The thing that makes travel writing so difficult is that one starts to live in the moment so immediately, and absorbs the reality of a very different environment. I then no longer think to make notes of moments that would be utterly bizarre if they happened in England, but so unremarkable here that it seems dull to even write about them. So I will build on some of the sketchy little scenes of a bank holiday weekend in Delhi, which are perhaps rather coloured by reading Gandhi’s autobiography on the plane home, so it all gets a little esoteric.
When people think of India, they focus so much on the dirt, on the religious observances, the apparently so much more colourful take on life. It’s strange that Europe and North America, with a combined population of maybe 1.5 billion, persist in the notion that colourful clothes are “exotic” – since what we consider colourful cloth is worn by the majority of the world’s population, it is rather we Westerners that dress very drably.
It is also something of a cliche to claim that all Indians are wandering around in bright blues, lilacs, greens and purples – they are after all not permanently at a wedding, and the poor majority are wandering the streets in little more than rags. It is horrible to watch that, but I am maybe naively optimistic that increased prosperity for India as a whole will trickle down to the poorest. The huge challenge of creating modern infrastructure will provide low-skilled building jobs, and the politicians’ need for votes may avoid too much nepotism. If GDP continues to grow at its current rate, it will soon be the Europeans and Americans who go over there for the jobs, rather than vice versa.
The main purpose of my two day visit to Delhi was a friend’s wedding, so I spent one day on wedding preparations and the wedding itself, and one day sightseeing.
I last visited Delhi about 5 years ago, and in the meantime it appears to have been transformed. The airport terminal seems entirely new, clean and air conditioned. There were still entire families collecting rubbish off the side of the motorway on the way into town, but the diplomatic area seems to have been landscaped and all the itinerants cleared off elsewhere.
On a day of sightseeing in 45 degree heat, I went to a somewhat dull temple, and then to the Gandhi memorial, which is the house, or rather the garden that Gandhi died in. It was one of the most moving things I have seen, and reminded me just how important India is as a thought leader – and what a shame it is that its achievements, and the moral premium of democracy are ignored by the supposedly do-gooding nations of Europe and America. If America is so keen to right perceived injustices, to promote democracy and prevent the rise of communism, why does it award one major contract after the other to China, the most unequal, corrupt regime outside maybe North Korea? Why does it seem so insecure about pursuing and wooing Indian trade links? I do wonder about our view of the world, how we can simultaneously make vague and sweeping statements about “third world corruption”, but conveniently ignore horrific cases of corruption in our own country. I read recently about a policeman who stopped female motorists and threatened to give them a ticket unless they had sex with him. A whole swathe of Met police were recently involved in some sort of scandal involving their expense accounts; Enron was the world’s biggest case of corporate corruption; and Blackwater is still just that – a very murky story of building contracts being awarded to cronies.
Gandhi was one of world history’s greatest minds, and it is to all our detriment that no one like him is alive today. He would be so disappointed, and so unsurprised, at the way things have turned out, in particular the tragedy that is Pakistan today. It is such a beautiful country, and the people are universally friendly (in the Punjab at any rate).
The fact that Gandhi’s favourite phrase of the Bible was from the Sermon on the Mount, “whosoever smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”, and his fear that creating a divided Muslim nation would only lead to focussing on other “separations”, mean that he would be equally unsurprised at the conflict (from what I can vaguely remember from my childhood) with the Sikhs in Amritsar in the 1980s, which was the motive for Indira Gandhi‘s assassination, with the Maoists, or the civil war in neigbouring Sri Lanka.
We drove right up to the museum, and walked in with no security checks. This was a refreshing change from the bodychecks that seem to be performed several times a day upon entry to almost every building or even public space.
From the front entrance, you walk around the small, low bungalow to the quite generous expanse of gardens and outhouses at the back. The narrow brick-laid pathway then stretches ahead, inlaid with footsteps set in concrete. As I walked along the path, it became obvious what the significance of these steps was, leading up the the point where Gandhi was assassinated. It was heartbreaking to be walking along, following the last steps taken by an old man walking to his death 62 years ago, in the baking hot sunshine of a Delhi summer.
There were few people around. After being asked to take our shoes off, we stepped up to the lawn where he died. On one side there was a small house with a very faded mural showing the main stages of his life in a somewhat naive manner. It made me think about some future horde of excavators coming across it in hundreds of years’ time, no longer having any knowledge of 20th century history, and going on about “primitive art”, and how the garden was no doubt a form of devotion to a “primitive” God.
We walked into the house, which held his five possessions (a bed, a loom, sandals, cloth, and I think a spoon). The rest of the house they had filled with various tableaux of his life. Fittingly, most of the exhibits did not require the ability to read. They were little figurines in display cases, showing his marriage as a 12 year old child, his trip to South Africa, being thrown off the train in Natal for sitting in first class inspite of having a ticket, returning to India, the various mutinies, fasts and battles passively won.
In many ways what he said had such a Christian message – the criticism of the caste system and its associated outlawing of the untouchables in particular; the whole focus on forgiveness. There were several photo stories featuring some of his quotes, his hope for a united India, his pleas to stop retaliation and revenge killings, particularly during partition.
He thought that celibacy was a virtue to be cultivated, as well as not having material possessions and something else – I remember an Indian friend talking about it but can’t remember exactly what the concept was, and I clearly didn’t understand it. I think perhaps he was talking about Bramchary, which involves celibacy and purity of thought in all sorts of ways. The other one was Ahimsa, which I think is the concept of loving God through loving other people.
There was also a brilliant quote about the tediousness of Purdah – the arrogance of thinking a woman”s purity was under anyone’s control but their own, and the hypocrisy of the lack of equal concern for male chastity.
We then went to the Indira Gandhi memorial, which I found much less impressive, because it was in such contrast to the Mahatma Gandhi memorial. The most touching part of his house was how little he owned, whereas Indira positively surrounded herself with things. Her study was filled floor to ceiling with books on all four walls.
She was killed by her Sikh bodyguards at the security checkpoint by the entrance to her house in 1984. They had made quite an impressive installation consisting of a walkway of pieces of glass leading to the point where she was assassinated. Apparently after her death one of her two assassins was shot immediately by the other guards, and the other tried and hanged.
We went on a disappointing shopping trip to a market, where I bought a few scarves and other rather trivial things. The prices seemed so much higher than on my last trip, and were not that far off what I might pay for an ordinary scarf at an English market. I don’t consider £5 to be particularly cheap, but I didn’t want to offend my guide by haggling for ages. I was quite amused by a sales pitch claiming that the cotton was “Swiss cotton”. I don’t think they understood my inquiry about the potential difficulty of growing cotton in the Swiss climate.
On the way out from the market, my guide suggested I could get henna done on my hand. I think he wanted to be able to provide some money for the very poor ladies sitting under a tree and selling any handiwork; hair braiding, hands, weaving. Had I realised that it took 3 hours to dry, and 2 weeks to fade, I might have thought about it a little more and just got my hair braided.
As it was, I happily sat down on the ledge next to where these people appeared to sleep, on cardboard boxes. There were some children under two asleep on a pile of rags, and a child of about 1 year old running around in little shorts.
The lady who sat working on my hand seemed quite happy. She handed over to her friend to do the other side of my hand, and went to look after her child. The child was crawling around on all fours, and started peeing as it wandered about. She appeared not to notice at all, picked it up, gave it a kiss and held it tight against her. I’m not quite sure why I liked that scene so much.
The wedding itself was the very daunting piece of the trip. I had been shopping for saris, and had selected a turquoise blue sparkly length of cloth. Once back in the hotel, I had no idea how to tie the top into the skirt, but the hotel office manager very helpfully did it for me. The ceremony started in the evening, when it was still about 40 degrees. We were driven first to a small ceremony, where the bride and groom donned a very heavy red veil and a turban respectively, and then to the venue. Since I was part of the wedding party, I then had to stand around outside, entirely sober, as part of a procession that was required to slowly dance to the front of the stairs, where a military marching band serenaded the couple. Awkward didn’t really cover it, but I tried to smile at everyone as much as possible.
This was followed by many hours of delicious food, processions, photographs, present-giving and socialising. The religious ceremony took place at about 2 am, and went on for some time. It did all seem considerably more solemn and mysterious than “to have and to hold”, but since I had absolutely no idea what was going on, it was somewhat difficult to stay awake.
The next day, there was another reception, this time in a hotel. This appeared to be an overflow wedding type arrangement, where more distant business contacts are invited, and the focus is on elaborate canapes and ostentatious gifts. The saris were more decorated, and people spent a great deal of time talking about banking.
General travel tips
– Bring lots of antibacterial handwash and wet wipes, and use whenever you touch anything, particularly money. I’m usually not a hygiene freak, but also haven’t ever got any bugs on three trips to India and Pakistan, so fussy is good.
– Bring lots of full length skirts if you’re a woman, or loose linen trousers. They are cool and universally acceptable for all occasions; in my opinion more so than the trekking trousers everyone insists on wearing – it’s not a safari.
– I’ve never been harrassed in India, even wandering around alone in Delhi at dusk, but I’m told it’s common. I showed no skin, made no eye contact and wore a fake wedding ring. People did walk up to me sometimes. I pretended I hadn’t noticed and crossed the road.
– Small denominations, including dollars, for tips.
– At airport security make sure you take a luggage tag for all your hand luggage, and do get a receipt for everything you buy in duty free. This is because, when you attempt to board, a random security guard will check that there is a security stamp on each of your luggage tags, or a receipt for everything in your duty free bags. For some reason the airport staff don’t actually explain why they are so insistently handing you the tags, and I nearly had to turn on the tears.
– Don’t dress shabbily. It might look kind of cool, but it makes most Indians think you must be poor, which is not necessarily a good thing.
– Bring some envelopes to put money in that you intend to give as a gift to your hosts or for a wedding.
– As a general rule, single women don’t sit next to men they are not related to at any time.
Everything else should be kind of obvious to anyone with a brain and a guide book. Oh, and do stop asking Indians about arranged marriages. Maybe it’s not so bad, but I view it as quite a patronising question, as if they are such different people that the whole concept is foreign – variations of the idea are common throughout history, and the idea that compatible backgrounds make for good alliances is not exactly new. It is obviously complicated and laden with tradition, but I’m sure some aspects of Western courting rituals are slightly more complicated than they seem to the outsider – even if it looks like a) down a few tequilas, b) snog someone, c) ask for their phone number – or the other way around if you’re really classy.
- Sonia Gandhi reminiscent of Mahatma? Sycophancy at its best (ramanan50.wordpress.com)