This piece won 3rd prize in the General Public category of the 1st Terry Writing Challenge.
In New Delhi’s Connaught Place the buildings go up to ten stories tall. High above the promenade, at about story eight, are signs advertising big brand names in sharp electric font. On some buildings there are even video screens, beckoning shoppers to come closer. The words “Buy Gucci, Because You Deserve the Best!” flash on one screen over and over again. Below, opening to the street, are the shopping stalls. The ads do not contain false advertising. Here you really can buy everything from Timex to Levis as well as less conspicuous brand-free cloths, spices and bangles. Shoe stores, ready-made clothing shops and restaurants swoop around the market’s circular circumference and intermittent between them are large movie theatres offering air conditioning and a showing of Shahrukh Khan’s latest Bollywood smash hit. Today is the opening of Paheli, and it draws a constant crowd.
The whole neighborhood has an air of contentment to it. Shoppers, most of which are dressed in jeans and modern style embroidered shirts, roam from stall to stall, snacking and laughing lightheartedly. A young girl drags her mother by the arm, coaxing her towards the next shopping stall as an attractive belt and necklace catch her eye. Even inside the shops the vibe is carefree. The gold sellers are particularly relaxed this afternoon, languorously licking McDonald’s ice cream cones as they use their other hand to talk vivaciously on cellular phones, their feet perched up on diligently polished glass display cases.
Amidst this rapid buzz of activity: shopping, dining, bank transactions… a woman sits down disappointedly on a curb. She is new to the city. Last week she left behind her home village in Uttar Pradesh with the hope of making a better life here. She wants to sell henna tattoos but potential customers are afraid if they allow her to touch them, the open sores on her hand may prove contaminating. She sits quietly, painting the red powder on her own arm, hoping that she will earn enough today to feed her newborn child.
Down the street, and around the corner, an orphaned child faces a worse fate. He worked tirelessly this morning to collect money from shoppers in the market. He went stall to stall, even stood outside the big movie theatres, asking people for some rupees. But now three policemen have come to tell him that begging in these parts is not allowed. “It is bad for tourism,” one of them says. He takes the child aside and beats him, demanding that he hand over his fortune- a total of 234 rupees. The child is then given a warning, he must never beg again.
Contradictions. Elegant plush tour buses with big-eyed passengers peering out from its windows push through narrow crowded streets. Tattered shoe shiners perch themselves on the stoop of Bala-ji Shoe Store, anticipating with great hope that an elite businessman or a wealthy young girl will be in need of their service. Big hotels with picturesque pools for swimming are built beside hot sweltering city slums. Homeless children fraternize with foreign tourists already burdened by shopping bags, in an attempt to negotiate the cost of Delhi postcards and city maps. A holy man, wearing deep yellow robes, sits with his eyes shut, on the stairs leading up to the ATM of Citibank.
Even the animals are not sure how to negotiate life in Connaught Place. Inside one of the area’s many internet cafés a rat hides behind the legs of a computer desk, careful not to touch the game player’s sandaled foot. He remains still, his quiet squeaks masked by the click clack click clack sound emanating from above him. Outside, taking advantage of its holy status, a cow walks down the paved road, evaluating the spectacle of modernity around him. He inadvertently separates two lovers who have secretly, against their parents’ knowing, decided to spend the day together in the market. Frustrated by the encounter with the animal, the lovers briefly scold the cow, yell. But they are quickly overwhelmed by feelings of devotion and touch his head with their palms, asking for forgiveness.
And towards the end of the shopping strip, inside the Sony Store, two backpackers from somewhere in the “western world” browse about the electronics section. “India is so developed, man. Isn’t it amazing? I never thought there’d be movie theatres and paved roads and stuff! And have you seen what you can get here?” says one to the other. “I know,” the other replies, “Its so awesome! You can buy pretty buy much anything- even Cadbury chocolate and Bacardi rum! I never thought they had those things in India!” But for another moment, they stand contemplating with a great degree of disappointment, the absence of cycle rickshaws.