We travel from Agra to Delhi by National Highway – on broad, open, empty expanses of toll road, where our bus can drive fast all the way. On the approach to Delhi we drive through two entirely new cities, being built from the ground up. These are vast developments emerging on the open plain. There are hundreds of huge buildings in different phases of construction, all uninhabited. We drive through the two embryonic cities for twenty minutes or more, everyone on the bus in quiet awe. Evidently India needs more cities, and its economic growth is transforming this need into physical reality.
As the bus pulls in at our destination, a melee of touts awaits us. After collecting our backpacks, we negotiate with a driver to take us to Paharganj. We cram amusingly into one of Delhi’s bright green and yellow auto-rickshaws, the three of us and our multiple huge bags. We drive through New Delhi, with its broad, tree-lined boulevards, large white buildings set back from the street in spacious grounds, and on roads with clear signposting and the large traffic lights that project out over the lanes. What surprises us the most is that people actually stop at the traffic lights when they are red!
New Delhi is laid out in an inspired geometric street pattern, centring on a large roundabout called Connaught Place. At Connaught Place, we turn down some increasingly narrow streets until we arrive in the jumbled alleyways near the Main Bazaar in Paharganj.
After finding and checking into our hotel, we take a walk through the bazaar in the fading light. In the dusk we weave our way between cows and cars, cycle rickshaws, pedestrians, hand-carts, fruit stalls and book shops, plus all kind of curio shops and market goods. Like for Taj Ganj in Agra, my liking for Paharganj is immediate.
Despite seeming chaotic, it actually feels very relaxed, and is so varied as to be endlessly interesting. One of the best things about the Main Bazaar is the group of cattle who appear every evening, here in the midst of the capital city. Where they come from I don’t know, but they are away somewhere else during the day, and appear in the Main Bazaar at night. They tend to congregate around the electricity sub-station where several roads form a junction, but can also be seen wandering up and down the main street, quite at ease and not at all bothered by the close proximity of cars, people and rickshaws squeezing past them, oblivious to and disinterested in their causing obstruction to the flow of the narrow streets. But this is India, and nobody minds. Everything has the same right of way and entitlement to be on the road (or anywhere), no matter what they are.
As I am walking along the street, I become trapped by this cow that is standing and gazing at a passing car. While I am waiting for one of them to move, a man comes out of an adjacent clothes shop and we begin a friendly and amusing conversation. He asks if I would like to buy the cow, and I reply that it is a very nice cow. Then he says he is sure that my brother and I have some Indian heritage, and we are pleased but say we don’t. He then remarks that I have picked up a local way of speaking, and accent, and talk in broken English, and I think, ‘Oh damn’, because I hadn’t realised I’ve started doing this, although at some point I must have automatically adapted as the easiest way of making myself understood. We all laugh together and pet the cow. After saying goodbye to him, we wander on as darkness falls, and Paharganj is sunk in the glow of street lights, strings of fairy lights, and bright neon signs. Past second-hand book stalls, shops displaying walls of colourful fabrics, carvings, belts, fresh juices, and a myriad other things.
The next morning we eat breakfast at one of the rooftop restaurants, where we dined the night before. It has a great view out over the Main Bazaar.
Then we take a cycle rickshaw through Paharganj towards Connaught Place, the start of New Delhi. The cycle rickshaw in itself is quite an experience. My brother rides on the back, on a precarious and very narrow wooden seat, projecting him slightly upwards. He gets a close-up view of the traffic – cars and auto-rickshaws – driving up close behind us and honking, as the streets are jammed up with fruit stalls, taxis, people walking, and wandering cattle. Sabrina and I are in the front behind the driver, being jolted up from the hard seat at every bump and rut in the road. But at least we can see the potholes coming, unlike Richard, whose back feels like it is breaking. Most of our combined sympathies are for the lean and aging cyclist, who takes us at a slow meandering pace through the back streets. As we enter New Delhi, the potholes and ruts in the road change to speed humps, which are no better for the back.