Indian Summer: Finding an escape and solace in a New Delhi park (w/gallery)

Published: July 3, 2014

India: A City's Backyard

Picture 1 of 9

In this Monday, June 30, 2014 photo, a vendor selling candy floss walks towards a group of customers settled down on the lawns of India Gate park in New Delhi, India. With temperatures reaching 100 degrees every day, India Gate, the colonial park in the center of New Delhi is a temperate escape for the middle-class and working-class - the kind of people who don't have their own backyards, and can't afford air-conditioners and generators during power blackouts. It's a safe place for families to gather, to picnic, to buy balloons and pink cotton candy and watch dancing monkeys. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das) ORG XMIT: IACB106

TIM SULLIVAN
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW DELHI — Along Mansingh Road, dozens of ice cream carts glow brightly in the night, their battery-powered fluorescent lights calling out for customers.

Do you want a Smacko chocolate cone? A Strawberry Jiggly Jelly? An Orange Mahabar? A Delighto?

They’re all here, packed into carts that the ice cream men have pushed through various New Delhi neighbourhoods during the heat of the day, finally converging as the sun falls at this century-old park at the ceremonial heart of the capital.

The ice cream is cheap. Most cost 35 rupees or less. That’s just 60 cents, inexpensive enough so that even the thousands who gather here can afford a couple for the kids.

On a hot summer night, 10,000 people can come to India Gate park, named for the ceremonial arch that honours the Indian soldiers who died in World War I.

Families carry sheets to spread on the lawns. They bring picnics with a half-dozen courses packed into plastic and metal containers. Children play badminton, chase each other on the grass, beg for cotton candy or balloons. Young couples, escaping the relentless watch of extended families, find privacy in the crowds.

They stay for hours. Often, there are traffic jams — horns-blaring-drivers-going-the-wrong-way-traffic-jams — long after rush hour has ended. The crowds are still at the park at 10 p.m. They are here at 11. Sometimes they stay long after midnight, children playing as their parents lie back on the lawns.

Particularly in the summer, when India Gate is a solace and an escape, this is the city’s backyard.

For the most part, though, it’s not a rich crowd.

Around here, the handful of Range Rovers and Audis trolling for parking spaces are outnumbered by the endless cheap Marutis. And the Marutis are outnumbered by motorized rickshaws for those without cars.

Rich people have air conditioning at home, and generators or backup batteries for when the electricity goes out. They live in neighbourhoods with green spaces. They can afford the city’s increasing numbers of high-end restaurants, or at least the food courts at the malls.

While pretty much everyone in New Delhi comes to India Gate at some point, the rich don’t need it the way most of this city does.

There are nearly 17 million people in New Delhi, most living in cramped concrete apartments in cramped concrete neighbourhoods, places where trees are rarities and parks are often reduced to dirt and garbage. In the summer, when 100-degree days are normal, the heat indoors is choking.

So in the evenings, thoughts in these neighbourhoods often turn to India Gate, where the breeze blows across the grass and there’s always something interesting to watch.

Ravi Pandit came to New Delhi when he was 15 years old, arriving from a poverty-battered village in far-away Bihar. Through friends, he found work selling cheap trinkets at India Gate. These days, his offerings include toy light-up eyeglasses, red devil horns and plastic helicopters with tiny blue lights that you shoot into the air with a rubber band, and which flutter back to earth like dancing blue fireflies.

He’s 25 now, with a wife back in Bihar who he visits once a year. In New Delhi, he shares a kitchen-sized, one-room apartment with three other men. The bathroom is down the hall.

On a good summer night — one of those relentlessly hot nights when the crowds turn out in force — he can make a 300-rupee profit, about $5. It’s not a bad living, he says. The work is certainly better than sitting at home.

He gestures around him: “At least here there is fresh air, and there is always someone to talk to.”

08:18ET 03-07-14

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