India is an enormous country with a population exceeding 1 billion and growing. Much as it is hard for human imagination to grasp the vastness and the diversity of what is better described as a continent rather than a country, everyday experience offers a good idea of the scale – of both the surface and the population size.
In New Delhi, one is at all times confronted with a moving sea of humanity: running or walking in all directions, pressing against one another, elbowing and pushing. One stroll in the streets of Delhi, one car journey or ride on the public transport and one is inclined to believe that all 1 billion Indians are on the move at the same time.
My daily commute is between 1,5 and 2 hours each way, and involves an auto rickshaw, the metro, and an auto rickshaw again. On my first day in Delhi I drove in an air-conditioned taxi that took nearly two hours to get from a suburb of Gurgaon to South Delhi, among the chaos and racket generated by cars, buses, auto rickshaws, bikes, pedestrians and occasionally cows. I soon switched to public transport and rickshaw, as a more exciting and often more efficient option.
The first challenge is to find an auto rickshaw (in short: auto) in rush hour traffic when there are often more commuters waiting than cars available. I usually manage to hail one after a while, as foreigners make attractive passengers. Almost every time the meter is ‘broken’ and I need to haggle, usually ending up paying more than the going rate, a price I’m more than happy to pay to avoid standing by the roadside in scorching heat, breathing dust and fumes. Except when it is raining. It doesn’t rain in Delhi, it pours – after all, it’s the monsoon season. When the rain comes, streets turn into rivers within minutes and all life stops. It’s impossible to get an auto or a taxi, so a commuter must wait patiently till the sky clears.
The auto takes me to the Delhi metro at Huda City Centre. You enter with a magnetic card very much like the London Oyster. Following terrorist attacks, all passengers must now subject themselves to a security check similar to that at airports. The station is busy, but luckily there is a women-only security line, and a women-only carriage where I usually manage to get a seat. The ladies-only carriages are heaven-sent. They offer safety and relief from leering and occasional groping women often have to suffer in crammed mixed carriages. The carriages are open, but no man dares enter the female territory, they just watch from afar. I love observing my fellow passengers, some in colourful sarees, some in more contemporary kurtas, and young girls dressed in tight jeans and T-shirts. I’m usually the only Westerner on the train and other women glance at me with curiosity – I smile back like I would not dare in a mixed carriage.
I leave the clean, spacious air-conditioned metro at Hauz Khaas and I’m thrust into the concoction of noises, colours and odours of the street. Amongst honking, screeching of tyres, shouts of rickshaw pullers and clouds of yellow dust, I try to find an auto to continue my journey.
It took me a week to adjust to navigating Delhi traffic in a rickshaw. The first few rides were a true adrenalin roller-coaster. These little open cars have no doors, no seat belts and if they have brakes at all these must be rusty from disuse. However, horns get put to constant use. Honking replaces blinkers to signal ‘here I come’. The rickshaws zigzag among cars, pushing on, overtaking on the pavement or cutting the route short by driving in the opposite direction. They are great for coming face to face with Delhi, watching scenes of street life up close. It is easy to grab a fresh coconut or a bunch of bananas without leaving the rickshaw. That easy access also benefits beggars and street sellers – at every red light there is always a begging child or a woman, or a vendor of some produce or another.
The downside of travelling by auto is that you arrive at your destination covered in dust and pollution, red in the face and dripping with sweat, your voice hoarse from breathing fumes.
But you are still among the lucky ones. Autos are cheap, but still out of reach for many Delhites. Those on smaller budgets line up for public buses – OK, not exactly line up, but rather push and jostle in a mad crowd to get a chance to board the bus. Getting a seat is not an aspiration, what the passengers are hoping for is to be able to sit on the roof or hang from the side door. City buses are rusty noisy monsters spitting out clouds of black fumes. Pane-less windows provide the only source of relief from the heat when the bus is on the move, which is not often.
Travelling around Delhi mostly involves standing in a traffic jam, honking. Traffic is the great equaliser – it traps everyone regardless of caste or income. Air-conditioned chauffeur-driven cars and auto rickshaws alike are held up in Delhi’s monstrous traffic, standing still until the next opportunity to advance a metre or two. The traffic teaches everyone a lesson in humility. There is nothing to do but wait. Honking and swearing is the driver’s only vent for frustration. Even if walking may be a faster option, you wait patiently in the car or rickshaw, as walking in India’s capital would be madness – too much traffic, noise, dust, no pavements, no road crossings, 40 C in the shade.
The inevitable consequence of the traffic is that appointments are scheduled with the assumption that nothing will happen on time. It is not unusual to start work meetings an hour late because someone got stuck in traffic.
For getting further afield, the traveller has several options, depending on budget. Renting an air-conditioned car with a driver offers by far the most flexibility and comfort. The driver will take you to where you want to be, wait patiently while you go sightseeing, shopping or grab a bite, and then pick you up and take you to your next destination. Travelling by car is the preferred option for the busy Indian middle classes: it is efficient, safe and comfortable, there is no waiting for delayed buses or trains, no time wasted. For me driving past sleepy villages offers a unique glimpse into the lives of ordinary people who squat by the road selling their produce or simply watch cars pass by. I also love the long-distance cargo trucks transporting their heavy load across the country. Drivers treat them with much care, the front of each car is painted in bright colours and decorated with flowers and images of gods. In my mind I picture the trucks climbing the winding roads of the high Himalayas en route to Kashmir.
But by far the most exciting option is travel by India Rail. A dense network cobwebs the country, except for the most remote mountainous regions, and is one of the biggest employers in the world. Booking a train is the first challenge, the options being queuing for hours at the station or trying to wrap your head around the complicated online booking system: choosing from several quotas (tourist being one), no less than eight ticket categories, guessing how likely it is that your ticket is going to be confirmed if you are seventh on the waiting list…
My ticket luckily gets confirmed after a few days and one hot morning I stand at New Delhi station waiting to catch the 6.50 am train to Haridwar, a holy city by the Ganges at the foot of the Himalayas. Coolies dressed in red uniforms are running around, advertising their services, then hoisting heavy suitcases and placing them on their heads. An overnight sleeper train has just pulled into the station. First and second air-conditioned class passengers disembark, accompanied by coolies and personal drivers helping with the luggage. Those in lower class carriages had spent the night crammed like sardines, some even travelling outside on the train’s steps and holding onto rickety doors. The luckiest ones are seated inside next to the windows – no panes, just bars that let some air in.
Piles of rubbish and plastic bottles are flying out of every window – that’s how Indian Railways staff clean the trains. What gets thrown out is immediately claimed by rubbish collectors walking up and down the tracks with bulging sacs on their backs.
Then come the children. Boys in rags with hardened looks on their young faces, a dirty rag in hand that they lift to their noses every few minutes. Whatever it is they are inhaling is clearly working – glassy eyes, absent gaze, they pace back and forth, picking up an empty bottle, then discarding it again. They are not on any errand, not doing any job, just wandering aimlessly, surviving another day.
Railway stations in big cities attract all kinds of misery and misfortune. New Delhi station is swarming with beggars, many of them deformed cripples, lifting the stumps of amputated limbs and shaking them in your face, demanding backsheesh that you will have a hard time refusing to pay.
The noise doesn’t seem to disturb those sleeping on the platform, directly on the ground, with no cover and no possessions about them. These are Delhi’s poorest and most destitute citizens, trying to catch some sleep before being woken to the harsh reality of homeless life.
After some pushing and elbowing I’m seated in a comfortable air-conditioned carriage. Food is being served all the time: biscuits and tea, then a hot dish, toast and tea again, curd and dessert.
Travelling by train is slow and reflective. I observe my fellow passengers getting on and off at various stations, and I look out of the window. Train tracks attract life of the lowliest, shameless, most audacious and desperate kind. Rubbish collectors, homeless children sniffing glue and smoking, men defecating, women forming circles out of cow dung to be used as fuel after it dries, stray dogs and cows. Before leaving Delhi the passengers heading for the Himalayas get a good look at the sprawling slums of the capital city.
Soon the slums give way to green paddy fields with farmers working their land by hand, water buffalo seeking relief from the heat in muddy ponds, and an occasional village that sprouts next to the railway tracks, feeding off what the train discards.
Whenever the train pulls into a station, commotion reigns – people getting off, others getting on, coolies, food vendors, touts and scavengers all crowding in eager to cash in on the brief stop. Those whose train is yet to arrive are sitting like petrified statues on benches or directly on the ground. Some are fast asleep. Some look like they’ve been waiting for ages. And perhaps they have, as many of those at railway stations will never board any train. They come to the station to wash by the water tap, sell or beg, or simply to pass time.
However you choose to travel In India, one thing is certain – you will see and learn a great deal. In this country swarming with people, more and more of them born every day, everyone is on the move. If you move too, you will get a chance to experience India in both its beauty and its atrocity.