India: a country famous for its rich history, its tapestry of cultures, religions and classes; a land of mystery, mystique and revelation. I was nervous that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Nervous and hungry.

We were staying just off the main bazaar, a long streak of vegetable carts and designer clothing shacks, in a basic hostel decked out with a brooding mass of filthy pigeons at the room’s main air duct. Being a massive fan of avian flu, this was a prime location. Stepping out onto the market was a mixture of peculiarity, delight and terror. The traffic was a chaotic blur of bicycles, taxis and cows, which somehow managed to manoeuvre with the clumsy precision of a bumblebee in a hurricane. Bright, glittering signs lit up the grubby back alleys; deep wafts of fresh spices were intermittently cut by the sordid aroma of human piss. We were hit by a wave of handshakes and ‘Hello, where are you from?’s, and being too polite/stupid to ignore a handshake meant spending most of the evening talking to strangers about Scotland, golf and the price of Cashmere scarves. Passers-by warned us that beneath this friendly exterior was a sinister desire to sell us tacky merchandise, and then [the locals] led us into their own store to sell us tacky merchandise.

It’s claimed that Delhi has been built and destroyed eleven times during its 5,000 year history. This is perhaps best seen by taking a tour of the city in one of its innumerable bright and bubbly death chariots (rickshaws), which, for a bargainable fee, will bolt you through the tourist spots and side streets at such a speed it may constitute a ‘religious moment’. We took the adventurous decision to hire a private, air conditioned car, which came with a friendly but overbearing tour guide. ‘Stand there,’ he told us, camera ready, on the spot where Mahatma Ghandi was assassinated, ‘and smile.’ We obeyed as he led us through the infamous Humayan’s Tomb, a 16th century Mhugal mausoleum sculpted from red sandstone and white marble. We put up little resistance as he forced our way into the kitchens of the largest Sikh temple in the city – the golden temple – and demanded that we roll chapatti breads for the worshippers. We protested weakly when he told us to stand in front of a group of schoolgirls at the India Gate (a monument built in 1931, inscribed with the names of 90,000 Indian soldiers who died during the reign of the British Raj) and took our photo as though we had, like two self-indulgent perverts, asked him to. New Delhi’s vivacity certainly did live up to India’s image of being a land of diversity, but we weren’t sure we liked it. I’d always considered myself a city boy, a man of machines and margaritas, but New Delhi was such a hive of activity that it was beginning to sting. I longed for a quiet wilderness, a fluffy bunny in a field of posies, a glass of milk. But where can relief be found in such a mechanical bustle of energy, in a city where your backpack is a siren for touts and merchandisers? We looked upwards for peace . . .

Delhi’s refuge is its array of rooftop terraces, a second city of cheap cafés and restaurants that indulge the surveyor in us all. Several floors above the streets, the city metamorphosed into a hypnotic scene of colour and life. That ugly caterpillar became the beautiful butterfly, floating happily above the rigmarole and carrying us with it. A group of women sat quietly picking through a mountain of green chillies; two children tossed a ball to one another at the roadside; a monkey scaled the side of a high rise building in the afternoon sun, as an elderly man watered his roof top flowers.

We ate well on thali, an enticing assortment of well-prepared foods, including freshly baked chicken tandoori, creamy lentil curry, cucumber salad and fluffy naan bread, and sat back, absorbed but tranquil. Distance added a new perspective, a way of seeing how the individual parts, the individual lives, whirred. This was only our third day in India and, though we were less nervous than when we arrived, we were hungrier to see what the country had to offer. And to eat more curry.

— Russ Jones

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