Dog days in Delhi
My son and his girlfriend have been living in Delhi for six months and in that time have acquired two knives, two forks, a compulsory gardener for their square metre of third-storey balcony, a maid for their two modest rooms, and a dog. The dog is a Street Special, found cowering in an open sewer during Diwali, the whizzing, banging festival of light when Hindus commemorate the return of Rama. Their pyrotechnics make Guy Fawkes look positively polite. Diwali is hell for Delhi’s stray dog population and this pup had injured himself trying to flee the festivities. Son and Girlfriend carried him to an animal shelter but we're so appalled to see the creatures on the lowest rung of Delhi's misery ladder that they couldn't bear to leave him there. So Chalu moved in temporarily with them. He was there to meet us when we arrived at the Offspring’s apartment, though his foster parents weren’t. Chalu took the opportunity of the chaos of luggage bearers, an open door and an open gate, to bolt out into the street. Daughter, who has played sport at international level and is still pretty fit, set off after him. After a long chase she lost him at one of Delhi's manic intersections, returning white and shaken at the thought of having to explain to her brother that we'd lost their already traumatised dog within three minutes of our arrival.
We embarked on a squelch through flooded streets, (yup, I also thought it only flooded during the Monsoon) looking for a mutt we'd had only a fleeting and aerial view of as he bounded down the stairs. Biscuit brown and about so-high, I thought. Turns out, so is every stray in Delhi. And every security guard in Defence Colony seemed keen to help us by pointing out every stray; soon the search party comprised street children, the local squatter families, the lady from the corner shop, the ironing walla, the cardboard walla and a pack of interested but not-Chalu dogs. A white women with purple hair would have been a less obstrusive newcomer to the neighbourhood.(Scroll down to Indian Impressions 1.)
To cut a long search short, Chalu was eventually found in the place he is habitually walked in; at first he evaded capture, speeding round and round the park like the Duracell dog. I got down on all fours and did some dog-whispering; curiosity got the better of him and he crept closer and closer; when I produced his lead he leapt at it and seemed to be not just ready, but eager to get home. Must be the right dog, I thought.
And it was.
Usually I jump at the chance of new experiences, but the prospect of a trip to India, first mooted by my son, now resident there, didn’t grab me. Too similar to Africa, I thought; better to invest the time and money getting to know my birth continent better. But Son has thrown in his lot with Teach for India, http://www.teachforindia.org a charity set on giving slum children an educational leg up, and I wanted to see what had inspired such commitment from my firstborn and his girlfriend. So, in January 2013, the remainder of the family set off, conscious we could sample only a samoosa-sized chunk of this subcontinent, what travel agents call the Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur. We’d be adding a tangent by taking a narrow gauge train ride up to the hill station of Shimla.
Behind us in the Jet plane, sat a yellow–turbanned Sikh gentleman with a particularly fine, flowing white beard. He attracted the lens of an aged English Goth, gone purple in patches. He was sanguine about the intrusion. “In Delhi, she will get her turn,” Mr Singh murmured. (True, as we were to discover; even nowadays, Europeans are unabashedly scrutinised in India. Studded white women with purple bits even more so, I imagine.) Mr Singh had another fan too; an Indian aunty appeared in the aisle around bedtime and stood singing to him in Hindi. It sounded like a lullaby and worked for me.
I awoke to a hum drum airport: homongenised concourses, ubiquitous duty free brands; beige uniforms, grey cloud, drizzle — just like home, till we spotted the 'uniforms' of the airport gardeners, saris, sodden at the time; the weeding women looked like bedraggled birds among the exotic planting.
There were three people to meet, greet and transport us. Son had said this was a land of micro-job creation and here was evidence, The youngest walla’s duty was to heft luggage and wipe condensation from the inside of the car windows. I wished he wasn’t so diligent when I saw the traffic we were quickly emmeshed in. All of India seemed determined to pour onto the road circling this city of 16 million. People were crammed into cars, buses, hanging off of lorries, wedged into the green and yellow three-wheeled auto rickshaws, riding three to four on a motorbike (only the driver wearing a helmet despite the fact that the last in line was often a women seated side saddle, holding an infant. There were also pedestrian cyclists, pushing bikes laden with chai-making paraphernalia or piled so high with cardboard they look like mobile Jenga towers.
I held my breath as we squeezed passed other vehicles with literally a few centimetres to spare. Were the distance sensors disabled in Indian cars, I wondered. How would my car with its nanny-ish Nearness Warning System cope? It would it be in a permanently flat-lined, flashing red, apoplectic state, I decided, gaping as vehicles of every size and shape insinuated themselves into impossibly narrow gaps in a bid to keep moving. And keep moving we all did, despite additional obstacles like cows, pigs, buffalo, dogs, beggars, open sewers, unmarked roadworks, Indian Ocean-sized puddles and piles of garbage. Indian congestion is epic, yet still the traffic inches forward. I can only conclude that Delhi drivers have a breathe-in button fitted to their vehicles instead of a whining, wimpy parking sensor.