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June - July 2008


Delhi, Dear Old Delhi!

by Aline Dobbie

As the great aircraft droned steadily towards its destination I sat back in my seat and thought back to almost 35 years ago when India ceased to be my beloved ‘home’. Then, as I watched intently the computer screen of the huge aircraft, the red line of the aircraft’s path grew closer to Delhi, my destination on that the first return trip all those years later on 1st November 1997. We landed and I found a lump in my throat with the gentle cabin crew greeting of ‘welcome to India’ - for me it was of course ‘welcome back’.

Indira Gandhi Airport is the current modern Gateway to India and cannot honestly be said to have any real charm. It should be a showpiece but isn’t. First impressions count and it disappointed me that trouble and attention to detail had obviously been spared when this building was constructed; still, ten years on one now awaits eagerly the new international airport which should act as the showpiece for this great nation. That night the ensuing gentle chaos was extraordinary, not made any better by it being midnight. The portico at the international airport was a complete culture shock to Graham, my husband, who was looking on bemused as cars drove up to collect people, horns blaring; hordes descended on some long awaited relative, children raced around, lazy policemen kept a watchful eye, taxi drivers touted for work and other passengers looked as shell-shocked as we felt! Because of a communication break down the car that should have been sent did not arrive and we were forced into a pre paid taxi. That too could have been fine except we had the misfortune to have found an illiterate taxi driver who wanted to drive without lights – which was hair raising for us! It required my rusty Hindi and lots of directions to find our way safely to our hostess’s home in a select suburb in the pitch black of a Delhi night in a city that I had last visited in 1959! Fortunately she lived in the same avenue as the then Prime Minister’s private home so the security forces proved helpful.

The next morning the sounds of an Indian awakening were immediately familiar. Maharani Bagh in the morning is full of familiar noises - a man singing happily on his way to work, probably balancing a basket of wares on his head, the mali clearing his throat ferociously, the purveyor of hot tea and namkins shouting his presence, the hooting of the interminable horns, and close at hand the chattering of the Seven Sisters, the green parrots, the crows. I was back, and the sounds of my childhood flooded in through the windows whilst I enjoyed a delicious cup of ‘bed tea’. There followed a leap into the shower, some hurried dressing and then an exploration in daylight of the house and garden. There it all was the doob grass lawn, the bougainvilleas riotous in colour, frangipane, oleander, crotons and, amazingly, the typical chrysanthemums in red terracotta pots, just like it was in my youth!

Delhi in daylight! Well, yes, it had changed. The capital city of my childhood was a superb place of wide vistas and avenues, grand buildings and historic monuments, relatively few cars and a tiny airport! These are of course still there but were not quite so obvious to initial inspection. Delhi has become hugely overpopulated and this becomes distressingly obvious in a short drive. People, dogs, pigs, cattle, buffalo, goats, hugely impatient traffic, flower sellers, fruit stalls, nut vendors, balloon wallahs, cyclists, motor rickshaws, scooters, buses, lorries; the cacophony of sound and visual culture shock was mesmerizing. One learns not to flinch at a vehicle six inches away from one’s shoulder or the hawker shouting his wares through the window - and of course the very poor. Yes that is arresting to the western eye. On that first drive we were in an ancient Ambassador, hearing seeing and smelling all of life going on around us. Graham had been prepared for some of what he saw, but nevertheless it is an unforgettable three dimensional experience!

I asked the driver to take us to India Gate. For me a daughter of the army, and very proudly the Indian Army, the mother of a then serving officer in HM forces it was a natural act of homage to all those that had given their lives in the 20th century. 85,000 men Indian soldiers died in the World Wars and North West Frontier, and an eternal flame burns to those killed in the 1971 war with Pakistan. A military family history is probably the finest grounding for anyone looking back on those closing years of the twentieth century. The modern soldier moreover now has to be a compassionate diplomat as well in our various national peacekeeping armies. Democratic India can proudly claim to have the world’s second largest army and is playing her part vigorously with providing military contingents for United Nations duties.

Walking in the sunshine Graham was enchanted and interested as was I to observe Indians at leisure. Family groups strolling in the environs of India Gate all resplendent in their leisure finery, colourful troupes of young ladies, tiny infants, shy little girls, raucous little boys. Much to our amusement there was a group of youngsters splashing naked in one of the formal water channels on either side of India Gate. I espied the familiar snake charmer and he played his instrument to coax the weary cobra to stand erect and spread his hood - what luck, the essence of India, which I believe has since been outlawed! Then we went on to Rashtrapati Bavan and the Secretariat Buildings. Their very grandeur dwarfs everything. The beauty and magnificence of the two coloured sandstone dominates but for the scampering of a troupe of monkeys playing on the porticos with the screeching of green parrots as they dart and fly around. The fact that so many Indians were also promenading and enjoying the sights of their capital made it all the more interesting. A desire to communicate and learn was the overriding impression we gained as I would be firmly grasped and pulled politely into a group photograph and then would follow the question ‘which your country?’ I replied in Hindi to ask the child’s name which usually led to complete stunned silence but little ones soon bounce back and then the questions never stop! Are you married, do you have children, how many sons, are your rings gold, are you old and why do you speak Hindi are just a few……! Anxious parents usually tried to intervene but I waved them away and loved the encounters. I still do wherever they happen.

Now writing in 2008 I have continued to return to Delhi annually which has made magnificent strides in the 21st century and Indians can feel proud of their capital. We were government guests at the Republic Day Parade in January 2007 which was outstanding and showed India in microcosm on a beautiful clear day. The Delhi Metro is a stunning example of how when properly controlled and organized India produces the very best. The various wonderful ancient monuments have been carefully renovated and conserved and the difference between 1997 and a decade later have shown wonderful progression. Probably the most eye catching change is the sometimes alarming progress of Delhi’s satellite cities of Gurgaon and Noida, and seen from the air the development is huge; this along with the roads infrastructure has made a significant difference but, as with cities in the West, the traffic continues to increase. Nowadays the cars are sleek prestige vehicles as well as Indian own brand cars but the impact of the traffic is widely felt – a problem to which there is no easy solution as it is after all the right of Indians to aspire to owning their own cars whereas in the past maybe for the disadvantaged and modest income groups it was a bicycle, followed by a scooter, then a motorbike and only now a car. Cell phone users are everywhere and I hear 83 million more cell phone users will come into action this year – and that is to be welcomed. The most significant improvement has been in the mandatory transition to clean fuels in public transport and lorries and auto rickshaws. The sign on the sides of corporation buses of ‘Cleaner greener Delhi’ are true and the city as a whole is looking much cleaner and fresher and the atmosphere is less polluted than a decade ago. The real test will be the Commonwealth Games Village, the foundations of which I have observed across the Jamuna. I do hope those Games are a resounding success for India and for Delhi.

Delhi’s wonderful glitzy hotels are much in demand from the masses of people making their way to India to do business with this new economic super power; I wish them well but I do hope that hoteliers do not allow themselves to fall prey to greed. Great Indian entrepreneurs are busy buying up businesses internationally and that too is a source of pride for India and Indians; but, the ordinary man also needs to have his aspirations for security and living – with choices – met. Exploitation of the poor and disadvantaged will serve India ill in the long term as people intent on murder and mayhem will prey upon those who have no opportunities through their own miserable circumstances to better themselves. Choices in life are the biggest privilege a human can have and there are still millions in India who have no choices. They simply exist and are exploited. Most of us who live in the West which is so affluent would find that difficult to comprehend. Every time I go to India I am aware of the gloss and glamour on the one hand and the gloom and despondency on the other. I travelled widely earlier this year and I saw happy prosperity but I also observed miserable poverty. All this can also be seen on the wide avenues or the mean streets of Delhi.

On this occasion we visited the offices of The Brooke Hospital for Animals (India) in a Delhi suburb. We were then invited to watch a team from the The Brooke’s mobile units treating injured tonga horses in Old Delhi. This excellent charity, which was founded over 70 years ago, in the UK by Dorothy Brooke as a result of having travelled to Cairo where she encountered thousands of ex-cavalry horses being misused as beasts of burden on its streets after the end of the First World War. Since its inception actually in India, the Brooke India has had an enormous impact in reducing animal suffering and helping the many people whose very survival depends on their working horses, donkeys and mules. This very fine charity provides training and resource support to various other stakeholders such as feed sellers, saddlers, farriers, shoe-makers, cart makers, etc who have great influence on the welfare of the animals. It also supports the construction of community shelters for the animals and provides water troughs at various locations. tel: 020 7930 0210 in London and +91 11 2201-5030 in Delhi. HRH the Duchess of Cornwall is the Patron of The Brooke. It was after all Gandhiji who said ‘All creatures have an equal right to live on this earth….’ Moreover he continued, a nation is judged by the way it treats its animals.

Those in government should focus on bridging the widening income gap between the urban and rural populations, and between the castes and ethnic minorities so that all may feel they are part of mainstream India in its great leap forward. It is no easy task I know in such a huge country but it should be a stated aim for those with power, and not necessarily in government. All who have enough, let alone great riches, can give, or give back. There are so many hungry for help and encouragement.

As I walked in the Lodi Gardens early in the mornings this year I reflected on how much India has developed and how Delhi exemplifies that progression; I looked up at the Lodi tombs and the neem trees in the sunrise, with the chattering parrots and busy chipmunks and morning walkers, this is part of what I know as traditional beloved Delhi; I am aware however that it is part of privileged prosperous Delhi that I frequent, and I hope that for all the inevitable development that the intrinsic heart of this great ancient city of several civilizations does not lose its soul. So many emerging countries in Asia have gleaming brash city ‘sky scrapers’ which are temples of worship to modernity and money the making of which is essential to modern life, but Delhi, this grand and beautiful city has antiquity, architecture, art, literature and history running through its veins and above all soul and humanity – and may it always be so.

Aline Dobbie

Author of India: The Peacock’s Call which is to be republished end of 2008

India: The Tiger’s Roar

India: The Elephant’s Blessing

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