20 July 2013

India: Delhi

Ask us now how it whirls, the wilful wheel of sky,
This despot is used to oppress and terrorize,
Pullign down the mighty is his chief delight,
What an acrimonious streak in his nature hides!
The crow feeds itself on meat, the phoenix on bones survives,
To rank the crow above the phoenix, is it justified?

Bahadur Shah Zafar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda

[Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor, ruling over a tiny area of India at the pleasure of the British East India Company.  After he helped lead an abortive rebellion, the British exiled him, and ended the pretense of Mughal rule.]




Stepping out of the airport with Lizzie, I felt like nothing so much as a giant gullible target.  Huge and white and clutching enormous backpacks, we might as well have been wearing a sign saying "Steal from me, swindle me, beg from me!"  We'd read the guidebook, so we were wary of people offering to sell us discount diamonds, asking us to come to a private tea-room to chat, or any of the other ways in which goofy foreigners are swindled every day in India.  Reminding myself to be paranoid, I stolidly squared my shoulders and we trudged to the pre-paid taxi stand.

As it turns out, this ride, taken less than five minutes after landing in Delhi, was a whirlwind preview of some of the most important features of India.  I wouldn't realize this until later, of course.
  • If it's fixed-price, there's no incentive to be nice.  The booth operator, hunched in his dingy brick hut, took a handful of rupees and sullenly slid back a slip of pink paper.  Where were we supposed to go?  What was this paper, covered in unintelligible code, for?  Was this all of my change?  But like almost all waiters and other folks in positions where there's no haggling, he just wanted me to take it and leave.  With exceptions, this is the general rule in India: there are just so many people everywhere, always wanting something from the little men in the little booths, that they just can't afford to care.
  • If they might get more money out of you, it's always a big smile.  The taxi driver, on the other hand, was grinning and glad-handing, gesturing us over to his cab and laughingly fending off other drivers who tried to poach us.  He helped us with our backpacks and into the back of his yellow cab, and he'd tell us anything and introduce himself and whatever else we might want, because we were frightened and foreign and might be dumb enough to give him an extravagant tip.
  • Appearance is not important: if it runs, it's put to work.  The cab itself was missing a rear door, and several gaps in the side suggested that it might be missing some other parts as well.  Certainly, it had only a passing familiarity with the idea of "cushion" or "upholstery" or "seat belts."  It clattered and putted uncertainly away from the airport, and taught us one of the fundamental working principles: if you can cobble it into service, then you put it to work.  Niceties were not necessary.
  • Traffic rules are really only the lightest of guidelines.  They say this about many places, often with a laugh.  But India leaves all of them in the dust, even including other developing places like Cambodia.  The taxi driver took up two lanes or even three (defying both physics and dotted yellow lines), swerved wildly at unexpected times, and accelerated and braked only according to the physical possibility of moving forward, not according to any such silly things as traffic lights.
  • The poor are poor.  The poor are a constant presence in India, even along such a well-traveled highway as the one from the airport to Dwarka suburb.  In any empty spots along the road, there are tents constructed from garbage and plastic sheeting in long rows, where tiny communities ply obscure and dangerous trades (rag-picking, begging, or worse).  The very poorest lack even a tent, and sleep on odd bits of sidewalk or pavement all over the city, rolling out a sheet of canvas and covering themselves with a single blanket against the night's mosquitoes.  Starvation is a real thing, and is sometimes held off only by temple charity.
  • The smells.  All the smells.  Both heavenly and hellish smells are everywhere in India, and it is no exaggeration to say that a few minutes' walk has exposed me to both the best thing I've ever smelled and the most grotesque odor I can imagine.  Lagoons of untreated waste, industrial effluents, and rotting carcasses are on the same street as luxurious restaurants redolent of delicious spices.
  • You can handle this.  Stepping out of the taxi, chatting with the driver, and realizing we'd completed our First India Task made Lizzie and I spontaneously grin at each other.  "Okay," she said. "We did it."  And it's true, we had.  And that has always been the way, wherever we've gone and whatever we've done, and it would prove to be the way in India, too: if we kept our heads about us, we could always deal with whatever weird and exotic and foreign situation we found.  India would be no different, despite the enormous challenges that awaited us.


Where you see the pug-prints of the desert deer,
Wise, discerning folk had once stood surprised.
The world goes on changing, Zafar, with changing times,
What sights it then displayed, what it now provides!

Bahadur Shah Zafar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda

A large part of our success in India, though, might have had to do with our very soft landing in the country.  I had the great good fortune to be friends online with a Delhi resident named Debashis, who offered to let us stay at his flat during our time there.  The unbelievable graciousness of this offer to someone who he'd never met in real life was exceeded only by the kindness of both Debashis and his parents, Bikram and Ratna, who lived with him.  We stepped out of that taxi and right into their arms.

I hadn't planned on imposing too much, much less joining their family.  But Bikram and Ratna welcomed us like their own children, and it was not too long before I felt like Debashis was my brother.  They not only gave us a room in which to sleep, but Debashis took time away from his lawyering to escort us around to the Delhi sights, while Ratna spent hours preparing us elaborate home-cooked meals and Bikram would sit and speak with us about the fascinating politics and economy of the country.

It would be impossible to overstate just how important Debashis and his parents were to getting us on our feet in India.  We owe them a huge debt.  They kept us from feeling like another pair of confused tourists, and made us feel that we were part of Indian life, to at least some small extent.

A big part of Indian life, as in any country, is the food.  Debashis' family is from Bengal, so that was Ratna's specialty, but they also made an effort to make sure we got to try delicacies from all over.  So we would not only be given piles of rotis or puris, those delicious discs of special bread, to scoop up the spice of curry and the roasted piles of vegetables, but they also served biryani (spiced vegetable rice) and took us to try South Indian cuisine.  It was magnificent, and in huge quantities.

Indian table manners vary regionally, but most everyone eats with their fingers - or rather, with the fingers of their right hand.  It took a considerable amount of time to get used to the process of eating rice and curry with my fingers, but by the end of our trip I had become quite good.  You mix up your food as you'd like, then use your fingers as a scoop, pushing the food into your mouth with a deft motion of your thumb.  Done properly, your hand - and shirtfront - stay mostly clean.

Bread (naan, roti, etc.) could be a bit more challenging, because it can be tough to rip off a piece of naan with one hand.  It only takes practice, though: pin the bread down on your plate with your forefinger and middle finger, then use your thumb and other fingers to rip off a piece.

Debashis admitted that sometimes you just cheat and use your left hand.  That wouldn't even matter, except there's a good reason for the taboo against using your left hand: that's the hand you are traditionally supposed to use for bathroom purposes.  Like in some other areas of the world, Indians do not typically use toilet paper, but rather use water - bathrooms come equipped with buckets or special sprayers for your convenience.

As you can see, there was a lot to learn, even in the most mundane areas.

As this course of instruction with Debashis progressed, we went zipping around Delhi, visiting the sights.  And there are so very many, because Delhi is not just a single city: ruined monuments, bustling new temples, exalted churches to emerging religions, widespread parks, crumbling forts, and imposing government buildings.  Like its country, the city is a palimpsest, layered and combined.



Many a king of noble note has the world witnessed,
How many pelf and power once did they possess,
All of them were in the end humbled down by death,
Where is Darius, where Alexander, whither Jamshed of regal crest?
None has lived, nor will live for ever on this earth,
Only the actions of the just smell sweet in the dust.

Bahadur Shah Safar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda


Rudyard Kipling, born in Mumbai, wrote "White Man's Burden" in 1899.  It is both a command and a warning to his own British nation, at a time that would turn out to be near the apex of their rule over the vast lands of India.  He wrote:
Take up the White Man's burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
The whole of the British Raj, the two-hundred-year British domination of India and Pakistan, might be found in those lines.  And it was with such a spirit - that grudging pride and noblesse oblige - that in 1911, King George V laid the foundation stones for a new city and capital on an ancient site: Delhi.

Before he laid down these first stones of a New Delhi - simple blocks of white sandstone - the King of Great Britain and Emperor of the Indies grandly remarked, "The relics of the dynasties of bygone ages that meet the eye on every side, the splendid palaces and temples which have resisted the destroying hand of time, all these witness to a great and illustrious past."

There have been an uncertain number of cities in the place now known as Delhi, each of which saw their time and have been eaten by the all-consuming dust.  According to legend, the first of these was perhaps the capital of the kingdom of the Pandavas featured in the holy Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic.

Even today, Delhi comprises not a single city, but a composite of cities built and building upon each other simultaneously.  The long lines of the slumtowns expand every year, filling the gaps between the indifferently-preserved ancient districts, the shining new technical campuses, and the dusty suburban middle-lands.  In few places in India do so many of the modern traumas of the country live in fractious proximity: the Raj, the skyrocketing disparity between rich and poor, the fracturing of the Partition, and the conflict between ancient tradition and a new world.  Delhi is a city of cities.

Some of these cities are in fragments, only slender reminders of once-great empires. With Debashis, Lizzie and I went to the Qutub complex, which is the location of the Iron Pillar - an unassuming, slightly reddish iron pillar that is perhaps two stories high.  To look at it and the rough inscriptions on its side, one would never know that it is perhaps 2,500 years old.  It is wrought iron, and it is almost completely pure.  Its construction was a marvelous feat of metallurgy created at the height of the Gupta Empire around the fourth century B.C.E., when the Gupta lands sprawled over all of the north of India and before they began to collapse under Hun invasions.  It remains the symbol of Delhi even today.

The most visible symbol of another dynasty, the Maurya, is also in column form.  At a the ruins of a late ruler's mosque, we saw the proud remains of one of the Ashokan pillars.  The powerful Emperor Ashoka, who united almost all of India and institutionalized Buddhism, scattered these pillars across the land to bear witness to his edicts.  To see the pillar, a jutting piece of stone broken at its top, was deeply moving: since I was in high school, I had yearned to see one of these pillars, established by the man who made Buddhism a world religion.  It made me feel truly close to history, and ranked among only a small handful of sights I have been privileged to witness - the Ara Pacis in Rome or the Great Wall in China, perhaps.  To be close to the pillar was to be close to history itself, from a time when the shape of the world changed by the will of one great man.

Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, may have been a great man, but he was not a sovereign, like Ashoka.  He stood arm-in-arm with the other leaders of the Indian independence movement.  I won't tell you the story - you know the story, or should.  You may also know the less savory aspects of Gandhi's life, such as his endless contemplation of sexual temptation, vestiges of racism, or the way in which he is regarded in his home country (many Indians regard his veneration as unjust, and harshly criticize him).

But as so often with great stories, the story itself and the moral behind it ends up becoming more important than the unforgiving light of truth.  Gandhi was imperfect, but he also stands for an ideal of nonviolence that he brought into practical political action.  And while critics of Gandhi's influence may point to the conscience of Britain, the pressures of war, or the guiding hand of Nehru instead, it ultimately cannot be denied that he forged compassion into a thing of power, and helped lead a people into freedom and fought for the unity of India.

It was a privilege to be able to visit the site of his cremation, the house where he spent his last days, and the spot where he was assassinated in 1948.  The museum itself is an odd building - the first floor is tasteful enough and informative, but the second floor is stuffed with inane art projects and interactive exhibits.  And the attendants!

Let's be clear: the fun part of an interactive exhibit is interacting with it.  If there's a giant life-size replica of a locomotive that flashes its lights and pretends to take you on a journey across India to the salt beaches, the fun part about it is pushing the big lever.  It is not fun to watch the flashing lights.  Yet the attendants at the museum didn't understand this.  They would see us walk in and run to beat us to the controls at each exhibit, apparently because we couldn't be trusted to figure out button technology.

I'm not a saint-philosopher, nor a tavern-mate,
I'm God's humble creature, a sinner reprobate.
Love is my religion, love, my creed and trait,
Call me what you like, O idols, - an atheist or a man of faith.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda


After nearly a week of the sights of Delhi, we had to take our leave.  We had train tickets for Jaipur, the Pink City, but it was going to be hard to imagine an India without Debashis and his family.  Who would tell us how to eat and shovel more puris onto our plates?  Who would tell us about the politics of the north and the difficulties of an India that was emerging onto the international scene as a serious force?  Who would make wry comments as we shuffled onto the grounds of the monument?

We left, but we were sad to go.  Not to say goodbye to the city - and we would, as it happens, return to Delhi - but sad to kiss Bikram and Ratna goodbye, and give Debashis a final hug at the train station.  At the beginning of our Indian journey, they made us feel like we still had never left home.



It is the ebb and flow of breath that accounts for the flow of life,
This coming and going is with the breath: stop it, and the world is dark.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely adore seeing you look so extraordinarily happy! You're damn well glowing! A fine looking couple, indeed. You have done mighty well for yourself, Alexander. You've made me proud! Hugs. :)

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