26 November 2016

First days in India

At about half past five in the morning, the Sikh procession to the temple started up in the alley outside my room. The singing and drumming and clashing of what sounded like tambourines grew louder, peaking as it passed my window, then suddenly faded, not because they’d run out of enthusiasm, but because they’d turned the corner in the narrow alley. I didn’t mind being woken. The singing was surprisingly tuneful, the rhythm of the drum complex and interesting. Besides, the thought of a group of men kicking up a din like that at half past five in the morning in a New Zealand town was inconceivable – so much so that, even half asleep, I laughed a little. I was back in India and knew it beyond all doubt.

I dropped back to sleep but still woke early and knew I’d be unable to sleep more. I got up and walked down Chandi Wali Gali to see if I could withdraw some cash from the ATM in Main Bazaar near the end of the alley. A young guy fell in beside me as I walked.
   ‘You want something to smoke?’ he said. ‘I got weed, hash, what you like.’
   ‘No, I don’t want anything,’ I said, pleasantly enough, and although he continued to accompany me to the end of the alley, he clearly knew I was a lost cause. I had enough smoke in my lungs from Delhi’s awful pollution and didn’t want more.

The ease with which he gave up surprised me a little, but over the next few days I noticed the same thing: the few people who bothered trying to sell me something gave up quickly. Perhaps they had other things on their minds, like how on earth they were going to exchange their old 500 and 1000 rupee notes for valid currency after Prime Minister Modi had announced, out of the blue (or, more aptly, out of the brown-tinged blue-grey smog), that those notes were now useless and had either to be deposited into a bank account or exchanged for the new notes when those finally became available.

The consequence, as I soon discovered, was chaos: huge queues outside every bank and functional ATM. People with most of their cash in the form of 500 and 1000 rupee notes suddenly found themselves unable to buy anything; only 100 rupee notes and lesser denominations had any currency (so to speak).

The consequences for me were awkward, too. I had only a few hundred rupees and no hope of getting anywhere near a bank or ATM. When that cash had gone – and it’s easy to burn through far more than that in just a day – I’d be forced to rely on using my cash passport card, meaning my choices of where to eat would be limited to the more expensive, up-market restaurants. I wouldn’t be able to hire a rickshaw to get around, so I’d be limited to walking distance of Pahar Ganj; I couldn’t get to places like the Lodi Gardens or Haus Khas complex, where I could enjoy the relative peace and quiet, nor the birds, which were another important reason I was drawn back to India. I wouldn’t even be able to buy chai – no chai wallah accepts a card to pay 10 rupees for one of the great delights of daily life in India.

I wasn’t alone in this problem. At the smallest of the several Coffee Day places in Connaught Place, I met a small foreigner with a thin crew cut and vaguely hippie attire, including a double necklace of beads and a woven red shoulder-bag with tassels. He looked somewhere in his 60s and spoke slowly, like his actions, with a heavy accent. He asked where I came from, and when I said New Zealand he told me one of his friends, from Alaska, was travelling there. Mostly, though, he kept worrying about not having any cash. Like me, he was at the Coffee Day because they accepted cards; the passable food and coffee and friendly service was a bonus.
He was from Switzerland and had intended spending a month in Goa but was now in such a state of despair he was even contemplating flying out of India.
   ‘I have no money,’ he said, opening his hands wide. ‘I fly to Goa, but how I get from the airport to my hostel?’
That might be possible using a taxi that accepted cards, but his more general point was valid. For the time being, I was relaxed enough, knowing I wouldn’t be travelling onwards for at least another five days, but if I still hadn’t managed to withdraw cash from an ATM or bank as my departure date approached, I’d probably be getting as anxious as the little Swiss man.

Perhaps this, too, was part of the reason for the lack of energy among the traders along Main Bazaar. If the tourists – Indian as well as foreign – had to conserve what little cash they might have, they wouldn’t easily be persuaded to buy something they didn’t need. The most persistent were the drivers of auto and pedal-powered rickshaws, who had no doubt noticed a big upswing in the number of tourists walking to Connaught Place rather than taking a ride. As the days wore on, I was increasingly followed by drivers who insisted that cash was available, despite all evidence to the contrary. They must have been getting desperate as demand for their services dried up, and although I felt bad about not being able to use them, I couldn’t.

At breakfast one morning, I shared a table with a young, dark-haired woman struggling with the spiciness of the puri. She described herself as being from ‘the German part of France’, France being a country she clearly had a low opinion of. When, later, I asked where she’d most like to live, she laughed gently and replied, ‘Anywhere but France.’ The French accent in English, she said, was horrible. This surprised me, partly because her accent closely resembled a French accent, but mostly because I’d always liked it and thought it particularly appealing. But, no, she insisted, it was awful.

She was travelling alone through Rajasthan. The usual places: Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur, back to Jodhpur. Her boyfriend, an Indian, had been called home to help with a family problem, but before he’d left, he’d not only booked her entire itinerary but had paid for everything as well. She smiled often – a lovely smile – most often when mentioning him. She would meet his family soon, she said, but this time her smile looked anxious rather than joyful.
   ‘He’s the last one,’ she said. ‘Her mother made him, and now I’m taking him away.’
It was an odd way of saying it but an accurate way of looking at it, and I feared the meeting might justify her anxiety. I didn’t voice that, though, not wishing to reinforce it. She sounded like a young person overwhelmed by new love, but she didn’t sound naïve. I think she wanted to tell someone what she felt and feared, and I hope I listened the way she wanted. She hesitated as she left, as if she was going to say something else, but in the end we just exchanged the usual niceties: good to meet you, hope your travels go well, and so on.

That afternoon, I’d almost got back to my hostel when I remembered the tea shop I’d visited on my previous journeys to India. I turned back and walked the short distance to the main chowk. The proprietor of the tea shop was leaning at the entrance to his shop, eating an apple. As I approached, he saw me and began smiling, and when I was still a few metres away he held out his hand. I shook it and he offered me half his apple. I refused politely, so he broke the half and offered me a quarter. I thanked him and refused again, as politely as possible. We’d only spoken for a few minutes when he ordered chai for us and ushered me into the gloom of his little shop. His friend, a small, traditionally dressed woman with an impish manner that matched her smile, joined us and switched on a dim lamp, apparently chastising him for leaving his guest in the dark. She had even less English than I had Hindi.

The proprietor’s name was Mr Bal Singh. ‘B.A.L.,’ he said, spelling it out for me. He asked how old I was. I told him and he looked gleeful.
   ‘Sixty-seven,’ he said, pointing to himself. He pointed to his friend – he always referred to her as his friend – and said, ‘She is thirty-seven. No marriage.’

He asked how many children I had and uttered a little ‘Oh,’ of sympathy when I said I had none. The status of his friend remained unclear. They clearly regarded each other with great affection, but he freely offered the information that his wife was back in the Punjab. He pointed again at his friend.
   ‘She is from UP,’ he said (Uttar Pradesh). ‘No marriage,’ he repeated, as if determined to make me understand she was still available for a prospective husband.

I felt bad I couldn’t buy tea from him and promised to do so when I could finally withdraw some cash. It wasn’t an idle promise, and I was looking forward to buying some white tea or first flush Darjeeling from him.

However, I had other priorities for my meagre remaining cash, like using it to buy a cheap meal from the one of the dhabas opposite New Delhi Railway Station: specifically, the Capital Hotel Restaurant; ‘100% Pure Vegetarian’. It was an upmarket name for a small restaurant with a kitchen on the street and no front, but I liked the atmosphere, the staff treated me with a kind of amiable amusement, and the food was cheap and good.
I asked the waiter about the difference between dal fry urad and dal fry arahar.
 ‘Urad means black,’ he said, ‘arahar means yellow.’
As simple as that. I ordered dal makhani urad with ‘half rice’ – a reference to the amount, not type – and a plain naan. It was delicious, it cost just 85 rupees, and I ate the lot.

I walked into town early one morning, thinking I might find an open ATM without a queue. I did, but there was a reason for the lack of queues: any ATM open was out of service. I looked questioningly at a man who had just stepped away from one.
   ‘No cash,’ he said, and shrugged. It was hard to tell whether the gesture was one of resignation or despair.

As I’d walked down Chelmsford Road towards Connaught Place, a small but strongly-built man fell in step beside me. Inevitably, he wanted to know where I was from, and after I’d told him and he’d noted that New Zealand was a small but beautiful country, I pointed out it had just had a big earthquake. He laughed happily, but I was sure he had no idea what I was saying.

I asked whether he worked in town – a stupid question, but he understood I was interested in talking with him.
   ‘I am a yoga teacher,’ he said. ‘I work there,’ and he waved at much of Delhi.
He had a swastika tattoed on his forehead. In many countries this would have seen him abused, avoided, or even beaten up – or, unfortunately, accepted into the fold – but here it would have added to his gravitas as a teacher. When we parted ways at Connaught Circus, he offered me advice about where to find tourist information like free maps of Delhi. I’d heard it all innumerable times before, but this time I think he was genuinely trying to be helpful. I liked him.

At breakfast I shared a table with a mother and daughter from London. Andretta, the mother, was quietly spoken and gentle; Perrin was more animated and talkative. Andretta had just two weeks in India. Perrin would stay until January, meeting her boyfriend in Goa before flying south with him to Pondicherry.  Today they’d booked a day tour to Agra. Perrin admitted this rather than sharing it with me; she seemed aware  that this was the most touristy thing anyone could do in India. I assured her that with limited time and the cash problem still acute, a tour with all expenses paid using a card was a sensible idea.

They were good company, and if they’d invited me to join them, which I suspect they’d have done if they’d thought I was interested, I’d have seriously considered it, not because I wanted to see the Taj Mahal – I have far more interest in NOT seeing it. But they had to leave hurriedly for their tour, and I had things to do before I could have joined them. I was looking forward to hearing about their trip, but I never met them again.

I walked back to Connaught Place later in the morning – my life seemed to have reduced to a series of walks between there and Pahar Ganj, along with increasing frustration and concern about the inaccessibility of cash – and ate lunch at the Coffee Day where I’d met the Swiss man, whom I suspected I was beginning to resemble in my grumbling about cash. The place was empty of other customers, other than a young couple sitting at the mezzanine window. They appeared to spend more time on their phones than they did talking to each other, or, more accurately, she – fashionably dressed and heavily made up – spent much of the time on her phone while he talked and they shared the chore of taking selfies. When she wasn’t concentrating on her phone, she studied herself in the mirror wall, sometimes overtly, sometimes surreptitiously.

The sound system played Dido’s ‘White flag’ yet again. The floor trembled, although no one was walking around, and I thought of New Zealand and my badly shaken friends. The old, tattered, oily-looking house crow cawed occasionally from the safety of its usual high perch on one of the shop signs slung beneath the balcony, and two pigeons fought viciously, going for the neck and head, until one finally threw the other off the edge. Birds have an advantage like that: throw them over a cliff and they just fly off. What’s fatal for us is an escape for them.

Down on the ground outside the café, four men loitering around a small, grubby, white, four-door VW were engaged in some kind of negotiation that involved repeated rapid counting of notes from a huge wad of what looked like 500 or 1000 rupee notes. I’d seldom paid attention to banknotes, but now my own lack of them made me acutely aware of the sight. This must be a little like being desperately poor, I thought, except I wasn’t. I had plenty of money for the start of the trip; I just had almost no cash.

As I looked down from the window – I’d commandeered the young couple’s table after they’d gone, she carefully checking herself in the mirror as she descended the stairs – a foreigner with a striking resemblance to a mate back in Palmerston North, walked past in an olive-dun t-shirt, poison green knee length shorts, and a small backpack. He looked worn out, defeated. I wondered what Greg would make of the chaos of India, and the thought of his reaction cheered me and even made me smile a little.

When I left, I strolled around, noticing everything and wondering why I felt so joyful at the sight of things most people would consider squalor or worse: a crow pecking at a dead rat; plastered walls stained with probably unspeakable filth; rubbish everywhere; scrawny dogs, some with mange, curled up asleep on broken footpaths or looking up at me with slow, sad eyes as I walked past. Maybe it was all so hopeless that the only thing left was hope – hope for something, anything better. Or maybe it was the encouragement that when everything was as awful as it could be, life was not only still possible, but possible to enjoy. The yoga teacher lived in this every day, like millions of others, yet he took the opportunity to enjoy a conversation with me.

In the end, I didn’t know why I felt so happy. All the reasons I could think of felt like rationalisations. I was happy. What more did I need?

Several days after arriving in Delhi, the queues at the banks and ATMs showed no sign of abating. Unusually, breakfast was a little late appearing in the hostel’s rooftop eating area, so I walked down the alleyway to Main Bazaar to check the ATMs there. They were all closed, of course, but the late start to breakfast gave me a chance to scribble a few lines while I waited, and I noticed someone at another table also writing diligently by hand in a notebook. Middle-aged, with short, greying hair, she looked French. She wore a loose, pale scarf, a tan top, and loose red trousers. Her reading glasses were fashionable, with dark red frames.

As I steeped my tea bag (I hadn’t been able to buy tea from Mr Singh, so had to resort to the hostel’s bags), I commented on her writing by hand.
   ‘I thought I was the only one,’ I said, gesturing to my table with my pens and cahier.
She laughed and looked delighted.
   ‘I write postcards, too,’ she said.
   ‘I didn’t know you could still get them.’
   ‘They’re hard to find,’ she said, in the accent the German-French woman had thought so horrible and I thought so delightful, ‘but even the …,’ she hesitated, and raised her hands to mime photographing, ‘… the digital people like them.’
   ‘It must be a delight to get one,’ I said, and she smiled.
   ‘It’s an effort.’
I think she meant the digital people appreciated the effort. I guess you can’t write a postcard now without a lot of effort, at least in trying to buy or make one.

We talked a little about writing by hand.
   ‘It’s so tactile,’ she said. I agreed.
   ‘I love the physical sensation of writing by hand,’ I said, but then the breakfast man, small, young, and sombre, interrupted us to check her room number.
   ‘Oh,’ she said, putting her hands to her face, ‘I think it’s …,’ and she mentioned a number I didn’t hear.
   ‘Monica,’ she said, and looked at his clipboard. ‘Yes, that’s me.’
   ‘Two people?’ he asked.
   ‘Yes. My daughter is still sleeping. They sleep a lot at that age.’
We both laughed, and I took my tea back to my table and we resumed writing. Monica’s daughter never appeared while I was there, but a young, strong-looking guy in camo shorts, faded black t-shirt, and a military-style peaked cap came and sat down at her table. He pulled his phone out of the cargo pocket in his shorts and began studying it. I never heard him utter a word, and whenever I looked up from my writing he was still focused on his phone. Even while eating his breakfast with one hand he used the other to peck and swipe at his phone. I saw him later, sitting on the steps of the hostel, smoking a cigarette and taking care to avoid eye contact.

As the days wore on, all I was achieving was a strengthening level of belief that the cash crisis wouldn’t resolve itself any time soon. Despite this, I kept getting reassurances that not only was the crisis starting to show signs of improving, it was already over. Sometimes these were obvious attempts to get me to part with what little cash I had left, but more often they seemed like genuine efforts to ease my worries, even if that meant bending the truth to breaking point.

One evening after dark, I struck up a conversation with a man sitting outside the inappropriately named Drunkyard café in Main Bazaar. Mustafah looked to be in his early thirties, with a thin beard, a good nature, and excellent English. He sympathised with my situation and pointed out how it wasn’t just the tourists having difficulty. He told me what I already knew: that the locals needed somehow not only to get cash but deposit into a bank account whatever 500 and 1000 rupee notes they were stuck with. He also confirmed my suspicions that the vendors in Pahar Ganj (and presumably everywhere in India) had noticed a definite downturn in business as buying reduced to what was essential. The impact on the Indian economy must have been enormous.

I saw Mustafah the following day, in Connaught Place. He was standing at the back of a queue outside a bank, and looked startled, then pleased I’d recognised him. We chatted briefly, and I asked how long he thought he’d have to wait. He shrugged and wobbled his head in the typical Indian gesture that means whatever you’d like it to mean.
   ‘About an hour,’ he said.
I thought briefly of joining the queue, and in hindsight I should have, but instead I shook hands with Mustafah and carried on.

By now, I was thinking seriously of flying to Nepal, where I could spend a few weeks enjoying cash, inexpensive living, and Bardia National Park. At some point in the trip I had to leave India and return because each stay was limited to a maximum of 90 days, so I might as well do that early in the trip instead of leaving it until near the end. I found a cheap flight online and later that day allowed myself to be ushered into one of the innumerable ‘official government’ tourist offices, where I was quoted just over twice the price for the same flight to Kathmandu, with the assurance that this was the absolute cheapest flight available. No thanks.

Back at the hostel, I got back online and found the cheap flight and booked it.

I was leaving India and going to Nepal.

1. The quality of these photographs relies mostly on guesswork and the major shortcomings of android tablets. I hope they're OK.

1. Sukhnath, one of the workers at a joinery in Basanta Road, Pahar Ganj. I think he may have been the foreman.
2. The cash crisis was headline news in India, and the television crews were out filming the queues.
3. Mr Bal Singh, of the Uttam Tea Centre in Pahar Ganj.
4. For the cattle, though, it was life as usual.
5. This dog isn't dead. It had just made itself comfortable in a pothole in the niddle of one of the alleys behind Main Bazaar, and assumed (correctly) that the motorbikes and scooters would avoid it.
6. Rickshaw downtime.
7. Subash, a vendor at the New Delhi Railway Station end of Main Bazaar.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

13 November 2016


I was leaving the valley in November, when the season couldn’t decide whether it was spring or autumn. Everything seemed to be waiting for a decision except for the birds, which had clearly decided this was the time to reproduce. The starlings had made that decision early – not surprising, for such an intelligent and unfairly maligned bird – and already, unseen broods squealed from the nest box on top of the deer fence and from the inside of the rolled-up, disused roller door hanging from the roof of the implement shed next to my car. Those chicks must have had hearing as well developed as their inability to distinguish the bearer of food from the bringer of horrible death. Maybe when I walked past to my car, I sounded more like a parent starling than a rat, stoat, or cat, or maybe they knew they were safe from all those predators. More likely, the only part of their tiny baby brains that had developed was the part that recognised insatiable hunger.

The sparrows had taken longer to decide to nest, or perhaps their nests had required more effort, because they’d only now finished their incessant flights with beaks full of dry grass, baler twine, chook feathers, and anything else capable of being woven into a nest. Now, they did little other than mate, and they did so with a diligence that suggested practice did NOT make perfect. Every time I glanced out the kitchen window, it seemed, they were at it.

At some stage the sparrows would presumably stop shagging, the female would lay the last of her eggs, and incubation would begin. I wouldn’t get to enjoy the sound of tiny blind sparrow chicks squeaking in the kitchen ceiling, though. I’d be long gone by then. The likelihood was high that I’d be listening instead to the caw of crows, the chattering babble of rose-tinted parakeets, the murmur of various kinds of doves, the clockwork chikking of palm squirrels, and the sound of lots of other animals and birds, too, almost none to be found in New Zealand.

And not just the sounds of wildlife, either. Mostly, I’d be hearing the cacophony of human activity – a sometimes ear-splitting shrieking and bellowing and roaring – from an almost inconceivable number of people: one point two something billion, in fact, and more by the day. Maybe by the minute. Sometimes, sitting in an auto-rickshaw in a sea of blaring traffic, each vehicle little more than a layer of paint from its neighbours, I’d wonder whether the entire 1.2 billion had converged on where I happened to be trapped. It should have been a nightmare but it wasn’t. I was looking forward to it, and I didn’t know why.

The contrast between where I was, in a quiet, beautiful, out-of-the-way valley in an out-of-the-way, by world standards almost unpopulated, corner of the world, could hardly have been greater. I love the valley, and I knew I’d miss my friends – not just the human friends, but the chooks and pigeons, and the wild birds making themselves at home in and around my home; the deer, especially the wild deer who so often visited the hill only a few hundred metres from my back door; the rabbits, who I hoped would survive until I returned at the end of February; the scraggly sheep always on the lookout to be hand-fed old bread or vegetable scraps (the sheep who used my house as a scratching post and who inadvertently bashed their heads on the underside of my floor when they sheltered there in bad weather or on cold nights); and even the little spiders who hung about in the corners and the mason wasps who built their clay nests in all sorts of inconvenient places inside the house. So many other kinds of animals, too – I knew I’d miss them all, yet I was still looking forward to my time in India, now only a few days away.

I thought of all those friends I’d be leaving, and a gentle melancholy settled on me.

 ‘See you in three-and-a-half months,’ I said.

1. I'm in New Delhi now. The long journey here proved surprisingly comfortable (a relative term, of course). All I need to do now is find an ATM that isn't attached to a queue of several hundred people: my arrival coincided with Prime Minister Modi's surprise announcement that banknotes of 500 and 1000 rupees were being immediately withdrawn. I can use my cards for some things, but not the small, essential, everyday things like, ... well, ... eating. Looks as if I'll have to eat at expensive restaurants that accept cards :-( 

1. This is my current problem: every functional ATM looks like this or worse.
2. But I'm still enjoying India. This is Mr Bal Singh, proprieter of the Uttam tea centre ('Tea, Spices, Saffron'). I met him on my first trip to India, and each time I've returned, he's greeted me with a smile of recognition and a hand outstretched to shake. He bought me chai, and we sat in his little shop and tried our best to converse. 

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor