In Beijing, at Donghuamen Night Market, a beggar stretched out what was left of his hand to me. He was perhaps thirty or thirty-five. His arm was black with blood poisoning to well above the elbow; most of his fingers had already gone. I thought, You’re already dead, and I turned away.
If there was one place on our itinerary that I found both compelling and terrifying, it was India. I have always felt that the responsible citizen of the twenty-first century should see India; should see firsthand both some of the real effects of overcrowding and pollution, and some of the fastest and most significant economic and social change. Secretly, though, I did not particularly look forward to it. I have trouble not getting overwhelmed by sensory input when I’m tired, and India promised to deliver an overwhelming level of everything – noise, smell, heat, size, people. Added to all of that was everything that was known about what it can be like to be a woman in India – the staring, harassment, ‘Eve teasing’. We didn’t plan this portion of the trip particularly well and I suspect at least part of that was my reluctance to think this part through.
One thing, though, that has not been as bad as I expected; the beggars. We’d seen it beforehand, in Beijing, in the dozens that cluster around the Temple of Confucius near our hotel – blindness, missing limbs, rotten appendages. It doesn’t get any easier, but it hasn’t got any worse. Call it developing a callus, call it becoming callous – it has to happen.
Having felt somewhat battered by our three weeks of trekking, we declared ourselves in need of some R&R and decided to book a Delhi hotel with a pool. We managed to score a reservation for the five-star Lalit Hotel, with its nightclub, spa, shopping arcade, and several restaurants, for less than the cost of a Premier Inn.The pool was lovely, and practically deserted, but the difference between the opulence of the enormous hotel and the places we’d been staying beforehand left me feeling like I was slightly delirious for most of the time that we spent there. On top of that, Loz came down with a touch of Delhi Belly, which made it that much harder to venture beyond the hotel and get to know much of the city. Still, we did our best.
We allowed ourselves one day of leisure by the pool. The highlight of this, for me, was a trip to Fabindia in Connaught Place, a shop which sells gorgeous Indian clothing made by rural craftspeople. I had already decided to buy and wear a few salwar kameez, both because it can reduce harassment and because the light, high-quality cotton is the best thing for the heat. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t about to come to India, land of rich beautiful textiles, and wear no low-key tasteful garments, so I selected kurta tunics in shades of orange-gold, fuchsia, and royal blue, as well as voluminous pantaloons: salwar trousers (a pair of salwar?) in dark red, and turquoise blue harem pants. As a result, I am swanning around India looking like I mugged Princess Jasmine for her trousers.
We set off to the Red Fort the next day, but we’d neglected to check the weather and it had hit 36C. In these temperatures, even sitting in the shade is punishing, and we didn’t last long. To do so also involved fighting our way through the bazaars of Chandni Chowk, which is like having a horn constantly blare in one ear while someone yells in the other and you are continually assaulted by the elbows and reeks of humanity. The smell of the sun-warmed spices sold on the pavement by old women hits your nose like a welcome hammer-blow. The fort also includes the Museum of India’s Struggle for Freedom, though, which is well worth a visit. It lays out the story of the East India Company’s dominion over India, and the long struggle of rebellion, the massacres, and then the peaceful protests which pulled the country together. It hits hard emotionally; with inspiration at how Gandhi inspired and pulled together a country, and with regret and shame at how cavalierly the British had once believed that the world was theirs for the carving up.
On Wednesday, we set out to walk to the Modern Art gallery and instead stumbled on the huge arch of India Gate. Afterwards, we took to autorickshaws and explored the National Museum and its huge collection of Indian art and sculpture, before having “high tea” at the legendary Imperial, where we ate cucumber sandwiches and drank the delicious house blend of Kashmiri tea. The next day, we left for a tour of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan – of which more to come.
And the harassment? So far minimal or absent. I had been warned to expect a lot of staring, which I’ve received, as well as not to stare back, so I avert my eyes modestly. Nothing worse, though, although I’ve wandered abroad without Loz during the day and taken the opportunity to ride the women-only carriages of the Delhi Metro. Women stare too, in a more low-key way, and a few shyly asked to take my picture at the Fort. But the anxiety is constraining. Every travel guide is full of warnings for women not to move around alone at night. It’s been a long time since simply walking alone to a market on a quiet street in daylight felt like an achievement.