I arrived back in Pahar Ganj at 3 pm, six hours after I'd left to go to the jail that morning. The street was already crammed with traffic and so I abandoned my rickshaw and walked back to the hotel. Cars, trucks, rickshaws, mopeds and animals weaved in every conceivable direction to the effect that I had to walk like a puppet on strings; jerking, twisting and hopping my way in an overall forwards direction.
Smoke, sweat and stench deluged the air and made it seem as though I was walking underwater. As a Westerner, you're an automatic target on this street, and no one ever gives up on selling you anything. Even when they've seen you walk down the street 1000 times before. Often it's only to wind the foreigner up and get a reaction. If it's a man they'll try to sell him something; if a woman then they'll smack their lips and say "Hey, baby, you like good time?" Just like in the movies.
Friends of mine, who first journeyed to the East the '60s, told me that we were often held in high regard by the Indians. Like Buddha, we'd left behind our lives of luxury in the First World to come to India in search of truth. They called us "maharaja", great king. However, after years of seeing us crazy, stoned and lost, they eventually saw us for what we were. The "Real Westerners" they saw on TV drove sports cars and lounged by swimming pools. With our cheap clothes, hashish habits and -dreadlocks, we were clearly the unwanted scum of our own societies.
Despise, envy or just laugh at us, the -Indians certainly don't understand us. One day I was chatting to a shopkeeper on Pahar Ganj, when an -Israeli girl walked past with her friend, chatting to him in Hebrew. The shopkeeper shook his head ruefully.
"She is a bad woman."
"How do you know that?"
"I have seen her with three different men." He told me sternly, as though that said everything.
"Well, where did you see them?"
"In the street!" He puffed.
I tried in vain to explain that for Westerners, for a woman to be seen in the street with someone didn't mean she was necessarily sleeping with him. He listened politely, but the look in his eyes suggested that he considered me rather naive.
When someone first goes to India, they usually have all kinds of notions about "talking with the people" and "immersing in another culture" and so on. All but the mostsanguine quickly understands that they will never integrate with Indian society. No matter how good their Hindi gets or what religious vows they take they will always be aliens from outer non-India. In India you are whom you were born as. You cannot become a Hindu, and no amount of eating raw green chilies will change that.
But in the end, even though Pahar Ganj was hell, I hung out there for my time in Delhi, as I could at least find conversation with other Westerners, who could relate to where I was coming from. Hell, I might even get some Israeli girl to walk in the street with me.
Having already spent a couple of years in India, I could easily recognize the tourists, and what kind of trips people were on. There were bearded -Italians who thought they were holy men; there were lost, skinny hippies in search of -enlightenment, or a guru, or perhaps just clothes that would actually fit them; there were tourists in jeeps, coming back from the Taj Mahal shell-shocked; techno warriors in fluorescent garb; plus other tra-velers and freaks, who couldn't be as free elsewhere, as they were in India.
The longer you stay in India, the more you see, and it's kind of sad, because it's better not to perceive some things. The more you understand, the less magical it all seems. Explanations give texture and depth, but they steal away the awe. As such, it's easy to recognize the newly arrived. They wander around in a nervous state of wonder and appre-hension. The locals see them coming from a mile away, and they pay three times the price for everything for the first few days, which is all they can do to stay afloat in this sea of chaos, noise, and curious brown faces.