For my husband and I, taking our three children – aged eight, 12 and 13 – to Delhi is a wonderful adventure but at times such as this I do worry. Like any anxious parent, I find my imagination providing untold horrors of what could go wrong in this vivid, teeming city.
Happily, on this occasion my daughter is right. The children enjoy a pleasant shopping trip and I end up feeling concerned instead for the aged rickshaw driver, beaten down by my friend’s son to a price below the metre charge for the journey.
We rarely feel at risk in Delhi, despite its bustle and crowds. By and large, the people seem to have an innate gentleness. Even the street hawkers who cluster round us as we watch the sudden sunset over India Gate, the 42m-high arch at the centre of New Delhi, are tiresome rather than threatening. The children have bought a handful of luminous spinning toys and other salesmen thrust bundles of the same wares at us, offering ever-larger bundles at ever-lower prices. It is hard not to feel mean, bargaining over a pound with men whose faces tell of a life of poverty, but there are only so many cheap souvenirs a suitcase will hold. The trick is to give a clear refusal – the slightest hesitation leads to renewed efforts to cut a deal.
As we are learning this lesson, the last rays of sunshine fall away and it grows dark, the scene lit only by the small fires of the traders, selling tasty sweet potato cut from its blackened skin and tossed with lemon and spicy masala. After buying one of these, I look down to see that my eight-year-old has vanished from my side. A few panic-stricken moments later, I establish that he has gone back to wait in the car with his father.
Apart from these two little scares, we soon feel fairly confident and at home in Delhi. It is accessible to English-speaking people and the other legacy of British rule is a certain sense of familiarity. For instance, the handsome villas of the political quarter – designed, like India Gate, by leading 20th-century architect Sir Edwin Lutyens – would not be out of place in Broughty Ferry. At the same time, there is much that is strange and it is enormously exciting to visit this metropolis, which must feature on any list of the great cities of the world, up there with London, New York and Paris.
Delhi has an extraordinary diversity of culture, religion and ethnicity, all readably chronicled in City Of Djinns, William Dalrymple’s 1994 travelogue (djinns being a class of spirits in Muslim theology). The city has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years and traces of history can be found everywhere. Like wallpaper peeling off an old house, there are many points where different layers are laid bare – for instance at the Red Fort, once the residence of Delhi’s Moghul emperors and later a barracks for British soldiers.
Although much of the Muslim population was cleared in the misery of partition in 1947, Old Delhi remains a traditionally Islamic neighbourhood. The women who shop in its narrow medieval streets don’t wear the black robes of the Middle East but cover their heads with colourful scarves and their arms with embroidered sleeves.
We travel to Old Delhi on the new and rather grand underground. In contrast, we then switch to cycle rickshaws, the best vehicles for touring these mysterious, winding thoroughfares, where traders haggle over precious metals, fine cloth, jewels and spices pretty much as they have done for millenia. One labyrinthine building is devoted entirely to sacks and sacks of chilli powders of various types. The powder catches the backs of our throats, making us cough and sneeze. Other shops sell only seeds or only spice mixtures.
India has one of the world’s great cuisines and in Old Delhi you’ll find the elite of street food vendors, whose panoply of delicacies are cooked before your eyes – syrupy jalebi sweets, poori pani crispy rice balls with green sauce, or simply the ginger and cardamom-scented tea made with boiled milk which is breakfast for the skinny rickshaw drivers. The children enjoy eating toasted seeds out of wraps of newspaper and little pan-fried biscuits they call hot shortbread.
Eating street food has become a passion for food writer Pamela Timms. She lives in the city and devotes her blog, Eat And Dust, to recreating versions of the food of Old Delhi in her own kitchen.
She introduces us to Haldiram’s, a chain restaurant offering a self-service selection of a huge array of Indian food. It’s great for families because the children can point to whatever they fancy and it’s also reliably clean and good quality.
Over the course of our stay the children enjoy their dosas and sweet lassi drinks but eventually tire of curry at every meal. One day, we cop out and take them to a small amusement park and shopping mall where their eyes light up at the sight of the yellow arches of McDonald’s and the red hat of Pizza Hut.
The park is fairly quiet, mainly populated by school groups in 1950s-style uniforms including white ankle socks and shiny shoes. Many are keen to practise their English and some even ask to have their photo taken with us. In the queue for the main attraction, a water ride, we are amused to see a young mother dump her baby at the entrance on the lap of his big brother, a boy of about five, before she and her husband sail off on the ride.
Shopping is another popular pastime – at the Indian Craft Museum, demonstrators in the yard make and sell beautiful hand-carved wood, worked metal, pottery and cloth. My daughter finds a ring with an amethyst the size of a pigeon’s egg for about £12.
Our chief shopper is in teen heaven again at Sarojini market, which specialises in well-known high-street brands at prices far cheaper than even the sale bucket at Primark, coming away with bags bulging with finery. Her parents have more expensive tastes and we shop at the upmarket Khan market where I find a pair of prescription Ray-Bans for £60, while my husband has a suit handmade from super-fine wool for £250, including shipping.
At the market we find a wholefood cafe called the Good Earth where we are again able to eat western food, this time high-class Italian. We also patronise – more than once I’m afraid – the All American Diner, complete with jukebox and red plastic benches, for a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausages rounded off with waffles and maple syrup.
Cheap though most prices seem, Delhi has a way of emptying the wallet. We economise by staying in a simple but clean guest house in the salubrious area of Jor Bagh, near the city’s most beautiful park, Lodhi Gardens. There is an excellent bookshop nearby and an open-air flower shop where a few pounds can buy you armfuls of lilies.
One of the main pleasures is in just walking around, taking in the sights – for example, watching stonemasons cut marble by eye on the pavement by one of the many building sites. The craftsmen are male but most of the heavy work is done by women, who swing by, straight backed, loads of rocks balanced on their heads.
One day we book an English-speaking cab driver, Amergit Singh, who offers a day trip for around £20 and takes us round the sights, keeping us up to date on news from the UK, relayed to him by cousins in Birmingham.
Concerned about encouraging gangs who prey on children, we resolutely refuse to give money to the children or women with babies in their arms who often walk out into the traffic when we stop at lights. We do, however, put small notes into the hands of the elderly whenever we see them begging silently at the roadside, and we also give a few pounds when we visit the Sikh temple at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. This white building, its gold dome towering over a sacred pool, offers free food to visitors and feeds about 100,000 people a day from donations.
There is great deprivation in this city, but the main memory I shall retain of Delhi is of the energy and enthusiasm of the people, the vibrancy and colour of the street scenes and the sense of a great city coming into its own.
Some of the most economical fares from Glasgow or Edinburgh are with Air France via Paris – prices from around £400 return. Visit www.airfrance.co.uk.
Where to stay:
Jorbagh 27 guest house, in an upmarket area near Lodhi Gardens, has basic but clean double rooms from around £45 a night. Visit www.jorbagh27.com.
Trips out of Delhi can be arranged by Indian Voyages (www.indian voyages.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) and Emma Horne of Nexxtop Tours (www.hrrindia.com).