Last night my dreams were full of bicycles. They were no doubt a reflection of our first day in Delhi, touring the forts, tombs and towers of the city. We began in Chandni Chowk, the market in old Delhi. After visiting the ancient mosque that towers over this neighbourhood – as many as 25 thousand kneel in neat rows here at prayer – we took a bicycle rickshaw ride through the narrow lanes lined with overflowing market stalls selling everything from books and calendars to saris and mangoes. It was oppressively hot and constricting.
Our rickshaw driver couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds but negotiated his way expertly among the crowds of walkers and shoppers, the carts loading and unloading merchandise, the motorcycles, scooters, tuktuks, the other rickshaws and bicycles, all vying for the slender passageway through the chaos. We jerked to a stop several times while tangles were sorted. It was clearly a surreal game we were in. Our driver turned around a couple of times with a smile on his face to see if I had noticed as he bested another rickshaw for the thin gap that allowed us to move forward.
We gripped the rusted bars at our sides and pushed on the crosspiece at our feet as we broke into an opening and picked up speed with the scooters, tuktuks and motorcycles whizzing past us. Soon enough, though, we were slowed again by the sheer number of conveyances in the constricted space, where we waited for our next chance to break free. After just a few minutes we had had enough of this dance but we continued on, nothing else to be done, for about twenty minutes, up and down the colourful lanes, the noise and heat and congestion almost overwhelming.
It would be easy to see this whole bizarre canvas as a Disney-esque film set laid on for the tourists if it weren’t for the real people buying and selling, picking up and delivering, piling, folding, yelling, moving, honking, sweating, in short, living right here in this pandemonium. It is incredibly alive. What a perfect introduction to India! This microcosm that is an imprint of the whole teeming pulsing more-than-a-billion-strong country. And what a privilege it is to experience it.