Impressions of India: Delhi

Arriving at Delhi airport from Singapore is like stepping back 50 years. Singapore airport is extremely modern and well-built, and the departure area looks like a shopping mall in the US, with clean, well lit, expensive stores and several seating areas with large flat-screen TVs and very comfortable armchair seating where one can sit and watch a great variety of TV programming. The walls are marble, as are the floors for the most part, and everything is clean and well maintained. Delhi airport, on the other hand, looks like a particularly run-down and seedy bus station from the 1950s. Everything has an air of being either unfinished or so old it is falling apart. The arrival hall is an echoing bare space with a few soldiers lounging around. Outside is a hallway lined with booths offering taxi service, hotel reservations and the like, each manned by three or four people all trying to attract the attention of the passing travelers. The din is deafening. Everyone is trying to grab your bag and steer you to a particular taxi. Having finally secured a taxi (by means of buying a coupon at the Delhi Police Taxi booth), and told the driver what hotel you want to go to, and insisted that you really did want to go there and not to another one that he assures you is much better and cleaner and cheaper, you are thrust into the maelstrom of Delhi traffic. 

This is an experience like nothing else on earth. The only rule seems to be that no two objects can occupy exactly the same space at the same time, and everyone is engaged in a constant struggle to test this rule to the limit at all times. As I have heard it said, what you need to drive in Delhi is a good horn, good brakes, and good luck. Everyone drives at the maximum possible speed at all times, and pushes and jockeys to occupy any space that open up. Nobody uses any kind of signals, and most vehicles do not even have outside mirrors, which after all only add to the width of your vehicle! If you are in the right lane (though it really makes no sense to speak of lanes; though they are marked in the street nobody pays the slightest attention to them) and you want to turn left, you simply drive that way and assume that everyone else will get out of the way. It is no use to wait for a break in the traffic; it is a solid mass at all times, but a constantly moving solid mass. If you have ever watched the motion of molecules in a hot liquid through a microscope, you have some picture of the situation. The variety of vehicles is huge, from fairly regular looking cars, mostly Japanese and Korean, through Indian-manufactured Ambassador cars that look like something from the 1950s, the most decrepit looking busses you ever saw, missing doors and windows and with large rust-holes in their bodywork, with so many people on board that they are bursting through the windows and hanging on the outside of the doors, or rather door-holes since there are no doors, swarms of three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, which are like motorcycles with bodies built to carry a driver and two or three passengers, but which usually have at least eight crammed inside, bicycles rickshaws, bicycles with merchandise of all kinds lashed in impossible piles, farm tractors pulling trailers piled eight feet high with vegetables, bullock-carts, huge trucks in similar condition to the busses, also often crammed with people, and with more hanging off the back, thousands of scooters and motorcycles, often with a woman in a sari sitting sideways on the back with a squirming baby in her lap (I even saw one changing a diaper while in motion) and another child in front of the driver, pedestrians and dogs dodging in and out, and everyone honking, yelling and cursing as they jockey for space, with either the accelerator or the brake pressed to the floor at any given time. The auto-rickshaws, trucks and busses are all decorated with a fantastic assortment of tassels, fringes, religious ornaments, metallic designs and painted slogans, many of which have the effect of obscuring the field of view of the driver. 

When I say that any of these vehicles will occupy any available space this includes the opposing traffic lanes; on more than one occasion I was convinced that we were driving the wrong way down a one-way street, since there was solid traffic coming at us on our side of the street. I eventually realized that there are evidently no one way streets, and that this was perfectly normal behavior. What amazed me the most was that all of this confusion actually works. I only saw two minor collisions in three days of fascinated and horrified observation, neither resulting in observable damage, and for the most part the traffic keeps moving without ever achieving gridlock. Of course many of the vehicles look as though they have already been in major wrecks anyway! The only ingredient I expected to see among the traffic but did not was cows. At least in Delhi (though not elsewhere) the cows seem to have the good sense to stay out of the traffic; they were plentiful on sidewalks and in open areas such as parks, however. 

Outside the city driving is hardly less hair-raising. The road the Agra, for instance, is a divided highway with two lanes in each direction. The divider between the two sides is a solid fence for much of the way, which means that farm tractors that wish to turn right onto the highway (India drives on the left, like other civilized countries) might have to go some distance the other way to find a gap in the fence and then do a U-turn. Since this would be altogether too much trouble what they do instead is to turn right anyway and drive against the traffic in the fast lane. This does not seem to cause any particular concern; the oncoming traffic just veers into the slow lane to avoid them, but for a passenger it is truly scary, especially after dark, since the tractors do not have lights. Even worse is when the lanes in the other direction are under repair or otherwise unusable for some reason, when the oncoming traffic is switched to your side. Just to make it more interesting the first warning you get of this condition is the presence of large trucks bearing down on you on your side of the road. Of course nobody (in either direction) adjusts their behavior to take account of this, so on one occasion the car I was in was passing another car going in our direction, face to face with a car and a truck doing the same thing in the other direction in the same lanes! I still do not know quite how everyone managed to get into their proper lane and miss each other, but they did. I suppose the lesson to be learned from all this is never be a passenger in a car driven by someone who believes in predestination! 

Everyone uses his horn constantly, and in fact most of the trucks have “Use Horn Please” or some variant painted on the back. This, combined with the aforementioned lack of outside mirrors, leads me to the conclusion that Indian drivers must navigate by sound, like bats. The general attitude to the use of headlights is illustrated by the fact that the trucks also often say “At night use dipper.” (In line with British English usage lights are dipped rather than dimmed in India.) This phraseology, in preference to something like “Flash your brights” indicates that the expectation is that everyone will be driving at night with their full headlights on at all times, which is in fact the case. The only time headlights are dimmed is to use them as an indication of a desire to pass slower traffic by flashing them up and down until the vehicle in front pulls over. This is not used in place of the horn, but in addition. Another interesting, and, to a passenger, disturbing custom is that trucks will signal their willingness to be passed by using their right-hand blinkers. Now remember that we are driving on the left here, so this produces the strange situation where the very same signal is used to mean “I am about to pull out in front of you” or “It is safe to pass, as I am going to stay in the left-hand lane!” The locals seem to be able to discern which of these opposing messages is intended, but I confess that I could not see how. 

After my first couple of exposures to traffic conditions I decided to take trains rather than busses whenever possible, which turns out to be most of the time. The Indian railway system is the largest in the world, and also employs more people than any other business in the world. Again, nothing seems to have been built, or indeed maintained or repaired, since about 1950. Trains chronically run late, and sometimes stop for long periods in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. Usually the carriages are either unbearably hot or freezing cold, and very little attempt is made towards comfort. Indeed in India generally there is very little softness. Mattresses are usually no more than thin pads filled with horsehair on top of plywood, and sleeper accommodation on the trains is no different. A thin sheet and blanket are provided, but it is advisable to wear warm clothes as it can get pretty cold at night. Seating in the regular compartments is hardly better, even in first-class; I shudder to think what conditions are like in the cheaper classes; fortunately the fares are reasonable enough to make first-class travel quite affordable to anyone who is not earning Indian wages. One very pleasant feature is that it is never necessary to carry ones own bags. Every station boasts hundreds of porters who are only too pleased to hoist the heavies suitcases on top of their heads and forge through the crowds to your train, find your reserved compartment and stow your bags (waiting with you until the train arrives if it is late or you are early), and will thank you fervently and shake your hand if you tip them 100 rupees, the equivalent of $2. 

Another feature of Indian life that one quickly gets used to is chai. This is hot sweet black tea (as opposed to herbal tea), usually with milk, and often flavored with any combination of cardamom, cloves, ginger, ginseng and other spices, that is offered on every conceivable occasion, and is available everywhere at all times. While waiting for a train, for instance, there will always be two or three chai-wallahs patrolling the platform with a large pot of chai and a supply of small plastic cups. A cup might cost two or three rupees, or the equivalent of a nickel. It is a very refreshing drink. Any social or commercial transaction will start with an offer of chai, and refusal is considered quite odd, if not actually rude. The result is that one might consume 20 or 30 small cups of chai in any given day. Perhaps there is a connection between this habit and the fact that Indians feel it quite proper to urinate pretty much anywhere (out of doors at least!) 

Finding good food in India is very simple of one likes Indian food, which I do. Interestingly, in contrast to Mexico, for instance, it is much easier to eat vegetarian than to find good meat dishes. Beef, of course, is almost nonexistent, chickens tend towards the scrawny, and the staple meat, mutton, is often tough and stringy. The vegetarian dishes, however, are delicious. Usually they consist of some kind of curd-cheese and assorted vegetables cooked in masala, which is any of a variety curry-like sauces. One can specify the degree of spiciness, and an endless supply of chapattis, which are roughly equivalent to tortillas, is always at hand. Rice is also available in several forms. The result is a very nutritious and inexpensive meal that is available on any street corner, or in any restaurant. Eaten to the accompaniment of several cups of chai it is extremely satisfying. For breakfast I usually eat porridge (which, unlike my Singapore experience, is exactly what I expected) followed by toast and marmalade and accompanied by the sweetest orange juice I have ever tasted, and, of course, plenty of chai. For people of a more American taste, egg dishes and pancakes and the like are usually on the menu, but not having tried any of them I cannot pass comment on them. In the larger cities MacDonald’s, Burger King and the like can be found, and I am told that they vary their fare somewhat to suit Indian tastes, but again I avoid them like the plague. Coffee usually consists of warm water and Nescafe (powdered coffee, and English at that!) Definitely not your gourmet blend! 

Another pleasant discovery is lassi. This is a cold drink based on yoghurt, heavily sweetened (like everything else in India that is not spicy) and sometimes flavored with fruit of some kind. It is extremely refreshing and satisfying, and available pretty much everywhere, at least in Rajasthan. It has become a particular favorite of mine. It is fortunate that I have a sweet tooth; I imagine someone who did not like sweet things would find India quite trying.