Delhi Dispatches: The Delhi Festival Season (Part I)

by October 30, 2009 at 4:00 am 1,399 1 Comment


Located in northern India, the Delhi metro area has 16 million people, second to Mumbai in India, and the eighth largest in the world. (Image:

Editor’s note: “Popeye” is a new contributor to Borderstan and is posting “Delhi Dispatches,”  periodic reports on life in Delhi, India. He and his wife, “Olive Oyl,” are former Borderstanians, neighbors and friends of ours. They  moved to India almost two years ago (Olive Oyl is originally from India) and are the proud new parents of a baby girl, “Swee’Pea.” No, these are not their real names, but there are lots of strange people out there and Popeye asked that we use pseudonyms.

Delhi Dispatch 3: October 30

Trying to put the following into words will be difficult, but here goes. The other night I went over to a friend’s house for dinner. Before starting to cook, we decided to go and check out this night festival, followed by dinner at another friend’s place… very close to where this festival was taking place.

As luck would have it, these simple plans held far more in store for us.

The festival was the phool walon ki sair–procession of the florists– and it was unlike any festival I had ever been to. No big surprise there.

What was surprising was how eerily similar it was to something you might see in a strange B-grade horror film: sort of like a carnival set in a rural American town back in the early 20th century–or what I would imagine what one would look like anyway.

It was much more crowded of course, with people seemingly setting up stands anywhere they pleased, along with loads of extremely unsafe rides and equipment. There were ferris wheels, big and small, and assorted other attractions all around.

The kingpin of them all being something called the “well of death.” It was a 40-foot structure, well made out of old steel rods and planks of wood. Its walls were angled just enough to allow a speeding car and a few old motorcycles to drive all the way up and around its sides without crashing back down to earth.

Adding to the charm was the plain-clothed MC standing on a stage next to the entrance, encouraging people to pay the entrance fee. Next to him was a guy sitting on a motorcycle… just revving the motor (conceivably to entice people, though I’m sure he scared away as many people as he attracted).

As for the show, once you climbed to the top of this thing, several guys on motorcycles and in small cars sped around, all the way up the sides. No hands (or helmets), legs flying out, the car drivers sticking their bodies outside of the windows of the cars–feet on the steering wheels, etc.

I was quite impressed/relieved that this rickety structure could support this mayhem. The crowd was interesting as well. Many of the people were women dressed in saris who, like me, were making themselves dizzy watching these guys go round and round. Everyone was waiting to see which guy could pull off the craziest stunt.

This went on for about 10 minutes or so–well worth the 20 rupees (about 45 cents) entrance fee. At the end of it all, no one was even injured let alone killed. Yes, I say that in a good way.

This was about enough of the carnival for my friends and me. Our heads still spinning we started walking to our friend’s place for dinner. Just outside the entrance to the carnival was a path/retaining wall that led to our friend’s apartment complex.

It turned out that this retaining wall was for an old rainwater harvesting reservoir, the Hauz-i-Shamsi, dating back to the 13th century. On the opposite side of the reservoir was a palace, the Jahaz Mahal, dating back to about the same time. There was a packed concert taking place inside the palace.

When we got to our friend’s place I planted myself on the back balcony overlooking the scene. It was majestic; the lit-up palace and concert were on my left and the reservoir directly in front of me. The lights from the carnival reflected off the water with the silhouettes of a few scattered ducks waddling about in the water.

For the entire time, up until this point, I was experiencing a strange (not to be confused with “bad”) sensation. I’m not sure exactly how to describe this, but I will go with a combination of nervous excitement, uneasiness, euphoria, fascination–but something more. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was until I was standing on the balcony taking this whole scene in.

What I was seeing and feeling felt something like a vivid dream from my childhood, which I still remembered after all these years; something I had seen or experienced before even though I had never seen or read of anything that remotely resembled this.

However, in spite of this “familiarity,” the only thing that really felt out of place was me, which I guess explains the slightly uneasy feeling I was having. As I said, though, it wasn’t a bad feeling I was having. So, uneasy isn’t the right word. Perhaps it was like an extended de ja vu?

Anyway, I proceeded to have a few drinks to take the edge off and help everything sink in, which worked. Overall, it was a very well-spent four hours of my life… a truly invigorating experience.

Once again, Delhi dazzled me with the completely unexpected. I’ve tried to share it with you, but hopefully you’ll have a chance to experience it for yourself some day.


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