Hunger and Privilege: Dinner in Old Delhi
Story and photos by Jim Johnston

Travelers exploring the old city of Delhi confront the underbelly of India normally hidden around every corner.

Delhi travel

We'd just squeezed past a herd of goats and were sitting having tea when the corpse went by. The long, thin body, held high on a stretcher, was clearly outlined under its muslin shroud, and dozens of men in white robes and skullcaps followed behind in silent procession. For a moment the chaos of Old Delhi stopped.

In the labyrinth which makes up this part of the city streets are too narrow for cars, but everyone else freely battles their way through: motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, camels, goats, chickens, and pedestrians. It was Friday, the Muslim holy day, so after-prayer shoppers filled the streets. Women haggled over glittery, day-glo outfits that were in stark contrast to the black robes and veils they'd worn to the mosque. Men with turbans chatted at tea stalls and ordered kebabs from street vendors.

My partner Nick and I had travelled around India, and were used to being the "two big white foreigners" in the crowd. In this part of Delhi, however, the usual friendly greetings we'd encountered ("What is your name? What is your country?") were notably absent. No one was unfriendly, but we encountered a few wary looks, and a lot of blank stares. It felt adventurous; we were enjoying a comfortable sense of being "other," the outsiders who'd sneaked into a private party through the back door.


As we wandered further, the lights of the Jama Masjid, Delhi's fabled mosque, could be seen at the end of the street. Suddenly in front of us we saw a group of a few dozen men squatting close to the ground. They were lined up neatly, shoulder to shoulder, in three rows, facing the open kitchen of a small eatery. Young boys wielding long wooden spoons stirred mysterious concoctions in metal pots over open fires. The men on the ground were dressed in rags, bits of cloth and old blankets, and were covered with a uniform layer of dust and grime that made the whole scene look like a sepia photograph from the Depression spliced into the Technicolor background of a Bollywood movie.

We'd seen a similar scenario a few years ago in Gujarat, but at a greater distance, and had made the assumption that they were all waiting for the restaurant to close in order to receive any leftover food.

The men sat quietly, their faces and body language expressing a profound humility. As we passed by, one of them looked up at us, and with a beseeching look on his face, gestured with his hands. He turned his palms upward, then moved both hands together toward his open mouth, and finally turned, his eyes wide with expectation, and pointed to a man sitting at a small wooden table next to the cooking pots.

Delhi signs

We received the first part of his message—"I'm hungry, feed me!"—at once, but it took a few seconds for the final bit to compute.

"Maybe they're waiting for someone to buy them food," Nick suggested.

We went over to the man at the table, and mixing sign language with a few words of English, learned that, indeed, all these men were waiting to be fed.

"Twenty-five rupees per beggar," he told us, using a word that sounded crudely honest to my politically corrected ears.

We did a quick calculation and realized the entire group could be fed for about twelve dollars, so we told the man at the table to buy them all a meal. He signaled to another man in front, who herded the beggars, frantically jumping up as they realized they would eat, into an orderly line.

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