Around the world in 52 suburbs: New Delhi

Armed with her camera and a bottle of hand disinfectant, Louise Hawson looks beyond the squalor to find joy and beauty in New Delhi. The Indian capital was the Sydney photographer’s second stop in her "52 Suburbs Around the World" series.

Ah, India. The last time I visited was 13 years ago, on my way to New York to make an independent documentary. I wanted something colourful and chaotic before I settled down to work and a New York winter, and that’s exactly what I got.

This glowing memory inspired me to make India stop number two in my current photographic project, 52 Suburbs Around the World, in which I ignore the postcard clichés in favour of “ordinary” beauty. But unlike 13 years ago, this time I’d be staying put for the entire month in New Delhi, a place that most travellers tend to just overnight in on their way to exotic Rajasthan or the serene south.

It didn’t take long to work out why, and I spent the first few days here wondering how soon we could leave, turned off by a level of filth and congestion that I hadn’t bargained for. But I was somewhat committed - we’d also come to Delhi because my daughter’s father lives here and I wanted her to spend time with him.

So there was nothing for it but to arm myself with a super-sized bottle of hand disinfectant and start exploring.

In week one I headed to a neighbourhood called Nizamuddin West, a poor Muslim “urban village” that has grown around the shrine of a famous Sufi saint.

Every day was hard going. But as time passed I noticed the smell of urine less and the scent of rose more. I started to see beyond the squalor and appreciate the little bits of beauty. And the kids, thank God for the kids. “Missee, you take my picture!” they’d all call, beaming and jostling for a place in front of my camera. I may never go back to Nizamuddin West but I can honestly say I’m glad I went.

In week two, I visited a larger, sprawling area in Delhi called Lodhi where I stumbled across a big annual celebration called rath yatra for those who follow the Jain religion. A loud, clanging band marched around for a few hours, followed by a procession of Jain devotees, who stopped from time to time to allow one of the women in the crowd to dance madly before the beloved Jain Tirthankara. It was uplifting and crazy and wonderful.

In week three my newfound good feelings about the place quickly evaporated when I chose to explore and photograph an area called Lajpat Nagar. It was a dump, albeit a dump that I was told had the best market in Delhi and I was curious to see where Delhiites go to shop.

Meh, the markets were average. But the one thing I did love about them is the talented mehendi or henna artists. For 200 rupees, roughly $4, you can transform your hands and feet into works of art, albeit temporary ones. I went back time and time again just to witness their skill and finally to be drawn on myself.

I also enjoyed finding out about the “Matrimonial Service” provided by a local Hindu temple in Lajpat Nagar. Those seeking a spouse fill out a form, stipulating their caste and whether there is “any defect in any part of body” amongst other things, and they’re then placed in certain files: Professional Women, Business Boys and my favourite, “Homely Girls”. Then hopefully your perfect match wanders in, sees your file and hey presto, wedding bells all round.

This week, my fourth and final in Delhi, I headed west to Tilak Nagar where I joined a Sikh Indian wedding party that had me dancing madly in the streets. It was a hoot not to mention beautiful and fascinating.

I also met a delightful Sikh teenager called Paras while I was in Tilak Nagar, a bright, bubbly boy who was full of cheek and charm. And because he and his cousin spoke such excellent English, I was able to quiz him about all things Sikh.

And that was India. I have loved it and hated it, often at the same time. Tomorrow I jump on a plane bound for Istanbul, our next stop on this year-long project. I’ll be flying solo as Coco, my daughter, will stay with her dad for two more weeks before joining me. While I’m kind of relishing the opportunity to be on my own, I miss her already. A final paradox in this ultimate land of paradoxes.

Namaste and see you in a month’s time.

Follow Louise and Coco weekly at www.52suburbs.com and read her next instalment here on March 30.

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