The Tibetan Colony
We are staying in Majnu Ka Tilla, a Tibetan enclave in the north of Delhi. One of the women in the hotel tells me that the Tibetans still only have refugee status despite having first come here in 1959 and that they hold a yellow book in lieu of a passport.
Majnu Katila is a lively place with a sprinkling of red-robed buddhist monks who walk through the streets with a solid self-possession that is quite noticeable.
In the evening at the restaurant in our hotel we ate with two women – both buddhist monks – and the conversation was lively and centered on buddhist philosophy and their belief in how things come to be. They talk about the conditions that bring things into being and the way that desire conditions us for suffering.
Update: Later in our trip we saw and spoke with buddhist monks in Darjeeling and Kuseong in West Bengal and found the same measured attitude to life that is very pleasant.
The hotel we are staying in is named Wongden House and it is run very efficiently and with great friendliness by a Tibetan family.
From our room we can see the Yamuna river several hundred yards away. It is a lazy brown river, and through my binoculars I can see wading birds picking food out of the shallows.
There is a pontoon bridge across the river with a stream of cars and bicycles crossing both ways. On the near bank of the river there are reed houses. Outside one is a large metal bowl with metal pots in it. Washing is strung on a line outside another. They must be very poor people to be living like that. Tamara wonders how they manage in the winter.
When I look more closely I see there is a patchwork quilt of fields of vegetables and there is a man squatting down cutting some plants. Perhaps these are their working houses by the river. Perhaps they have homes elsewhere as well. Perhaps.
We had our first experience of Delhi traffic when we arrived at Majnu Katila from the airport. Now that we are settled in our room, we want to go into Delhi.
At 2pm this afternoon when we arrived at very modern metro station at Vidhan Sabha, there were very few people on the platform. A ride from Vidhan Sabha to Rajiv Chowk in the center of Delhi cost 15 Rupees – about 20pence or 35cents. We worked out the cost as best we could, in terms of what we believe a Indian laborer could afford. We decided it is affordable, so we were surprised how very few people there were in the metro.
We wondered whether it was because of the time of day. Perhaps it would be busier later.
On the train the recorded voice of what I take to be an upper middle class Englishwoman announced the station stops on the loudspeaker. I wondered who had decided to employ such a voice as the voice of the Delhi underground railway.
She said “stand clear of the doors” and “Mind the gap [between the train and the platform]” in that commanding voice of which ladies of her breeding are capable. It seems so out of place: A hangover of the British Raj imported into modern-day India.
We might have been on underground train in England. That is except for one sentence that she said, again in that imperious voice, “Passengers are requested not to sit on the floor.”
So we were not in England.
We returned to the metro at 6pm. There were hundreds and hundreds and still more hundreds of people packed on the platform so that they were one seething body.
Just one look from the top of the stairs was enough to make our jaws drop. How could we negotiate that crowd? How could we ever get on a train? We went down to the platform. We stood with the crowd. We looked at that swaying, clustered mass of humanity thirty, forty, fifty people deep all struggling to get on the trains and decided we couldn’t do it.
We went upstairs for a coffee, to a cafe whose strap-line read, ‘A lot can happen over a coffee.’ An hour later we went down again and this time it was easier. The crowd had thinned and we got on the train easily. Now it was no more than a train in London at rush hour: Quite manageable.
As a footnote to the above, after two or three days my ears have become attuned to the accents and I believe I hear in the voice of the lady on the loudspeaker in the metro, an Indian accent. Perhaps she is not from Surrey or the Home Counties after all.
A couple of days later, when we are on a train to Agra, we speak with an Indian engineer. He tells us that a poor person can buy two meals for 15 Rupees. So the cost of a ticket on the Delhi metro is not necessarily for everyone.