Behind Delhi’s glossy malls and smooth highways lies another world. Gargi Gupta takes a walk to experience it
If you’re walking past the Railway Reservation Centre on Chelmsford Road just down the street from the Paharganj exit of New Delhi Railway Station, sometime around 10 in the morning, you’ll see a young man by the roadside speaking animatedly to a group of 15 or so, mostly foreigners, standing around him. That’s the guide of Salaam Baalak Trust City Walk, delivering his opening spiel.
Unlike most urban walks, history is not the aim of this walk. Instead it is to introduce/sensitise people to the lives of street children, whom Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), an NGO, works to rehabilitate. The young guide is a former street child who has been trained by the NGO to conduct the walk. The walk began in 2006 as a project to train these youngsters, who’d completed their schooling at SBT, to speak confidently in English. It’s so successful now that it has become the mainstay of SBT’s outreach programme, yielding both funds and volunteers. The Rs 200 you pay for the walk goes as donation to the NGO.
The two-hour long walk begins with the guide’s story — why he ran away from home, how he came to Delhi, where he slept, ate, how he came to be taken in by SBT, his hopes and fears for the future.
In terms of distance covered, it’s a short walk through the narrow back alleys of Paharganj. One of the halts is a kabadi shop where the children sell whatever they’ve scrounged from the railway platform. “Whiskey bottles sell for Rs 3 apiece and plastic ones for Rs 10 a kg,” says our guide Satender Sharma, around 18 years old and a BA student. “The kids are smart; so they fill water in the bottles, but the shopkeeper is smarter and empties them before weighing,” laughs Satender. He points to a video-game parlour nearby and laughs some more — “...And this is where they spend the money they get.”
Another stopover is the SBT contact point above the railway police station, a ramshackle two rooms with children in rags milling cheerfully around. The walk ends at the SBT office which also is a shelter home. We’re taken into a large room where around 50 children sit, live, lounge on mattresses covered cosily in quilts as they watch Goofy on Cartoon Network.
Paharganj is a fascinating area, at the junction of old and new Delhi. Once the commercial suburb of the walled city around Shahjahanabad, it is now known for its cheap guest houses and eateries, many of them illegal, servicing the budget tourist crowd. Disappointingly, the walk is not likely to enlighten you to this aspect, though the guide does tell you briefly about how the area used to be inhabited primarily by rich Muslims who fled during Partition and their houses came to be occupied by Punjabi refugees. One halt along the route is a crumbling haveli, its outer walls showing a fine reticule of roots of a Banyan tree that’s grown through it — “it’s about 500 years old,” is all the information Satender has to offer.
For the foreign tourists, who comprise a majority of those taking the walk (“We are starting to get Indians as well, mostly among the young,” says Poonam Sharma, city walk coordinator), SBT City Walk is a crash course on the desperate lives of the poor lurking just behind the glossy malls and smooth highways of new India. And on other things Indian, such as the tangled electrical wiring that are a life threat in the monsoons. Or the depictions of Durga, Amba, Shiv, Guru Nanak, a mosque and so on along an impossibly narrow lane, just two arms length or so, between old havelis that are now illegal guest houses. “Can you guess why these tiles of gods and goddesses are fixed along the walks?” asks Satender. Most can’t — naturally — and are suitably amused when told the reason (to stop people from urinating).
We walk gingerly through a gali lined with cheap eateries, fronted by large vats of chicken, boiling offals and frying fish as we’re taken to the Paharganj main bazaar with its warren of shops selling garish desi textiles and handicrafts.
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There’s nothing quite like walking to get to know a city. And winter’s a great time to be walking in Delhi. As the list below enumerates, a large number of bodies are offering walks of all kinds.
THE HABITAT WALK is perhaps the best known of the urban walks in Delhi. Habitat Centre organises two kinds of walks twice a month on Sunday. One, the historical walk centred around any one area or monument, for instance, Chandni Chowk, Ballimaran, Sultan Garhi, Humayun’s Tomb and Red Fort. And two, a nature walk in places such as the Delhi ridge or the Biodiversity Park. Open to non-members (they have to pay Rs 100 as fee), it allows a maximum of 25 people. On the 16th of this month, Sheila Chhabra of the Delhi Bird Group will take 5-12-year-olds around the Delhi zoo. Sunil Raman, a journalist, will take people around the ruins of the 14th century Tughlaqabad Fort.
INTACH'S WALKS are much more frequent. Held every Sunday, these are historical walks concentrating on the built heritage of historical precincts in and around Delhi such as Nizamuddin, Mehrauli Archaeological Park and Hauz Khas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register or ring 011-24632267; 24632269; 24631818 (ext. 105) between 10 am and 5 pm
RED EARTH, a cultural organisation, conducts regular walks around Delhi which are part historical and part urban regeneration. There’s one around the flower markets of Delhi which includes Sunday Phool Mandi at Baba Kharak Singh Marg, opposite Hanuman Mandir, Genda Phool Mandi at Fatehpuri Masjid, Chandni Chowk, and the Mehrauli flower market. There’s another walk to the historical nurseries — the Chiragh nursery in Chiragh Dilli, Sunder Nursery in Nizamuddin and Rajdhani Nursery in Jorbagh. There’s also a walk to the many baolis in the city. Charges for the walks are Rs 500 per person. To register and for details, contact Himanshu Verma / 41764054 / email@example.com
THE AGA KHAN FOUNDATION conducts a heritage walk highlighting the 700 years of history of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti woven into the architecture and culture of the place.