by Tim Dawe
“That,” intones retired school teacher Anil Makadiya, now my personal tour guide, “is old Delhi.”
With outstretched arm he scythes a patronising arc, across an unseen metropolis.
“We shan’t spend much time there.”
I am in India on my first visit; my wife’s second after an absence measured in decades. We have been in New Delhi for 10 hours, mostly spent at our hotel in the land of nod. After breakfast Mr Makadiya and the unnamed driver of our shiny black car deliver us to Rajpath, a vast ceremonial carriageway. Something’s not right. We are at the epicentre of the capital of India and there’s hardly a soul anywhere. There is a gang of women in colourful saris labouring on the green swaths of lawn lining the road, their babies spread-out on tablecloths alongside, some small figures walking or cycling far in the distance, and beyond that, nothing.
It’s 9:30am and the air pollution is so bad I just see the dominating triumphal monument of India Gate. At the other end of this road-without-vehicles the presidential palace is a mere outline behind its ornate gate. The sun is a red ping pong ball in the haze.
This is a tale of two cities – one old, one new and, as implied by Mr Makadiya, very different. There have been eight cities here, each one supplanted by another conquering invader. Nadir Shah invaded and conquered in 1739 and carted off the Peacock Throne to Iran. There’s an old saying: who establishes a new city of Delhi will lose it. And so it was for the British. In 1911 they relinquished the colonial capital of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) amid threatening Bengali independence and moved to Delhi.
Building New Delhi took some time. It was not until 1931 when it was inaugurated as the new capital. In 1947, as the British Empire morphed into the Commonwealth, it was lost for the eighth time. Prophesy fulfilled.
Mr Makadiya takes us to Jama Masjid, a striking 17th century mosque, the largest in India. Then as a treat on our excursion we are offered a peddle rickshaw ride around the mosque’s side streets. This is old Delhi, of crowded, winding alleys and monkeys swinging from spaghetti cabling to rooftops; very different. We visit the famous Red Fort, still a military base and, like Jama Masjid, commissioned by Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal.
It is a short drive to the tranquil riverside Rajghat to see the black marble slab and perpetual flame that marks the burial site of Mahatma Gandhi, here reverentially known as Gandhiji. Further afield the ancient Qutb Minar complex is astonishing with its exquisite 12th century craftsmanship and architecture, and the mysterious 2000-year-old iron pillar. But our next visit to a very familiar looking Humayan’s tomb is breathtaking. It’s not just the serene beauty of its charbagh-style garden, it’s the design precursor to the Taj Mahal. Surprisingly it is adorned with a Star of David. But like much of India, it’s not what it seems, rather an ancient symbol adopted thousands of years before the Jews, similar to the Nazis adopting the Aryan/Indian swastika.
However nothing says New Delhi more than Connaught Place. Connaught Place is essentially a traffic circle, albeit a very large one. What it does say though, is this is the British view of a new India; it’s stamp of town planning to create a new capital city. It’s modern and it’s planned; built for cars, office workers and shoppers.
Unlike the “virgin” capitals of Canberra and Brasilia, it is forged out of established communities. To old Delhi it is a close encounter of the bulldozer kind.
We wander around the centre of three huge concentric ring roads. The buildings are rather shoddy and dirty, mostly unchanged and untouched since the 1930s. It’s not traditional India but that is not the point about New Delhi. We watch young middle-class Indians in western dress meet and greet at McDonalds and Wendys.
The next morning I do my usual thing (travel habits are hard to break). I set off for an exploratory walk soon after sunrise to get my bearings and to find interesting things.
It is obvious I’m in not just an upmarket suburb but stratospherically so. In a country where extended families live in packing crates alongside the railway line, here people live on two hectares of manicured gardens in extravagant mansions – fortified mansions.
I pass three mansions (one proclaiming the residence of a high court judge) in quick succession and discover all have gantry walkways high behind the street wall with khaki-clad, armed soldiers peering over the top as they patrol the perimeter. And at the corners, quite visible next to the sentry box, an ancient machine gun held in place with sandbags; upmarket, and high security.
The last mansion I pass before I reach another roundabout (so many roundabouts) is very attractive with large Poinciana trees overflowing the ramparts. The sun glinting on its brass nameplate catches my eye. In four languages it simply declares the occupant: Sheila Dikshit. The popular, First Minister of New Delhi answers to that name, not the PR version: Dixit.
I take a sub-stratospheric street for my return as a watery sun climbs. Here I find a slightly more vibrant (and welcoming) streetscape. A band of good-natured drivers is doing a complete engine overhaul on a taxi – parts strewn all over the footpath and someone’s driveway. We have a brief conversation of sorts exchanging incomprehensible words. We are enjoined by gestures and a common understanding of the enormity of the task in hand.
No one on their first visit can leave India unmoved; the shocking contrasts, the crowds, noise, ritual spectacles, the mess of humanity (and the cows) and the all-pervading spirituality of an ancient culture.
New Delhi is different. It’s not the frenetic, vibrant India we all know and love. It’s Canberra rather than Sydney. And it’s a great place to explore interesting things.