A birthday performance in the smoggy megacity

Heading from Goa to New Delhi we decided to take a 36 hour train.  At around R’s 7,500 (£75) it was by far the cheaper option.  We also wanted to experience one of India’s famous scenic train journeys.

Our ticket was for the 2nd class sleeper section which means we had a bunk to ourselves and could stow our luggage underneath.  We were hoping for some conversation with other travellers during the journey, but as we settled into our carriage the family in the section next to us arrived and quickly drew the curtains.

The journey was a whirl of street food venders, pit stops, crying children, more food, music, leg stretching and preparing ourselves for our new environment, all whilst taking in the changing landscape around us.  The move from mountains and hills to flat farmland. From coastal ranges to drawn out expanses.  We were headed into the heart of India.

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As we draw closer to the city the air starts to haze.  Buildings seem to hover in the distance and closer to the tracks the slums begin to concentrate.  Kids play cricket near the rail and people huddle round camp-fires. Pigs rifle through mounds of plastic and waste.

We pull into our destination at 3pm.  The screaming toddler next to us is still at it.  Note for next time: Bring booze.

Our first two days are spent in budget travellers hotels. One in Paharganj (next to New Delhi Station) and the other in Vasant Kunj (South Delhi) which is where Hannah will be rehearsing for a solo dance piece at the Instituto Cervantes (Spanish Embassy and culture centre).

We didn’t settle well at first.  Delhi is a tough city and no matter how much people tell you, it doesn’t prepare you fully for the visceral experience of being there.  The pollution is thick and attacks you as you wander.  We later find out that Delhi is ranked as the worlds most polluted city, which explains why the issue is being discussed heavily within political circles.

As “Westerners” we draw stares in built up areas.  We feel uncomfortable at first. Reluctant to venture out of our comfort zone.

On our third day we moved to a house stay called Maya’s Nest in Vasant Kunj.  Our hosts are Asha and her daughter and artist Maya.  This move instantly lifts us as we are welcomed with open arms, smiles and local knowledge.  Slightly out of the mayhem of the city centre.

It is here that we also meet up with Anish Popli, who is to choreograph the piece named “Open Mouthed” with Hannah.  Anish is a true burst of energy.  Full of ideas, conversation, inspiration and hospitality.  During the rest of our stay Anish and his often co-pilot Swati would become good companions and guides, introducing us to family, friends and hidden gems.

By day 4 Hannah became ill.  The mixture of a change in temperature and various particulate pollutants was taking its toll.  Nevertheless she made the regular journey to Connaught Place (central Delhi) for rehearsals.  Navigating the queues and security on the Metro each time. 

Security checks are a very regular occurrence in Delhi, and are heightened due to Republic Day preperations.  The concerns are warranted from ISIS terror threats and in my heart I hope that London never has to go that far.

It’s here in the city centre amongst the tourists and international brands that many of Delhi’s street kids roam.  Shining shoes, selling sweets or reaching out with thin arms for change.  Nothing can prepare you for their reality.  Swati tells us the government keeps free school places for any child from the street.  Nevertheless, this is clearly a difficult problem to solve and one which is a heavy reminder of our privileges.

The 21st of Jan came round quickly.  This was the day of the performance and coincidentally Hannah’s birthday.  By now Hannah’s symptoms were improving.  A birthday message from loved ones in the morning gives her a boost.

We make our way to the gallery. Hannah has one more run through in the afternoon before guests begin to arrive.  All of a sudden things become very formal as the gallery fills and we are ushered into an exhibition hall.  Soon the Spanish Ambassador takes the stage and begins a speech.  It seems that this event is a celebration of the 60th anniversary of Spanish/Indian relations.  Dignitaries, politicians and the rest. No pressure Hannah.

Once the formalities are through the performance begins.  A 25-minute solo, largely improvised and reflecting the photography of Christina Garcia Rodero who has been exhibiting in the gallery for some time.

Hannah glides through the gallery to eerie, industrial music composed by Scott BowleyThe audience transfixed on her and parting like waves as she flits between the photographs on display.  Her focus is sharp as she stares through the crowd of onlookers.

Beads of sweat drop to the floor and Hannah’s breathing can be heard over the rhythmic pauses in the music as the piece comes to a finish.  The crowd gathers around her and Anish to dole out their applause.  Jesus, the creative director of the space beams with glee as he thanks the two artists.  The night was a success.

Once the hand-shaking is done we head to Shalom in trendy GK-1 with Manav (one of Anish’s booze savvy chums).  The rest of the night races by amidst a succession of tropical cocktails, birthday cake and many plates of delicious food.

We finish up with some Pann at a local market.  A leaf wrapped around various spices and sugar, it’s eaten as a digestive.  It surprises our soft tastebuds. Hannah spits hers out in about 3 seconds.

The following day we move from the Nest into Anish’s brothers place on the border of South Delhi.  From this point on we fit in as much of the tourist stuff as possible.  Anish and his Honda make things a lot easier for us as we speed from the peaceful tranquility the Lotus Temple to the madness of Old Delhi.  We take in some local craft art and street food at Dilli Haat and get back to our hipster roots at Haus Khaz Village.  We wonder about the historical background of Qutub Minar and finish our visit with Bajirao Mastani, an epic Bollywood Blockbuster.

As I write this we are winding through the mountains in West Bengal on the road to Darjeeling.  Delhi seems far away.  Our time there was filled with highs and lows, new friends and a dash of sickness. Ultimately it was a big slap in the face in the wake of our experience in Goa.  This was an Indian megacity with all the extremes that we’d read about.  With our eyes open we feel a little more aware.  A little closer to the ground.

It feels good to breath fresh air again though.

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