Arrival Into Crowds, Colour, Chaos: New Delhi

Indira Gandhi International was clean and surprisingly well ordered, which was good because we were both hellishly tired. After clearing customs, we collected our luggage and then found an ATM so we could get some rupees. That done, we wandered over to the parade of men waiting with name boards. My name was on one of them, and I was thankful we’d arranged our airport transfer in advance of arriving. After shaking hands with Rahul, we were led past the trolley boys and babbling taxi wallahs towards the exit.

“How are you feeling?’ Angela asked, looking up at the sky. April was the start of the hot season in India, and already the temperature was nudging thirty degrees Celsius. The humidity was bad too, as was the smell – an all-pervading aroma of smoke and wood burning. The air looked hot.

My stomach felt tender, and my head was still throbbing, but the worst seemed to be over. “Compared to last night, I feel better. I’m not on the verge of throwing up, at least.”

We were soon on our way, and, outside the airport perimeter, the real India came into view. Both of us had seen it on television countless times, but to see it with our own eyes was another thing entirely. India was a mixture of crowds, chaos and colour, with a whirlwind of dust and smoke thrown in for good measure. Roadside stalls selling large and extensive varieties of exotic fruit and vegetables took our attention from the wild and frantic traffic. People were everywhere: shopping for produce, walking in groups or riding on the back of cattle-pulled carts. We passed a family sitting underneath a lamppost. All of them were dressed in rags and barefooted. Squalor was all around.

Rahul, our driver, braked heavily and gave another blast of his horn. A yellow and green auto-rickshaw had just cut in front of us, causing a near collision. From behind came more beeps. High-pitched, low-pitched, shrill and trumpeting: the percussion of Delhi’s road system played out a distinctly discordant harmony. It was incessant. Everybody on the road was tooting at the same time.

As well as the auto-rickshaws, smoke-belching trucks, dented buses and lane-switching cars vied for position. We passed an ox pulling a large cart of watermelons and a man pushing a wheelbarrow filled with guava and papaya. Our driver didn’t bat an eyelid: just a normal day in Delhi for him. Instead, he continued to beep like a man possessed. As did everybody else.

A road sign read: Be sane, keep in lane. I pointed it out to Angela. She laughed. She laughed even more when we arrived at a busy road junction. Instead of staying in the correct lane for turning right, vehicles had come to a standstill in all lanes as they tried to push their way at right angles to oncoming traffic. It was insane.

Rahul laughed. “I think England not like this, sir?”

“No,” I answered. “And the horns! I’ve not heard this many in all my life.”

“People buy best horns from bazaar,” said the driver, trying to squeeze between a bus and truck. “There is special street in Delhi which only sell horns. For money, people swap normal horn for loud horn. More than hundred decibel!”

Taking advantage of the semi-stationary traffic was a well-oiled collection of hawkers parading past car windows trying to sell newspapers, umbrellas and flags. Less numerous, but more persistent, were the beggars. They seemed to materialize from nowhere and were soon upon us. Women cradling dirty babies gestured for money and street children begged imploringly through the glass. Suddenly there was a gap in the traffic and we jolted forward leaving the beggars behind in the dust and heat.

When we pulled up outside the Oberoi Maidens, we found it to be an oasis in the middle of downtown Delhi. Apart from the occasional beep of an auto-rickshaw, we were in a different world. The only sounds were the squawking of some green parakeets and the occasional outburst from a peacock. We spent the remainder of the day trying to adjust our bodies to India Time.


If you have enjoyed reading this excerpt, then perhaps you will like the book it came from.

Crowds, Chaos, Colour: Visiting India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh

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