Delhi dally

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"That's my little octopussy..."
Drop brief anchor in Udaipur (oodahpoerrr, pronounce it as you think you might and you won't get far), in the dusty foot-hills of Rajasthan, and odds are 007:1 you'll spend an evening on a lakeside, roofless rooftop restaurant gorging on local spice and watching James Bond's Octopussy.

It is quite the bizarre experience, savouring a saucy malai kofta or tangy tikka, sucking on a mango lassi, and watching an open-air screening of the movie, keeping one eye on Bond girl Maud Adams tantalizing the eponymous hero with her eight-tentacled tattoo and the other on a lake island hotel, a key location in the thirteenth chapter of the classic franchise. Pure bioscope.

Local hotels nearly all offer nightly screenings. Waiters' young children and their friends try to sit unobtrusively on benches in the shadows of the rooftop perimeter walls, night after night, mouthing the lines milliseconds before the words crackle out of dusty loudspeakers, giggling when one of the little gaggle fluffs a phrase.

The beautiful white marble Lake Palace hotel, once a royal summer retreat built in the mid-18th century, completely covers a small island in the middle of Lake Pichola, leaving a magical impression of a floating mirage. The masterpiece is one of the calling cards of a city of palaces and lakes that began when 16th century Prince Udai Singh, on a hunting expedition, chanced upon a sadhu (holy man) meditating in the hills who promised good fortune and safety should the prince build a palace in the valley. He promptly did, and dammed up the creek.

History documents the settlement becoming a capital of palaces, as the prince's descendents and their neighbours all found the climate pleasant enough to indulge in centuries of architectural tit-for-tat. Grand edifices adorn Pichola’s two islands, the imposing Monsoon Palace stands at the top of the highest hill, and a number of other royal romp-spots are spread in between.

The old city, strung along one edge of the lake, is a myriad of twisting paths and nooks, startling one with temples that seem to rise out of the oddest blind corners. Lanes tuck and turn to the winding whim of the protective wall lining the rear of the massive City Palace, Singh’s original contribution. Round a bend downtown, and Jagdish Temple, with its near life-sized elephant edifices, seems to rear up out of what should have been just another knock-and-drop road of shops.

There is a soft, romantic, calm and peaceful cocoon-like feel to the city, without the overpopulated, mechanised bustle of Mumbai and Chennai. Renowned for its lakes, Udaipur is known at the 'Venice of India’, though doubtless the local cynics would have a vernacular put-down for the lake city in the middle of a drought.

There was water in the wide, shallow lake, but about 5m below its high-water mark, leaving a slow-gradient 200m perimeter of crusted, cracked mud flakes and slush between promenade path and water’s edge.

"We didn't have a good monsoon," I am told. "Nor the year before." The still, dank water should carry every health warning sign in the book, except, perhaps, for “beware of crocodiles”. The water has an uncomfortable froth and questionable colour, yet still happily passes as a swimming hole, bathing zone and laundry facility – and no doubt a drinking supply for the unfortunate.

Udaipur attracted princedom and a plethora of palaces because it offers cool, dry relief from most of the country’s swelter. For the first time in three months my body is not coated in varying degrees of perspiration. Sri Lanka and southern coastal India are 24/7 sweat machines. Two changes of shirt a day. Shower at lunch, rinse and hang, shower at dusk, rinse, hang, and put on noon’s now dried laundry. At best this offers proof that the old body’s cooling mechanisms are still in reasonable working order.

In the city of oddly unexpected surprises, a procession advances slowly down a lane, headed by a grey-bearded man on a horse, dressed maharaja-style, small, dandy curls to his moustache carefully tailored. A four-piece brass band, tuba, French horn, trombone and trumpet, in Salvation Army-style peak hats and brocade, kick up a martial rumpety-pump racket behind, surrounded by 30 or 40 dancing, swirling saris. The maharaja disdainfully flicks a momentary downward glance at my curious stare.

Bemusedly walk on a block or two, and by now without great shock or ado, chance upon an elephant ambling down the middle of the road. Recall another elephant I nearly tailgated in Goa. Passing a very slow-moving truck on an old scooter I nearly have an eye taken out by the frisky whisk of a working jumbo's tail, keeping, quite rightly, to its side of the road.

That, I am learning, is India.

It is Lord Hanuman’s birthday, one of the most beloved of Hindu’s deities. He is worshipped for his extreme devotion to God, his strength, energy, power and ability to conquer evil spirits. Hanuman, embodied with an apelike face and human body is also known as a standard bearer of integrity and humility. Devotees flock to temples on this holy day. A passing, written, comment catches one’s attention: “I get really upset when Hanuman is addressed as a ‘Monkey God’. No one calls Mahavir in Jainism a ‘naked Mahavir’, or Buddha in Buddhism ‘long ear-lobed Buddha’, or Jesus in Christianity ‘starved, malnutritioned, clotheless Jesus’.”  

Onwards, northwards to New Delhi, into the seething mass of Parhan Ganj, the frenzied bazaar street that runs off the city’s rail station, and budget hotel central. Spend a day or two enjoying the overwhelming rush of hawkers and wares, leather shoes, bags, jackets and the full wardrobe of Indian cotton garb in this, a properly seething, mostly pedestrian street kilometres long. A piece of rhetoric soon invokes itself: how many steps can one take before being accosted and offered any nature of hashish, marijuana, heroin, opium, "the best cream", and a litany of words and phrases describing similar alternative amusements. The answer: between two and 10.

Modus operandi: the silent sidle, the sudden appearance at one's side of a pair of flickering eyes scanning the street while trying to get your attention at the same time: "Need something.... the best, from Kashmir, Manali... best prices... best quality..."

Nobody takes "no" for an answer. That’s just pathetic sales practice. Hammer on, persist, hone in, wear the customer down.

Learn the quick cut-off. The lightest shake of the head, the briefest sideways brush of the right hand’s palm. Curt, but not discourteous. No time for this matter now, old chap. It cuts the claptrap dead in its tracks. Any more time given to the response, any attempted wit only opens the door to unwanted perseverance.

When bored of the never-ending human spam, there is always the option of turning the tables and concocting an amusing interlude. Toss a bait. Inquire “how much”, which is tantamount to saying "yes, I will buy”. Ponder a mostly ludicrous price. Mention you are of Africa, where pillowcases of the green stuff can be bought for a small percentage of what he is asking.  

Of course that is only grist to a verbal mill. First and final lesson of street selling: keep the punter talking, keep the punter talking. Up to a point, that is. I have all day, he must make a sale. When the truth finally dawns that this particular drifting grey-beard is just passing the time of day, a little aggression intrudes: "Why you playing with me? Why you waste-a my time?" Nod the head, murmur "maybe tomorrow", another polite way of saying "no", but a phrase that can drive a salesman to incontinence. One of each 20 targets might really mean “tomorrow”. Which one?

The extended pavement bazaar includes every bric-a-brac shoplet imaginable... bags, carpets, watches, jewellery, food stalls, incense, shawls.... "come looka my shop... don't worry, no buy, just come inside..." The same gag, keep 'em talking. Then there’re the commission dingoes: "Come see my shop, down the street... just come inside." Truth is anybody who can get a tourist, locally defined as a walking ATM machine, into a shop, earns the barker some little backhand from the shop owner. Once you're in the door, the salesman takes over. And between all this is the constant pester and patter of bicycle and auto-rickshaw drivers entreating you to take their transport somewhere, for something.

A shoe fixer develops a fixation. A sandal’s rubber sole has retreated about 1cm from the leather. Each day the “shoe mechanic” appears at a different location, carrying his polishing kit cum toolbox, repeats what a fine shoe fixer he is, and offers a gum-job for the princely figure of Rp20 (US$0.50). Parhan Ganj should be called 59/50. For 59 minutes of every hour somebody, somehow is trying to lighten your wallet.

The plan had been to dally in Delhi for about a week, to continue a running administrative battle that was a result of losing my passport in Hong Kong the day before the journey began. South Africa’s bureaucracy co-efficient calculates three months to replace a passport, the result of a brief, intense history of improper issuances. Interim travel is on a four-page temporary travel document. Heading towards Nepal, all the pages now have some immigration ink in evidence, and nobody will issue a visa without at least one open page. Grab an auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk in Thai speak) and head out across a rather large city to the diplomatic enclave.

The new temporary passport pitches up in two days – something that takes five working days in Hong Kong, and everybody keeps saying how slow India is. Three days later, I hear my 60-page maxi-document has landed in Hong Kong. It's raining passports. Start planning courier services between embassies.

It's a long rickshaw ride across New Delhi, a vast city of 14 million without an apparent nerve centre, seemingly without an old, core establishment, at least to a fleeting transient – kilometres of rambling 'nothing' buildings, of shabby park-type land, unending blocks of administration and education nameplates. It's is a new city, in an Indian sense. Britain decided to move its colonial capital from Calcutta to the ancient regional capital Delhi in 1911, and the first stone for the new city, New Delhi, was laid by legendary colonial architect Sir Herbert Baker. The new capital soon covered seven ancient neighbouring towns, and is one of the fastest growing cities on the planet.

Huge cities are notoriously difficult for travellers and strangers. Unless there is a specific landmark to visit, or a unique suburb’s ambience to bathe in, a brief visit can be no more than that. Functional, and leave the form to pleasanter surroundings.

An invite to the Foreign Correspondent’s club finds me back to the wall, cornered by a character of garrulous persuasion who claims – legitimately, according to witnesses – to have filed 150-odd lawsuits on "moral grounds", including against a number of previous prime ministers. The FC is his happy stomping ground, it seems, where he invariably attempts to collar a journalist, or sucker visitor, to inveigle with his tales of government chicanery. He is well known to all, and a mildly tolerable side-show. But one news agency correspondent lightly lashes out: "I can't handle this, especially on a Friday night... gimme another Kingfisher beer." Short shrift for a colourful academic who roams the court corridors by day, and files more suits by night, his pockets bulging and overflowing with pages of litigation and procedure.

"I was writing a doctoral thesis on ‘How England's Presence Influences Indian Politics’ and ‘they’ stole my work, all my thoughts..." he would entreat repeatedly. But he acknowledges the nation’s courts are so log-jammed he will be lucky to see the result of one of his challenges in his lifetime. A doorstopper from hell, with a helluva tale, perhaps for a very, very patient biographer.

Finally to the second of my journey’s few musts, the Taj Mahal.

The town of Agra is hot and dusty, where residents use camels instead of donkeys to pull their carts. It is also a town that put’s South Africa’s electricity shortages to shame. Four of five times a day, the power goes off. If you didn’t know it, you can certainly hear it. Thump-thump-thumps of old hand-started diesel generators begin to echo down the alleys. Most homes and buildings have a small outhouse holding their own power plant, old hand-cranked beasts whose flywheels weigh enough to be used as boat anchors. Puffs of diesel smoke and thud-d-d-d vibrations through walls and cobblestones.

And then there is the Taj Mahal. My Agra room overlooks her. It would be obscene to call something this beautiful “it”.

The building is a paean to love, built to house Emperor Shah Jahan's favourite wife after she died giving birth to their 14th child. Out of heartbreak, the Shah ordered the construction of the monument immortal, her burial chamber, an “elegy in marble” famously referred to as a teardrop that glistened "spotlessly bright on the cheek of time".

The architecture is perfect in its symmetry. Viewed from east, west, north and south, the Taj is a mirror of opposites. She stands raised on a large pedestal, above a long bend of a low-lying river. Nothing can disturb the horizon. Inside, below, lie the bodies of the loving couple, the Shah being interred with her upon his death. The casks on the ground level are for display only.

But it is the life in her stone that fascinates, a strange relationship of the translucent white marble with the sun.

The Taj seems like a flower that begins to unfurl with the early pink of dawn, stretching her petals out as the sun casts its first rays. From out of the night, folded in soothing darkness and cool, like a water lily or lotus flower, she opens her glory to full view as the day breaks.

From a dull greyness in the first gloom of dawn, the Taj's colours change, gaining life and glow from the sun. Slowly changing into subtle pinks, the marble begins to bask, and throws its reflection into the water course, the “waterway to paradise” that leads serenely about 150m from the main gateway to the tomb.

The dome and walls settle into a mellifluous pink, that hovers and entrances spectators as the morning takes hold, and the heat begins. By midday, it is at least 40 degrees Celsius, and the Taj throws off a whiteness, a bleach, not pure white, the vaguest bleached peach, a symbiosis with the heat and glare, a unique intimacy with the sun. The afternoon passes, and warmer glows once again displace the bleach in a daily ritual.

As dusk begins to beckon and evening pinks begin to radiate with her famous lustre, visitors fall into thrall, and silence displaces the day’s chatter.

The sun recedes, the Taj glows with a final, almost fiery, trapped, transferring beauty as she slowly furls her colours again and beds down for the night.

 But sadly, reality on the ground does not match the entrancing beauty of the building that breathes light.

It costs foreigners US$50 to enter. Locals US$0.50. Walking ATM machines sponsoring ATM users. The rules say you may not take in cigarettes, lighters, food, any electronic equipment other than cameras. I decide to take a book to read on a bench under a tree, and a diary to scribble thoughts.

Through the metal detector, get patted down, and get bust for cigarettes and lighter. Fair enough, no problem. But, "no books".

"It is only a novel, and a book to write in."

"No study or work allowed. Put in the locker room."

No humour, no nothing, just a little hard-arsedness – in precisely the wrong place. A sad state of affairs. Perhaps rightly for a mausoleum.

You are only allowed to carry one bottle of water in, and there is no water or food for sale within the Taj’s grounds. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to visit. To do that in one day means one bottle of water all day. It is hot, very hot, and dry.

It would seem the rationale is to get the visitors in and out as quick as possible. No lingering. Enough people want to see and pay hard cash to see. Don't let them sit and read, make them thirsty, get them out.
Sad, and beautiful.

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