Laundry in Layers | Paharganj, Delhi, India
"Where are you staying in Delhi?" a Connaught Place travel agent asked me on one of our first days in India. Connaught Place (not pictured) is the epicenter of cons and scams in Delhi, an area where a person will literally fling shit onto your shoes so that his partner in crime can earn money cleaning it off.
"Paharganj," I answered while wondering how I managed to get roped into a conversation with a person that I knew would tell me any lie he could think of to part me from my money.
"Oh. You're staying in the slum," he replied, making no effort to conceal the contempt in his voice. He had my attention now.
"I love it there," I responded. It was the truth.
"You just like it because it is different than what you're used to," he argued. The term 'different' seemed like an understatement but I can't deny there was some truth to what he was saying.
Our brief exchange about Paharganj stuck with me. "Is Paharganj really a slum?" I asked our rickshaw driver. He lived there.
"Yes," he answered matter-of-factly.
I don't know how I would have defined the term "slum" prior to this conversation but, for me, it definitely evoked the mental image of a dangerous shantytown to be avoided at all cost. Paharganj was nothing like this. It was vibrant and alive, full of hard working people who were hustling to make ends meet. While we always felt conspicuous, none of us ever felt unsafe. Smiling children in school uniforms waved as they walked by. Grown men approached with sheepish grins to ask to have their pictures taken. Others casually wandered into my frame and paused, hoping to insert themselves into my composition without having to ask. One group of teenage boys followed me as I wandered around. "Did you get lost on the way to the mall?" one of them asked mockingly. I laughed. Then they all laughed. Paharganj—frenetic, intense, curious, joyful—was more interesting than any of the great monuments that make up the list of Top Ten Things to See in Delhi.
©2017 Timothy Linn
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