New Delhi, India: The city of a hundred thousand smells

International Development Editor Luke Maishman spent his summer teaching in Delhi. In this extract from his first email home, he describes his first impressions of the city.

International Development Editor Luke Maishman spent his summer teaching in Delhi. In this extract from his first email home, he describes his first impressions of the city.

As the Virgin Atlantic flight touched down in Delhi Airport on Friday morning I could not possibly have imagined the strange, wonderful and disgusting things that I have seen so far in Delhi. The flight was uneventful – a film, two surprisingly good meals and a glass of red wine (with dinner), several hours of trying to get to sleep and about twenty minutes of actual sleep saw me through the seven, or so, hours’ journey.

Shortly after touchdown we had our first experience of Indian bureaucracy when a few other Suas volunteers tried to buy local network simcards for their phones. About 45 minutes and five or six signatures, 2 passport photos, their passports and a copy of the letter from Prayas inviting them to India later the exhausted volunteers received their new simcards and we all left the airport by private coach to our new home from home. We are staying in guest accommodation in Jamia Hamdard University, a Muslim university. The campus is large and green in a wild and unkept kind of way, but it is thankfully peaceful compared to the Indian roads, streets and markets. There are tennis courts, small and helpful stall-like shops (a far cry from the poverty stricken roadside stalls), a couple of playing fields and several large red, not particularly beautiful but nonetheless authentic Indian looking buildings with names like “Faculty of Allied Sciences” and “Faculty of Medicine”.

The students that we have met have been intelligent and have near perfect English. Our accommodation itself is acceptable. We have several toilets, including two western-style toilets (most here are of the hole in the ground, crouch over it variety) and enough rooms to be sharing only two or three per room. We also have a living room and kitchen (no cooking facilities though). The only downside has been our guests, at least one mouse/rat has made an appearance several times and the geckos hardly bother to hide.

Not so worried about the geckos but because of health concerns and the screaming when one of the girls sees “Mickey” (we have convinced ourselves he is a mouse, despite his size) we have started putting down poison.

The roads are crazy. There is no way of doing them justice in mere text. There are motorbikes everywhere! Possibly the most agile road vehicle, they are perfectly adapted to the frantic, every man for himself, beeping, lane-less, overtaking, 20 centimetre gaps between vehicles madness that is the roads here. On that first trip we saw a motorbike with a male driver, a child in front of him, his wife behind and another child on her lap. We also saw buses so packed that not even one more person standing could fit in, the doors open and those men closest to the door practically leaning out (and it is generally only men on the buses, a sign of India’s highly patriachal society). We saw a car driving along in traffic in which both the passenger and the driver were reading books on their laps, and cows, cows on all of the central road divides, cows wandering relaxedly out into the stream of moving traffic causing a pandemonium of swerving and beeping.

It is hard to imagine how so many people can live so close together in anything approaching reasonable conditions.

Yes the roads are quite something, and even more than the mad traffic, which one gets used to surprisingly quickly, are the things we see and smell from the roads on our many short journeys through New Delhi. There is rubbish all over the place, merging almost seamlessly with the roadside slum-like dwellings and the multitude of stalls that line any street outside the rich areas of the city. The smell of excrement is everywhere, from the doings of the cows, the roadside dwellings (some volunteers have seen children hunkered down, going to the toilet on the street!). As one rides a rickshaw the smells come in waves, first maybe manure, then a stench of definitely human doings from some roadside makeshift tents, then perhaps the scent of spices and a waft of frying from some of the roadside stalls, then the all pervasive smell of decomposing rubbish from the piles of plastic, food and who knows what else waste that line almost all the roads and are a constant underfoot feature of the markets and smaller streets.

 There are people everywhere. Sleeping at the roadside, passed out on a bus stop bench, walking on the roads (more often than not carrying some exhaustingly heavy looking load), begging in the market-places, sitting around or in the market-stalls or shops. Indeed overstaffing is a feature of the shops here, as if the owners ask themselves “Why have only one stall-seller/shopkeeper when five can take turns at advising/ helping/advertising/haggling?!”

On a more serious note, it is hard to imagine how so many people can live so close together in anything approaching reasonable conditions. The frantic, crowded streets with the medley of stalls, the rubbish everywhere and the ever-present smell of excrement can hardly be described as pleasant working conditions. As for homes, I think that the roadside “tents” erected outside the Jamia Hamdard campus and along other major roads are far from being the worst of it.

In sharp contrast to the poverty that we see all around us are the lives of the rich middle and upper classes. The western-style restaurants have been a lifesaver for us when the local food got a bit much but a closer examination of the richer lifestyle reveals some harder to swallow realities: There are “clubs” of picturesque middle class houses with beautiful and above all clean gardens in estates surrounded by a tall perimeter wall and guards on the gates. Rubbish, people, manure, stalls and makeshift tents pile up metres from the wall.

One night in a richer market place we were reduced to open-mouthed shock when a beggar-girl, between eight and twelve I’d guess, with messy, dirty tousled hair and wearing a brown rag, who had previously been pestering us, approached a wealthy looking business man. The man promptly whacked her across the head, sending her reeling across the street, before continuing along the street, not seeming in the least concerned. 

It is now Thursday afternoon and we met our children this morning. Roisin and I will be helping Sangeeta, a very short, young looking lady (“she looks about twelve!” in the words of one volunteer) every weekday morning in a tiny, approximately 3 metre by 3 metre basement room in a street just across the main road from Jamia Hamdard University. Sangeeta does not have very good English and she seems to be really quite shy of us. As a result the morning was fraught with a continuous sense of not knowing what we should be doing.

I had to think long and hard to be able to grade the pupils. Whipping out the old phone calculator just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.

After arriving and greeting the children (mad rush for attention from the children, all smiling and desperate to shake our hands with the memorised “Hello!” on their lips) we were able to introduce ourselves properly using the Hindi we had frantically learnt over the last few days. After a quick round of ring-a-ring-a-rosy to cement our good relationship with the children we sat down and observed the way Sangeeta ran the class. Each child has one copy book and a pencil given to them by Prayas and during class a constant stream of children came up to us with pages of the alphabet or numbers written out, or in one slightly older girl’s copy book long multiplication sums difficult enough that I had to think long and hard to be able to mark them! Whipping out the old phone calculator just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.

After the children had left [we each had to shake hands and say “namaste!” (hello) to each of the 14 children] we had a quick discussion with the teacher of the room next door to ours (also 4m x 4m) where two other Suas volunteers, Alex and Jean, are teaching assistants. Their teacher has much better English and she explained a little more about how the classes are organised and answered our few questions. Another example of a breakdown in communication arose – it seems that our schools start at eight, which is when Sangeeta and the other teacher want us to arrive; not at the later time of 9.30 which Suas had been told since the beginning and had planned quite extensively around. Ah well, this is India I guess.

For more information on SUAS or to volunteer on their program this summer go to