City Landmark – Backpackers’ Hostel, Paharganj
The pre-pandemic scrawls.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The white walls are covered with handwritten scrawls in Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch, French, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Thai, Italian, and English. There are drawings too — a woman’s face, a Turkish darvesh, a peaceful tiger, a mermaid with Medusa-like hair, an auto (in its customary green), a map of Canada, a man with tree roots as his torso.
This is the small, dimly lit lobby of a backpackers’ hostel in Paharganj. The sights on the walls are the souvenirs of the many travellers who have passed through it over the years. Among the budget hotels of Paharganj, this hostel — its entrance is so unremarkable that nobody might notice it unless one is actively looking for it — is a dormitory filled with bunk beds (laundry service provided). The hostel has been empty of foreigners since the coronavirus pandemic hit the world early last year, and India stopped giving tourist visas. There’s no Indian guest either for the moment.
This afternoon, reading the scrawls on the wall produces awe, as if one had encountered the remains of a vanished civilisation. Some are messages from one traveller to another, some are attestations of love for India, some travellers just wrote down their names to immortalise their fleeting presence, and some just don’t make any sense. There’s also a poem by Emily Dickinson.
Frankly, most lines have the sort of wisdom available on the backs of the painted trucks that roar down the Delhi-Jaipur highway. Even so, these handwritten words must be recorded to commemorate Paharganj’s recent past. In today’s difficult times, there’s no knowing of the future of such a place. And the owner, who doesn’t wish himself and his property to be identified, is planning to repaint these walls. Here’s a very brief selection from the many scrawls in English. Read and weep.
“I take India in my skin”
“Sakoora, you my one and only”
“The future is female”
“That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet—Emily Dickinson”
“Thank you for asking DuDu for me to train station”
“I love you India…don’t ever change!!!—Mara, Canada”
“This too shall pass”
“Don’t think, just go”
“Forever in my heart—Elly”
“After three weeks in India, things to say:
Don’t worry, be happy
No hurry, no worry
No chicken, no curry”
“I love Waseem!”
“Go travel now!
—from Julio in Texas”
“Shall we move?”
“Rancho Poiema was here”