A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Pregnant at New Delhi Railway Station

A few days into my time in Delhi, I’m loving the brain-shake and body-blast that is Delhi – but I do need a brief retreat from the noise and dust and all those horns.

So I buy myself a few hours in one of Delhi’s five star hotels...

I head to the Imperial for afternoon tea.

And boy, is it posh!

I feel like I’m trespassing as soon as I pass through the enormous iron gates – they must have been installed by the Incredible Hulk.

The width of the driveway at the Imperial, the height of the palm trees each side, the whiteness of the building – it’s like walking into a different country after my first few days in budget Delhi.

I’m convinced the staff at the front door will tell me to leave by the back entrance!

However, the doorman smiles at me as he waves me through the metal detector. He’s wearing the costume of Empire including the very oversized turban that is satirised in a passage in Aravind Adiga’s brilliant novel The White Tiger. I’m reading this novel at the moment, in which Adiga highlights the disparities between rich and poor in India through his compelling portrayal of Balram Halwai - ‘servant, philospher, entrepreneur, murderer’.

Inside the Imperial hotel...

It’s all marble floors and upholstered armchairs. Clip-clopping high heels and trailing sari scarves. Laptops and designer boutiques. Green leaves tumble over iron-balconied interior windows. There’s the sound of violins and a fountain.

The waiters wear navy jackets with red stripes down the arms and gold buttons. There’s a marble figurehead in the tearoom – looks like Winston Churchill from where I’m sitting but on closer inspection I find it’s Thomas Daniell (1749 – 1840) – he's a British landscape painter. This is one of his paintings of Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi.

Afternoon tea at the Imperial is a mixture of English and Indian finery. Sandwiches include cucumber and mint, emmental and mango chutney, salmon and cream cheese – crusts cut off, of course! There are hot snacks in silver dumb waiters such as chicken tikka with yoghurt dip, samosas and mushroom vol-au-vents. Cups of gazpacho. Mango and mint shooters. Then if you have any room left (naturally!), there are scones with fresh strawberry jam and cream, mini carrot cakes, toffee éclairs, crème brulee, fruit tarts...

All washed down with cup after china cup of tea, Assam in my case. Stirred with a silver spoon. The strength and freshness of the brew is very welcome.

And whilst being conscious of my privileged position to be inside the Imperial Hotel – most people in India, I’m well aware, would not be allowed through those impossibly tall front gates – I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. While I love the craziness of Delhi streets, I also love the calm inside these walls.

And the toilets in the Imperial, oh my god the toilets. I’d rent one to live in.

Aaaaah. That’s better.

Except my stomach feels like it’s filled with concrete...

I thought I’d put on a few pounds in Australia before heading to India – but this is something else entirely. My stomach is swollen and solid. I put it down to all the naan bread and samosas I’ve eaten in Delhi and think nothing more of it.

Outside the Imperial Hotel...

In true tourist style (again satirised in The White Tiger), I have my picture taken with the doorman in his costume from the time of the British Empire. And with the 1950s Jaguar.

And there it is in the photo – the evidence of my stomach...and the new extension my stomach is building for itself – without planning permission from me, godammit!

Front view of alien stomach

Side view of alien stomach

Next morning, it’s time to leave Delhi for Agra...

I head up Main Bazaar in Paharganj with my backpack and front pack, human camel that I am.

A monkey bounds past on the rooftops. I wish for a second I was him but then I see his bright red arse.

And I pass a mannequin in an all-in-one romper suit – I wish I looked as cool as her!

And then I have New Delhi Railway station in my sights...

I don’t know what it is about railway stations but they bring out a weird side of me.

I love the train journeys – but the stations themselves...well, they’re normally dirty, I can never get anything decent to eat and the toilets smell like alleycats.

But New Delhi Railway Station brings out a whole new level of weirdness in me...

...the newbie in town!

First thing is, you have to cross Qutab Road to get to the station. You simply cannot cross Qutab Road unless you jump in with the multiple lanes of knotted traffic. You snake between rickshaws and motorbikes, buses and bicycles, cows, cars, dogs, carts, beggars, children, other backpackers. You put a foot forward into the path of a motorbike, the biker blasts his horn at you, so you swerve the other way. You get another blast from a car. And a fart of black exhaust smoke in your face from a bus. If you’re lucky.

You get to the other side. Like the proverbial chicken.

Once into the station forecourt, you’re immediately offered auto-rickshaws back out of the station by very keen rickshaw drivers. The irony makes me laugh.

The heat is on your head like stage lights.

There are people everywhere – standing in circles, sitting on bags, lying on mats, crouching on the side of the pavement, flat out in slivers of shade, tucked away in recesses like mice.

Some people seem as if they are the floor – so thin and dusty and all-over brown they are, that they merge with the ground where they lie.

And then there are the eyes.

I walk ahead with pretend confidence, remembering the advice of Sarah Macdonald from her book Holy Cow about how she adopted the no eye contact approach to some situations in Delhi – particularly as she was getting used to the culture differences and the amount of male attention that she received. I use Sarah’s approach as I move towards the security checkpoint at the entrance to the New Delhi train station.

And then I’m aware of three men around me...

They’re in the peripheries of my vision, two on the left, one on the right – they’re much closer than other people.

Ok, don’t worry, I tell myself. Just find somewhere to sit and take stock of my surroundings. I’m dying for a drink of water too, so I spot a chair against a wall next to the security checkpoint. There’s a station guard dressed head to toe in camel-coloured cotton. He has a shiny belt buckle and a very big gun. I head towards him!

I unload my baggage from my shoulders, sit down, reach into my bag for the bottle of water, take a sip. It’s warm, not in the least refreshing.

Then I look up and it’s five men...

As I twist the cap back on my water bottle, I scan from left to right. There are now five men, standing around me in a tight semi-circle, all looking at me. And one of them is the security guard with the shiny buckle and the gun - he takes another step forward now, he’s less than a metre away from me – I scan the semi-circle again – there’s laughter from the men, some conversation between them in Hindi. And still they all stare.

And that’s when I pretend to be pregnant...

…it comes to me in a flash of buffoonery.

Thanks to reading Holy Cow and The White Tiger, I have it in the front of my mind about the family being the most respected institution in Indian society.

In my seat outside New Delhi train station, surrounded by the five guys, I put one hand on the centre of my swollen stomach and stand up. I reckon I pass for 5 months pregnant like this!

I load up my backpack as the men look on. I put my front pack over one arm. The now silent crowd of men parts. And I walk through a gap in the semi-circle. Through security. Up the stairs to the platform bridge.

I keep my hand on my stomach as walk through New Delhi Railway Station. More of a city than a station, it must hold many thousands of people at any one time. They wait on numerous platforms, beneath departure boards. All ears are cocked towards speakers, through which the station announcer tries to organise this steel and concrete world – her announcements are punctuated by a jolly jingle that sounds like you’ve won a prize on a TV game show.

A little girl puts her hand out to me when I get to the station platform – she’s about four years old and has brilliant white teeth and hair matted with dust. A team of boys sweep a sea of litter up the train tracks. Rats and dogs sniff for crumbs on the line.

Trains like giant metal centipedes rest in their platforms. They blast their horns at the sheer number of people they have to carry away from Delhi.

On the train to Agra...

I laugh to myself about my reaction to the semi-circle of men – a fictional pregnancy indeed! I must give fictional husband Adam a call and tell him we’re expecting!

Big train stations in unknown territorities can definitely bring up THE FEAR for me – especially very crowded stations in a capital city I’m only just getting to know.

As my train pulls out of New Delhi Railway Station, I know that those guys meant no harm to me – they simply wanted to look at me. Up very close. And at the moment, I’m just not used to this type of male attention that you do often receive as a solo female traveller in Delhi. Perhaps that will change as I become more experienced in India. But right now, I’m a newbie and I’m working out how to be a visitor in this country.

So please forgive me India if I act a little strange...

...I’m learning as fast as I can!

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