Hard Cold Delhi: A Learning Experience

5 PM

I was dropped at the by-pass of a small town called Dausa in the Alwar district of Rajasthan. My ride up to here was at the courtesy of a group of four Delhi-girls, whom I met at the nation’s most haunted fort. We all were bemused with the afternoon blandness of the cursed site. The fort didn’t look as haunting as the publicity made it sound, but it definitely had an eerie vibe to it. Also, the girls added cheer to the otherwise quiet site. Bright girls they were, very much like the ones that suffer mis-happenings in a supposedly haunted place in movies. After frolicking around the ruins for a while, we exited the premises; seeing me on my two feet vehicle, the friendly Delhites offered me a ride. 

At Dausa train station, I came to know that the evening’s direct train to Delhi was cancelled. As I was trying to assess my travel options I was being bothered by a bunch of kids asking for money. To their parents dismay, they didn’t seem too keen about the job. After being refused the cash, their interest moved towards my water bottle, which I did give them. After drinking it empty, the kids started to play with the bottle. They seemed to be fascinated with the water bottle. They threw and kicked it, passed and dropped it, created imaginary games around it. The bored and begging kids were having a ball with a simple bottle. Seeing these kids alongside the crowd which was frustrated and disgruntled because of the delay, I was reminded that it is not so much about the situation, but more about our reaction to it; attitude over adversity.

As I was hanging around the ticketing area, a casual eye contact made me the recipient of the ramblings of a man who looked like his expectations were upheld by the  inconvenience caused by the railways. I managed to squeeze a few words between his train of sentences and found that he was a regular commuter of this route, and was headed home to Delhi. I didn’t mind a chatterbox for company, hence I took up on his offer of travelling together. We weighed our bus options against rail and settled on a short and sweet plan wherein we would take a bus to a neighboring town’s railway station from where we would take a train to a third town named Rewari, and from there we change another train to reach Delhi.


6 PM

The local bus ride was 30 minutes long, but it felt a lot longer. The bus noises shielded me, at intervals, from the wild ramblings of my new travel buddy. But in between we did have a decent conversation. My company was a person with reserves of energy to spend commenting on almost everything he did and didn’t see. He was loud, over-smart, talkative, forceful, and had a self-righteous arrogance with an air of dumb. He put out his hand expecting a high-five at every remark he made. He was annoying, but all in all an interesting company to suffer. He was my prelude to Delhi.

7 PM 

After the bus ride, we had dinner at a dimly lit, modestly seated, and moderately shady street-side eatery. The meal was satisfactory; it satiated hunger without causing dysentery, which was all I asked for. As I walked out, there was a procession passing along the street. It was a groom’s marriage procession towards his bride. Dressed in fancy traditionals, all were merrily dancing. The groom was riding a horse and was looking smart in a glamorous regional outfit. What caught my eye was his elegant smile, which shone more than any glitter could. He spotted me on the banks of the street as if he were picking out the odd man out. I could see the happiness in his eyes, the joy of getting married; I had attended a few weddings, but between the buffet and the cute girls I usually failed to notice that feeling among the main two participants. I raised a hearty thumbs up congratulating him and he did the same, gesturing his thanks. As the procession passed, an all wise voice proclaimed, “He’s all happy about getting laid,  but the poor fellow doesn’t know the ditch he’s getting into!” and with that the chatterbox had finished his meal.

8 PM 

At the train station, he took us not to the platform where the train to Rewari would come, but onto the opposite platform. His idea was to board the train from the other side by crossing the tracks, thus avoiding the incoming rush from the platform side and reducing the hassle of getting a seat. Made sense and worked too! Though a loud-mouth, he was quite street smart. Following his lead was definitely an experience. We boarded the general compartment; he secured a seat, and I found a spot on the upper berth. I tried to make the most of the three-hour ride by taking a nap. It was January and me; it was a cold ride. With the different types of characters it was carrying, the compartment was no less than a clown car. I had only seen such over-the-top specimens in Bollywood movies; my guide fit right in. Their whimsical banter disrupted my sleep, but experiencing them was worth it.

11.30 PM

Rewari station was colder than the ride to it, I had to stay moving to stay warm. The Delhi train was late, but it arrived before hypothermia. During our final ride together, my friend briefed me about Delhi; where to find budget lodging, Chandni Chowk eateries, ISBT, people to avoid, and other such things. We reached Delhi at 3am. While parting, I jokingly asked him if I could spend the rest of the night at his place. He looked straight at me and asked me who I was, making a face as if he had no clue who I was, like we were strangers who accidentally bumped into each other. And without even a bye, he left just as randomly as he had come. 

3 AM 

I alighted from the foot over bridge into the station premises, which was scattered with people sitting, sleeping, and waiting the night out. I spotted a two seat bench with a cardboard placed over to protect one’s butt from the cold metal. As I moved to grace that seat with my seat, I wondered why wasn’t anyone using it. As my loud and clear intention was noticed by the deprived looking occupants of the cold floor, I heard a voice say, “No, son, no. Do not make such a mistake.”  Paying no heed to it, I took the seat. The very next moment, floating over me, were two zeppelins in police uniforms bloated with entitlement.  

– Didn’t you hear me? Get off of the seat.

– Why, sir?

– Why? You damn kids with your over smart questions! Just get up and get going elsewhere.

– But why can’t I sit here?

– You insolent, a tight slap will educate you why! 

I very well knew the social arrangement that was at play there, but I was being an unnecessary rebel. I was warned against this and was advised to stay clear of such situations. I quietly retreated from their throne. I found a decent spot against a closed metal stall for back rest and one end of a cardboard sheet as butt rest. The sheet was spread by a father-daughter duo who were sleeping on it. The father raised an eye and nodded permissively as I sat beside his feet. Despite their surrounding, they were sleeping soundly in each other’s embrace. Their warmth radiated on to me, and I too dozed off.

4 AM

As I was being soothed by my mother’s warm hand brushing over me trying to rid me of the tiredness, I was woken up by the startled screams of a fellow being brushed by the cold, hard stick of the police. The cops were suddenly on high alert and low tolerance for anyone who was occupying any more floor space than the size of their butts, and they weren’t shy in showing their intolerance. Sleeping families were being rudely woken up and single, laying men were preyed upon. I didn’t want any piece of that cop-cake so I sat up straight and tried not to slumber off.

5 AM 

It seemed like a good time to wander into the streets of Delhi to look for lodging. I walked looking for budget lodging options and after a while I came across a Jain Dharmashala whose reception desk was functioning through a locked gate. It was 5.30AM; the gates, the admissions, and the staff’s mouth opened strictly at 6am -By Order. The inquiries at admission were military grade, but the stay was pocket friendly. A bed in an old-school dormitory, a locker to keep things, and a shower and toilet was not a bad deal for a hundred rupees a day. Most of the faculty held a strict,  condescending, and noncompliant demeanor. The escort leading me to my bed explained the basic rules of the establishment, but I was too tired and sleepy to see anything but a bed.

8.30 AM 

I woke up to a variety of people bustling about the lively dorm. As I explored the dharmashala looking for a washroom, I saw that it was an old Haveli sort of building with an open air common area at the center, dorms around it on the ground floor, and private rooms on the floors above. It was a hostel since before hostels became cool. It had a medieval, rustic look with a decadent history of its own. I went to the toilet, washed and hung my clothes to dry, now it was time for a shower. The only warm thing about the warm water was the adjective itself. People in adjacent showers were chanting ‘Om Namah Shivay’ to battle the cold as the water hit them. I too joined the choir.

10 AM 

The cold shower shocked out all the tiredness. I got dressed, geared up for the day, and set out to find myself a nice breakfast. I had heard the laurels of ‘Paranthe Wali Gali’ and thus checked it out. Out of the several joints, I sat down at one boasting the picture of the beloved Bollywood star, Akshay Kumar. I had a chilli paratha and a Palak Paneer paratha, as per the waiter’s recommendation, and also a cold lassi to acclimatise to the cold. With stomachs and spirits full, I set out to chill out with Delhi. Next stop- PCO. I had tried asking people to let me use their cell phone to make a call to my mother, but no one complied. On my search, I was along a busy street near the Red Fort and an angry yelling caught my ear. It was a husband shouting at a shop’s salesperson. Over a normal selling practice the man had got so exuberantly hot and furious, I almost wanted to go stand near him for some warmth. It made me wonder if that’s how Delhi managed winter – by staying angry. Found a PCO, called home. 

Next stop – Vodafone gallery, I had to resolve why my SIM card won’t get activated. Since the SIM I lost in Rajasthan was from Mumbai and the replaced SIM was from Jaipur, nothing could be done from Delhi. It required me to be present in Mumbai. For something that facilitates mobility and connectivity, Vodafone was being ironic. I wondered if technology was out-racing logic. 

I walked to a nearby bus stop with no decided place to go next. I tried visiting the Red Fort in the morning but couldn’t as it was closed due to the day’s proximity to Republic Day. So I inquired with a Muslim Chacha in the waiting line. He named a few spots to each of which I kept asking “anything else?”. Thinking I could use some guidance for my indecisiveness, he suggested that I visit a Dargah. I had read about the said Nizamuddin Dargah and its musical Kawallies, so I decided to pay it a visit. During my ride there, I saw something I hadn’t seen in Mumbai – a female bus conductor. It was a cool sight. She handled the male-dominated job, the crowd, and herself very well. Fashioned with the uniform coat over her yellow salwar suit she carried an attitude of a strict and annoyed elder sister. Through the shop-lined lanes I walked across the entrance of the Dargah. This was my first visit to any dargah. I saw the decorated tomb of Nizamuddin, the Moghul architecture which spilled out of the dargah and across Old Delhi, devotees paying respect to their saints, people distributing food to visitors. It was more of a cultural place than a religious one.

2 PM 

After exploring the grounds for a while, listening to the kawalli session, which I learnt I wasn’t a fan of, I went to have some lunch. After devouring half a chicken, I felt like seeing animals alive and outside the tandoor. I headed to the zoo, which was also suggested by the bus stop Chacha. I wanted to see the city, so I walked my way to the zoo. Unfortunately, the zoo was closed for a few days. The caged animals weren’t supposed to hear about Republic Day, for they too could form one and claim independence.

3.30 PM 

Next I walked to visit the India Gate monument. Delhi roads were wide and pleasant to walk along. India Gate was off limits for visitors again because of the Republic Day.  I wasn’t disappointed this time, and I kept walking into a pleasant afternoon. Without a destination in mind I was walking aimlessly for a while, then I interjected a young man for some guidance, 

– Excuse me, hi.

– Hello 

– Are you a local? 

– Yes, what do you want?

– I’m looking for a place where people our age go to hangout and have some chill time. He suggested a few happening clubs to which I showed him my handicapped pocket. 

– Okay. I feel you, bro. Go to Connaught Place. 

– What is that? 

– It is a shopping complex sort of area. 

– Shopping? 

– There are beautiful chicks hanging out there. 

– Lead the way, my friend! 

Which he did as he was going the same way. 

We talked as we walked our way to Connaught. He asked me about Mumbai as I did about Delhi. He had visited Mumbai once and was very intrigued by how friendly the city was. He curiously inquired about various aspects of Mumbai life; household, municipal, social, commercial, and more. He was inquisitive, especially about the social life, specifically about the tougher sex of the society, the women. Like countless others, he too was a victim of an one-sided love affair. I offered some company in his misery. He dropped me at Connaught Palace and left for home.

5 PM 

The evening chill was still carrying the afternoon light, so I lounged at a neighboring park to read the book I was carrying. Sitting on the grass of a garden teeming with people and bustling with activity, reading Carl Sagan talk about the life on the pale blue dot had a sense of togetherness and alien-ness simultaneously. 

As dusk dimmed the light, I closed my book and went out to take a stroll along the lanes of Connaught place. The crowd was pleasant on the eyes, as promised. Cheerful and arrogant locals mingled well with disgruntled looking non-natives. I stepped aside for a smoke and met another chap from whom I borrowed a lighter.  

– You’re not from here, where are you from?

– How did you figure that? I’m from Mumbai, here to spend a day in Delhi. What about you?

– You `asked’ me for a lighter. I am waiting for my friend.  She’s not much of a friend but more of an online date.

– (he continued by himself) And she’s a bit older than me. 

– Dude, you scoring MILF? 

– (blushing like a teen) Yeah, dude!

8 PM 

Wishing him good luck, I was on my way back to my dormitory at Chandni Chowk. Before heading back, I sought a PCO and called my friend in Dehradun to inform him that I was in Delhi and would leave for Dehradun the next morning. He urged me to take the last bus that night itself, but I insisted on leaving the next day. I was tired and wanted to spend the comfortable night on a bed after 2 days of rugged backpacking, insufficient sleep, and my pre-republic day parade through the streets of Delhi. 

At the dharmashala, I relieved myself of the weight I was carrying around all day in my cargo pants. After resting for a few minutes, I again headed out to grab some light dinner. Everything in the lane was shutting down for the night. My only option was an omelet stand at a few minutes’ distance. I asked him to make me one while I lit a doobie. I smoked it while strolling down a street lined with trucks getting loaded and unloaded. The omelet was fantastic. I ordered 2 more. Post dinner, I took another stroll exploring the empty night streets of the town. I returned to my lodging only to find the dharamshala replaced by a large, thick wooden wall. After inspection, I realised it was a freaking door, which was shut. I knocked to hear no answer from the other side. I called out to the authorities, banged on and kicked the door, but no one responded. Then I heard a voice, 

– Won’t open! Don’t bother wasting yourself. 

– What do you mean? 

– They shut the door at 11PM sharp. 

It was a cocky kid who was a rickshaw driver. He was right; I was at the gates at 11.02 and it seemed like the Haveli didn’t even exist anymore. I was still beating on the door hoping for someone to answer; I was sure that there must be a protocol for such situations as I couldn’t be the first one to be left outside. Yes, said the rickshaw boy. The protocol was to leave the late comers outside. He told me he came across a couple with two kids in a similar situation, and still the authorities didn’t budge off their rules. That doused the little hope I had. There was a cycle-rickshaw parked and chained close to the gate of the dharmashala; I decided to rent out some warm blankets and spend the night sleeping in the rickshaw. I went to a neighboring lodging facility, explained my situation, and asked for some help in the form of blankets. I couldn’t afford a room as my wallet with the ID was in the dorm and all I had with me was 50 Rs, my camera, and a bottle of water. The guy behind the counter wasn’t interested in my sad story. I asked for some blankets to keep myself warm while I slept out in a parked rickshaw. The guy behind the counter looked at a bunch of blankets kept nearby, turned to me, and said that he didn’t have any. Up till Delhi, I was helped by generous people, and Delhi broke that streak with some tough love. I offered him 50rs as rent for the blankets, but he still wouldn’t help me out. I requested, 

– Sir, the cold is quite severe, if I sleep in the open without a blanket.. I could die.” 

Looking straight into my eyes, he goes, 

Then Die. 

Whoa, the night wasn’t the only thing that was cold! His intensity snapped me out of my predicament. I couldn’t help but admire his ice cold indifference. Without another word, I left in awe. The rickshaw boy was still there on the street. He suggested that I try asking the nearby Gurudwara if they’d let me sleep in for the night.

12.30 AM 

The Sikh community is known to be kind and helping. I went to the Gurudwara, met the in-charge, and explained my situation to him. He looked at the manager,  

– You see the tight discipline followed by the Jain Dharmashala. And here we are, a loose act!  

I saw my chances of stay going dim, so with, 

– Sir, they are dharamshala by profession, but you are a dharmashala at heart.. open for all.  

I tried to create a soft spot. The in-charge looked at me and smiled, 

– Don’t you butter me! How much money do you have, this isn’t a free show. 

– 50rs, sir. 

– (Shaking his head at my hopelessness) Keep it. Take a blanket and go sleep in the dorm on the above floor. 

– Thanks a lot, sir! 

The blankets had to be collected from the storeroom guarded by the lady in charge of rationing the blankets. The guy before me took 3 blankets and left. On my turn I also took 3 and walked to the lady, 

– 3? How much did you pay? 

– Nothing, ma’am. 

– For that amount you get only one blanket. 

– Please ma’am, may I have at least one more. I tend to get more chilly than others. 

– Nope. Off you go now. 

The dormitory floor was carpeted with a layer of blanket to sleep on. Despite the cold, I fell asleep rather quickly.

3 AM 

Like a zombie, I rose from my slumber; just as pale. Wrapping myself under a blanket, I walked straight to the cloakroom and demanded the lady for more blankets. She looked at me and without a word she handed me another blanket. This time I slept better. At six I was at the gates of the dharmashala. So much for wanting to sleep on a warm, soft bed. Scornfully, I went in. Without bothering to lie down, I packed my things and checked out immediately.

8 AM 

After a quick breakfast, I headed to the ISBT to get a bus to Dehradun. But on my way, I had a change of thought. Since Delhi had shown me so much love, I felt like visiting the monument of it–Taj Mahal in Agra. I postponed the Dehradun journey to night and headed for the bus depot from where I would get the bus to Taj. The bus arrived an hour later than its supposed timing. We left for Agra after another good while at the bus stop. I dozed off a few minutes into the ride and woke up a while later into a traffic jam. The simple day excursion was getting longer than expected. It was a slow moving, on and off jam. The passengers got down from the bus, had smokes, snacks, and walked along the road with the bus. We were just 40 minutes away from Taj Mahal when the traffic came to a stand-still. Hopes of the jam dissolving were growing thinner by the minute as the 4 hour bus ride had extended to 7 hours. I was also concerned about returning to Delhi to catch the 11.50 PM bus, which was the last bus of the day to Dehradun. A few of us got together, we shared the same bus, same traffic, and the same destination for the evening. We got ourselves another transport from the other side of the highway, which dropped us at a walking distance from Taj. But we had reached in the nick of time and could only get two entry passes for Taj. Now, we were a group of five, two friends from Mumbai, a mother-son couple all the way from Tamil Nadu, and one of me. The passes were to be used by the individuals who could summon the most disappointed look on themselves; I was no longer a contender there.  We decided that the mother and son should visit the palace. For a fee of 10rs, the remaining three of us were escorted to a rooftop to get a partial view of the Taj Mahal as a consolation.

5.30 PM 

While having tea at a nearby tea stall I learnt that the two friends were from Panvel, Mumbai, which was a 40 minute train ride from my place. They were bird enthusiasts and wildlife photographers. From there we went our separate ways. It was 7.30 PM when I boarded my bus back to Delhi to catch the last bus to Dehradun, which was at around 12AM. I stepped outside for a quick herbal smoke to relax me for the cold ride. Just beside the bus door, an old man stood smoking a bidi and coughing out his last days. I offered him some water that I was carrying, and the old fellow was so pleased that he started inviting me to his home in Kashmir. He too was a fellow victim of the Delhi’s cold rod who was missing the warmth of his hometown. Sometimes you need a common enemy to unite you with your peers. Delhi’s hospitality played that role for the few of us. The route back wasn’t carrying much traffic, so the ride was fast and smooth. While I was shivering my teeth off, I noticed a guy sitting comfortably in the same layers as me, except he had a muffler around his neck. I had never worn a muffler; I wondered how much difference it made. On the other side of the aisle, there was a man shivering just as me, but instead of a muffler, he had his wife wrapped around him. I wondered again. 

11.20 PM 

The bus dropped me at a bus stand which was almost a 30-minute ride from the Dehradun bus stand. With only a few minutes left for the bus’s departure time, I bargained and made a deal with an auto rickshaw. Just as we started, we stopped. He started looking for other passengers. I asked him to stop doing that as I had already done so to find no one to share the destination with. He went a few meters ahead and stopped again. This was the fourth time, and this time I got furious and literally commanded him to stop his shit. My bus was more important than his ride fare, my greed superseded his! We got into an argument. He assured me he would personally make sure I’d get the bus. I threatened that if I didn’t get the bus, I would spend the night in his auto, going wherever he goes. Hearing that, he suddenly started speeding the auto. Throughout the ride, I was giving him shit about how fuck-all Delhi is. I was letting out all my frustration on that poor fellow. We reached the bus stand, and he pointed at a random bus saying it was the bus to Dehradun, he was bull-shitting to be rid of me. This was the first time after a long while that I was actually pissed at someone. It had been a while since I had adopted a casual demeanor, a kind of stoic attitude that didn’t let things get to me. After a long time, I was getting riled up because of an external situation. I realised that Delhi was changing me; I felt the rudeness getting injected into me, draining me of consideration. I didn’t like what I was becoming. I took a moment to stop and reflect. I was reminded of the kids at Dausa station. It’s not about the situation, but about how I choose to react to it. I took a deep breath, and I reined my behaviour immediately. I paid and thanked the auto driver and walked away to look for my bus.

12 AM 

As I was scurrying between departing buses I walked in front of a bus which stopped just shy of running me over. This turned out to be the bus I was looking for, the day’s last bus going to Dehradun.

Delhi wasn’t as warm as other places, but despite the not-so-pleasant experience, I didn’t see a point in disliking any of it. I realised that while packing for a travel adventure, it’s best if you don’t carry any expectations. Every experience is a learning one. Delhi was like an angry middle-aged teacher; she gives you a tough time, but you end up learning a few things. I left Delhi, learnt and grateful.

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