Scruffy in Delhi

Finally, the morning of our departure. We wake up to find that the power is out in our part of Sausalito. That means no shower.

Dan and I run around cleaning up our lives a bit so that they don’t embarrass us in our absence. I get a haircut. I need some way to clip my tripod to my backpack so I pick up some marine-grade hardware at West Marine. It comes at a marine-grade price, and it occurs to me that my new carabiner cost a week’s wages for a low-paid Indian.

Before long we’re driving through San Francisco, where we pick up Amelia, who will be house-sitting while we’re gone. Since Dan has a business-class ticket, we can use the BA Club, which gives us a nice place to spend the hour before the flight. When we check in, we’re told “You will be boarding through the Library.”

We stare for a moment.

“Did you just say we would be boarding through the Library?”

“Yes, of course. It’s towards the rear of the Club.” (The british have a very lovely ability to be able to pronounce words with capital letters.)

And indeed, an hour later we pass through the Library, where pulling on one of the books causes the bookcase to swivel aside, revealing a hidden passage that leads directly to the boarding ramp.

Okay, I’m kidding. You don’t have to pull on a book. There is an attendant to do that for you.

I’m somewhere over Saskatchewan when I realize that I’m still unshaven, and that I didn’t have a chance to minimize my beard. So basically I look like I just stumbled out from under a blanket. Luckily, I manage to sleep through the shame.

London, briefly. I buy shaving cream and a razor, and then shave on the plane. Then, 7 hours later, we’re in Delhi. Dan’s suitcase hadn’t arrived, but BA assures us it will within 20 minutes. (And it does, albeit the next evening.)

Delhi! At 3 in the morning, the town sleeps. Our driver takes us from the airport to the Hotel Shanti Home, and while the streets aren’t empty, they are quiet. Here and there a night watchman warms his hands over a campfire built on the sidewalk, and there are quite a few packs of rather feral-looking dogs, but overall the city seems peaceful.

The next morning we wake at around 9am, ready to see India for the first time. After a light breakfast up on the roof of the hotel (included!) we headed out into Delhi.

First impressions… everyone is selling something. A lot of it is being sold on the sidewalk, and behind that, there are shops.

Second impressions, men are peeing everywhere. There are many on-street urinals, consisting of a waist-high partition in front of a wall or trough. From the smell of these, the pee doesn’t make it into any sort of fancy sewer system. But you also see men peeing on sidewalks, walls, basically anywhere they can turn their back to the crowds.

We took the modern Metro to Red Fort, a huge red sandstone fortress that was built in 1638. It was originally constructed by Shah Jahan as a vacation home. After Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in Agra as a mausoleum for his favorite wife, his son Aurangzeb had him thrown in jail, moved the capital of their kingdom to Delhi, and completed construction of the Red Fort as his new palace. (You think your family has issues…)

While the walls and some buildings of Red Fort are red sandstone, the primary buildings housing the royals are made of white marble, and constructed so that water from the nearby river flowed through the grounds and the buildings. Imagine a hot Delhi summer, sitting in a cool white marble palace designed to allow the breezes to flow through. A stream of water flows down the center of the building, cooling every room. That same stream continues through other buildings, pools and fountains.

Then imagine beautiful courtesans, musicians, dancers. It must have been a paradise for those lucky enough to live within the palace walls.

After Red Fort, we head back out to the streets, and wander until we come (pretty much by accident) across the Jama Masjid. Another construction of Shah Jahan, this is the largest mosque in India, and the courtyard holds 25,000 worshipers. Non-believers can enter, but there are rules. Women have to cover themselves modestly, and there is a charge of Rs200 to bring in a camera (about US$4).

At the entrance a group of Israeli women loudly argues against this charge with the gatekeeper. There are four of them, and they say they will only use one camera, so they only want to pay one fee. When the gatekeeper says that they will have to pay for each camera, two of the women get very upset. One of them stamps off, and another tries to console her. She stamps back to yell at the guard. “You are insulting your god by making money from the temple!” It is pretty embarrassing just to watch. To be fair, two of the women in the group also look pretty mortified.

At Jama Masjid, we meet Rajeet, a doe-eyed man with a shy smile. He is just leaving the mosque as we were entering. Our eyes meet, he smiles, and we spend the next minute exchanging meaningful glances. I finally go up to him and introduce myself. That’s when I learn his name, and that he doesn’t speak any English at all. Not a word. Despite this, it’s clear to me that Rajeet is gay, lonely, and not sure what do to about it. He walks around the mosque with us, silent and smiling.

The mosque is for all intents and purposes a park and community center. Families sit on the stone floor, picnicking away from the insanity of the Delhi streets. Kids run around and have epic battles with plastic swords. Off to one side are a hundred or so prayer rugs rolled up waiting to be unfurled facing towards Mecca. Above us stand the four towers and 2 minarets, built of alternating red sandstone and white marble.

Like every religious site, it is a peaceful place, and it is calming just to walk around the courtyard taking it all in.

We leave the mosque, the three of us, walking together but not saying anything. On the side of the mosque away from the gate, we come to a police cordon. There are hundreds of police and street barricades, but nothing seems to be happening. People are just standing around, as if waiting for something to happen.

Of course we continue, past the barricades.

As we move forward, the crowd gets thicker, until the street is packed with people. The crowd surges forward and back, and ‘floats’ are carried through the crowd on the shoulders of boys. The floats consist of a tower of sparkly color, foil and transparent films on a rectangular tower. I have no reference for them, but there are a half dozen, towers pushing through the crowd.

festival outside jama masjid / delhi, india

tower of glitter / delhi, india

There are drummers, banging unbelievably loud snares, deafening, pushing the crowd aside with waves of sound. I snap a picture and they demand money. I would give them some, but my cash is all tightly secured in sealed pockets, and I don’t want to take out wads of cash in this crowd. They bang their drums at me, fast, loud, insistent. Somehow I manage to melt back into the crowd.

the angry drummer / delhi, india

Another surge, as two boys appear swinging 6′ fluorescent light tubes. They swing them around like scythes, clearing a 20′ diameter circle in the crowd. The boys, each in their twenties, strut around waving the fluorescent tubes like batons. And then, suddenly, they smash the tubes violently against their own faces. Shards of glass fly everywhere. I feel pieces landing in my hair. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I worry about my eyes. But I’m spellbound, standing at the edge of the opening. Behind me, I hear Dan say “oh my god.”

fluorescent tube spinner / delhi, india

fluorescent tube flagellant / delhi, india

More tubes appear, handed to the two boys. Then swing them in wide arcs, barely missing the edge of the crowd, before once again smashing them against their own heads. Once again, glass rains down onto the crowd as the tubes explode on both boys simultaneously. I’m becoming sickened by this violent self-flagellation even as a photograph it. I look to Rajeet, who only shrugs.

This happens a third time before the police rush in, dozens of them, to stop it. There are shouts from the crowd, and the police start swinging their batons. It feels like a riot is about to happen, so I signal to Dan and Rajeet that it’s time to go, and we push our way down a side street, against the human pressure flowing into the square, and then into another, quieter side alley with a guard.

There is a restaurant there, and we sit for an hour eating tandoori and drinking tea. When we come out again, the festival is still happening. We make our way out, and Rajeet leads us slowly back to the Metro.

Rajeet looks sad, and I feel his loneliness. He shakes my hand, and then touches his heart. He does the same with Dan. We walk down the long flight of stairs into the Metro. At the bottom I look back and see him silhouetted at the top. Dan and I wave. At the top of the stairs, Rajeet waves back. And then we’re around the corner and gone.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

This morning I pick my nose to pull out an enormous black booger, at least 1/2″ in diameter. It makes a tiny screeching noise, jumps off my finger, and then skitters away across the bathroom floor.

The taxi picks us up at 6:15am, and we drive through the fog northwards to the New Delhi train station. The car swoops and swerves, somehow not hitting cargo trucks, auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, pedestrians, ox carts, and even camels who also use the road. Red lights are ignored. Lane markers seem to be some traffic planners’ ideal, dreamed of, but which always leaves him sobbing over cheap beer in a dark traffic-planners’ bar.

We arrive at the station, where early morning chaos rules. A very kind attendant tells us to go to to track 2, where another kindly gentleman helps us to find our seats. (Once you find your train’s platform, look on a pin board facing the train, find your name, and you car and seat will be listed.)

The platform is crowded with porters, hand-carts, passengers, and a half dozen burros.

We’re on the train to Chandigarh. As we roll out of New Delhi station, we pass through stereotypically horrifying Indian slums. Homes that consist of a few boards leaned together, or tents made of cast-off rags. Whole neighborhoods consist of tree branches and tarps. 20-year-olds squat by the tracks, resigned (and somewhat content) with their place within society. We pass miles of men, women, and children squatting in the fields between the slums and the tracks, their asses hanging out as they perform their morning toilet. And we roll northwards, eventually leaving the city and passing through farmland dotted with the occasional shrine. In the seat in front of us, an old woman softly sings her prayers.

[Politics follow. If you’re only interested in travel, stop here.]

I grew up in a fairly poor family by the standards of the United States (by the standards of India my family was very comfortable). My father never completed high school. As a boy, he needed to work to help support his family. The U.S. government stepped in many times to help us. It provided educational materials to help my Dad transform from a repairman to a farmer, and tax credits to help purchase land for farming. There were small business loans to help us build our business. The government built decent schools for myself and my siblings, and helped to pay for college when we were ready. After college, the government helped me build my own business, and rewarded me with tax breaks when that business was successful.

That’s why I have no patience for those who oppose the estate tax. No one becomes wealthy in this country without the help of the United States. And by ‘United States’, I don’t mean ‘President Obama’ or any other individual. I mean the collective, every one of us. It’s an ideal, and it’s prone to corruption, but the ideal still stands. In the United States, we are working together to make life better for everyone. And when you die, it’s time to give a little back. Not 100%, but a reasonable amount.

We should not be a country of dynasties, where incredible wealth is centered with a few powerful families. We’re a country of work, a meritocracy. If your dad worked hard, it will doubtless make your life easier, but you should earn your own place in society. And the U.S. government will be there to help you.

— Ron

P.S. Dan’s new Indian cell phone offers a ‘Pope Alert’ service. Presumably to warn you that he’s in the area?

P.P.S. This is for Doug at Glassdoor:

buzzwords / delhi, india

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