DELHI November 1994,
My Dutch partner Sadhu and I are travelling to see the Taj Mahal and the Himalayas. We have come from Pune, where I have been taking lessons for several years with my sarod guru, Shekhar Borkar. I have been entrusted to take with me his new sarod, which needs some adjustments from the instrument’s maker in Delhi. To ensure this happens as smoothly as possible, I have arranged with my previous teacher, Gurdev Singh, to get help from his family, who live in Delhi. As Gurdev himself is in London, we will be relying on his teenage son Ladi to make sure the job gets done.
We are at Nizamuddin Station, Delhi, where we shouldn’t be. This train to New Delhi has made an unscheduled stop for what has by now turned into 45 minutes. In fact we shouldn’t be on this train at all! Ladi must by now be waiting as arranged, to greet us off the Kerala Express in New Delhi Station. That too was running so late that we couldn’t stand any more information-less waiting for it to move and so jumped aboard this one. Now, leaving Sadhu on board, I dash around trying to find a phone to ring Ladi’s mum, Gurmeet, to warn him of the change of plan. No luck. I’m also trying to buy a cigarette to calm my nerves, but seems they are not sold in railway stations. I’m worrying that Sadhu and our gear will depart with our train while I’m scurrying around and get back to our compartment just in time to see the Kerala Express cruise slowly by without stopping……
So we have to make our own way and finally arrive at Gurdev’s flat in Rajouri Gardens, a quiet(ish) residential district. Gurmeet is delighted to see us, keeps taking my hand and pinching Sadhu’s cheek (“NICE girlfriend, Chinmaya, SWEET”). Ladi (who had given up waiting at New Delhi station) is practicing sarod like a MANIAC, a loud, intense, hard Amjad Ali Khan on speed. The grandmother lies around on the sofa grinning and shooting questions in Punjabi at us. (Addressing Sadhu via Gurmeet’s translation and my limited Hindi): “Do you make chapatti for him in London?” I try to explain to her that in the West, one day I make chapatti and one day Sadhu does, but it is simply impossible to get this idea across. Here I am always served my food first, with Sadhu expected to eat after I’ve finished, the family looking baffled as I insist she eat with me. Breakfast is a big pile of very spicy Gobi parathas, which we are pushed to eat in quantity. To have breakfast burning your mouth is a totally new experience for Sadhu.
One day Sadhu appears in the living room wearing her newly-bought kameez (knee-length top) but without the salwar (trousers) viewing it quite understandably as a kind of dress. Ladi has a laughing fit. A while later while we are in the bathroom the door accidentally swings open just as he is passing by. His jaw drops as he glimpses Sadhu naked.
Gurmeet takes us shopping in the bazaar. It’s Guru Nanak’s birthday, so lights, decorations, loud bangs and everywhere people dressed in their colourful best, bustling with energy. We all pile into a cycle rickshaw for the ride back feeling so HIGH!
Downtown by rickshaw is a morning pollution experience (at night you can’t see more than a few meters in front of your eyes on most roads). Trying to make the driver and various passers-by understand that we want to go to Buddha Jayanti Park (which I remember from my first visit to Delhi in 1979). Blank looks: “Underground car park?” I make a Buddha meditation pose: “Aah! Puja…..” No no NO! Bugged by desolate-looking guys once we do find the park, until finally a worried-looking guard runs after us shouting in Hindi about “goonwallahs” (ruffians). We take it as a warning not to go deeper into the bush.
Back home a pundit comes to visit and read palms. Sadhu has a powerful mind and love of culture, I am exploring my creativity. But Ladi keeps interfering with boring questions about marriage and children. Sadhu will not have children, while I will have two sons and two daughters. We will both do marriage next year….. God knows what else got lost in translation!
We are taken to a Namdhari gathering (a vegetarian Sikh sect, with a lineage of living gurus, to which the family belong) presided over by his Holiness Sat-guruji Maharaj, a sweet-smiling old fellow. Medieval-looking scene, old fashioned, natural-coloured clothes, peppery beards and bright while turbans, men and women sitting separately and me with a handkerchief balanced on top of my head. It’s also a chaos of noisy kids, scratchy loudspeakers, microphone cables, money offerings etc, as well as guys strolling nonchalantly up to the bigwigs up on their podium and bowing obsequiously. This occurs during what Ladi describes to me as the ‘meditation’. Then there’s a fine kirtan band, which includes avuncular Harbhajan Singh, who I know well from my London days with Gurdev. It all ends with a 5.30pm ‘lunch’, served on leaf thalis.
Afterwards Harbhajan and I brave the pollution to go to a hidden-away backstreet instrument maker. I pick up two dilrubas for friends in Pune, plus a new swarmandel and manage to juggle all three as I perch on the back of his scooter.
Back home Ladi has taken charge of the precious sarod, and is assuring me it will all be taken care of by the time we are due to leave. But I still see it hanging around. Gurmeet, who is leaving for London in two days, is stressed. I calm her down by playing to her gently on Ladi’s sarod and then the three of us lie around on her bed. She tells me she has the same birthday and year as me (I think more to re-affirm our connection than to reflect any truth –I know Gurdev, like her a village kid, hasn’t a clue what his real birthday is and just has a guess for a date written on his passport). An idiot neighbor comes to visit and demands answers to his loud questions about children, marriage and the details of the price of various items in London. Ladi interrupts all the time, wanting attention like a child, he tries to answer for us. Their Hindu servant and her son are treated as part of the family and seat themselves with their backs to a wall. Old granny smiles toothlessly on all this; it turns out that although she looks ninety she is in fact just sixty-seven. Later we are taken for dinner to Gurmeet’s sisters house where a complicated family photo session with us exotic gauras (whities) occupies most of our time as well as what seems to be most of the neighbourhood.
The next morning Cocky Ladi muscles in to his connections at the front of the formidable queue at New Delhi station and gets us AC class tickets for Dehradun in under five minutes. In the evening we take a taxi back and sit on a suspiciously empty platform waiting for the Dehradun Express, listening to distorted announcements of trains running five and a half hours late and so on. At 10.10 (forty-five minutes after our train was due to depart) I show our tickets to a guard. “This train goes from Old Delhi station….” Panic taxi ride in appalling pollution and jams, run to platform…. empty, train long gone. My fault in not looking closely at the tickets: turns out we wanted the ‘Mussouri Express going to Dehradun’, not the ‘Dehradun Express’.
“Let’s find a train to anywhere out of this hell-hole,” I cry and miraculously there is the Kathgodam Express ready to depart in fifteen minutes. No tickets, no reservation so the best we can get is 2nd Class Sleeper – dirty, hard seats, lots of coming and going- but we grab two berths and thus we trundle out of Delhi, heading for the mountains and Corbett National Park.
Delhi-bound on a seven-hour bus ride from Ramnagar; an ordeal of loud and distorted Hindi film music. And so a day that begins in the pristine wilderness of Corbett ends (after two hours in taxi, seven in bus) with us stuck for one more on a bicycle rickshaw, in Guru Nanak birthday crowds half a kilometer from home. We give up, shoulder our baggage and set off through firecrackers, sword-dancers, a press of people so tight that we have to use main force to pass.
Gurdev has to be called in London to get anything moving on the sarod front. Ladi is completely vague about what is going on. We leave in two days!
We head off in the morning to try to get tickets for the ‘Ramayana on Wheels’ performance. Not a seat to be had even for baksheesh or Ladi’s wheedling. After picking up another swarmandel in the afternoon, we figure we might as well try once more and struggle back to the venue just15 minutes before the opening. A woman is selling three tickets she can’t use. Oh what a tamasha! A half kilometer-long stage in a huge open space, with us audience proceeding past it in railway carriages. Brilliant music by Amjad Ali Khan, but kitschy sets, amateur acting and laughable Hindi movie script. And the portrayal of women!! Either boring like Sita or wicked/spiteful/lustful ballbreakers……
But oh how we laughed! First of all at the aged taxi driver (and his broken down 1956 Ambassador) who drove us there at a bone crunching crawl, frustrating all our anxious pleadings to hurry. Then, at the ticket collector’s helplessness, as we brazenly hustle in a ticketless Sikh boy who has somehow attached himself to us. It all got a bit hysterical. Ladi to me in a whisper as Ravanna is promising Sita he will move the stars in their courses for her: “Just get me a taxi that runs for once…”
Ladi turns up with the precious sarod as we are preparing to leave for our Pune train. I’ve never seen such a sight before: its wood has been varnished so thickly it looks like it has been painted brown! I start to get a worried rumble in my belly just looking at it……
Sure enough, back in Pune, there are troubles about the sarod, which Shekhar is not at all happy about. I have to agree, it sounds worse than it did before and even begin to wonder: did Ladi or the maker perhaps switch it for a cheaper one?