Welcome to Delhi! Last time I visited India’s national capital was 13 years ago. Back then it seemed romantic. But this time around I spent the first few days wondering how soon we could leave. It’s me not you Delhi; I’m older now and less tolerant of your filth, poverty and those slow moving parking lots you call traffic.
But we’re not leaving, not yet anyway. Delhi may hide her beauty well but I’m up for the challenge. And aside from being interested in Indian culture, there’s another reason I included Delhi on this project – it’s where Coco’s dad lives. While he and she see each other once a year in Sydney, I thought this would be a good opportunity for Coco to see where her father has been living and working for the past six years of her life.
Anyway, more about that later. For week one in Delhi I chose a neighbourhood called Nizamuddin West. A Muslim enclave that I’d read was old and interesting with not a call centre in sight. Turns out the place isn’t just kind of old, it’s virtually medieval, Marrakesh-ish, with narrow lanes, meat hanging everywhere and hidden faces rushing past. Let’s go Nizamuddin West!
Part 1: The Sufi saint of Niz West
Niz West is named after the Sufi saint, Hzt. Nizamuddin Auliya, who kicked the bucket in the 12th century. A village grew around his shrine and today 20,000 people are crammed into the oldest part of Niz west, Basti Hzt. Nizamuddin, living in tiny dilapidated houses amongst markets, shops, mosques and a number of other shrines. The Sufi saint is still a really big deal; I met Muslims who’d made the pilgrimage to visit his ‘Dargah’ from all over India.
Part 2: More shrines anyone?
Hzt. Nizamuddin Auliya may pull a crowd but he’s not the only mystical, otherworldly thing about Niz West. There seem to be shrines, tombstones and mosques at every turn, with the odd Hindu god and Christian sticker about the place, because Sufism is all about playing nice. I particularly liked the shrine of a poet – small, unassuming and with lovely dappled light thanks to the marble jalis (pierced screen) surrounding it.
Part 3: The women of Niz West
Niz West isn’t necessarily the best place to be female. Many women are confined to Purdah, only allowed to appear in public when they’re fully covered from head to toe, just able to peer through a narrow slit in their black niqab or through the lattice of their burqa. However, there seemed to be just as many getting about with a simple heard scarf on. I would have loved to have had a good natter with some of them over a cup of chai to understand more.
Part 4: Thirsty, hungry?
I loved the chai makers, boiling up big vats of sweet milky tea every afternoon. The wafts of freshly made chapati and biscuits drifting through the lanes. And the piles of fresh fruit and veg stacked high on old wooden carts. Not sure about the butchers with their great hunks of raw meat dangling everywhere though, something the poor old goats wandering around must find most off-putting.
Part 4: The neighbourhood’s future
For all the shrines and hoo-ha, Niz West is a poor, underpriviledged area and day one, I watched where I walked, more concerned about stepping on crap or exposed electricity wires than anything else. By day three, I was able to look up and out, and enjoy the little bits of hope that tear around the alleys, kicking up dust but enlivening the place no end – the kids of Niz West. Many of them are getting an education and maybe just maybe their futures will be bright.
Every day I visited the neighbourhood was hard going. At least an hour in heaving traffic just to get there. Keeping your wits about you all the time to avoid going under the wheel of those pesky motor-bikes that slam through the ancient galis. Feeling constantly scrutinised by every single person around you. And knowing all of this was nothing in comparison to how tough the lives of those living in Niz West must be.
But. As the days passed I noticed the smell of urine less and the scent of rose more. I started to see beyond the squalor and appreciate the little bits of beauty. And the kids, thank god for the kids. “Missee, you take my picture!” they’d all call, beaming and jostling for a place in front of my camera. I may never go back to Nizamuddin West but I can honestly say I’m glad I went.
On the ‘home’ front
So we’re staying in an apartment in the same house as Coco’s dad, step-mum and younger half-brother. Cosy. But Coco is loving it and I’m getting time off from being a single parent; cooking, cleaning, child-minding and home-schooling are all being taken care of by the beautiful Indian staff here. A pleasant shock to the system I can tell you. The only downside is that Coco hasn’t seen much of Delhi so far. But this city is such hard work that I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. She can always check out her mum’s blog if she’s curious.
This suburb has been brought to you by Annabel Ritchie
See you next week.