Within hours of finding a seedy hotel on Paharganj, Friday morning at six-thirty after eleven hours by sleeper bus from Pushkar, I knew my biggest mistake of this trip was not allowing more time in Delhi. A couple of hours sleep and I was hiking over to the Lord Krishna cafe on Main Bazaar. Two stiff coffees and then down to Ramakrishna Ashram Marg station for a three day tourist ticket: said purchase a tale in its own right but one that’ll have to wait, as will the bigger post Delhi merits, alongside or as part of an overarching reflection on my 2016 visit to this the most fascinating country – and by quite a stretch – I’ve ever visited.
Most vibrantly chaotic of all is Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. T’was here I arrived in late autumn 1974, after recuperating from too hurried a dash across Western Asia by holing up for several weeks in lovely – and even then troubled – Srinigar, Kashmir. All the hippies came to Old Delhi, likely as not to the Crown Hotel where for fifteen pence you got a mattress in a dorm with bugs free of charge, a bucket of hot water for another five pence and wifi so crap you’d think it hadn’t yet been invented. Though I’ve found myself in Delhi a few times since it’s always been en route to some place else, like Rishikesh to get enlightened, and in any case New Delhi. Backpackers no longer come to Old Delhi. It’s too scruffily chaotic. God knows, Paharganj is no Pimlico – it makes Bangkok’s Khe San Road a model of spotless order – but considered at side of Chandni Chowk or Chawry Bazaar it’s, well, Pimlico.
My gain. Whereas forty years ago there were plenty of white, stoned faces on Chandni Chowk, in some ten hours over two visits yesterday and the day before, I saw just three westerners. One, a young Dutch woman travelling solo – rarer nowadays than in the seventies – had the deep tan of one who’s been here months. We chatted over chai malai at a tea stall. At first she was frosty in that way westerners – for reasons I’ll explore some time – can be to one another out east, but I kept at it and was rewarded by a half hour of pleasant interchange as, hauteur melting, she toked her way through half a pack of bidis.
The other two were also female, on a cycle rickshaw at a T-junction where Chawry Bazaar meets a lane arcing out the most frenzied mile in the history of highway anarchy to Chandni Chowk. I returned over and over to this spot, which blocked up every few minutes like a defective drain, prompting burly office sahibs on the verge of cardiac arrest to descend from hired rickshaws as self deputised traffic cops, often as not in competition with others who for all I knew outranked them on caste. Great fun. At one such moment these two women, stuck in the jam’s epicentre and inadequately shaded in the fireball heat, looked stunned and appalled. As so often, a Dylan line popped into my head: “and someone says you’re in the wrong place my friend; you’d better leave”.
I got a cracking shot of that moment but, with some reluctance, deleted it as breaching my rule not to keep pictures of folk – and I see no reason to exempt fellow westerners – in situations I wouldn’t want to be photographed.
But the absence of whitey was just ace for me in street snapper mode. Old Delhi, and to lesser degree New Dehli too, is daunting for its size and chaos – amplified by the fierce heat of course – yet remarkably courteous and friendly. As in Vietnam’s Hai Phong, large Asian cities, or parts thereof, that few westerners visit are usually respectful, lending a degree of invisibility vital to street photography, yet welcoming the moment you catch someone’s eye. There are times out east, India in particular, where I’ve felt utterly desolate: a deep and existential despair beyond the everyday downers part and parcel of being alive. They’re short-lived, these moments, and a big part of being a traveller is recognising that for all their downward pull they’ll pass. But then there are moments – their frequency and strength also greater in India, psychically charged like nowhere else on the planet – of profound and extraordinary wellbeing. Negotiating the chaos of Chandni Chowk – as well as the mystery, the unimagined peace and beauty, the ethereal light and sudden bursts of joy and playfulness in its warrens of back alleys – I was bathed in wave on wave of that wellness of being. I don’t suppose my images do much to convey my transcendant state as I roamed freely, Julian of Norwich in my head with her call ringing down the ages that All is Well and All is Well and All is Well. But they’re the best I can offer and will have to do.
On a more prosaic note – I’m speaking to shutter geeks here – it’s my normal practise, even with street photography where instant composition and reaction are of the essence, to shoot in manual mode. I want absolute control over all three exposure variables: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. I’ve been using the same Canon 7D for almost seven years now, albeit with ever pricier lenses, so am quick at adjusting these three. But Chandni Chowk is just too much – too much shifting contrast of light and shade … too much sudden movement playing havoc not only with focusing but metering too. One second you’re overexposing (my preference when, for reasons technical, it leaves more info to play with at the computer) while the next a passing bullock cart plunges available light down four stops or more.
I switched to shutter priority, setting a sprightly 1/400th and leaving it to the chip on my camera to find an appropriate aperture. Street snappery has a high ratio of duff to keeper shots but my keeper rate soared. Then I switched to aperture priority at f/5.6, letting the camera determine shutter speed, for control over depth of field and focus. The only variable I was now adjusting shot to shot was ISO, due to that vast differential between harshly sunlit Chandni Chowk, and the penumbral alleys and ginnels branching off in all directions. When it all comes together – a moment packed with implied ‘story’ caught in an image pin sharp in all the right places, softly unfocused elsewhere – it’s just fabulous. Then there are images where story and drama are so strong, in your eyes at least, that though technically below par you can’t bring yourself to ditch them. There are more than a few of those here. Sorry, but not very …