Tag Archives: Connaught Place

Rioting Colour: Movies and Mayhem on Holi

I’m bombarded by colourful threats and left red-faced; I’m rejected by Bollywood but star in cricket; I meet a pimp and hot chicks, pink drunks and purple pups.

Today was International Women’s Day.  Newspaper articles honoured female Indian leaders and deplored on-going problems.  A recent Hindustan Times survey found 91% of Delhi women have experienced sexual harassment, which Indians euphemistically call Eve-teasing.  Two thirds of women find public transport unsafe, few have complained to police and nearly three-quarters who do have found them unhelpful.

Today was also Holi, the Indian festival of colours that celebrates the start of spring.  Over the last few days street stalls sold vibrant packets of powders and dyes, and all manner of water pistols.  Plastic pipe-and-plungers were built like the bamboo rods I saw in an 18th-century painting of Holi.  “Machine guns” hold 6 litres of ammunition.  Figurines pee spray when pressed.  I read of upper-class parties with swimming pools of coloured water.

holi-colors-marketNewspapers exhorted dye-fighters to purchase safe organic colours, not cheaper industrial dyes – made from nice substances like lead, mercury, asbestos or other toxins – that may permanently stain clothing, damage skin, hinder breathing, cause poisoning or even blindness: that charming glitter comes from powdered glass.  My SpiceJet magazine showed how to make your own eco-friendly colours from natural substances.  Crush black grapes and tomatoes for purple and red, dry and crush Marigold and Jacaranda petals for yellow and blue, mix henna powder with spinach paste for green.  It recommended smearing face and hair with coconut oil or petroleum jelly to protect your skin.  Papers carried big adverts for washing powder.

The Hindustan Times said laws against psychoactive drugs are relaxed at Holi and warned against overdosing on sweets and drinks containing cannabis bhang.  It also warned of eye injury from high-speed balloons: don’t try to clean your eye as contaminated water can cause infection, but just shut it tight and rush to the nearest hospital.  I visited a Toastmasters club the night before Holi and heard more tales of wild intoxication.  One speaker feared the hazardous holiday and planned to stay at home.  After all this build-up, I faced the big day with both anticipation and trepidation.

At my hotel breakfast this morning, two enthusiastic American women had already smeared each other and were keen to initiate others.  I consented and sallied into the fray with reddened hair, cheeks, beard and shirt.  Countless cheerful “happy Holi!” greetings from locals delighted to see a foreigner participating.  Now and then a guy gently topped up my smears with red powder, which I’d read was the most safe and wash-outable.

Everything was closed for the public holiday and the metro didn’t run until the afternoon when most of the action is over, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  An auto-rickshaw driver offered a lift into town at a dirt cheap rate.  As his first customer of the day, he smiled, I’d bring good luck.  I’ve heard this line before and, as I suspected, he took me for a ride all the way to his mate’s emporium.  I refused to enter and endure high-pressure sales tactics, thanked him for the ride, consulted my compass and headed for Connaught Place.  I’d retreated in defeat on my first night (see here) so thought I’d take it back by day.

The circle was almost deserted.  Then a man darted across the road in desperation, dodged oncoming cars and leaped into a moving bus.  “Cut!”  The vehicles reversed a block, and then it all happened again.  The film crew waved me away – the fools didn’t want a skinny kiwi in red sunhat to grace their Bollywood blockbuster, although teenage guys take photos with me everywhere I go: I must be a Hindi Facebook sensation!

I joined the assorted spectators, their clothes blotched in assorted colours.  Another ear cleaner approached, cotton buds stuck in cap, and flourished a note book of references from satisfied customers.  He even had one from NZ.  He was eager to investigate my otological condition – “No touch, just looking!” – but I was having none of that.

holi-colorsOn a corner by my local metro station between drink-vending carts is a tiny mosque you’d almost miss if you blinked.  I popped in after the Bollywood action and 8 Muslim boys befriended me.  They were 10-13 years old and live here to study the Koran.  Good Muslims don’t participate in Holi so they were bored and enjoyed my broken Hindi attempts to chat.  Then I was ushered out to the parking lot behind the Metro, given a bat-shaped plank and placed before a concrete slab with stones balanced on top for bails.  The lads cheered valiantly when I finally hit the tennis ball before it hit my wicket.

My friendliest Hindi experience yet was followed by the worst.  A dozing guy hailed me as I farewelled the lads.  After greeting him I clumsily asked, “Do you have boys and girls?”  Most people are proud of their offspring.  When I asked the rickshaw driver the same question that morning, he had happily enumerated the ages of his kids.  This guy’s response seemed to be different.  I shook my head in puzzlement and he resorted to a visual aid.  Curling one hand into a loose fist, he thrust his other index finger in and out.  It dawned on me that he was offering a youngster for less savoury pursuits than cricket.

I played the dumb foreigner – no comprendo – and escaped to the metro, now open, and sped off to another market for the afternoon.  One courtyard was lined with cages of live chickens and boiling pots of dead ones.  The ground was covered in carcasses, blood, feathers and flies.  I was tired and hungry but scenes like this made me unsure what was safe to eat.  I found a small general store and bought a pack of digestive biscuits and another of chips.  So many of the highs and the lows in India revolve around the stomach and food.  Sometimes I eat like a king, with a bottomless delicious platter for three dollars; sometimes I spend the day in a fascinatingly aromatic market where all visible fodder swarms with flies and I’m forced to fast.  Perhaps that’s appropriate in Lent.

In the market maze I saw statues of Shiva and Krishna.  These gods mostly have blue bodies, which was most fitting for Holi.  I was still coloured red and amiable drunks with pink hair and lurid faces shook my hand.  Bright splotches on the footpath marked the scene of morning bombardments.  The streets were roamed by green and purple dogs.

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Tackling Delhi Traffic and Defeat in Connaught Place

A patchwork of first impressions: angry lost drivers and clunky ambassadors, Sikh chants and honking, striving to keep up morale and washing up in McDonald’s.

I arrived in India on Friday 2 March and appreciated Bangalore’s new international airport, all clean glass and trouble-free, unlike the grubby confusion I faced in 2007 at the interim retired air force base which had clearly been in the wars.  I walked outside the terminal at 11:30pm local time, 2am by my body clock, and straight up to a smiling man holding a sign “Dr David Titheridge”.  Less cheering for a dog-fearer was the sight and sound of many strays.  I saw none in KL.  The midnight drive was again surreal, but less of a shock than my first night in India five years ago (read about it here).

I slept in for a couple of days, stowed my suitcase with computer under the college principal’s bed – he’s a Kiwi from my home town – and packed up a cardboard box with mosquito net and forbidden scissors to check in with SpiceJet.  Bangalore airport had the highest security I’ve seen yet – only passengers can enter the building.  From the air, before smog dimmed the view, the landscape resembled the patchwork quilt of NZ’s Canterbury plains, with smaller, less rectangular patches, and very red soil.

I was bracing myself for an assault of touts at New Delhi airport.  Terminal signs warn to only use official providers and to discourage unauthorized individuals.  I was delighted to see a Police Prepaid Taxi booth opposite the luggage claim, where you can book and pay, and the driver can be tracked in case of complaints.  Outside the terminal, no hassles either.  It almost seemed too easy.

My taxi-van driver spoke no English, did not smile, picked up his equally unfriendly mate outside the airport, apparently didn’t know the central street I wanted, and seemed to be quite angry.  Pointing at my map didn’t help: it seems scale maps are a western invention that other cultures don’t relate too.  Several people, mostly from the south, had warned me that northerners were harder, more intense and less helpful, and this seemed to confirm it.  Fortunately it wasn’t representative, and in the end we did arrive.  Since then I’ve encountered many smiling faces, welcoming enquiries of “your country, sir?”, and no more cold indifference than in any big city.

Vendor outside my Delhi hotel
Vendor outside my Delhi hotel

After memories of eye-stinging, throat-choking, nose-clogging Bangalore fumes in 2007, Delhi traffic has been a pleasant surprise.  Some years ago, all public transport was converted to CNG, and the recent underground has reduced congestion.  I’ve seldom found breathing unpleasant, though the nose is still a little sooty by the end of the day and it’s not a good place for a headache.  Road signs may order “Peace: no honking”, but horns are tooted briefly before overtaking and turning, and jammed on at the slightest slowdown or obstruction, producing a continuous cacophony.  Crossing roads reminds me of the classic computer game Frogger.  Pedestrian crossing stripes seem purely cosmetic.

The old city is chock-a-block with cycle rickshaws for eco-friendly, suspenseful but suspensionless juddering rides which are not good after a big meal.  Curvaceous black Ambassador Classics are proudly polished by their drivers.  The same model has been around for half a century or more.  Writer Shashi Tharoor describes Ambassadors as “wasteful of steel and gas, overpriced and overweight, with a steering mechanism like an ox cart’s and a frame like a tank” and says foreigners were amazed they had two-year waiting lists right up to the 1990s.  “What they didn’t realise is that if they had to drive on Indian roads in Indian traffic conditions, they’d have preferred Ambassadors, too.”

Ambassadors seemed most popular in New Delhi’s diplomatic district where I’m staying, with the presidential quarters just a few minutes’ walk away.  The upside: it’s a safe area with high police presence, and very quiet.  All I hear at night is muffled chanting from the adjacent Sikh temple, plus occasional scratching and cooing from pigeons on my air con unit.  The downside: there are few or no shops, internet cafes or restaurants.

On my first evening in Delhi, I headed out in search of food.  Tired and mildly dehydrated, I stumbled around the dimly-lit, broken-up streets, dodging stray dogs, recumbent figures, piles of litter and open drains, asking myself how a country can let the center of its capital be such a mess.  I found my way to Connaught Place, the British-built shopping hub between the old and new cities.  The white walls and columns were stained red with splotches of spit from the spices wrapped in betel leaf that many people chew.  A Japanese health expert once thought half the population had TB.

The curving colonnades of Connaught Place were inspired by Bath’s Royal Crescent, or, said one book, the outside archways of the Colosseum.  I felt like a bewildered barbarian hauled in to be hacked apart in the hostile metropolis.  The concentric arcades spun around me and every direction looked the same in the dark.

I’d hoped for a pukka curry on my first Delhi night, but felt too weary to risk dark local joints up alleys away from the ring of commercial lights, so I ended up in defeat: two combos at McDonald’s.  At least it was a veggie burger and spicy paneer cheese.  Guards wielded metal-detectors at the door.  As those old arcade games would say, my shield energy was dangerously low, my defensive shell more like a cheap Toyota than a diplomatic tank.  I lurched out and down the stairs beneath the nearest Metro sign and fled through the night toward my hotel bed.