New Delhi: Exploring Paharganj

A Delhi man rides a bike past a vendor, cooking in front of his shop.

A Delhi man rides a bike past a vendor, cooking in front of his shop.

I spent my first day in Delhi exploring Paharganj. It’s a chaotic maze of narrow alleys and unpaved roads. An endless labyrinth of street vendors selling everything from fruit to leather goods to cheap electronics. The streets are always buzzing with locals, backpackers and budget travelers from India and around the gobe, as well as stray dogs and the occasional cow.  It’s dirty, but charming. The people are generally very friendly, all smiles and head wobbles, happy to stop and chat with camera-toting foreigners and pose for photos. And you can get a great chai and a cheap local meal on any corner.

Most Tuk Tuks or Auto Rickshaws are made for 2 or 3 passengers and 1 driver.

Most Tuk Tuks or Auto Rickshaws are made for 2 or 3 passengers and 1 driver.

The chaotic district of Paharganj is flanked by busy streets, always snarled with traffic. The traffic in Delhi is some of the craziest I have ever seen. There is almost no regard for the lane lines in the road, the shoulder is always used as an extra lane, and even traffic signals are disregarded at many intersections. People change lanes constantly and it amazes me that there aren’t more accidents.

And then, there’s the honking.

In India, everyone honks. If there is one sound that is synonymous with urban India, it’s the honk. All pitches, all volumes, all durations, all at once. The incessant, blaring, choir of Indian honks.

In America, we only honk to signal that someone else has screwed up, or to signal eminent danger. If someone cuts you off in traffic, or they’re driving too slow, and you want them to speed up, they’ll get an angry honk. If someone is about to back into your car in a parking lot, you’ll honk to alert them to the danger. That’s pretty much it. But, in India, they honk for everything. Everything! Seriously, you couldn’t count the number of honks you hear per minute on any given stretch of city road in India. The number is probably over a thousand. Every lane change, every tale-gate, every merge, every pass — no matter how wide the berth — all are commemorated with at least one honk.

Horn Please!

Horn Please!

Generally, the honks aren’t angry – in fact, they are encouraged. Most trucks have elaborately painted murals on their tailgates, featuring the words, “Horn Please” in big, bright letters. They know you’ll be passing them, and cutting them off, and they prefer if you’d honk to let them know.

So you can imagine that the streets are not only a mess of crazy traffic, sometimes including wandering cows, and even a tame elephant now and then, but they are also a din of honks and engine roars and brake squeals. Truly a chorus to behold.

One day, I had to cross one of these streets on foot, en route to buy a train ticket. I’ve crossed some crazy streets in my life, but this one was intimidating. There was no cross walk, and the median was about 4 feet high. I noticed that everyone was crossing where the concrete median had been smashed away, and you could scramble up the rubble and over to the other side. It was clear that a safety-in-numbers-approach was recommended. I waited for a group of locals to form, and when an auto rickshaw held up the flow of traffic for a split second, that gave us the opening we needed. We all scuttled onto the road like baby sea turtles. It was like a real-life game of Frogger — dodging motorcycles, cars, buses, and tuk tuks. We filed over the median, and dashed across the other side as the honks urged us onward.

Of course, I loved it in Paharganj. It was dirty, it was gritty, it was mad. But it was just my kind of madness.

A friendly old woman I met

A friendly old woman I met in Paharganj.

And the locals couldn’t have been friendlier.

That night I wanted to go out for a drink, and Prakash from the hotel suggested that I check out the music bar. I walked down the road after dinner and found the place mostly empty. I was hoping for something a little more lively, but there weren’t many options in my part of town. The place was dimly lit, with a few tables and cracked red pleather booths. I ordered a tall Kingfisher, and a waiter brought me the bottle and a glass, and poured the beer for me before stepping backwards to stand against the wall in the shadows. When my glass neared empty, he’d emerge to top me off — good service.

The table had place mats that featured cartoonish paintings of fruit. An orange, a banana, and a comically-large-by-comparison strawberry — it was bigger than the orange. There were only a couple other people in the bar, most of them sitting quietly, listening to the musicians on stage. I use the term musicians very loosely.

On stage, there was what looked like a family. There were 4 of them, 2 men, 2 women, all sitting down, hardly performing. The man held a microphone and sang a terrible, warbling, passionless tune. Behind him was another man with a keyboard, who looked as if he actually knew what he was doing. He played the melody on the keys, but the beat was canned — one of those push-button-beats that comes pre-programmed into any modern keyboard.  One of the women, the older one, held a book in her hand, and flipped through the pages. The other woman was younger, and attractive, but she spent most of her time on stage texting on her cellphone.

They passed the microphone around, taking turns singing, but none of them could sing. I’m not being culturally insensitive here. I know what music from other cultures sounds like, and I’ve heard plenty of Indian music before. This family just couldn’t sing — it was embarrassing. They had no idea what they were doing, and often in between songs, they would pause for minutes, the elder lady flipping through the book (presumably a song book), deciding on a song, and then arguing in whispers with the others about which song to sing, and who would sing it. When the mother-daughter team attempted a 2 part harmony, I knew it was time to leave. I waited for them to finish (They were terrible, but I’d never leave in the middle of a performance), finished my beer, and left. No one clapped.

Outside, I walked down the nearly empty streets. It was late and all the shops were closed. The chaos was replaced with calm, but it was an uneasy calm. Like at any moment, the fragile silence could be shattered like glass, and the buzz of commerce and honks would explode back into existence.

But the silence persisted as I walked though the chilly Delhi night. It’s always invigorating to walk down a strange street in a strange country, not knowing for sure if it’s a dangerous part of town or not. It felt safe enough for me in Paharganj. Maybe it was the tall Kingfisher, but I felt strangely comfortable. Like I said, Paharganj was just my kind of madness.

I made my way back to my hotel, and got ready for bed.

The next day, I was heading to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

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  • Taufan Gio

    Justin, I’m amazed by the fact that they can load as many people into a tuk tuk. Incredible! ;)

  • JustinWasHere

    haha yeah, i’m always impressed! And on motorbikes too – it’s not uncommon to see entire families on one bike!