Subcontinental Drift: Chapter One - Delhi

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June 28th 2008
Published: June 30th 2008
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Karol BaghKarol BaghKarol Bagh

My Home in Delhi...
In many ways, Delhi is exactly what I expected it to be. Nothing about the Indian capital has taken me by surprise. It is very much like my arrival in Bangkok last year, but with more haze and blaring car horns. The Hotel Indrapasthra anchors a street in Karol Bagh, a district of local shops, idle cycle rickshaws, mediocre restaurants, and banished cheap hotels. Mine is one of many in the same range that offers some privacy, cramped accommodation, and overstaffing to ensure the amiable boss does not have to lift a finger, except to feed himself and switch the TV channels with his remote control. Management sees to it that there are little extras to compensate for the indulgences I chose to bypass by not paying Western prices for a room. The overpowering odor of mothballs slapped me in the face before I could fully open the door the newly painted and moulded, but musty chamber. It reeks of moth balls to keep pests away; they are out of sight, but never out of mind. Two buckets occupy the shower basin. The larger one collects the room-temperature water from the shower faucet. The smaller one is used to dip into
Scam ArtistScam ArtistScam Artist

He has no chance at getting my money, then he was fined by the poice. Free entertainment for me...
the larger and pour over my body. Hard water deposits block the already weak stream of water from the shower head. The Indrapasthra promises twenty-four hour hot water, even if it has to be brought to me by staff. My pack comfortably slips under my slab of a bed, a good thing too since the width of the room does not exceed the wingspan of my arms. On the second night, two geckos came under the crack of the door to join me while I was watching the business report on the BBC. Years ago, I would have sprung back against the wall at the sight of them. Now I recognize their value. They are silent hunters of the creepy crawly things that I know lurk at night in all structures of Delhi. I have not seen the two tiny roaches since the famous car insurance mascots popped in to say hello.
The one thing, as in Bangkok, I can say without reservation about my room: I and my belongings feel safe. Having attained Maslow’s simplest of needs, I scoff at the little annoyances. They are small victories on the first night in any developing country.

Karol Bagh’s ebb
Old DelhiOld DelhiOld Delhi

Time for a bath...
and flow is that of any torn up and unsightly city neighborhood. The mainstay of commercial activity becomes apparent after dusk. I cannot see past two blocks because of the haze and dust. Most drivers keep their headlights on the high beams, making it easier to see the drifting particles. A new two-tiered restaurant leans against an abandoned carcass of a building ready to succumb to gravity. Vendors do away with trash by kicking it to the middle of the powdery street. Bare corn cobs come to a halt and are either crushed by compact four-door sedans or chomped on my foraging cows. The cars take great care not to come in contact with the livestock; the same cannot be said for careless pedestrians that get in the way. Diseased dogs bark at each other or the fading shadows. One three-legged canine drags its body along the road; its only hind appendage dangles from its joint. Everything is cloaked in grime, noise, and motion. Sikhs conduct business with Muslims. Hindu women in sari try to bargain for intimate apparel and the vendors will not budge.

The first action I take when arriving in a new city is to make
All Tied UpAll Tied UpAll Tied Up

Electricity often fails when it rains...
plans for my eventual departure. This means going to the New Delhi train station, the city’s main rail terminus. Referring to Delhi and New Delhi is a matter of geographic and historical perspective. It is all one metropolitan area, New and Old are practically on top of each other. One looks as if it will collapse any week now, while the other is already in advanced stages of decay. The escalator of the Metro surfaces at the rear entrance of the terminal, a reservoir of slumbering and pitiful humanity. Tens of families stake claim to torn asphalt. The ragged looks on their faces say it will be many hours until they depart. Children wedge their bottoms between the cracks in search of comfort. Solitary men, either too sick, tired, or both sprawl out in the middle of the walkway. The human representation of white police tape used to outline a homicide victim before being taken to the morgue. Patches of canvas cover their faces. Some quiver. None are concerned about the swarms of flies that land on open wounds at their ankles and wrists.
At the top of the staircase, he stopped me just as I approached the metal detector.
Old DelhiOld DelhiOld Delhi

Chowri Bazaar...
The security devices are omnipresent in Delhi, especially on the Metro. Smartly put together in a pink dress shirt and smoke-colored trousers, he looked official enough for me to pay him initial attention. Usually, I am on guard in train stations. And Vakrim was good reason to stay alert.
“Excuse me sir, where are you going?”
OK, I’ll answer curtly and he’ll let me go. “Platform one.” I started to turn away and resume my path. I had even lowered my daypack from my shoulder for inspection by the armed guards.
“Ah, you want ticket for somewhere?”
“Yes. Where is platform one?” I asked firmly and without a hint of kindness. I was very alert to how he would reply. I gazed to my left and looked down at the tracks, rail cars and scattered trash. There had to be twelve platforms within view. The walkway over the rails led to various lefts and rights. Surely there would be more. I could use the help. But I have learned not to trust strangers who approach me, even though I am sure I have often spurned many acts of innocent kindness when I most needed them.
“Ah, platform one! You want
Jama MasjidJama MasjidJama Masjid

Deep contemplation...
tourist office for ticket! Yes! Let me help you.” Right there, the red flag stood straight up at attention. “Tourist office is not open until ten o’clock.” Wrong. It opens at eight. And it was seven forty-five. “I have idea for you. Approved”, beware of anything from this point forward, he used the word ‘approved’, “train office is by Connaught Place. I put you in taxi. Only ten rupees.”
It takes three brain cells working at full speed to realize the scam was on, but I had all day. It was early morning, and I needed a general overview of the city. So why not tag along?
“Really?? Ten rupees only?” I repeated with sarcastic enthusiasm.
“Yes, for you, my friend.” Great, now I have a friend in Delhi.
“What is your name?”
“Alishan.” At this point, he put his hand around my shoulder much like former classmates would at a high school reunion. He led me to a stand of motor rickshaws. I chose to be Alishan, a despondent student of mine from years back. It was creative. If he can lie to me, I can hold my own as well. It wasn’t like he was getting any money
Splish, SplashSplish, SplashSplish, Splash

Fun at the mosque...
off me.
“My name Vikram.” I really didn’t care. He was out to separate me from my cash. “Where you from, Ashliland?” I was hurt. He had already forgotten my “name”.
“Finland. The capital, in fact: Richmond.”
“Ah, very nice. Finland, good country.”
Vikram put me in a rickshaw and I handed over the ten rupees, twenty-five cents. The fare was way too low, but that was fine. I knew I was off to someone’s cousin’s agency. The ride was great. It dried out my shirt. Whoever the driver was spun me around Connaught Place, the bull’s eye center of New Delhi, well before any of the shops were open. A few blocks later, he pulled over at an “official” agency. With the waving motion of his right hand towards the entrance he showed me the door. He waited for me outside.
Of course, I bought no ticket and told the agent he and the driver were scamming me. That and I knew the Delhi police well enough that they would do very little if I complained. The problem is that the agent knew that I realized his scheme. It deflated his sales pitch to a monotone of departure times
Old DelhiOld DelhiOld Delhi

Cricket, anyone?
until I walked out the door. The agent rattled off a few remarks in angry Hindi to my driver, who now had lost his friendly disposition and any chance at a commission.
“Sir! Sir! You no buy?”
“No, maybe tomorrow.” I headed to the main street, which would bring me back to Connaught Place in less than ten minutes. The driver ran after me.
“No, I take you. Where you go?”
“I will walk.”
“No, bad idea. You tell me. Very dangerous. Many beat ups here. I take you.” This is another overused technique by scam artists. I was loving this! Forgive me, but commercial New Delhi in early morning with an increasing number of people walking by does not exactly intimidate. I have seen scary cities. This was not even close.
“No, I’ll walk. Thank you.” This put him into the inevitable fit of rage. He got nasty.
“You pay me one hundred rupees then!”
“No.” I had already walked a block. He followed me all the way to the Metro station cursing me in Hindi and asking others on the sidewalks to stop me. None paid him any attention. He wasn’t stupid enough to abandon his rickshaw and chase after me. After twelve minutes and a satisfactory tour of New Delhi, I slipped away into the nether regions of the city transit system to take the subway elsewhere.

If in search of an insightful take on Delhi, I defer to William Dalrymple’s superb work, City of Djinns. In it he guides the reader through a year’s worth of living in the city, supported by interviews and unparalleled access to those who know its ins and outs. In it, he tells the story and recounts the centuries of drama contained within the capital’s most iconic monument, the Red Fort. A fortification on the outside and palatial community within, it stands today as Delhi’s premier attraction. To make one superficial swoop of it brings me no closer to understanding Delhi. For example, to Dalrymple the impenetrable sandstone castle on the Yamuna River holds the key to grasping Delhi’s Mughal past. To me, it harbors one of India’s best contemporary exhibition of discarded empty Aquafina water bottles. The community within the Lahore Gate needs continuity. And a broom. A small market first appears when passing through the gate. It was once part of the Fort’s interior economy. It now compels tourists to run its gauntlet of souvenirs, overpriced watches, and aggressive proprietors. At least the pain is brief as shop owners are regulated here. Outside, touts cling to foreign tourists for a few hundred yards. Striped-back chipmunks dance about the Pearl Mosque, lawns, and pavilions once used as reception halls for dignitaries. A military museum is contained within, but I content myself with wandering in no particular direction.
“Hey, you! Mister!” cried out a voice from over my left shoulder. A scrawny man smiles at me. His white teeth shone brightly against his coal skin. He has to be from Tamil Nadu, the Deep South, I immediately guessed. His mildly disheveled hair was properly parted the way I used to comb it before most of disappeared fifteen years ago. Everything about him looked as if he could have been from Iowa, except the darkest complexion I have seen on a man with straight hair. “I get picture with you, please?”
“With me?” I am accustomed to being asked to take the photos, but never be in it with a stranger. What the hell, this cannot hurt. He handed off the camera to a second man, an acquaintance of some sort, I struck a pose with him. As the photographer centered out images in the digital display, a group in numbers of a soccer team scampered around like the Keystone Cops, in front, and to our sides to pose with us. The chatter of excitement could be heard in their voices; this was a big even for them. Once one of them had broken the ice with me and made contact, they all wanted to be part of the experience. I did not remove my forearm or even twitch. The shutter closed and then my original friend gave me a firm and cheerful “Thank you!” and extended his hand to shake mine. I gripped his, only to realize the rest of his group was ready to do the same. Each man was similarly dressed: long sleeve dress shirt (tortuous for Delhi in June), slacks, and nondescript, spherical black shoes. Each shook my hand, all thirteen of them, and said thank you with radiant smiles. As soon as the last one let go of my palm, they disappeared in short strides, but at high speed with a rhythm where each member depended on the consent of the others to go anywhere. It took very little time for me to put the pieces together: they had to be from the South, no doubt. It was their first time in their country’s capital, just like a four-day middle school trip to Washington to see the sites. They were as clueless as I was, perhaps more, about where they were. They were simple folk of few words, probably from a rural village.
I was most likely the first foreigner with whom they had ever interacted.
Oddly enough, only at the Red Fort did I, too, see foreign faces. There were very few. Two Japanese girls came to say hello to me. A couple from Montréal greeted me good morning. That was it. Looking back on the past thirty-six hours, I hadn’t seen any but Indian faces since I arrived: my hotel, the surrounding Karol Bagh, even on the frigid subway cars of the Delhi Metro. It pleased me.
Now time to retrace my steps back to the metro station, I recall where the Sikh temple was that I passed hours before. From there, it would be simple: Dodge traffic across the boulevard, deftly avoid the open sewer ditches, and race by the open air trash heap without inhaling. A swooshing sound dragged me over to the Fort’s grassy abyss of a moat. Five men were swinging machetes from six o’clock to noon, back and forth. The grounds crew’s goal was to bring down the tall stalks, one swoop at a time. The thought of my doing the same ensured the even the last portion of my shirt become encased in perspiration. I’ll have to wash out the salt deposits when it finally dries out.

Jerusalem receives all the accolades when it comes to being the center of three religions. It is indeed true; it represents the genesis of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Over the centuries, Jerusalem has maintained its status as the world’s most pious city, but what about Delhi? Though not the birthplace of any belief system, Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus share Delhi. As with most of India, Hindus outnumber all others. Mughal India is synonymous with Islam, making Delhi its most crucial Islamic center in South Asia. This is still the case today. Sikhs claimed Delhi’s Red Fort in 1790, but it was eventually reconquered. No event better indentifies the Sikh relationship with Delhi than the bloody 1947 Partition, which reshaped the religious landscape of the city, causing millions of Sikh refugees to flee from their homelands and villages. They came to Delhi in staggering numbers. The city has been the setting of many riots, disturbances and outright sectarian wars, not the least of which was the 1984 pogrom carried out by Hindus upon the Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Tucked between the Chowri Bazaar and the Red Fort is Old Delhi, a wonderful disaster of a neighborhood. It is a living drama of Delhi’s Muslims played out for all to see; there are no intermissions. Old Delhi is a sooty honeycomb of dark streets teeming with clanging, hoisted burlap sacks, and trampolining monkeys that swing from thousands of loose, entangled electrical wires. There is no sense of north, south, east, west, up, or down. The power lines’ snarls and distortions are a plate of black spaghetti rolled up into a ball and glued to a pole. For the first time, I am proud of what little confusion hides behind my meager entertainment center at home.
Cloaked in grime, Old Delhi is a quarter that resists change; women still stuff the interior of medieval irons with hot coals to press the wrinkles out of their families’ clothing. Teenage boys patiently await their turn to bathe at a hand pump spigot. Two are in boxer briefs and give no thought of their exposure to public view. When it is their turn they squat underneath the public fountain to wet themselves. One bathes while the other pumps. They switch off and in no time both are lathered up from head to ankles. An older man calls them over and administers and examination of their hair with a long, thin toothpick-like instrument. My only guess is that he is checking for lice. More boys arrive and jostle to get wet, only to be reproached by a withered fellow triple their age. To maintain order at the pump, the grey-stubbled man smacks two of them in the back of the head without verbal warning. Both retreat and wait while mildly chuckling at their punishment. Message sent, message received. There are no complaints of abuse or violations of policy to sue-happy parents. Order is not to be toyed with. Old Delhi may be unwelcoming and unsightly to the newcomer, but rules are rules.
Old Delhi is not without spurts of humanity. Though in a perpetual state of collapse and decay, a fruit vendor beckons me over and gives me a banana for no other reason than to be kind. I ask permission to take photographs of the boys enjoying their bath. None object. They gather together to strike a pose, one of dark skin, white teeth, and cotton shaped white suds on their torsos and shoulders. Girls just out of the toddler stage, filthy, barefoot, and malnourished, step up to my feet and extend their hand. Instead of the all too familiar begging motion for a few rupees, they turn their hands around, palms facing my waist and wave to me. “Hello…” They disappear between a bullock cart and a cycle rickshaw on which the driver is draped in some tortuous contorted position, miraculously still asleep. Men caked in filth and sapped of their strength to look for shelter elsewhere surrender to lay down on the thin stone median between motor traffic. Though in plain sight, motorists and the rest of the public, pretend they are not there. Welcome to India.

If it weren’t for the drooping power lines, the Jama Masjid would be easier to spot from a distance. But as I get within two hundred yards of the red sandstone behemoth, there is little doubt as to why India’s oldest mosque is the spiritual focal point for Old Delhi.
My qualms with Islam aside, I like mosques. I really do. I don’t always know whether I will be welcome to enter. In Tunisia, being a non-Muslim within the actual hall of worship was a big no-no. While in Sarajevo, the imam gave me a tour and invited me back for a second visit. Mosques are peaceful and serene. Devout followers of Islam reveal a reverence for their faith. Voices are kept low. Mosques are where blue, green, and gold can work their magic in the reliefs of arabesque arches and arcades. As in Hindu temples, all guests must remove their shoes.
Not your ordinary community center, when at full capacity the Jama Masjid’s stone block courtyard can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. That’s twenty-five THOUSAND.
I take a seat off to the side and continually run my hotel towel over my face and chest. It has taken me a few minutes to regain my composure from belligerent welcome afforded me at the East Gate. Though admission to non-believers is free, staff insists on collecting a two-hundred rupee camera fee. I walked through the gate without paying. Knowing full well I intend to make more than one visit, I do not document anything beyond pen and paper. My brisk entrance without payment has caused much consternation among the elders at the gate, who in turn have summoned a man several years younger than I to hunt me down.
“You come in. You must buy ticket. For camera.”
“I’m not taking any pictures. I don’t need a ticket.”
“No, no, no. You pay. Two-hundred rupees.”
I’ll try again. “No, no camera.” I know the rules. There is a fee for photography within the walls. But I am not going to give in, no matter how naïve I am to my surroundings. Looking back, I am more or less convinced it was their missing out on needed revenue that was the source of our disagreement. Nevertheless, my stubbornness and naïveté do not serve me well. My choices in engaging in a direct confrontation, in a mosque as a non-muslim, are poor at best.
The lanky twerp set on ticketing me sighs and points at the pockets of my cargo pants. “You have camera! There!”
“No, no camera!” I have mildly raised my voice, a mistake. We are attracting attention. Soon enough, a dozen men formed a semicircle around this self-appointed meter maid. They all look as one big person, six times the size of me. All are in white dhotis; identical embroidered caps covered each head. None speak. All stare, right at me.
“Pockets!” he once again argues. I have my camera well hidden in a side flap. I decide to call his bluff.
“Do you want to see my bag?” I say while unzipping all the main chambers.
Robocop has taken this as an insult. He looks away as if it would be an offense to inspect it. It is more likely that he would not touch my bag in fear of not finding a camera; he isn’t willing to take that chance and lose face in front of what was an audience. I hold up the bag for him and he outstretches his arms. His hands are between the bag and his face to block it from view. “No, no, no.”
As a last act of desperation, Chief Wiggam orders me out of the mosque. I protest, but much less vociferously. “Why? What did I do?” None of the semicircle can understand the English and none so much as twitch or offer a change in their facial expressions.
“You go.”
“No.” Again, this was not my best course of action. To further entrench myself in poop, I zip up my bag and threw at his bare feet. “Go ahead, you look.”
Barney Fife steps back and relents. The others in attendance do not know what to make of the drama. Should they side against me, the outsider, the non-believer? They’d need a reason and have none. Nothing has been interpreted from English into Hindi or Urdu, much to my relief. There would be no more show. Other Westerners are arriving. They have already pulled out their Sony Cybershots, potential revenue to be collected. What mild tension had mounted, like my rival, simply dissipates.

I took to a side arcade to study the mosque’s vermillion façade at an angle. Flanked on each side are two forty-meter minarets, trimmed in off white marble. A door opens to an observation platform two-thirds of the way up. Two onion domes sit next to each minaret. They both frame their big brother of dome in the dead center, which stands out as a magnet for Old Delhi’s pigeons to meet and converse. From the left minaret all the way to the other side of the roof, it is an image of flawless symmetry.
The reflecting pool reminds me of the one in the Court of Myrtles in Granada’s Alhambra. I used to give tours of the Moorish place, where I once lived in Southern Spain. The similarities between the Jama Masjid and Alhambra are easy to draw. The pool at the center of the courtyard, receives a flow of running water at a corner so as not to disturb the reflection its surface is meant to create. Overflow from the pool falls into side ducts where men engage in the ritual of washing their feet. They brush their teeth. Without the luxury of a toothbrush, some scrub with their fingers. Those not involved in washing sit on the ledge with their backs to the water.
Inside the mosque, men sit alone, chant, and rock to self readings of the Koran.
Each observation I make I put on paper. No camera. I take notice of the scaffolding on the two smaller onion domes and dip my head into my notebook to scribble what I have just seen. As I raise my eyes to finish my review, the mosque has disappeared in parts. So has the sunshine.
“Babu! Hey, Babu!” cries out an elderly woman. “Babu! Hey, Babu!” The tootheless and lipless woman repeats this same chant for a solid ten minutes. Her knees practically touch mine. I can see nothing but her green and white print shawl and dress to her ankles. Her right eye is barely open and the left is useless. A cloudy blue cataract covers the pupil. She is more an annoyance if anything else. I dig in for a war of attrition until a caretaker shoos her away.
The wrinkles on her face are lined with years of pain.
“Hey, Babu…Babu? Babu? Babu! Hey, Babu!” The only other motion she can muster beyond the herculean effort of not falling over, is a herky-jerky gesture of placing her shriveled fingers into her mouth as a sign of eating. I cannot help her in any way. She has sentenced herself to wandering after foreigners in the mosque. If I have learned anything at all since arriving in India, it is that there are certain things I cannot change.
“Hey, Babu…”

Women in the Jama Masjid rarely walk around unaccompanied. The only non-Muslims inside the mosque or courtyard are foreign visitors. Not anywhere in the vicinity of the mosque have I come across a Sikh or Hindu. The thought of either coming here seems extremely unlikely. Except for pure outsiders such as myself, it is as if the Jama Masjid is a no-man’s land for non-Muslim Indians.
In order to get as much down in my notebook as I can, even I have started to ignore the dozen or so flies encircling then landing on various parts of my clothing and bare feet. For that reason alone, I draw in worshippers and their silent stares. First it will be one in a group, always men, to break the ice and sit next to me. He is the one whose English is the strongest, even if his vocabulary is not better than a starting NBA guard. With no regard for personal space, he leans over to see what I am writing. And then I get it. I am writing. Of the thousand or so in the mosque, I am the only one with a notebook open and a pen in his hand. No one comes to a mosque to write. I am different, a distraction. Those left behind then close in on me. From the top of my notebook, which I have set on my lap, I can see their kneecaps in the periphery. Daylight is gone. Their heads have blocked out the sun.
I am rather effective at ignoring people when they harass me. Beggars, touts, scam artists always relent because I have more time than they do. And they know I know they’re swindlers. But this is different. A crowd of fourteen has smothered me, but left me just enough clearance so I can move my right arm. They stare at me, expressionless. I initially ignore the blankness in their faces. None utter a single word. I uncomfortably look back at all of them. I dip my shoulder and peer around a thigh to show that I’d like to see something besides the pelvises of Indian men. None move. I don’t speak.
The only thing to do is to stand up and say hello. I manufacture the kind of smile from a salesman pushing vacuum cleaners door to door in an upscale suburban neighborhood. And it works. All fourteen men smile back. OK, this is going a lot better than when I first got here. The only one with any English struggled to form a question. “What country?”
With a pause: “I am American.” The word American is powerful and leaves no room for confusion no matter what your capacity is to understand English. All the men murmur to each other to confirm my nationality. None change position, much less moved his feet. “Boston. New York.” This riles them up a little more. Then suddenly, the murmurs subside back to silence. It would be awkward to walk away at that point. But what was there left to say? I put my open hand out and shook the first one that met mine. I repeated this until I had greeted every last man, each with a smile.
Smiles and handshakes go a long way. I subsequently learned they were on a three-day pilgrimage from Lucknow. The pious youths in V-shaped untrimmed black beards wave at me each time we walked past each other in the courtyard for the next two days. I was in. I was welcome. I was OK to come back.
Some of the stares intended for me at the Jama Masjid have not been out of curiosity. On certain occasions I have been successful and have disarmed glares of hostility. But on others, it has been made crystal clear that an element that frequents the mosque does not approve of my presence. I am not like the others who came for twenty minutes, snap a few photos and left. Many eyes have squinted at me in piercing disapproval. Yet, no one ever communicates this verbally. Behind those eyes is an anger few have had the ability or willingness to keep to themselves.
Wind-driven sheets of rain have soaked the courtyard. The side porches of the mosque shelter all but two boys who see this as a chance to strip down and make a water show out of the storm on the stone slabs. Puddles quickly form, deep enough to immerse a quarter of their bodies when laid out prone. They’re having a blast. Pilgrims next to me, also seated against the wall, read from newspapers in Urdu or explore advanced features in their cell phones. The arches from above blocked the onion domes and minarets from view. Canopies set up to keep the public dry while praying collapse underneath the weight of the downpour. Behind me boys play cricket on a flat parcel of earth, slop, and compacted trash. I smile at one man nearby who had focused his thoughts into the courtyard.
He returns the gesture and says, “God bless you” in perfect English.


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