Monday, 18 July 2011

Behind the walls

Another post about Hauz Khas...a different side of it.

Most people visiting Hauz Khas don't get beyond the beautiful ruins, the lake and the deer park, or the high-end boutique shops in the village. They don't venture further south, where the painted signs stop and the narrow alleys take you behind the high madrassa walls, to a different Hauz Khas - one that feels like it's been transported a couple of hundred miles from rural India.

In this Hauz Khas, dozens of children run in and out of rows of tiny, one-storey houses and among the bicycles, piles of wood, old tires and empty wagons scattered around the streets. Mysterious green and orange concoctions bubble away in ancient bowls over open wood fires. Weary women sit in front of their houses, having mud plastered into their hair. Goats trot along the tops of the roughstone walls. And all around, the birds and insects of the woods keep up a constant chirping.

It really does feel like you've left Delhi far behind. Even around the madrassa, which is far quieter than the rest of Delhi, car horns can be heard every couple of minutes and there is a constant coming and going. But behind the walls, there are no horns, few cars and fewer visitors: this is a working rural village incongruously planted in an urban park.

I didn't take many photos here. I'm very conscious that places like this are not a tourist attraction and that the people around me are in their space, living their private lives. But of course the local kids have no such qualms and ran after me yelling "one photo! one photo!" till I relented, and then mobbed me to get a look at the results:

There are hidden worlds all over Delhi, away from the main roads, the markets and the well-heeled areas known to the expat community. At times, the city can feel almost small - the areas where you're encouraged to go as a foreigner being limited in number. But of course it's immense - 17 million people call this city home, twice as many as the populations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. And much of it is pretty much a closed book as far as foreigners are concerned.

The tourist guides to Delhi take you to the centre (Old Delhi and the Red Fort), New Delhi to its South, and the leafy areas of South Delhi beyond that. Expat business people flock to Gurgaon, the soulless new city south of the metropolis. But the vast territories of Western and Northern Delhi may as well be a different planet. None of my guides refer to them. I know nothing about them except that a hell of a lot of people live there.

I have to admit that, although I do plan to go and have a look around one of these mysterious places on my map of the city, the thought is rather intimidating. Delhi feels very safe generally, but crime against visitors is not unknown here. And there is a violence to Indian history and society that seems at odds with the smiling faces you generally meet (not that smiles are an indicator of an unfamiliarity with violence - possibly the most smiley place I have ever been to is Cambodia). Delhi is, after all, supposedly India's crime capital - though this blog puts that assertion into perspective rather neatly.

More to the point, navigating Delhi's crazy streets is hard enough even in the relatively developed Southern parts, with a guidebook in your hand - I suspect the North and the West come with their own challenges. Happily, the ubiquitous rickshaws mean you never need to worry too much, as long as you can name somewhere from where you know your way. So with a year and 11 months (at least) to go before I leave Delhi, I really have no excuse not to venture beyond the Lonely Planet comfort zone.

Anyway, that's for another day. Some time when the weather is a bit kinder and my Hindi has improved...

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