salaam delhi

Delhi is the sort of city that makes you homesick. Universally acknowledged as fairly dreadful, we were loathe to write it off too quickly and while I like to think we gave it our best shot, the smog, chaos and grinding poverty got the better of us in the end.
 
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Not to say there aren’t “islands of awesomeness” tucked away amid the chaos. Gandhi Smriti is the suitably humble house where the Mahatma stayed on his visits to Delhi and where he ultimately took his last steps, on the way to his regular prayer session in the garden, before being assassinated in 1948. Although we were mobbed by school girls and bamboozled by some of the highly abstract interactive exhibits, the worth of the visit was sealed with a simple, poignant animated film depicting the last moments of Gandhi’s life, accompanied by some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard: “It will fly, the lone swan, from the carnival of the earth.” My great aunt Mary once described Gandhi as “a troublesome little man”, but perhaps Einstein’s opinion was less clouded by the inconvenience of having to flee the Partition of India: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” Right on, Al.

And then there was Nizam’s Kathi Kebab – is it pathetic that we stayed in Delhi for several days longer than planned solely to allow for a few more cracks at the double mutton double egg special?

 
Whether India likes it or not, poverty will long be what much of the foreign world associates with the subcontinent and indeed, it was high on our list of anxieties about coming here. Yes, it really is as bad as we expected and at times, we can’t help but feel overwhelmed by it. The internal monologue often goes beserk, tossing over every known reason why we should or shouldn’t give to someone who asks us for money on the street.

As a rule, I don’t give – accepted wisdom says it’s best not to, as random giving doesn’t yield any long term benefit and those begging are often pawns feeding criminal activity higher up the food chain. But even then, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about this logic simply absolving me from the need to give. And it’s hard to ignore the very basic fact that the person asking undoubtedly needs the money way more than I do, for whatever reason, and that they also deserve to be treated with dignity instead of being regarded as a nuisance. In more vulnerable moments, this inevitably leads to a broader examination of the complexities of what seems to be wrong in the world and what is ultimately the “right” way to live one’s life. Exhausting, and even then my exhaustion is tempered with a sort of guilt about the fact that I can even indulge in being exhausted by the whole quandary – certainly, this is a middle class indulgence, when I’m sure begging on the streets of Delhi is infinitely more exhausting and doesn’t come with the relief of a warm bed and a meal at the end of the day.

Perhaps in an attempt to try and make some sense of it all, we signed on for a city walk with Salaam Balaak Trust. Even this was not without some hesitation, as there’s something inherently distasteful about the notion of “slum tourism” and as if there to prey on these very insecurities, our group included a young Finnish journalist researching a story about these types of tours. What swayed us was that the tour focuses on the public areas of New Delhi train station and the Trust’s operations there and nearby, instead of intruding into residential areas, and the organisation is rightfully sensitive to the potential for exploitation, keeping groups small and banning photography. Conservative estimates put about 1,500 kids living at the station, as our guide, Shahanut, did until he chose to go live at the Trust’s shelter. A relatively small operation trying their best to tackle a massive problem, they are justifiably proud of what they do to provide an alternative to the very un-childlike life these kids find themselves living.

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7 Responses to “salaam delhi”

  1. Hoanne Says:

    errrghhh, Delhi probably had a big part to play in us NOT returning to India. I have never been so glad to leave somewhere, I think I had tears of joy as the plane took off.

    That said your photos are Knock Out!, so I am living the India we missed through you guys, while eating an Argentinian steak! Adios

  2. AN Says:

    We wanted to do one of the trust walks when we were there too but simply ran out of time. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. I frequently found myself almost feeling relieved that the accepted wisdom is that you shouldn’t give to beggars, because it meant there was a “moral” way to avoid interacting with these people. How terrible is that? Then the shame and guilt at my relief would overwhelm me. Part of the reason I just found Delhi far too much.

  3. Carita Says:

    Catie & Linds – I can just imagine how visiting Dehli would have torn you apart. You have written a very honest post here and I really feel for you. I don’t think I can even conceive of how confronting such poverty must be. I hope you’ve been able to process it all. Take Care. Critter.

  4. cara Says:

    Hey there, I’m wondering if you know who wrote/sang that song in the ghandi memorial. I can’t get it out of my head

  5. beyondbagot Says:

    Hi Cara

    We wrote to them at the time and they passed it on, which was a surprise and really lovely.

    The artist is Kumar Gandharva, the title of the song is Nirguni Kabeer Bhajan “Ud Jayega Hans Akela”.

    If you are in India right now it shouldn’t be too hard to track down at a decent music shop. We did!

  6. Simitha Thulsie Prithvraj Says:

    THANK YOU! I HAVE SEARCHED FOR THIS SONG FOR MONTHS!!! 🙂

  7. beyondbagot Says:

    Fantastic Simitha glad we could help, it’s a special memory for us. You have reminded me to go and fish out our CD!

    Linds

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