In my limited time in Delhi, I figured I’d walk around Old Delhi myself, just a random exploration. Not that I even knew exactly where it was or how I would know I was there. I got a taxi up to Jamma Masjid from my hotel, but soon discovered it was time for prayers. Not being muslim, I would not be admitted. I started walking westward into what I thought would be the old part of town and was approached almost immediately by a 60-ish man who started asking me questions. That’s how they do it. They are interested in you. Then they drop the proposition. “I will take you to see places in Old Delhi you would never find yourself. The real thing,” he says.
I ask how much. He says, well, we can go for 10 minutes and if you aren’t interested you don’t have to pay me anything. I say OK. If we continue, what do you want? He says 1500 for one hour. I say one thousand, which is twice as much as I’ve paid for any tour so far. He says 1200 (~$20). I say OK.
We go. He leads at a brisk pace down into some very narrow paths, narrower than a hotel hallway, difficult even for two motorbikes to pass each other. He stops me and says, “Stand here.” I obey. He points to a doorway and says,”This house is 400 years old.”
He proceeds to tell me that there are three Delhis: one that was built by Shah Jahan 400 years ago (named Shajahanabad), another colonial Delhi built 200 years ago, and the modern city now rising atop the old, officially named “New” Delhi in 1926. The houses of Old Delhi are each owned by one family and handed down from one generation to the next. No one rents in this neighborhood.
Standing outside a doorway, one has no idea how large the house may be, the size of the extended family within, the number of separate residences housing that extended family.
But he had no hesitancy whatsoever about opening the doors and inviting me inside. Most of these houses had three original levels. One or two more levels were added later.
The doorways are carved stone. The upper balconies may also be ornamental. Some houses contain 15-20 families, all extended from the original. One house was the very first English language school in Delhi.
I see no other foreigners.
After awhile I mentioned that the end of our time was approaching. He did not respond. He kept going, taking turns, giving orders. Explaining everything in heavily accented English. Then he declared that we would go to the roof of a large house to view the sunset, which required a tuk-tuk ride. I asked again about our time limit. He ignored me again.
The tuk-tuk ride followed a Main Street in the Chawna Market area, packed with fabric and jewelry shops, a favorite of tourists from everywhere, especially India itself. Traffic crawled, or mostly stood still. I began to wonder how long it would take or whether we would arrive too late for sunset. But eventually we did stop, hurrying again through narrow wet streets, stone paths, dodging laborers, hole in the wall shops, hordes of shoppers.
This is the sugar market, displaying a half-dozen varieties or more. There are 16 flavors of sugar made from the same source: sugar cane. I tasted 4-5, each one surprisingly distinctive and delicious. We moved quickly to the spice market, where I noticed a special black pepper selling for 800 rupees for 100g. That’s the equivalent of $125 per kilo, or about $55/lb. You have to pay even to smell it.
Then we walked through a winding, climbing tiny alley lined with wholesale spice dealers to a stairway up to the next level. We were on a balcony stretching the length of the building, lined with more wholesale spice merchants. I pass huge sacks of black cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric and chili. The aromas are enchanting. The building is square, enclosing a large courtyard, three stories high. It was the British governor’s residence 150 years ago.
Now up pitch-dark stairways by cell-phone flashlight two more levels to the roof. Here, after chatting and marking the different views, watching the sun set in a clouded sky, I am told we must talk money. Here is where he tells me has has spent 2.5 hours with me and expects to be paid accordingly.
I mention that I told him what I was prepared to pay before we started. He again mentions how long he has spent with me. I remind him that I asked twice about our time ending. We are getting heated. I am pulling out money and handing over 1200, plus a generous tip–but still far short of what he had in mind.
Now, at the completion of an experience I would never have had on my own, I have a sour taste in my mouth about the entire matter.
The evidence has accumulated ever since I arrived in India. I am a target (no surprise), that whatever I pay is not quite enough, regardless of the negotiation in question, even if agreed upon in advance; that there are subtle permutations to the negotiation process and intuitions required to manage the financial transactions here is further reinforced by this episode.
On one hand, I must acknowledge the skill, the finesse, the nuance that is employed to convey this feeling on the part of my Indian counterparts. But it’s as if they have been practicing for 200 years for their encounter with me. I must also wonder if they are merely playing a part, learned over at least 70 years (since Independence), whether their outrage is faux or their negotiating skills are honed to perfection to salve a wound not yet healed. Or whether it is via similar interactions with their own neighbors, vendors, service providers and artisans, merely being put to an even greater test with the foreigner, the white ghost representing the entire colonial history in that small moment of verbal jousting.
And I, the self-conscious visitor who wishes to avoid offense, attempting graceful conciliation, now finds offense in the protest and tone of my guide. Am I paying for the sins of others or am I perpetuating the exploitation in the moment? Is it simply the nature of the transaction that recreates the familiar hierarchies of class and race? Or is there something I have not seen, a mistake I unwittingly repeat? And how many other transactions are operating elsewhere, playing out this hidden subtext?
We are both bound by culture and economics and encumbered by the universal pitfalls of attachment to the bias of our individual worlds. Very few items here, save restaurant food, pharmacy items, clothing sold in fashion boutiques and department stores, are marked with a price before purchase, which deliberately invites the scenario I have just mimed. Perhaps I make too much of it, but coming to genuine agreement that is satisfactory for both parties is not so easy or apparent. Even if there is an appearance of agreement, what is the taste that remains for the auto-rickshaw driver, the taxi driver, the tour guide? Is it even possible to step out of our roles, even for a moment?
What I have encountered here, as elsewhere in India, is the Old Delhi, the new Delhi and the city of many names other than Delhi. I’m just a traveler, finding my way and still far from expert-or even comfortable-in this domain.