I’m hunched down in the corner of a makeshift shelter in a shanty-town a few kilometres from central Delhi. It’s a flimsy construction. A loose pile of bricks, a couple of feet high, forms the base from which several irregular, crooked wooden poles extrude to support a canopy made from scraps of plastic sheets. There is no furniture save a few loose bricks which serve as seats. The ground is uneven, bare, hard-packed earth coated with a layer of dust. A ragged and dirty cotton sheet serves as a wall which separates this dwelling from the lane outside that runs through the settlement. I am hiding by this sheet with my friend Phil beside me.

He proceeds to beat the cowering man repeatedly across the back. The officer’s loud encouragements precede each blow.

We hear a commotion in the lane just beside us and four khaki clad policemen enter the shelter a few metres in front of us. They see us immediately. One of them is clearly the commanding officer. He sports an elaborate moustache, curled upwards at the tips, in the style of a British RAF pilot of WW1. The shack’s owner, a small and slight, dark-skinned Indian man, drops to his knees and cowers on the ground in front of them. The officer barks at him several times without receiving any response except ever greater histrionics of submission. One of the other policemen approaches him. He wields a thick wooden staff, some two metres long. He proceeds to beat the cowering man repeatedly across the back. The officer’s loud encouragements precede each blow. The communication is conducted in Hindi and thus I do not understand anything of what is said. The choreography and gesticulation make it easy to interpret what is happening.

Then the police turn on us.

Tajik Air Tupolov airplane image: wikipedia

5 days earlier we had encountered the first of a series of unpleasant surprises as we boarded our charter flight to Delhi from London. The Tajik air plane was quite different looking than any plane I had seen before. I later learned that it was an old Aeroflot model that had been bought by the national carrier of the newly independent nation of Tajikistan once it had exceeded its working life in the USSR. I have been on many planes over the years. Some of them have been in less than pristine condition. None of them ever came close to this plane. Everything was old and rickety: the hinges on the back of my seat were broken so that it remained permanently in a near-horizontal reclined position. The plastic inner-windows were cracked and broken; the cushioned seat-bases were unattached to the seat-frames and slid off if you sat at the wrong angle; the seat-belts were frayed and their clasps were all broken.

Most alarmingly, as we took off and passed through the wall of cloud that resides over the UK and Ireland, water-vapour poured into the cabin in little jets through panels above the windows. It quickly became cloudy inside the cabin as well as outside it. I assumed that the clouds that we were passing through were being sucked directly into the ventilation system and the idea of being so directly exposed to the conditions was not a reassuring one. Perhaps it was some sort of system for humidifying the cabin air, but jets of water-vapour reappeared on several occasions over the course of the flight and, in each case, it seemed to happen when we were passing through clouds.


The next unwelcome surprise occurred after 5 or 6 hours of flight. We were passing over a rocky, barren and mountainous region which seemed devoid of signs of human habitation. Every so often the rock was broken up by a relatively verdant valley containing signs of agriculture and human habitation. To my surprise, the plane started descending as it approached one of these valleys. Given what I knew about Delhi and the geography of the Northern Indian plains, we were clearly not near our destination. Nevertheless, the aircraft continued to descend and eventually what looked like an abandoned airfield came into view. The runway was cracked and covered in patches of grass. Herds of cattle grazed all over it. I could make out a cattle-herder hurriedly trying to shoo his cows from our path as we came in to land. Happily he was successful and, despite a bumpy ride along the old cracked concrete surface, we came to a halt without any mishaps. Relief at having survived the landing was soon replaced by concern. Where the hell had we landed? And why?

The rest of the passengers seemed strangely unperturbed by landing in somewhere that was obviously not Delhi and they all looked to be seasoned inter-continental travellers of Indian origin. This quelled my anxiety somewhat. When the plane came to rest beside a crumbling concrete pavilion, the air-stewards notified us that we were in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, a newly independent former component of the USSR, and that we would now have to disembark. Their command of English failed them when it came to answering the questions that followed this information. Why were we stopping here? Were we still going to Delhi? How long would we be here? Why had we been informed that it was a direct flight?

Once inside the terminal, and in the remnants of a lounge on its upper floor, I used the vantage point to try to get a sense of the place in which we had ended up. Dushanbe was not a pretty sight. I could make out a few dozen of the tower-blocks that were emblematic of the old Soviet regime. Behind the battalion of ugly grey concrete giants, loomed steep and barren rock-faces. Low, half-ruined warehouses, some boasting faded and broken signs, filled in the gaps. There was no traffic on the weed-filled roads, save for the odd cyclist burdened down with a load of scrap. The atmosphere reeked of decay and decline.

Happily, after a few hours of observing the ruined remnants of the USSR’s central Asian outpost, we were ushered back onto our plane. It promptly set off again along the weed-strewn runway, up and over the mountain wall and onwards, over an astonishingly vast expanse of unbroken barren rocky mountains that separates central and Southern Asia, before finally descending into the great plain of the Ganges beneath the Himalayas and onwards to Delhi.

Culture Shock

The relief at having survived the journey lasted about as long as it took us to get from the plane to the terminal building. It was replaced by an overwhelming feeling of culture-shock that persisted for almost the entirety of the next 6 weeks. I experienced it as a visceral feeling, a haunted, stunned disorientation. It peaked after a week, waned slightly after 5 weeks, and subsided considerably once I made it back to Europe, but the sense of shock remained with me for months.


image: Ahron de Leeuw (flickr)

The first and most obviously shocking thing about arriving into a third world city like Delhi is the poverty. A poverty that is so deep and so wide that it is hard to fathom. Indian cities are home to literally millions of people who are clad in rags, thin to the point of emaciation, homeless, penniless, destitute and seemingly hopeless. Their numbers are so large and their poverty is so complete that they cannot be rendered invisible by social planning or control. Throngs of beggar children, often mutilated or malformed, congregate in any area where people are found. Walking along the streets can entail stepping over starving mothers and their dying babies.

The scale of human misery is simply overwhelming. Yet, to a large extent, it is the easiest of the culture shocks to deal with, because it is expected – Europe’s television screens often present their audiences with images of starving people in the third world.

On the other hand, many of the side-effects of poverty are less expected and thus more disorientating. The absence of anything approaching safety standards or public hygiene immediately assails the senses. I recall distinctly my sense of amazement at seeing families of 6 perched on a single moped as we drove along the road from the airport to the city. Rubbish, sewerage and excrement were everywhere and congregated in huge mounds, up to 10 metres high and 30 metres long. At night, every patch of footpath was occupied by sleeping bodies. The lack of public hygiene combined unhappily with the extreme heat of late Summer to produce the most intensely unpleasant smells that one can imagine.

Some of India’s odours are still burned into my nostrils

Oh, the smells. Some of India’s odours are still burned into my nostrils. In Madras two of the major train stations are just beside one another. Between them lies a bridge over a canal that is almost as wide as the Seine. It was an open sewer. It was close to 40C when I crossed that bridge. Words cannot do justice to the pungency of the air. On another occasion, a train stopped in a city somewhere in the middle of the country. A smell of sulphur, like intense rotting eggs, hung over the entire town, belched out of a giant factory. Having to breathe that air for the 20 minutes in which we stayed there was physically painful.

Not a nice smell image: McKay Savage (flickr), Chennai


The extreme poverty was emphasised by the strangeness of the culture. When considered from a European point of view, there are many things about the predominantly Hindu culture of India that are extremely weird.

Cow rests in traffic image: Vipal (flickr)

Cows are considered to be sacred. This practice was probably once a sensible evolutionary survival tactic – as it meant that crucial cattle stocks were protected during times of famine. It might even make some sense in contemporary rural India where they have a significant role in providing nutrition. In a city of 10 or 20 million people, it doesn’t make any sense at all. Stray and starving cows roam freely around the city streets. The garbage mountains are dotted with cows grazing on plastic and excrement. Their sacred status is a frequent campaign-theme of the Hindi religious political parties, who use it as a means of emphasising divisions between the majority Hindu community and Muslim minority. Thus, nobody dares be seen to trouble a cow and they wander wherever they like. The main traffic intersections of Delhi, which are already approaching the limits of imaginable chaos, are frequently interrupted by a cow or three deciding to sit down in the middle of the road. The traffic simply moves around them like a river around a rock. On one occasion, I was on a train when a cow boarded it, delaying the departure for half an hour until it decided to lazily stroll off again. Cows are, however, only one minor element of the cultural weirdness.

A very great number of Indian cultural practices that one comes across, from tiny everyday gestures, to massive once-in-a-generation festivals, are different than what one is used to. For example, rather than sitting down, Indians tend to squat on their heels with their bottoms off the ground. In many ways, encountering such cultural differences is the most educational and valuable thing about visiting a country with such alien cultural roots. Until you see somebody doing something in an entirely different way, it is easy to imagine that one’s own cultural norms are just the way that people do things. Nevertheless, the process of discovering that some practice that you had taken for granted as natural throughout your entire life is in fact a more or less arbitrary cultural tradition is disconcerting.

Population Density

The third aspect that I found so unsettling was sheer weight of numbers. This was particularly true of the cities, but even rural parts were far more densely populated than seemed natural. There were people, lots of people, everywhere. Beggars congregated in crowds, 20 or 30 strong, and followed us about wherever we went, tugging at our shirt-sleeves to catch our attention. Every rural lane seemed lined with groups of people, just squatting there doing goodness-knows-what. Even the fields were dotted with idle people.

Inter-personal relationships

All of the above sources of culture shock paled into insignificance in comparison to the really difficult problem of dealing with the locals. In visiting India I was acutely aware of the exploitative nature of the economic relationship between the West and poor countries like India. I was also conscious of the horrible colonial past and the brutality that it was based upon. I further knew that many of the colonialists had awful, racist attitudes towards the locals and had treated them as their inferiors. I was also aware that many Western visitors to the third world took great pains to avoid encountering the locals at close quarters and hid themselves away in luxury tourist enclaves. I was determined not to fall into any of these patterns. I wanted to see the real India – how ordinary people lived. I also wanted to treat the locals with respect, as equals rather than servants. I would try to make a tiny personal atonement for the sins of the colonisers.

This attitude is fairly typical, I think, of well-intentioned first world visitors to the third world. It is a disastrously naïve starting point as it greatly underestimates the importance of economic gulfs in determining interpersonal relationships.

Let me explain.

If you were to find yourself in a situation where you needed a couple of dollars for something really important – for example antibiotics to save the life of your sick child – and you had no means of getting this money, you would probably be fairly preoccupied by that problem. You might even describe yourself as desperate. If you were to then encounter somebody who thinks nothing of paying a couple of dollars extra to buy the fancier cup of coffee, the possibility of that person giving you a couple of dollars would probably dominate your relationship with them.

Given economic desperation on one side and relative economic frivolity on the other, equal inter-personal relationships are scarcely possible.

Given economic desperation on one side and relative economic frivolity on the other, equal inter-personal relationships are scarcely possible. Third world countries such as India have long traditions of economic inequality: great reservoirs of desperation on one side and a relatively small number of wealthy on the other hand. Their cultures have evolved mechanisms for allowing inter-personal relationships to function across these divides. They are not, however, based on equality. Wealthy people accumulate retinues of clients, hangers on and servants dedicated to exceedingly trivial tasks – the gate-opening man, the third gardener’s assistant and so on. The size of one’s retinue is a signifier of cultural status. Pay is often not in terms of wages, but access to food, shelter and occasional gifts in times of particular need. This is a pattern that works in its own limited way, but is abhorrent to those who have grown with more egalitarian norms in societies where few are truly desperate. However, one simply can’t replace it with egalitarianism by force of will.

tourist money exerts a magnetic pull on the desperate

Once a tourist trade has become established and relatively stable in a country with great reservoirs of desperation, tourist money starts to exert a magnetic pull on the desperate. The canny quickly learn to leverage the mismatch between the cultural naivety that well-meaning tourists bring with them and reality of desperation. A cohort of specialists emerges, skilled at using social engineering to lighten tourist wallets. Wherever the naïve tourist goes, they will meet an endless stream of begging hands and earnest entreaties which they lack the capacity to refuse. They will cry out to themselves “but I can’t help you all! Why do you keep on asking?” Under this pressure, I have seen tourists’ attitudes transform within a few weeks can go from “they are so spiritual and non-materialistic” to “they are all thieves and cheats.”

Walking wallets

By far the most traumatic part of my arrival into India was encountering this mismatch in a very personal way. The rickshaw taxi-driver from the airport charged us probably 10 times the going rate. He ignored our directions and brought us to an overpriced hotel way out in the suburbs which charged us 5 times the going rate. The staff of the hotel extracted multiple bottles of whiskey from us and railroaded us into a sequence of visits to carpet shops. Cousins introduced us to their brothers and from there to further cousins. We were repeatedly brought for cups of tea and introduced to social situations which removed our ability to refuse propositions. For 5 days we were moved from shop to restaurant to shop without being able to muster the courage to escape. We were the tender meat at the heart of a pack’s feeding frenzy. We were even on the verge of being sent on a boating tour to Kashmir, a trip which we could not afford. By chance we overheard a radio news bulletin about tourists being massacred by separatists in Kashmir and that gave us the resolve to walk away from the group who had surrounded us since our arrival.

Shanty image: Derek A. Young

Having finally freed ourselves, we took a rickshaw to central Delhi and, hoping to discover a bit of the real India, we stopped to eat at some local food-house in a crowded bazaar. There we met a young man who seemed pleasant and charming. He offered to show us some of the hidden parts of Delhi and invited us for tea in his house. We accepted, and followed him through a maze of winding alleys and back streets. After walking for a few kilometres, we emerged into a clearing that was bisected by a highway. It was poorer and more squalid than anything we had yet seen. Children were squatting, to defecate by the roadside. On the other side of the road a vast shanty-town stretched out before us. Our guide crossed the road, with a death-defying slalom through the chaotic traffic. I went to follow him, but Phil grabbed me and urgently suggested that we should get the hell out of there. As it did not look like there would be an opportunity to cross the road safely, I reluctantly concurred and moved to retreat. However, as I turned to go, I caught sight of our guide’s eager face beckoning us to follow him. I melted – I didn’t want to seem a snob and turn my nose up at his hospitality just because he was unfortunate enough to be poor. Furthermore, I had never seen a shanty town up close and I was curious to see what they looked like inside. Thus, I persuaded Phil to continue and we duly found a gap in the traffic and crossed the road.

We followed our guide into the shanty town, through a sequence of narrow alleys running between the shacks. The dwellings themselves were varied – some were solid constructions of cement or mud, others were simple lean-tos that looked like they could collapse at any time. Eventually we arrived at his simple shelter. He offered us bricks to sit on while he went to get matches to light a fire for the tea. A couple of minutes later, he returned in an agitated state and urgently instructed us to conceal ourselves in the corner behind a sheet.

That was when the police arrived and started beating him.

Indian police image: Sthitaprajna Jena (flickr)

After the beating had continued for a couple of minutes, the commanding officer turned his attention to myself and Phil and started to bark at us. He gestured for two of his underlings to approach. As they walked towards us, brandishing their sticks, sweat poured from my pores. It formed little rivulets on my brow, running into my eyes and dripping off my nose. Partly, the prospect of receiving a beating was to blame. The sweltering heat certainly contributed. But, what made me really nervous was that, in my hand I held a matchbox. When he had ushered us to hide in the corner, the guide had handed it to me. As the policemen approached us with their sticks at the ready, all I could think of was, “why did he give me the matches? And what the fuck is in that box?”

The second part of this story can be found here

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