A legless beggar loomed from the crowd on an improvised skateboard, his stumps wrapped in revolting bandages. His hands, filthy from propelling himself through the unpaved streets, pulled at mine in an appeal for pity, for a donation.
When my friend Martina revealed that she had booked a flight to Delhi, such memories of my own subcontinental forays came flooding back. How the polluted air permeated the cabin even before the plane had touched down. The seething mass of humanity that filled the roads, the pavements, the tops of the walls and the branches of the trees.
Litter-chewing cows lurked in the shadows of the dimly lit, otherworldly streets of the Paharganj, the main area for budget backpacker accommodation. I squeezed to the side of the street to allow a heavily laden truck to inch past, its load piled so high that a team of wallahs crouched on top, lifting the telephone and electricity wires so that it could pass underneath.
In the light of the next day, the baking April heat enhanced the smell of India, an indescribable mix containing hints of excrement, rotten fruit, burning tyres, spices and incense. Touts of all descriptions delivered a constant stream of hassle: traders; salesman; beggars; scam artists.
On the strength of these recollections I had advised Martina to prepare herself for non-stop harassment. Her reports, delivered via a stream of emails modestly entitled ‘Spam from India’, painted a different picture. Her impressions were overwhelmingly positive.
This apparent contradiction lured me to my bookshelves to find the handwritten journal in which my true recollection of that arrival in India had lain, dormant and unread, for eleven years. All the images I recalled were present. What distinguished the written record from that in my memory was a wealth of qualifying statements: that it wasn’t as bad as people had made out; that the actual frequency of encounters with nuisances was very low.
It seems that the myth of Delhi is so strong that, even after having personally debunked it, I found myself engaged in this act of negative revisionism, allowing my own recollections to be displaced by cliché.
The photos that accompany this post are Martina’s.