Category Archives: Delhi

Mouldering Might: the Fallen Cities of Delhi

I remember Rome and meditate on mausoleums, get lost in the Middle Ages, find myself in Paradise and reflect on ancient poems.

Delhi has been called a “City of Cities”.  It’s like an old house with multiple layers of wallpaper peeling off to reveal past generations or, in Hindu terms, former reincarnations.  At least 8 cities have been built here over 3000 years. The map is dotted with ruined gates and palaces and tombs from ancient empires, like a city-sized graveyard.  William Dalrymple wrote in City Of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, “Though it has been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt, each time rising like a phoenix from the fire.”

purana-qila-ruinsDelhi is also called the “Rome of the East”, and I’ve often noticed the resemblance.  As I roam a labyrinth of narrow market streets, I’ll turn a corner and find a decorated gateway or latticed window from a once-elegant haveli, the mansion of a merchant or noble.  Now flagstones are cracked and façade discoloured.  Plaster reliefs flake off to reveal the brick beneath and the edifice is half hidden behind grimy signs, cobwebs of wiring, bamboo scaffolding or washing.  As India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said:

Delhi is the symbol of old India and new…  Even the stones here whisper to our ears of the ages of long ago and the air we breathe is full of the dust and fragrances of the past, as also of the fresh and piercing winds of the present.

The Delhi Metro Museum described Delhi’s deepest station as a “Time Machine”.  From an air-conditioned underground platform you ascend 20m to emerge in the Chawri Chowk market where, bar vehicle motors and horns and electric lighting, the vibe has changed little in centuries.  Unlike Europe’s old city walls, Delhi’s former battlements still overlook peasants herding cattle and selling farm produce much as in the Middle Ages.  In the courtyard of one old mosque I entered, the hands had fallen off the entrance gate clock.

qutb-minar-delhiThree spots where I warped back in time are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The Qutb Minar is a 73-metre stone tower – short of the 93m Statue of Liberty – begun by an invader in 1193 A.D. and leaning much less than Pisa’s 56m Tower.  The fluted minarette tapers skyward through five balconies – like a collapsing telescope said one writer – with alternating bands of red sandstone, white marble, abstract carving and Koranic inscriptions.

At its base is the oldest mosque in India, constructed on top of a Hindu temple and named “The Might/Triumph of Islam”.  An inscription boasts it was built with the materials of “27 idolatrous temples”; Hindu figures on the columns have been de-faced.  It’s now less mightily triumphant.  Chattering school classes on cultural outings file through its weathered courtyards where the roof has fallen in, and tourists frame shots of the tower through crumbling arches.  Nearby is a 27m pile of rubble: all that remains of a failed attempt in 1316 to build a tower twice as high.  The echoes in Delhi go back to Babel.

Touts are the worst at tourist traps and the Taj Mahal is probably the worst of all, so I’m giving it a miss this trip.  I saw its 16th-century precursor here in Delhi.  While the Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, the tomb of the emperor Humayan was built by his grieving widow.  It has a graceful white dome over multi-arched storeys of – once again – white marble and red sandstone.  Inside is a stone sarcophagus in a cool, echoing chamber, the floor dappled with sunlight through lattice grills.  It’s surrounded by a symmetrical grid of fountains and water channels reflecting the tomb, landscaped gardens and palm trees.  A peaceful spot at dusk that I enjoyed at leisure.  I doubt the Taj experience would be as serene.

humayuns-tomb-delhiRumours of lost empires are whispered throughout the city and other parks have smaller, more dilapidated Muslim mausoleums.  Their builders hoped for immortal fame, but in some cases even the owner’s name has been forgotten.  Grass grows from the cracked domes and stray dogs rest in their shade.  Former empires are now ruled by monkeys.

On my first day in Delhi I saw, beyond the market chaos of Chandni Chawk (see here), distant red battlements beneath an Indian flag: the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort.  It was constructed by the Moghul emperor Shah Jehan, who also built the Taj Mahal and planned to move his capital here from Agra.  It was finished in 1648, when the Thirty Years War in Europe came to an end.  I crossed the empty moat and entered the Lahore Gate beneath chunky 30m ramparts.  The flag of independent India was unfurled here in 1947, 90 years after the 1857 anti-British mutiny which was brutally beaten down.  After dutifully noting the bullet holes from that uprising, I came face to face with a sandbagged military post and heavy-duty gun – the fort is still defended!

red-fort-gate-delhiOn the far side is the Jumna River, where queens watched elephant fights on the banks, and inside the 2 km walls are a private court mosque; museums with engraved weapons, royal garments, unearthed ceramics; pillared audience halls once covered in jewels and still inlaid with coloured stone pictures of birds and flowers.  The palace buildings were once cooled with water channels and on the wall is a Persian couplet: “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”  The gardens were meant to evoke the Koran’s description of heaven.  The absence of vendors was indeed paradisiacal, until I realised my bottle was almost empty and there was no potable water before the exit gate one sun-beaten km away.  I began to fear I’d entered the other post-mortem destination.

red-fort-detailThere’s an old prophecy that every ruler who founds a new capital here at Delhi will lose it.  This has held true for the builders of triumphant towers and forts of paradise, marble mausoleums and mighty mosques.  The last great statement of imperial power took 17 years to build from 1914-31 and its masters were driven out 16 years later.  British New Delhi is a big contrast to the cramped alleys of the old city, with the spacious wide tree-lined avenues around my hotel and neo-classical colonnades of Connaught Place.

Most impressive was the 42-metre high India Gate archway.  It’s one end of Rajpath or Kingsway Avenue that processes in triumph, flanked by water canals, fountains and flowerbeds, up to the presidential estate.  It reminded me of the Arc de Triumphe and Champs-Elysees in Paris.  Historian William Dalrymple likens the architecture of New Delhi to that of Hitler’s Berlin, which was built in the same period and for much the same purpose: to showcase racial superiority and might.  The mood was less pompous now.  The India Gate was surrounded by refrigerated ice cream carts, vendors of popcorn and balloons, picnicking families, and kids in paddleboats on the ponds – the future builders, perhaps, of Delhi’s next incarnation.

Nine days in Delhi will only scratch the surface of this archaeological dig, just enough to whet my appetite for more.  There are so many worlds on one map.  I was shown around the University of Delhi where this city’s history almost intersects my own: my dad spent a few months at the Department of Physics here before I was born.  Campus signs warned that ragging could end in jail and notice boards advertised student performances of Shakespeare.  Then I was taken to dinner in the Tibetan colony for spicy dumplings.  The Dalai Llama’s picture hung in the corner, a purple-robed Tibetan Buddhist monk ate at the next table, and it seemed a different world again.  Historians tell of many Delhis that have existed through time; sociologists tell of many Delhis that exist right now.  The Middle Ages and the Space Age jostle cheek by jowl.

purana-qila-detailWith its layers of forgotten history and fallen empires Delhi often reminded me of the saying, “India is an ancient civilization in an advanced stage of decay”.  And I thought of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

I’ve also remembered a prayer that’s about as old as Delhi, said to come from a prophet who walked the sands of Egypt when the pyramids were young:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night….
Our years come to an end like a sigh.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Psalm 90


Martyring Freedom, Mourning Tigers, and Sikhing Indira

I visit gurdwaras and a Prime Minister’s shrine, compare Joan of Arc to black widows and find a hollow tiger.

I’ve entered two golden-domed Sikh gurudwaras in Delhi, one adjacent to my hotel (see my 2007 introduction to Sikhism here).  After removing shoes, washing hands and stepping through a shallow pool to rinse my feet, the matter of head coverings arose.  In one temple my sunhat was deemed satisfactory; in the other I was lent a headscarf.  In both I found a spot under a fan to sit on the carpet and observe.  Chanting of scriptures was accompanied by drums and accordion.  Worshippers circled the room while a priest fanned their sacred book.

Sikhs are known for distributing free food, and I saw a huge production line making bread: dough ripped into sections, rolled into balls, thrown to the far end of a long trestle for rolling out.  As in nursery stories of witches’ cauldrons, the simmering pots of curry and dhal could have boiled up several children with ease.

Unlike the Jains and Mahatma Gandhi who disavow all violence (see previous post), Sikhs are famed for their military prowess – they still form much of India’s army and police – and believe it’s right to wield arms in defence of their faith.  After reliving Mahatma Gandhi’s final days I moved to the house of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation), who ran aground on this faith.

I was surprised to find her memorial house far more crowded than Gandhi’s.  Busloads of Indian tourists were filing through the whitewashed bungalow, where security guards even banned water bottles.  It was like a pilgrimage temple, kept much as it was when she died.  Through glass walls you could see floor to ceiling bookcases, old leather armchairs, framed photos on side tables, and presents from around the world, like a Chinese dragon rug on the floor and an African mask on the wall.

indira-gandhi-houseI saw the same Royal Doulton Bunnykins china plates and bowls that I had as a child, and hundreds of photos, including Indira as a six-year-old girl with Gandhi, who knew the family well.  Her father Jawaharlal Nehru was frequently arrested during the independence struggle and he once telegrammed: GOING TO OTHER HOME.  I enjoyed this account from Indira’s aunt of their bookish upbringing, with its fateful premonition:

Perhaps the love of books all of us had and the well-stocked library at Anand Bhawan [their house in Allahabad] was as good a school as any.  From prison Jawaharlal would periodically order a number of books for Indira and she would read fairy tales, children’s editions of Shakespeare, Dickens, Shaw and many classics…  Indira had her favourites.  She was fascinated by stories about Joan of Arc…  One day I saw her standing at the balustrade of the veranda with outstretched arms – she said, “I’m practising being Joan of Arc.  I have been reading about her, and someday I’m going to lead my people to freedom just as Joan of Arc did.”

It seems Indira was devout like Joan of Arc.  In her Puja Room or prayer closet was a Virgin Mary with a halo of stars, a slim Thai Buddha, a vessel of Ganges water, a chain of prayer beads, and incense sticks in front of statuettes of Hindu gods.  On the shelf was a Bible, Koran, Hindu and Sikh Scriptures, and cassettes of devotional music.  Indira liked to light an oil lamp before the garlanded Mother India.

Her publicity machine portrayed her like Mother India herself, proclaiming “India is Indira and Indira is India”.  Many foreign accolades that she received were on display: the Dutch Order of the Golden Ark, the Lenin Prize, the Dag Hammarskjold award.  Countless newspaper clippings documented her great achievements, but I saw no mention of the Emergency rule she declared in 1975 – after being found guilty of electoral malpractice.  Joan of Arc may have led her people to freedom, but Indira threw thousands of opposition politicians into prison and gagged the free media (cutting off electricity to independent printing presses), while her son bulldozed slums and force-sterilised the poor.  All this led novelist Salman Rushdie to call her the “Black Widow” in his novel Midnight’s Children.  In her study was a photo of poet Rabindrath Tagore alongside a famous verse from his Nobel prize-winning Gitanjali (which I introduced here).  It echoed the noble Joan of Arc and after the Emergency seemed most ironic:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Maybe my view has been overly shaped by westernised liberals like Rushdie, because Indira was clearly respected here and the Emergency did have some positive effects.  Many socks were quickly pulled up.  Power cuts, strikes and inflation were curbed.  Trains ran on time and government workers actually came to work – there were not enough desks and chairs in many offices when all staff showed up.  It’s joked that queues were last spotted at a Delhi bus stop in February 1977, just before the Emergency ended.

Just as for Gandhi (see previous post) I followed Indira’s final steps outside.  Glass covers the footpath up to the spot where, as a sign said, she “fell martyr to the bullets of two assassins” in 1984, shot 30 times by her Sikh bodyguards.  Her blood-stained sari was on display.  Although it all recalled Gandhi’s memorial, she was hardly an innocent pacifist like him.  Her death followed her invasion of the holy of holies for Sikhs, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The museum also celebrated Indira’s son Rajiv, an engineer and pilot.  His first laptop was on display – a chunky 1980s Toshiba – and a radio he’d assembled, which reminded of my Dad.  He loved electronics and I’d often smell his soldering iron as a kid.   Rajiv was killed by a Tamil Tiger bomb in 1991.  The tattered remains of his shirt and sneakers hung in a glass case.

indira-gandhi-tigerOn the way out I caught a glimpse of an eco-conscious compassionate Indira.  A life-size statue of a glittery gold-striped tiger had a transparent belly, showing a stuffed toy tiger inside.  Between 1919 and 1972, tiger numbers in India dropped from 35,000 to 1872.  Alongside this plastic-looking beast was a typed letter from Indira to her son on September 7, 1965:

Darling Rajiv,
We have received a huge tiger’s skin.  The tiger was shot by the maharaja of Rewa only two months ago.  The skin is lying in the ballroom.  Every time I pass it I feel very sad that instead of lying here he might have been roaming and roaring in the jungle.  Our tigers are such beautiful creatures, so graceful.  You can see their muscles rippling under their skins.  Such a short time ago he must have been king of the jungle – striking terror in the hearts of the other animals.
I am so glad that nowadays more and more people prefer to go into the jungles with their cameras instead of guns.  It seems such a shame to deprive anything of the joy of living just for our pleasure.

Avian Nonviolence, Gandhian Gimmicks and Simple Inspiration

I have pity on birds and respect for Gandhi; I query his quirks and ponder his paintings, follow his final steps and lament his lost legacy.

India is 75% Hindu.  Businessmen chant mantras with prayer beads on the Delhi metro, worshippers bow and ring bells at temple entrances, everywhere you look are roadside shrines and colourful pictures of diverse deities.  But I’ve been in surprisingly few temples here, as Delhi’s main monuments are mostly Muslim.  An acquaintance who moved up from south India said he missed the towering gateways and huge complexes of Hindu temples in his birthplace.

I’ve had a taste of Jainism, a much older faith that stresses non-violence to all living things (see my post on Jainism here).  Jain monks wear gauze masks and sweep the path to avoid breathing or crushing little insects, and to enter their temples leather objects like belts must be removed.  Opposite the Red Fort in the heart of old Delhi is a Jain Charity Birds’ Hospital.  A corridor was lined with cages full of pigeons, peacocks, parrots, finches that were suffering with broken wings, splinted legs, bloodied heads.  Above the cages were cartoons of birds caught in fans, power lines or kite strings; attacked by crows, cats or hunters.  A poster told of a brave and merciful divine king who gave pieces of his own flesh, and finally his whole life, to save a pigeon from a hawk.

jain-bird-hospital-delhiThe nonviolence of Jainism strongly influenced Mahatma Gandhi, whom I’ve long admired.  As a science graduate I love the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth – I introduced the book and the man here.  At the National Gandhi Museum I was again inspired.  I wish I could truthfully say, as Gandhi did, “My life is my message”, or, “My life is one indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another”.   Gandhi went one day per week without talking and again I was challenged by his emphasis on silence.  So much of my speech is empty chatter and self-seeking aggrandisement.

A plaque outside had Gandhi’s “Talisman” that shows his compassion for the poor.  It was some of the last advice he gave:

Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.  Will he gain anything by it?  Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?  In other words, will it lead to swaraj or self-rule for the hungry and also spiritually starved millions of our countrymen?  Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.

Gandhi spent his last 144 days at Birla house.  It’s now the “Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum”, which presents “a spectrum of information technology visions inspired by Gandhian thought”.  Pluck a harp string to hear a recorded national freedom song, or press a harmonium key for an interfaith hymn.  Pick up salt from an urn to play a presentation on Gandhi’s Salt March, hold up your hands to activate lights on the Pillar of Castelessness, or turn a train cab’s steering wheel to select video clips on Gandhi’s train journeys around India.  A little quirky, but fun for the kids and designed with high ideals: “Each object in the Museum, whether a pixel of light, a bit-map on the screen, an animation, a circuit or a handcrafted object is a living prayer.”

gandhis-roomI wondered how well it all fitted with the stark simplicity of Gandhi’s life.  In his bedroom his few possessions were on display, almost untouched since his death: a mattress on the floor, low writing desk, spinning wheel, staff, sandals and Bhagavad Gita on his pillow, and a small wooden sculpture of the three monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil.  Through the French doors, low hedges lined his final path. 182 footsteps set in concrete lead to a small shrine in the garden where he was shot on 30 January, 1948 by a fundamentalist Hindu.  A video counted down the minutes to 5:17 as he went to morning prayer.  A 1968 cartoon sent a shiver down my spine.  Gandhi speaks to Martin Luther King: “The odd thing about assassins, Dr King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”

I farewelled Gandhi at Rajghat.  On a black marble plinth where he was cremated are engraved the last words he is said to have spoken, “Hai Ram”, invoking the god he loved.  A small group of Buddhist monks sat with a turbaned Sikh and a western woman, chanting together for peace.  They reminded me of paintings in the Gandhi Museum.  In one, Buddha, Christ and Gandhi tread a shining path to rescue the suffering masses from demons.  In another, rivers flow from a church, temple and mosque to unite in a blue shawl draped over Gandhi’s shoulders; with blood dripping from three bullet wounds in his bare chest, he embraces four figures: a Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim.

The site is near the Yamuna River.  The shoreline is hard to access, but I got a distant glimpse, or rather a pungent smell: in effect it’s an open sewer.  Gandhi’s ashes were scattered where the Yamuna meets the Ganges downstream in Allahabad.  I’ll be there next week!

Gandhi was a man of incredible integrity who always practised what he preached.  A woman once asked him to tell her son to stop eating sugar.  Gandhi requested she return in a week.  She did so, and Gandhi asked her boy to abstain from the sweet stuff. Mum asked why he didn’t say so the first week.  A week ago, Gandhi replied, I still ate sugar myself.

Heros of nonviolence who inspired Gandhi, Gandhi Museum, Delhi
Heros of nonviolence who inspired Gandhi, Gandhi Museum, Delhi

The character of such founding fathers of India has sadly not endured.  A newspaper article on India’s culture of hypocrisy had a cartoon of a pious haloed bureaucrat in traditional white shirt, with a photo of Gandhi and his slogan “high thinking, simple living” on the wall.  Below his desk, he is in jeans and sneakers, with a box for bribes and the floor littered with cigarettes, alcohol bottles, meat bones and a rifle.

I’ve seen estimates that India’s black economy is one third of the official one or even as great – bringing the statistical consolation, quips writer Shashi Tharoor, that India’s GDP is twice the official figure so the average Indian is only half as poor as he thought!  A friend told me this story.

An Indian Member of Parliament visits an American counterpart and admires his luxurious private home: “How did you afford this?”  His Yankee friend points upstream: “See that bridge?  10% cut.”  Next year the American MP visits his Indian pal and is speechless at the palace where he lives, his fleet of antique cars, his stable of racehorses and army of retainers: how could a lowly back bencher pay for all this?  The Indian takes his friend for a stroll to the river that flows past his estate.  “Do you see that bridge downstream?” he asks.  The American looks, rubs his eyes, looks again – he can’t see a thing.  The Indian grins at his friend and winks.  “100%”.

I can understand why Shashi Tharoor writes with admiration, “we were not led by a saint with his head in clouds, but by a master tactician with his feet on the ground”, but regretfully defines Gandhi as:

A legendary, almost mythical figure, shrouded in the mists of history and the masks of textbooks, whose precepts, like God’s, are cited more often than obeyed.  The father of our nation, with a billion children and no followers.

I’ve seen signs that some people may be getting fed up.  In the Gandhi Museum a young man wore a T-shirt proclaiming “India Against Corruption”, and there is an official website based in Bangalore to report it:


Rioting Colour: Movies and Mayhem on Holi

I’m bombarded by colourful threats and left red-faced; I’m rejected by Bollywood but star in cricket; I meet a pimp and hot chicks, pink drunks and purple pups.

Today was International Women’s Day.  Newspaper articles honoured female Indian leaders and deplored on-going problems.  A recent Hindustan Times survey found 91% of Delhi women have experienced sexual harassment, which Indians euphemistically call Eve-teasing.  Two thirds of women find public transport unsafe, few have complained to police and nearly three-quarters who do have found them unhelpful.

Today was also Holi, the Indian festival of colours that celebrates the start of spring.  Over the last few days street stalls sold vibrant packets of powders and dyes, and all manner of water pistols.  Plastic pipe-and-plungers were built like the bamboo rods I saw in an 18th-century painting of Holi.  “Machine guns” hold 6 litres of ammunition.  Figurines pee spray when pressed.  I read of upper-class parties with swimming pools of coloured water.

holi-colors-marketNewspapers exhorted dye-fighters to purchase safe organic colours, not cheaper industrial dyes – made from nice substances like lead, mercury, asbestos or other toxins – that may permanently stain clothing, damage skin, hinder breathing, cause poisoning or even blindness: that charming glitter comes from powdered glass.  My SpiceJet magazine showed how to make your own eco-friendly colours from natural substances.  Crush black grapes and tomatoes for purple and red, dry and crush Marigold and Jacaranda petals for yellow and blue, mix henna powder with spinach paste for green.  It recommended smearing face and hair with coconut oil or petroleum jelly to protect your skin.  Papers carried big adverts for washing powder.

The Hindustan Times said laws against psychoactive drugs are relaxed at Holi and warned against overdosing on sweets and drinks containing cannabis bhang.  It also warned of eye injury from high-speed balloons: don’t try to clean your eye as contaminated water can cause infection, but just shut it tight and rush to the nearest hospital.  I visited a Toastmasters club the night before Holi and heard more tales of wild intoxication.  One speaker feared the hazardous holiday and planned to stay at home.  After all this build-up, I faced the big day with both anticipation and trepidation.

At my hotel breakfast this morning, two enthusiastic American women had already smeared each other and were keen to initiate others.  I consented and sallied into the fray with reddened hair, cheeks, beard and shirt.  Countless cheerful “happy Holi!” greetings from locals delighted to see a foreigner participating.  Now and then a guy gently topped up my smears with red powder, which I’d read was the most safe and wash-outable.

Everything was closed for the public holiday and the metro didn’t run until the afternoon when most of the action is over, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  An auto-rickshaw driver offered a lift into town at a dirt cheap rate.  As his first customer of the day, he smiled, I’d bring good luck.  I’ve heard this line before and, as I suspected, he took me for a ride all the way to his mate’s emporium.  I refused to enter and endure high-pressure sales tactics, thanked him for the ride, consulted my compass and headed for Connaught Place.  I’d retreated in defeat on my first night (see here) so thought I’d take it back by day.

The circle was almost deserted.  Then a man darted across the road in desperation, dodged oncoming cars and leaped into a moving bus.  “Cut!”  The vehicles reversed a block, and then it all happened again.  The film crew waved me away – the fools didn’t want a skinny kiwi in red sunhat to grace their Bollywood blockbuster, although teenage guys take photos with me everywhere I go: I must be a Hindi Facebook sensation!

I joined the assorted spectators, their clothes blotched in assorted colours.  Another ear cleaner approached, cotton buds stuck in cap, and flourished a note book of references from satisfied customers.  He even had one from NZ.  He was eager to investigate my otological condition – “No touch, just looking!” – but I was having none of that.

holi-colorsOn a corner by my local metro station between drink-vending carts is a tiny mosque you’d almost miss if you blinked.  I popped in after the Bollywood action and 8 Muslim boys befriended me.  They were 10-13 years old and live here to study the Koran.  Good Muslims don’t participate in Holi so they were bored and enjoyed my broken Hindi attempts to chat.  Then I was ushered out to the parking lot behind the Metro, given a bat-shaped plank and placed before a concrete slab with stones balanced on top for bails.  The lads cheered valiantly when I finally hit the tennis ball before it hit my wicket.

My friendliest Hindi experience yet was followed by the worst.  A dozing guy hailed me as I farewelled the lads.  After greeting him I clumsily asked, “Do you have boys and girls?”  Most people are proud of their offspring.  When I asked the rickshaw driver the same question that morning, he had happily enumerated the ages of his kids.  This guy’s response seemed to be different.  I shook my head in puzzlement and he resorted to a visual aid.  Curling one hand into a loose fist, he thrust his other index finger in and out.  It dawned on me that he was offering a youngster for less savoury pursuits than cricket.

I played the dumb foreigner – no comprendo – and escaped to the metro, now open, and sped off to another market for the afternoon.  One courtyard was lined with cages of live chickens and boiling pots of dead ones.  The ground was covered in carcasses, blood, feathers and flies.  I was tired and hungry but scenes like this made me unsure what was safe to eat.  I found a small general store and bought a pack of digestive biscuits and another of chips.  So many of the highs and the lows in India revolve around the stomach and food.  Sometimes I eat like a king, with a bottomless delicious platter for three dollars; sometimes I spend the day in a fascinatingly aromatic market where all visible fodder swarms with flies and I’m forced to fast.  Perhaps that’s appropriate in Lent.

In the market maze I saw statues of Shiva and Krishna.  These gods mostly have blue bodies, which was most fitting for Holi.  I was still coloured red and amiable drunks with pink hair and lurid faces shook my hand.  Bright splotches on the footpath marked the scene of morning bombardments.  The streets were roamed by green and purple dogs.

All the World’s a Stage: Charming Chandni Chawk

I master the Metro and moon around markets; I evade ear invasions and am caught out by cobras, but refuse to be chicken-hearted.

After a slightly shell-shocked start to the capital (see previous post), my first full day was fab.  I escaped Americana with finger-licking fare at Indian eateries, and I mastered the Metro: bag through x-ray, metal detector sweep and pat-down – a separate queue with female officer for women, past a soldier with big gun behind sandbags, swipe my Smartcard and down to the platform.

Signs are in English and Hindi, which is good for reading practice, though different Hindi fonts sometimes confuse me.  They may omit accents, thus changing p to f or j to z, or have a mere curlicue where I’d learnt a closed loop.  When I stop to think about English fonts, learners must have the same problem and my hand written “a” is a different shape from the usual printed letter.

Not all announcements are reassuring.  “Any unattended or suspicious object like briefcase, bag, toy, thermos, transistor could be bomb.”  Metro lowlight: getting caught by the left-hand door at rush hour, when my exit was on the right – frenzied shoving to get out before doors closed.  When a man yelled “zor se” I thought he was telling me off.  I later realised that meant “with force”: he was exhorting me to push harder!  At such times, the women-only carriages are enviably uncrowded.

For most of the day I kicked around Chandni Chawk.  Once upon a time it was one of the greatest bazaars of the East, where merchants from China to Arabia haggled over perfumes and jewellery, embroidery and silk.  The name means “moonlit market”.  A tree-lined canal once ran down the centre of the street and widened into a pool that reflected the moon.  That paints a peaceful picture, but in two words my first impression was “chaotic diversity”.

Stylish executives in pointy shoes barked orders into Bluetooth headsets.  Some wore big rings, bracelets, or a string on their wrist.  Other men clattered past in jandles and dirty white lungis like a sarong pulled up between the legs, balancing huge sacks or piles of boxes or long girders on their heads.   One had six suitcases.  Some were in sandals and short-sleeved woolen vests like Dad’s generation used to wear.

Dusky Muslim eyes peeped from black veils.  Matronly Hindu heads were covered in a fold of vibrant sari, some sparkling with glass gems or floral embroidery.  Their foreheads had stick-on red bindi dots, or a smear of yellow turmeric from a temple.  Some hands and feet were covered with intricate henna patterns, wrists and ankles jangling with bangles.  Younger women had bare heads, mp3 players, and bright stockings.

There were uniformed school kids and police with boy-scout lanyards.  Dignified Sikhs had turbaned heads and flowing beards, their younger brethren with whiskers combed out or tied up in a net.  Muslim men wore white caps and robes, some with hair or beards dyed orange – a badge of pilgrims to Mecca.  Holy men moseyed along in saffron robes and matted dreadlocks.  Local teens slouched along in sneakers, jeans and T-shirts, just doing it like Nike.

Two chubby boys squeezed into an auto rickshaw with their new basketball.  A wizened woman picked up paper scraps beside me into a torn sack.  Rickshaw-cyclists sweated in singlet tops on ancient bikes without gears, jangling their bells to attract tourists waving cameras, standing out in shorts or sleeveless blouses.  Several dwarves and cripples hobbled past with feet twisted 90° to one side.  A chap brandishing a cotton bud offered to clean out my ears for a trifling 30 rupees.

A wagon had solid wood wheels like in movies of the Middle Ages.  Chai-wallahs delivered cups of tea and lime-squeezers dispensed juice from their carts.  I opened my new water bottle, noting the crack as the seal broke: guidebooks warn of bottles refilled with tap water, and some bottles instruct you to crush them after use.  From an upper storey with hanging washing, a metal cup of chai clattered to the ground beside me to lie among broken pottery and marigolds.  A man stepped out of the shop behind with a box of matches, set some crumpled newspapers alight in the gutter, then stamped out the embers.  The smoke rose as urchins, cows or goats picked through odiferous refuse.  There used to be more exciting wildlife.  In 1837 the Englishwoman Emma Roberts wrote in her diary that Chandni Chawk:

…echoed with the shrill roar of many caged cheetahs being sold and also hunting leopards.  There were Persian cats and greyhounds for sale, while the trumpeting of elephants mingled with the sounds of cartwheels and itinerant musicians.

Some suburbs in India have a grab bag of stalls, while others have whole lanes of one item.  South of Chandni Chawk I found the latter.  After racks of western clothing, I found a bazaar of car parts.  Shops specialized in fans, radiators, side panels, hubcaps, horns, ball bearings.  The road was covered in disassembled motor parts – I read that if your car is stolen in Delhi and you don’t recover it within two days, it will all be here, in pieces.

snake-charmer-delhiAs I headed through this mechanics’ paradise, as innocent as Adam, I was hailed by a guy in jeans with three cane baskets.  He placed them on the ground, and opened each one: on yellow clothes were coiled black cobras!  He held them up in his hands saying “photo photo”, then pretended to charm his serpents by waving a bulbous pipe with a few random toots, then demanded 200 rupees.  I gave him 30.  Judging by his satisfied appearance and an on-looker’s grin, I was probably ripped off by Indian standards, but it was all so fast and I feared to offend a handler of live snakes.

Above this brew of oily motors and tourist-charming snakes towered the gates and 40-metre minarets of the Jama Masjid.  It was built by the same Shah Jahan who constructed the Taj Mahal and is India’s largest mosque.  The courtyard can hold up to 25,000 people and contained hundreds of pigeons, attracted by scattered grain.  Pinkish sandstone arches framed tourists reading Lonely Planet and gossiping ladies and battlements of the Red Fort.  After visitors were shunted out, as Muslims washed hands, feet and face for their sundown prayers, I sat on the wide steps and surveyed the old city below.  Antennae and water tanks adorned rooftops.  Loudspeakers wailed the Muslim prayer call.  Two goats were frisking up and down, nearly bowling people over.  Women with outstretched shawls begged alms from worshippers.  I gave a little girl one of my last digestive biscuits.  Through a broken fence, I saw boys playing cricket.  Children’s kites flew among wheeling birds in the darkening sky.  Men ran up the stairs, late for their prayers.  An ear cleaner wiped a client’s wax from his little rod.  Does he reuse it each time?  I never saved a better 30 rupees.

red-fort-from-jama-masjidI descended to the restaurant Karim in an alley and ordered a rich mutton korma with rotis.  Bread is more cheap and common than rice in northern India.  It’s fun to watch chefs press out the dough by hand, then slap it onto the clay wall of a tandoor oven.  The Muslim Moghuls introduced many of India’s top meat dishes and Karim was founded by a chef of the last Moghul emperor.  The current owner says vegetarian food is “for the chickenhearted”.  Karim is one of Delhi’s most popular restaurants – top-secret recipes of up to 33 spices outclass Colonel Saunders’ paltry 11 secret herbs – and all the tables were full.  The mutton was tender and tasty, but by the time I’d finished my bowl of broth I found the imperial taste a bit rich, and wished they weren’t so down on veg.