The Labyrinth

Their cautionary warnings ran through my head as we sped through the labyrinth, the hidden maze of backstreets in the expansive metropolis of India’s capital.

Three weeks earlier, my travel companion’s Indian-born parents had advised us: “India is a dangerous place, especially for 20-something girls. Be particularly careful when you’re travelling. There have been an increasing number of taxi rape cases in Delhi in the past year, so just be extremely wary.”

Our journey had begun in the beautifully eclectic town of Panaji, in the northern district of Goa, after which we had experienced the urban vibrancy and colour of Mumbai; explored the romantic ‘lake city’ of Udaipur; ridden camels, met villagers, and camped in the Thar Desert; wondered at the melancholic, crumbling sandstone city of Jaisalmer; and marvelled at the echo within the chamber of the Taj Mahal mausoleum in Agra. Delhi was our final destination.

We had seen an advertisement for a traditional dance performance, which, the poster stated, was held every night of the week. As we left our hotel – our temporary home for 4 or 5 nights – we strolled down the now familiar marketplace, past the recognizable faces of the stallholders selling second-hand books, intricately textured fabrics, or brightly coloured herbs and spices. We passed our favourite places to eat. We had become confident and relaxed in these surroundings.

We made our way toward the railway station, which was located at one end of the market precinct. Like always, the car park was bustling with taxis and newspaper vendors. As we drew nearer, we could see whole families sitting together on the floor just inside the entrance, many of who were undoubtedly waiting for the next carriage that would take them to visit relatives.

The road separating the marketplace and the train station was lined with both auto and cycle rickshaws, and we discreetly examined each driver, trying to ignore the constant calls of “Miss! Miss! Where you going Miss?! I give you best price Miss!”

We finally decided upon a quiet-looking man, perhaps in his early 40s, whose face broke into a charming smile as we approached. I climbed into the elevated seat of the cycle rickshaw (we weren’t in any hurry) while my friend tried to explain in broken Hindi where we needed to go.

When we were all seated, our chauffeur launched us from the curbside into the busy street; the frenetic pace of the city traffic was like the rhythm of a Bollywood classic. The sun had now almost set, and the sky was a deep purple hue tinged with streaks of scarlet.

Without warning, our driver pulled off the crowded road, populated with buses, trucks, taxis, cars, motorbikes, and open-air rickshaws, and we were suddenly enveloped by silence. We had entered Delhi’s backstreets. The city’s tangle of walled alleyways is like an impenetrable maze concealed from the main thoroughfares. Whereas seconds earlier we had been surrounded by chaotic traffic, we were now being peddled through a dark labyrinth of narrow dirt lanes.

Daylight had slipped away completely now, and the dank air of the alley was thick, still, and suffocating. As we cycled on, we sped past groups of men huddled around open fires. The light from the flames made shadows from their forms. Were they waiting expectantly for something? Or did they simply have no place else to go?

This was the industrial side of town, with innumerous warehouses lining our route, and concealing us from the relative safety of public spaces. We were cut off from the sights and sounds of the bustling city, and it dawned on me that the sight and sound of us was therefore also obscured from the wider world.

As we approached another group of men, our driver’s pace slowed. Awful scenarios ran through my head, and I looked at my friend, whose face mirrored the fear I felt. Did he have a lair where he brought young girls for his ‘pack?’ Was he being manipulated by a higher authority?

We had now stopped completely, and our driver was conversing with the men. But he only asked for directions, and his hard-working legs were peddling again after only a few quick words were exchanged.

We turned a sharp corner and were suddenly back on the main highway. In our anxious state, we were blinded by the lights, and deafened by the screeching sounds of the traffic. But at least we had emerged from the labyrinth.

C Day

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