City Archives – Delhi Belly, Around Town
[Digging out old stories from The Delhi Walla]
Messy, smelly and non-stop, Jane Austen would have described it as a continual state of inelegance. Delhi’s biggest embarrassment, it is also the title of a Bollywood film. The phrase Delhi Belly, according to the Hanklyn-Janklin dictionary, is “a stomach disorder sometimes afflicting newcomers to the capital”. Infectious amoebic agents such as Entamoeba histolytica enter the body, the intestine reacts and throws out all infection through frequent motions.
It’s not Al Qaeda, but Americans take Delhi Belly seriously. According to a US diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity since he is not authorized to share this information, his embassy in New Delhi maintains a laboratory devoted to testing for germs and diseases such as Delhi Belly. Embassy staff often arrive at the office carrying small brown bags that have jars with “poop” samples to be tested at the lab.
Delhi Belly is not the world’s only “traveller’s diarrhoea”. There’s a limerick to be composed from the colourfully named loosies that dot the world’s tourist traps: Turkey trots, Montezuma’s revenge, Casablanca crud, Malta dog, Singapore shakes, Aden gut, Gyppy tummy, Rangoon runs, Kathmandu quickstep, Greek gallop, Hong Kong dogs and Trotsky’s. Strangely, it is Delhi that has captured the global imagination when it comes to vomit, runs and cramps.
In his book Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story, the guidebook series founder Tony Wheeler writes about eating something that “violently disagreed” with him. He blamed Delhi Belly, but hold on: It happened in Iran, on the road between Esfahan and Tehran, miles away from India. Similarly, the Bradt guide on Macedonia advises its readers that while in Macedonia, “if you are prone to a bit of Delhi Belly, bring some suitable medication with you from home”. And Macedonia is in the Balkans. This is the respect that the world has given to a city that boasts of a toilet museum.
“The perils of Delhi Belly are exaggerated,” says Ranjana Sengupta, the author of Delhi Metropolitan. “For purely fortuitous alliterative reasons, Delhi has been awarded this undeserved reputation. An E. coli outbreak has occurred in Germany. Will future guidebooks carry dark warnings about Berlin Belly? I doubt it.”
Rubbing salt in the wound, the international travel guides to India never warn of a Mumbai Belly. “It could be because Delhi rhymes with belly,” says author Pradip Krishen.
There is no record of the phrase’s first appearance. The section on diseases in A Gazetteer of Delhi 1883-84 mentions Delhi Boil, not Delhi Belly. “The term first appeared in the summer of 1857,” claims RV Smith, author of several books on the city. “The Indian mutineers had taken over the capital and the British were encamped on the Ridge where many of them were incapacitated due to upset tummies. It was they who coined the term Delhi Belly.”
That’s not the final word. “I would give the credit to a different set of soldiers – the American GIs posted in Delhi during World War II, whose non-combat duties gave them plenty of time to dine and drink around Connaught Place,” says Raghu Karnad, (former) editor, Time Out Delhi. “They also published army newspapers, like the CBI Roundup, which gave fair coverage to “what the waggish Queensway literati [i.e. themselves] have affectionately named the ‘Delhi Belly’” (CBI Roundup, Dec 3, 1943). The Roundup of September 24, 1942 records that the US Armed Forces hospital that opened in Delhi was mainly occupied with treating 43 cases of Delhi Belly. Mock-defending the rigours of life in a rear-echelon HQ, the issue of April 12, 1945 explains that “latrine-trotting by GIs with the ‘G.I.s’ is a highly developed art”. Nationalists will be glad to know that Pakistan’s Karachi, the troops’ entry-point to this theatre of the War, was also cursed with ‘Karachi Krud’, although that doesn’t seem to have stuck.”
More then 20 years after the WWII, then US president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger made his career’s great diplomatic gamble, with some help from Delhi’s infamous syndrome. In 1971, he went to Islamabad, where he pretended to be down with Delhi Belly that required him to recover at a Pakistani resort. In truth, he secretly flew to meet Chinese leaders in Beijing, paving the way for Nixon’s historic summit with Mao Zedong.
Click here to read the rest of this article originally published on The Delhi Walla in June 2011.