Neon Nights in Paharganj

Copyright Simon Bonneau.

Fresh off the plane at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi and on route to our hotel, the taxi driver stops the vehicle in the middle of an industrial wasteland. Men stand around a fire burning in an old drum. Stray dogs lurk in the flickering light. Just when we think we have been abandoned to be robbed, the driver returns, smiles apologetically and tells us he was asking for directions.

We eventually arrive in the neon-lit streets of Paharganj and see the sign for our hotel, burning brightly in green, topped with a crown – the Yuvraj. We check in and find our room decent enough for the price we’ve paid. Through my fitful night’s sleep, I am aware of a truly frightening sound coming from the street below: animals, cats most likely, mewling loudly. I try not to think about why they would be making such a noise and drift off back to sleep.

By day and shed of its lurid neon lights, the area seems friendlier. We check out the nearby bazar and I find myself battling a creeping feeling of claustrophobia as we funnel down the narrow alleyways, cheek to jowl with the other shoppers and the occasional cow.

Unbeknown to me, a man walks behind me and slowly unzips my backpack, a little at a time, in an impressively patient and light-handed attempt at robbery. He reaches into it but, at the final moment, is yelled at by a passer-by keen to keep intact what remains of the area’s reputation.

It is only later that we learn that many tourists no longer stay in Paharganj and now prefer the newer, safer hotels located in South Delhi.