John Keay

Urban Underbelly

Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity

By

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Quite a stir was caused in the 1970s when the Begum of Oudh – India’s equivalent of, say, the Duchess of Devonshire – was discovered living in straitened circumstances among the platform dwellers in New Delhi railway station. A gaunt and imposing figure ‘lost in thought’, according to The Hindu newspaper, ‘her dark sari rippling in the breeze and her hair falling just above her shoulders’, she mostly stood, hands on hips, observing the movement of people and trains with devastating indifference. This went on for years. Meals were taken in the station’s refreshment rooms, and when she tired of standing, the VIP lounge might be opened for her. At night she and her two children slept behind a screen of sheets under the watchful eyes of their Dobermann Pinschers. Nervous reporters came and went. The Begum didn’t budge. Nor did she speak often. Her presence was protest enough. 

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