It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good itinerary must be in want of a good dentist. We set off on our travels at 2:00 am on Monday morning. For the 2 days previously the taste in my mouth had been rather unpleasant and halfway through the flight the tell tale pulse like throb under a tooth had confirmed some sort of infection. It was not the way I had intended to arrive in Delhi. 24 hours of travel, 5 hours of sleep and increasing discomfort took the edge off the excitement. So the first task was not the usual eyes on stalks walk around the immediate environment but the search for a dentist. A young man from our hotel took me along the Main Bazaar and into a small side road to a doorway with a large plastic picture of a smile on it. The man sitting in the dust outside the doorway got up and told my accomplice (who translated for me ) that the Dentist would be back in half an hour. We sat down to wait. After an hour, and several more conversations with the man sitting in the dust, the dentist arrived. Courteous nods all round. On unlocking the door with the plastic smile on it the Dentist ushered me in and urged me to sit in “the chair”. I was followed in by my accomplice from the hotel and the man who had been sitting in the dust. The chair and its various attachments was immediately familiar to me. It was the same one my dentist had used when I was a child in 1959. Actually I think it was the same one, there was a crack on the dentists light that looked the same shape as the one my childhood dentist had caused when he hit his head on it. I had bitten his hand and he had pulled away in surprise cracking the light in the process. Well I was only 8 and he did hurt me. As the man with the dusty bottom adjusted the light I finally realised that he was the dentist’s assistant. My accomplice from the hotel came closer so that he could see what was going on. It was, as I though an Infection in the gum which would, I was assured, respond to antibiotics. No drilling, no extractions. Two of the four of us looked pleased. And so, after a rather juddering start we went looking for Delhi.
Delhi is, as people had warned me, confusing. Its not the traffic, the speed, the constant hassle and haggle or the noise, its the sheer scale of it. We were staying in the centre of the old town so it really was bustle from the word go. There is a brusqueness to it that is hard to explain. People in official roles seem to wave you on (or away) with what comes across as distain. It’s not hostile but it does feel unfriendly. When you get into conversations with people however they seem open, friendly and helpful. Once you have haggled in a fairly blunt way with a Tuc Tuc driver, and then they have stopped several times to unsuccessfully try to persuade you do add a second or third destination to your journey the conversation finally seems to settle down into a relaxed and helpful chat pointing out some sights as you go past and making helpful suggestions for other days without any attempt to add them to your current journey. Perhaps its as straightforward as establishing as much business as you can get before you engage in pleasantries. In the west we run seminars in “ Maximising your Business Opportunities” They should get some Tuc Tuc drivers in as inspirational speakers.
I know that it takes time to get the feel of a city, especially one as big as Delhi, but there was nowhere to even start. It reminded me of walking around St Ives (in Cornwall UK) during the new year celebrations. There were thousands of people all in fancy dress walking and staggering around this small charming fishing village. We kept walking around looking for what was going on. It was very enjoyable, but we could not figure out what was happening. It took us hours of walking, during which we went into many pubs and purchased a considerable amount of alcohol before we realised that all that was happening was that people were walking around and going into pubs to buy alchohol before walking around again. In my college course we would have called this experience “participant observation”. Delhi seems like this but with the sort of air pollution that drys the back of your throat. Millions pf people walking round the Old Town buying stuff from thousands of stalls. The difference from the UK is that they all seem small independent stalls, all selling the same sort of stuff. Fruit and vegetables that look wonderful in some localities, lots of shiny bling in others. It seems like miles of the same until you get to a monument or site of historical significance, but these sites also have their confusions. They seem disconnected as though they are not part of the city they are in. The two places that seem to be different are the imperial centre of New Delhi and the Old Town spice market. The Imperial centre will need to wait for another day but the spice market!
We turned off Chandni Chowk and passed through a small alleyway into a past world. The smells hit you, subtle, varied and distinct. Wonderful smells changing in a fraction of a second as you walk through the narrow maze and pass 3 men who are loading eight huge spice sacks onto a narrow handcart then dodge a porter carrying spice sack bigger than himself on his head. Within seconds you are intoxicated by the dizzying delight of the smells. Seconds later, as your throat drys,your eyes begin to water you become aware of the sounds. Wheezing, spluttering, spitting and above all coughing. In my imagination its the sound of a Nottingham Colliery during the height of the Industrial Revolution. Its the coughs that stay in the memory. Some are dry hacking coughs, others are so phlegm filled that you find yourself turning away. Its a place of continual movement, Sacks being weighed, loaded and moved. Sacks arriving , being split, weighed and moved. Carried through the narrow passageways to the street to be carried to the hotels, homes and restaurants of Delhi and beyond. Not only spices but vegetable dyes, bright deep primary colours to be thrown at people during the Holi Festival in a few weeks time.
So with a visit to Red Fort and Humayun’s Tombe, the overpowering experience of the Spice Market and generally playing with the traffic we fought our way out of Delhi. The overnight train was great fun. The lights were a little erratic at first so I was glad I had packed a head torch. During journey the ticket inspector called along with two army chaps, each with their very own metal sub machine gun and red plastic torch, to help sort out a passenger who had apparently forgotten their ticket. No half measures here. There were no shots so I assume the matter was peacefully resolved. As I drifted off in the heat of the sleeping carriage I found myself reflecting in the signs in the train toilet where there were two separate buttons to flush the squat toilets. The button on the wall was marked with a sign that simply said “Flush”. The other button however, located much nearer the hole in the ground, shouted in large letters “EMERGENCY FLUSH” As I drifted off I found myself wondering what constituted an appropriate emergency.