’ entrance, but this time I was glad for it since my line was about one-twentieth of theirs.

The Red Fort didn’t live up to its price in quality, but I suppose I spent two hours there, so it made up for itself in quantity. Given that it is a massive walled palace, I expected something close to Beijing’s Forbidden City, but instead got a few random palace buildings with no interiors. Some nice decorative stonework remained, but just reading a plaque telling me that this roof and pillars in front of me was where the emperors once kept their harems wasn’t quite working for me. On the other hand, I did like the well preserved balcony, which consisted of absurdly detailed designs on pure white marble.

The Red Fort’s layout and composition was a bit odd. The palace only took up less than one quarter of the space so they just threw a bunch of other random stuff in it. Some of the buildings even looked residential but I couldn’t be sure if they were. Half of it looked like some sort of Mughal college campus with nice lawns and walking paths in front of long college-style buildings.

Many white buildings, with large grassy area in foreground

“Red Fort courtyard buildings” by This Image was created by User:PlaneMad.Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons 

One of the random things thrown into the fort was a World War II museum. To the museum curators’ credit, they know what their customers want: the whole museum was filled with nothing but weapons. There were knives, swords, guns, grenades, bombs, and some other assorted military equipment. I wasn’t complaining.

The best random building was the Indian Revolution Museum, which chronicled India’s revolts against Britain from the early 19th century until the mid 20th century. This was the rare Indian museum which had plenty of English writing, and in a coherent order to boot. All new to me:

  •             In the early 19th century, the British used to put captured Indian leaders in dresses when they executed them.
  •             Germany tried to fund and supply Indian revolutionaries to independence during World War I.
  •            Some Indian leaders launched a full fledged revolt against the British during World War II which didn’t go that well. A lot of the leaders fled India for Japan and Germany where they were put to use by the Axis powers to make propaganda pieces about the evil of the British Empire.***
  •             I liked reading about the larger social movements and organizational structures surrounding Indian independence. In the US we typically just hear about Gandhi, and he was obviously very important, but he did not single handedly lead India to victory.
  •             After India achieved independence and Pakistan split off, there were still a few provinces which hadn’t picked a side yet. According to the museum, Pakistan invaded Kashmir at the behest of its Muslim elite and against the wishes of the general populace who actually voted to join India in a referendum. Even more interestingly, the local ruler (nawab) of Hyderabad tried this crazy gambit where he tied India up in diplomatic channels while importing money and weapons from the British so that he could declare Hyderabad its own country, or in the worst case scenario, join Pakistan. Unfortunately for this ambitious fellow, India invaded (supposedly on the pretense of the Hyderabad leader using military force to oppress his own people) and took the province over by force.

I left the Red Fort and made my way back to Jama Masjid. It was open this time. Unfortunately, so was my wallet to the absurd tune of 300 rupees.

I had already taken off my shoes and was entering the mosque when the payment was demanded of me. A sign said entry was free but there was a 300 rupee fee for bringing in a camera. I hadn’t actually taken out a camera at that point, the ticket guy just assumed I had it. I told him I didn’t want to pay and I wouldn’t use my camera. He told me to put my shoes back on, and walk half way down the block to a hotel to store it. That was the only way. It was 3 PM, I was tired, and I did want to take pictures. I paid.

The mosque was nice, though not one of the best I’ve seen. It’s not quite in the same league as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque (or its Hagia Sophia if that counts) or Abu Dhabi’s Sheik Sayeed Mosque, but it sits comfortably on the next tier down.**** At this point, I’m getting the sense that every important Mughal building looks like a variation of the Taj Mahal; in this case it was brown and wider rather than tall. I expecially appreciated the beautiful Islamic designs carved into the side.

A pleasant, though costly surprise awaited me at the mosque. For 100 rupees, I could go to the top of one of its minarets. With the mosque already situated on a hill, the view from the top would give a great view of half of Delhi.

I paid, dodged a tour guide who wanted $5 (I actually laughed in his face) and made it into my first ever minaret. The view was phenomenal. Most of it wasn’t pretty (the exceptions was the side which faced the rest of the mosque and the Red Fort) but it was pretty damn cool. Chaotic and crowded Delhi stretched out before me in every direction. Old Delhi looked like a messy jumble of building. The business district had some sky scrapers with the Indian capital building poking out from behind them in the distance. I always try to get one overview of every city I go to, and this was a worthy one.

I wasn’t really sure where my next destination was. The Nigambodh Ghat was somewhere along the water, but my map was pretty vague. I set out in search of it anyway. On the way I stumbled through an electronics bazaar which sold what were probably but not certainly bootleg video games. I should have asked about the price.

Eventually I got tired of walking and negotiated with a few rickshaws. I shot for 30 rupees, but the first guy wanted 100 (I laughed in his face). Two rickshaws later I got my price. The ride only took five minutes, which is not very far even by bike. Whatever, it cost 50 cents.

This was my second golden traveler discovery. Or maybe “golden” is a bit too cheerful. I entered a gate that lead to an area bout two hundred feet long right next to the river. I smelled smoke. On one side of me was some sort of wood storage facility, which struck me as random. Much of this area was covered by by stand-alone metal sheets, about twenty feet high, which I would later deduce were used to stop rain. As I got closer, I noticed dozens of independent bonfires smoldering away under the metal sheets. There was one unlit bonfire with a crowd of people around it. I began to figure out what was going on.

You think you got scammed in India, Faherty? Does the name Hari Kumar mean anything to you? I’ll show you scammed, goddammit. 

I walked through another gate to the side off the river. Like all ghats, it consisted of stone steps leading to the river, but this area had the same metal sheet set up as the other area. There were five or six bonfires out here.

Then I finally saw it. There was a dead body placed on one of the bonfires. A couple of guys piled more sticks on top of it. I sat down and watched. A random guy in the crowd asked what I was doing here. I was nervous, I did not have a good answer. I told him I was a tourist. He laughed, turned to his friends, said something and laughed some more. He and his friends talked and laughed for a good two minutes while he periodically glanced back at me. This was a less somber occasion than I thought.

I stayed until the body was lit aflame and then left. I have officially seen a funeral pyre.

*Irfan: That should probably have been the tip-off.

**Irfan: The case has now become the subject of a controversial film effectively banned in India.

***Irfan: I don’t have a good history to recommend on the subject (I don’t know the literature), but the classic novelistic depiction of the time period is of course Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, the subject of the famous BBC mini-series, “The Jewel in the Crown.” I’ll force Matt to watch it when he gets back.

****Irfan: Though I have visited precisely none of these mosques, I object to this ridiculous sentence on principle (the principle being sheer ethnic pride conjoined with the credential-conferring fact of having darker skin than Matt and a more authentically subcontinental name and lineage).

One thought on “Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Days 1 and 2 (by Matt Faherty)

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Day 4 (by Matt Faherty) | Policy of Truth

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