Morning in the 'ganj

Trip Start Jan 27, 2008
Trip End Apr 06, 2009

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Flag of India  ,
Saturday, February 9, 2008

The best time to wander the streets in a large Indian city is just before sunrise, so awakening at 6 am, I ventured out for a little jaunt. The touts are all gone, save for a few tired bicycle rickshaw drivers, ending their long night shift. Their half-hearted and faint calls of "rickshaw?" less emphatic than during the prime hours in which the Gora are looking for something to do, someplace to shop or find a beer bar. They cruise lazily in the twilight of pre-dawn, the litter-strewn street all but empty otherwise. A few shopkeepers are opening up, Risen from their resting-place on a hard pallet in the back, shaking off the bleary-eyed mist of sleep and preparing for another day. Cows roam free in the shadows, unmolested by human and auto traffic, enjoying a bit of bovine freedom before the crush of the baazar forces them back into the alleys again.
The smell of money spent, discarded and burnt paper and packaging, mud and cow manure is noticably sharper and more defined, not masked by the clouds of exhaust belched out by every passing vehicle during busier hours. It is dim, the shop lights off, and only the occasional rickshaw between the widely spaced streetlights dares break the blood pact that the dawn has made with the night.
It is at this time I have always preferred to walk, feet sometimes crunching, sometimes squishing but mostly slapping bare pavement. Not having to weave and bob to avoid fellow pedestrians, rickshaws, cars, cows and motorcycles reminds one of what it once was actually like to be able to walk straight to where one is going without obstruction; the way it is in most western cities. Patience is a way of life in India, and it ain't getting any less crowded. Perhaps the very first lesson one needs learn when visiting this country is that very virtue. It takes time for everything here, get used to it, or get frustrated.
In the cool mist of morning, however, I can take my time or walk fast--it does not matter either way. Down toward the railway station maybe half a kilometer away I see perhaps fifty souls wandering the streets, most on the way to work, it would seem, not bothering to even look twice at a tall bearded fellow headed to the chai stalls at the end of the street.
Indeed it is early, the huge wok-like pans of milk in the first couple of stalls just starting to steam and give off their sweet aroma. "Chai nahin," the man says, gesturing down the alley. I turn. Reaching a small place with a man furiously straining the sweet milky chai into glasses while a small boy hands them out, I step up. "Mujhe ek chai," I spout, which gives my chai-drinking neighbors a start. One man smiles, turns to his companion, and I can half understand them taking pleasure in my attempt to speak their language. "Hindi?" he turns to me. "Main Hindi thora," I say by way of a broken reply. "Thora-dora," is the answer. Indians like things that rhyme. It shows in their music, advertising, and lyrical speech. A rhyme always brings a smile, and a smile or a laugh makes life in a tough place all that much easier.
5 rupes for a fresh hot drink on a chilly morning, and off I go to get the paper. Mostly in hindi, punjabi, and with a couple in tamil, the paper man also has the Hindustan Times and Asia Today, both in english for the benefit of traveling or expat westerns, or Indians seeking to keep their english-language skills sharp. He sets up every day near the barriers at the entrance to Paharganj, just he and his papers on a little spot of ground big enough for him to sit amongst his wares. I buy both english papers, as he has no change, and I have only a 10 rupee note. "First customer!" he says, with some enthusiasm, "namaste!" Off through the mist again as the first pinkening beyond the buildings rises, back to the Hari Rama for a coffee or three on the rooftop and to catch up on what has been going on in the world for the past few days.
6:30 a.m. and all is well.
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