If India is a land of snake charmers, magic and mystery, then Delhi seems an apt place to start. It presents an unfathomable clashing of the past and present: from Old Delhi, steeped in ancient monuments and the shadows of Britain’s colonial influence, to the suburbs of Gurgaon, studded with sparkling silver malls and glistening multi-national office spaces. On my first full day before beginning work on Monday, I took the Yellow Line Metro to Chawri Bazar, in the centre of town, and was catapulted straight into the action: what a feast for the senses! Impatient rickshaw drivers peppering the sky with their horns; hawkers showcasing their wares of colourful kites and curiosities; double-jointed street-performers flipping and twirling to the beat of a drum; men having their beards trimmed in makeshift pavement ‘salons’; walls and tiles emblazoned with the unmistakeable flash of Hindu deities; scrambling squirrels, wild pigs – and was that a family of monkeys tightrope-walking the ropes of exposed electricity wires?! It took a few moments for me to take it all in, before a confident hand and a jovial voice reached out to me, saying, “Hi ma’am – it’s me, Raj, your guide” - and I was instantly put at ease.
One of the first things you learn about Raj is that he is absolutely passionate about Delhi and its history. Scooting through a labyrinth of alleyways, we ducked into Karim’s Restaurant for some regal sustenance: it was originally established to celebrate the coronation of King George V in 1911. Our next stop was to the golden dome-iced Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, a large Sikh temple, which welcomes people of all castes and religions inside to worship or reflect or eat in its enormous kitchens, completely for free. Volunteers take their turn 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to knead, roll, bake, fry and stew, and thus feed up to 10, 000 people a day. I was so moved by the warm, inviting atmosphere that I took off my shoes, bathed my feet out of respect and joined in with preparing some of the food, with relish. It felt like a great privilege to be part of such an uplifting movement and it was clear that the Gurdwara supported a thriving community.
We then wove our way through redolent spice and tea markets to the famous Red Fort: a vast, iconic structure, which conjures up memories of the splendour of the Mughal era. Housing a mosque, gardens, an entertainment stage, a vast throne, private living quarters and, now, army barracks: a hangover from British occupation, I was fascinated to learn about life within its bold sandstone walls. It even contained a covered bazaar, which still sells trinkets to this day – apparently originally constructed for the women in the Mughal Royal family, as they were forbidden to leave the fort’s gates – for the duration of their lives. I wondered what it would have been like to be a real-life ‘Lady of Shalott’: cursed with confinement – or screened from the cruel reality of the outside world? This led me to think about what it is like for a woman living in Delhi today. While I have heard that the capital is markedly more liberal than other areas in India, it was interesting to note the ‘Women Only’ carriages on the Metro and the fact that you have to cite your husband’s or father’s name if you want to take out a mobile phone contract. My investigation into that continues …
On our way back to the Metro, Raj threaded us through a hidden staircase, which climbed at least four storeys. Before I could gasp, “where are we headed?” we spilled out onto the rooftops of Old Delhi! We were up with the kite fliers and sun basking street children – suddenly removed from the traffic - and on top of the world! Raj told me about how he used to spend his childhood up here, watching Delhi at his feet and mesmerised by the swooping, otherworldly birds of prey on the thermals above his head.
Our last stop today was a Jain temple. In contrast to the bustle, energy and laughter of the Gurdwara, the ancient gold-leaved walls, marble and scriptures rendered this place of worship quiet and contemplative – further respite from Delhi’s frenetic pulse outside.
I headed home, foot-sore and weary – but exhilarated from my first incredible day in India. Tomorrow, I will be teaching at The Shri Ram School and I can’t wait to learn more about life in India.