Just hours into my first visit to India and already I am being pelted with stones by a gang of street urchins. Truly, I have hit the ground running. Trotting briskly, at least — these little bastards are relentless.
This visit is a long-delayed event, occurring at a time when world attention has been focused on the country for unfortunate reasons. The Delhi bus rape and murder has brought attention to the unequal status of Indian women, even as violence in the Kashmir region reinforces the perception that India and Pakistan have the potential to top the global hot spot list at any time. By comparison my own issues have been happily minor. But the welcome, at least, was less than warm.
I set out to explore the neighbourhood surrounding my Delhi hotel, wandering through the Chennae Market and the lively Gaffar Market before ending up... I'm not really sure. Not for the last time on this trip I found myself in a neighbourhood that appeared to have been recently bombed from the air. As I had been encountering and photographing lots of happy, enthusiastic kids along the way I thought little of it when another gang crowded around — scruffy boys of about eight or 10. "Ten rupees 10 rupees 10 rupees," they chorused. Then one of them reached up and lightly smacked me in the face. Another grabbed at my bag. I made a feint at them to chase them off — a mistake. It meant war. As I turned to cross the busy street a stone hit my cheek. They dashed off as I turned, so I crossed the road and continued on — only to get another stone in the neck, then more bouncing off my back and shoulders. They were following me. Several blocks later they were still on my trail. These weren't urchins — they were little Terminators. I quickly hailed a bicycle rickshaw, negotiated a price and hopped aboard. The driver turned to head down the street but my tormenters weren't done. The leader ran alongside the rickshaw, pelting it with stones. Incredulous, the driver stopped the bike and gave chase. After making them back off a respectful distance, his vigorous peddling left them in the dust.
Hello Delhi, indeed. I'm sure the Beatles got stoned in India too but they probably enjoyed it more.
Many of the interactions experienced as a lone foreigner on Indian streets can be understood only by imagining that you are wearing a giant foam Mickey Mouse suit. Some children gape, some seem terrified, kids of a certain age want to punch or pull at you, others want to pose for pictures. But it's payback, in a sense, given the vast divide that still separates a fortunate global traveller such as myself from the tough realities of everyday life in India.