NEW DELHI — “Three things are necessary for a driver: a good horn, good brakes and good luck.”
Mohan Kumar, behind the wheel and forcing a way through the heavy traffic of India’s capital city, doesn’t mention good vision. He stares ahead, and back through his rear-vision mirror. His eyes dart from side to side, watching for and dodging all the vehicles that come ducking and diving and weaving in and out, horns blasting. Cars, buses, trucks, three-wheeler taxis, motorized and pedal bicycles — all jockey for position on Delhi’s thoroughfares.
All are overloaded with people and possessions. Here is a man on a scooter, with a small child in front of him, a sari-clad woman behind him, a baby in her arms and bags hanging and tied on. The scooter proceeds slowly and serenely, and man, woman and children disregard the near misses.
Mohan doesn’t. He sounds the horn furiously, shouts and waves his fist. Every Indian road user needs good sight to read at speed the road signs and advertisements in two languages. A bus ahead has a notice posted at the back: “In case this driver is driving rashly, do inform the principal.” Another requires following traffic to “Use dipper at night.” A third says “Horn. Keep distance.” Painted boldly in white over red stop signs are capital letters that spell “Relax.” Alarmingly, along street verges are stalls piled high with helmets for sale.
Many of the banners over Delhi streets exhort citizens to keep the city green and beautiful. It would be sad if Sir Edwin Lutyen’s imperial plan of expansive wide avenues, shaded by giant trees, lost their good looks.
Delhi keeps the traces of many old kingdoms that from ancient times held sway. Since the 10th century, seven cities have existed here, ruled over in turn by Rajputs, Turks, Afghans, Moguls and the British.
Mohan knows the city inside out, and how to get to all its places of historical, multireligious and vibrantly human interest.
He suggests the old city, where the bazaars of Chandni Chowk evoke Mogul India. He is not really keen on driving through this district, because of the teeming crowds on foot and on wheels, but he has his horn to help him along. At the head of Chandni Chowk stands the magnificent Red Fort, which used to comprise one of the old cities. The grandeur of the 17th and 18th centuries lives on here, where elephants used to carry Mogul princes. You need Mohan and a car to get you around the Red Fort, which is imposing and immense.
Although Delhi distances are formidable, Mohan will not let you miss the drive south to India Gate, and the long vista along Raj Path to the Central Secretariat blocks and Mogul gardens. He will probably suggest a visit to a museum and a gallery, and the spectacular new Baha’i House of Worship, which is built of white marble and shaped like a lotus. Let him know you’re fond of the rare white tiger, and he’ll take you to the zoo. And he may insist, whilst you are nearby, on taking you to Humayun’s Tomb of Mogul architecture, and then to the Qutab complex of buildings, which are examples of early Afghan architecture. The General Conference of UNESCO has declared these monuments to be World Heritage Sites.
“I love driving,” Mohan emphasized. He doesn’t mind waiting, though, if you want to be dropped off somewhere to go walking. Walking is the way to get to grips with life in the streets, which contrasts sharply with life in the green, watered, flower-garden places of holy sites, and of Raj Ghat on the Yamuna River bank, which is sacred to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.
Mohan suggests the Tibetan Market of crowded shops on Janpath, which sell brasses and bronzes and trinkets. Every side street flushes with the color of saris and “pashminas” and cotton shirts, and throbs with the excitement of bargaining shoppers. You go on foot to Central Park and the underground Palika Bazaar for more of the same, and for an up-to-date realization of how modern Delhi is swept with computerization fervor.
Mohan can pick you up again after you have visited a government cottage industries emporium for its crafts, silks and jewelry. Then he can take you to a boutique or specialist shop of your choice, which could be hard to find on your own.
He keeps a notebook in which he has his passengers write comments on their outings with him. He has driven several Japanese visitors around Delhi and on longer cross-country tours. “I love tourism,” he declared. “It is my life.”