I wrote the majority of this post while sitting in Delhi airport, it’s taken me a while to post because it was such a mess and editing it took an age. It is not public health related but attempts to convey my experience of a fantastic 6 months in India.
While sitting in the airport, I was thinking of an analogy of ‘how best to describe India’. I was racking my brain thinking of cricket, Bollywood and even bicycles (not sure how any of those would of worked)! I really shouldn’t have found it hard at all, the analogy was right in front of my nose. The street food of India is, for me, the perfect analogy. Street food is an institution in India. So no wonder it reflects perfectly the attitudes and culture of the people living in the country.
Delhi has unique and often harsh odour, mainly due to lots of rubbish and prolific public urination. However on the odd occasion when you take that accidental deep breath through your nose, instead of the smell that can only be describe as painful, you get a delightful aroma of spices playing with and teasing your nose. Quite rightly you turn to see where this smell is coming from and most of the time you see a small crowd of people surrounding an unknown cooking device. When you venture over and peek through the crowd you could see almost anything being prepared.
My personal favourite was the corn, which was cooked on hot coals or the potato’s being fried in oil or the various samosa like things you can get. I will stop because I could go on and on. Whenever I saw the food I would be immediately tempted, but always slightly wary. 80% of time I would crack and go up to the Walla and ask him for whatever it was. The process would then begin. Straight out of the hot pan the potatoes would go into a mixing bowl. Here you had the chance to design your dish. I never knew what to have so everything got chucked in: Chilli, spices, unknown green sauce, salt and lemon. This was then served in a flimsy plastic/tin foil tray, with some cocktail sticks for cutlery. Upon your first mouthful you were taken on an express train of flavours. You would delve into immediate ocean of salt, with a smack of spice and then the burn of chilli, with a crescendo of tart bitter lemon. It takes a great deal of concentration to eat because your taste buds are being taken from sensation to confusion in a half a dozen steps. After you have consumed the dish you suddenly look up, your other senses finally having a chance to breath. The food has acted like a small eclipse in time and you come rushing back to the screaming traffic, the countless people and the general bustle of life.
This experience for so many reasons represents India and especially Delhi. The taste of the food takes you in one direction and then kicks into reverse, pulls on the handbrake and crashes you into a wall. When you wake up in India, it’s to the sound of street sellers advertising their products, dogs barking and people clearing their throats. You walk out the door and you are hit with throngs of people, the sound of horns and sometimes if there is no smog the sun will accompany you on your journey. There is no space, there is no time and everybody wants to get his or her food first. It is dog eat dog with faces full of smiles accompanied by the ripples of laughter. You see the homeless and the over-homed, the big cars and the autos and the motorbikes. You see everything, every level from the deepest pools of poverty in a city slum to the majestic beauty of the Taj Mahal. India represents a multitude of contradictions and idiosyncrasies of which I have never found in another country.
One image will always stay with me, everyday as my auto pulled up to a red light, the street kids would descend, selling garishly happy balloons, while all you could see on their faces was a robbed childhood and bitterness. You have a system of government and society, which is both bureaucratic, and fiercely patriarchal, this robs many of the opportunity to be heard.
India is a giant country and as I have said you can see everything, from the waterways of Kerala to the giant mountains in Kashmir. With each place you are served a different sort of person. All of which greet you with a smile and are interested in you and where you have come from. I was always amazed by how friendly people could be.
India is a mad and hugely endearing place. I miss the hustle and bustle and the diversity of life. Now I am back in the UK things are just a bit more boring and uniform, there are one too many Pret et Manger’s and Costa coffees. It lacks that hit of life that Delhi had. Nonetheless I am happy to be home and ready for the next adventure to begin. Would I go back to India for a second helping, you bet!
Thanks to everyone I met for making it such a great place to be. I am now off to South Africa for three weeks, so there will be no posts for a while.