Welcome to India’s bustling capital of New Delhi. Moving around this smog-filled capital is quite an experience. Like all major Indian cities, it has its fair share of traffic. Streets clogged with every imaginable vehicle, roadside vendors trying to earn a living, constant road-works – all of this meant taking an interminable time to cross the city over gound.
So to avoid this rigmarole of a journey, I decided to explore the brand new, gleaming Delhi Metro (underground and over-ground) to pick up my beloved, from the airport criss-crossing the city from the south east to the south west.
When I took this journey, the Delhi Metro was a recent introduction to the city’s myriad transport alternatives. Reportedly delivered on time and on budget, this was New Delhi’s pride and joy, enabling commuters easy access to their workplaces and supposedly cutting down traffic on the roads.
There is a special ‘ladies only’ carriage with regular announcements urging male passengers not to use that compartment – both in Hindi and in English – which I decided to board. In spite of it being thus labelled, I spotted one man there, sitting with his wife. Irritated, when I asked him in Hindi why he was in a ‘ladies only’ carriage, he responded in all innocence, “Because I am with my wife! How can she travel alone? And we would be separated in this crowd!” I could do nothing but shake my head in resignation and a little amusement.
I needed to change trains at the central New Delhi mainline train station which is a heaving mass of people bursting at the seams just like all of India. Every single bag, suitcase, handbag and package is scanned, everybody is frisked and it appears to be a free-for-all with chaos reigning supreme. Bags and suitcases pile up on the conveyor belt, people shove and push you through the scanner and the security guards, part of the Border Security Force, are not capable of even thwarting a fly-attack, never mind a mastermind with a bomb in this rush of people. So travelling through this tumultous tide of humanity is quite an undertaking as the throng of people rush in and out of the station intent on their various destinations.
Braving that undulating mass, I half walk, half run to find the train to take me to the airport. I locate the platform for the Airport Express, throw myself onto a seat and catch my breath as I look around me in wonder. The difference is stark. What is this, I wonder. A wonderful, calm and serene experience – almost like travelling first class in an aeroplane – not that I have ever flown first class. Cushioned seats, very few passengers, air conditioned carriages with attentive attendants passing round feedback forms and answering all questions with a smile. A fancy blue LED light indicates how the journey is progressing. All very civilised.
So I kicked back and relaxed. Going to the airport from the main New Delhi train station was a breeze. I was alone with only my handbag as my companion, I skipped, strolled and ran my way there.
Being a Sunday afternoon, I thought, it should have been quieter. Perhaps the sheer numbers of people living in New Delhi and its conurbation using the Delhi Metro meant that the return journey experience was… well, just that – an experience. An unmissable, once-in-a-lifetime, tell-it-to-your-grandchildren experience. After collecting my beloved from the airport and travelling in style on the Airport Express, we hit the main New Delhi station. And boy did we hit it! Rather it hit us!
With a huge suitcase, an overnighter, a computer case, going through the scanners being frisked and then having to recover them at the other end, before they got nicked, required some agility and presence of mind. Fear kicked in. What if we can’t find our things at the end of the line? What if a smart thief casually picks up the computer case or my handbag and coolly walks off? Keeping one eye on our things, shepherding my British husband through this chaos, as he raises his eyebrows, eyes widening in disbelief, as if questioning my sanity for putting him through this jamboree, I manage to gather all our bags and we collapse on the other side.
Are we home yet?
“This is nothing”, I gasp, picking myself up. “You have not yet experienced the Delhi Metro.”
“What?! You mean there is more to come? We are not yet home?” he asked.
“Does this look like home?”, I queried, raising my voice above the shouting and the general uproar of a very busy station.
Clearly shaken by the experience, he looked at me in disbelief, shaking his head.
Our Delhi Metro experience was just about to begin.
Looking up the timetable, buying tickets and getting to the train platform was the easy bit. Patiently waiting for the train to arrive, people stood in orderly queues, in what looked like the spot where the carriage doors would open. Regular announcements meant that we could follow its progress and knew exactly when it would be in the station. As the train whizzed through the tunnel and up against the platform, the train doors of the swished open automatically…
Before waiting for anybody to get off, the orderly queues evaporated – like steam rushing out of a kettle as the water comes to a boil. Everybody on the platform rushed into the train – bees to a honey pot. Jostling, heaving, pushing and being pushed, grasping and shoving, somehow, suitcases and overnighters and all, we managed to get on. And once there, we held on for dear life.
This heaving and shoving meant that passengers who wanted to get out were forced back inside. Bemused at this free-for-all, I could just imagine their thoughts. Expletives, shouts, swear words… none of it made an iota of difference.
Voices in posh English and Hindi announced the next station and which side the platform would be, urging people not to sit on the floor of the compartment, spit or eat and drink on the train. One station passed, then another and yet another. Each time more people got in and very few out. And then there was no more space. More heaving, more pushing and shoving, and we’re beginning to get really intimate with all sorts of strangers! Noses in armpits, forearms in groins, backs against huge bellies…. A pickpocket’s haven. What a meditation this turned out to be!
Room at the Inn?
And just as I thought there was no more room inside the carriage, and no more people could possibly fit inside, I was proved wrong! At the next stop, a handful of people got out, somehow, and even more, in their hundreds (or so it seemed) pressed their way in. More shouting and shoving and pushing and cramming. Now it was backs to chests, shoulders digging into arms and bellies, swaying, clinging, clamouring for air, swearing, shouting, pushing…!
We held on for dear life being thrown around with the rocking and rolling of the train as it made its way speedily across New Delhi and Haryana, the neighbouring state, which was home to us for a few days at my aunt’s.
And then suddenly, miraculously, after being in the train for over half an hour, whoosh! The crowd just vanished. Stepped off at the next station and dissipated. It must have been a major junction and as we were going further east, we had the carriage mostly to ourselves from then on. What a relief! Personal space in India is definitely at a premium.
This is modern India, populous, aspirational, growing and burgeoning. A Metro experience not to be missed!
Have you travelled by the Delhi Metro? Or by any other Underground, Metro, Tube in any other city? Do write in the comments what your experience has been.
This first appeared in a slightly different form on Osho News – an online magazine