Hot wind blows against my face like a hairdryer in a dusty sauna. Incessant honking and shouting are the general indicators, as tuk tuks, scooters and rickshaws, whine and creak their way though the traffic; a colourless game of Mario Cart. Driving from Delhi airport towards the backpacker heart of this impatient city, a red traffic light means very little.
Paharganj itself stinks. I check into Cottage Ganga Inn at 10am and curiously walk around outside in 44 degree heat. The bazaars are initially indistinguishable; every second shop sells SIMs cards, bohemian vests or fruit juice. There are no pavements, causing the lanes to vibrate with stop-start engines and scuffing sandals.
For a moment, I think I’ve found New Delhi train station. But the huge concrete structure is actually just one of many inter-linking metro stations around Delhi, (I discover this only after getting lost in the tangled bazaars). It is the Ramakrishna Metro and next to it, the Ramakrishna Ashram. Desperate to escape the heat and the predatory hagglers, I take off my shoes and go inside.
It’s prayer rush-hour. The back of the Ashram (entrance) is crammed with cross-legged children in silent meditation. A teacher observes from the back. Uncomfortable with the idea of sitting in the only free space, at the very front, I squeeze myself onto the back-bench and sit in peace. The fans above dry my already sweat-soaked shirt .
Outside, a young boy from Rajasthan introduces himself and starts giving me a tour of the local area. His name is Jack. He came to Delhi from Rajasthan to practice meditation and empathises with my lack of experience in managing the road-crossings here. “Go slowly through the streets” he warns, after I walk out in front of two rickshaws and a bolting scooter.
Jack wants to show me the shops so that I can dress like the locals and not get ripped off. What’s in it for him? Commission. All I have to do is look around and he gets 50 rupees. Ignoring my rumbling belly, I feign interest in several three-tier boutiques. It gets to 5:30, way past lunch time, and I think I’m done comparing punjabis.
I take shelter on the rooftops of Satyam restaurant, looking out over the main bazaar. Over chapatti and dhal, I watch the city start to glow; the sun slowly exchanging with the luminous multi-coloured lights, trailing their way along the buildings.