DELHI DAZE 1994
DELHI November 1994,
My Dutch partner Sadhu and I are travelling from Pune to see the Taj Mahal and the Himalayas. I am bearing with me a precious new sarod belonging to my teacher, Shekhar Borkar, which needs some adjustments from the instrument’s maker in Delhi. To ensure this happens as smoothly as possible, I have arranged to get help from the family of my previous teacher, Gurdev Singh, who live in Delhi. But with Gurdev himself in London, we will be relying on his teenage son Ladi to make sure the job gets done. It’s Sadhu’s (in her mid-twenties) first experience of India outside Osho’s Pune ashram.
Nizamuddin Station, Delhi outskirts. Our New Delhi-bound Punjab Mail has made an unscheduled stop here for what has by now turned into 45 minutes. The fact is we shouldn’t be on this train in the first place. Ladi must by now be waiting as planned at New Delhi Station, to greet us off the Kerala Express. This train we had impulsively abandoned a couple of hours ago when, stuck at some station and unable to stand any more information-less waiting for it to proceed, we had jumped aboard this more promising-looking Punjab Mail just as it was about to pull out. Now, leaving Sadhu on board, and fearful that she and our gear might at any moment depart without me, I dash around fruitlessly trying to find a phone to ring Ladi’s home to warn him of the change of plan. I’m also trying to buy a cigarette to calm my nerves, but it seems they are not sold in railway stations. I rejoin Sadhu back in our compartment just in time for us to watch the Kerala Express cruise slowly by outside the window without stopping……
So we make our own way by taxi to Gurdev’s flat in Rajouri Gardens, a quiet(ish) residential district. His wife, 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 for us at New Delhi station, is in the living room practicing sarod like a MANIAC, as if on speed. His grandmother lies around on the sofa grinning toothlessly and shooting questions in Punjabi at us. Addressing Sadhu via Gurmeet’s translation and my limited Hindi: “Do you make nice chapatti for him in London?” I fail to explain to her that at home, one day I make chapatti and one day she does, because it is simply impossible to get such an unlikely concept 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 scorching your mouth is a totally new experience for Sadhu.
Gurmeet takes us shopping in the local bazaar. Guru Nanak’s birthday celebrations are approaching, so lights, decorations, loud bangs and everywhere people dressed in their colourful best, bustling with excited energy. As the three of us plus our purchases pile into a cycle rickshaw for the ride home I realize we haven’t seen another white face all morning. That afternoon Sadhu appears in the living room wearing her newly-bought kameez (knee-length top) but without the salwar (trousers) innocently viewing it as a kind of dress. At the sight of her and her legs bare below the knee 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. What he makes of his brief glimpse of Sadhu naked I don’t know, but his sarod practice afterwards is even more deafening than usual.
The next day we head downtown by auto rickshaw through the pollution. I am trying to make the driver and the various pedestrians we stop to ask understand that we want to go to Buddha Jayanti Park, which I remember from my first visit to Delhi fifteen years ago. My pronunciation must be terrible because all I get are blank looks: “Underground car park?” I make a Buddha meditation pose: “Aah! Puja, you’re wanting temple!” No no NO! Once there, it’s all a big disappointment compared to my golden memories and we are bugged by desolate-looking men. Finally a worried-looking guard shouting in Hindi about “Goonwallahs” (ruffians) runs after us as we head off into a quieter-looking area. We take our cue and leave.
Back home a pundit comes to visit and read palms. Sadhu has a powerful mind and love of culture, I am exploring my creativity. Ladi keeps interfering with questions about marriage and children. The pundit scrutinizes our hands a bit closer. Sadhu will not have children, while I will have two sons and two daughters. We will both do marriage next year….. Who knows how much trust to put in Ladi’s translation? Perhaps he’s hoping to marry her himself?
We are taken to a Namdhari gathering (a vegetarian Sikh sub-sect with a lineage of living gurus into which Gurdev and his family were born) presided over by his Holiness Sat-guruji Maharaj, a sweet-smiling old fellow. It’s a medieval-looking scene, muted pastel-coloured clothing, peppery beards and bright while turbans, with men and women sitting separately on the floor. Since I’m a man, and lacking a turban, I’ve been given a handkerchief to balance on top of my head. It’s also a chaos of noisy kids, scratchy loudspeakers, microphone cables, money offerings, and men strolling with affected nonchalance up to the bigwigs up on their podium and bowing obsequiously. All this occurs during what Ladi describes to me as the ‘meditation’. Afterwards 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 (at night you can’t see more than a few meters in front of your eyes on most roads) to go to a hidden-away backstreet instrument maker he knows. I pick up two dilrubas ordered by friends in Pune, plus a new swarmandel (autoharp) for myself and manage to juggle all three while perched precariously on the back of his scooter.
Back home Ladi, who had taken charge of Shekhar’s precious sarod, is assuring me all will be taken care of. But I still see it hanging around the flat. 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 Sadhu and I lounge around with her 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, who is 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). We are interrupted by a visit from an idiotic neighbor demanding answers to his loud questions about children, marriage and the details of the price of endless items in London. Ladi, wanting attention like a child himself, butts in all the time, so we gratefully let him answer for us as much as we can. The family’s Hindu servant and her son (who are basically treated as part of the family and only go back to their own home to sleep at night) seat themselves with their backs to a wall and watch the scene with obvious incomprehension and enjoyment. Old granny (who although she looks ninety turns out to be just mid-sixties) smiles toothlessly upon us all. That evening we are taken for dinner to Gurmeet’s sister’s house where a complicated family photo session with us exotic gauras (‘whities’) occupies most of the evening 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. That evening we take a taxi back to the station 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 (it’s now forty-five minutes after our train was due to depart) I show our tickets to a guard. “Aree! But this train goes from Old Delhi station….” We make a panicked rickshaw ride through appalling pollution, weaving in and out of jammed traffic and run onto the platform to find it empty, our train long gone. I study our tickets more closely. It seems 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 sitting ready to depart in fifteen minutes. Without tickets or reservation the best we can be given is 2nd Class Sleeper but we grab two berths (dirty, with hard seats and lots of coming and going from hawkers, beggars and late arrivals) and thus we trundle out of Delhi, heading for the mountains.
(Our trip outside Delhi is covered in ‘1982 India North’)
Back to Delhi on a seven-hour bus ride from Ramnagar; basically an ear-shattering ordeal of loud, distorted Hindi film music. And so a day that begins in the pristine wilderness of Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve ends (after two hours in a taxi and seven in the bus) with us stuck for one more on a bicycle rickshaw, swamped by Guru Nanak birthday crowds half a kilometer from home. We give up, shoulder our voluminous baggage and set off past firecrackers, sword-dancers, bhangra-revellers, through a press of people so tight that we have to use main force to pass.
On arrival I find Ladi being utterly vague about what is going on, Gurdev has to be called in London to get anything moving on Shekhar’s sarod front. And it’s only two days until we leave!
We head off next morning to try to get tickets for the ‘Ramayana on Wheels’ performance. Not a seat to be had either for baksheesh or Ladi’s wheedling. We figure we might as well try once more and struggle through the early evening traffic back to the venue just fifteen minutes before the opening. A woman is selling three tickets she can’t useI And what a tamasha it turns out to be! A half kilometer-long stage has been constructed 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 the house to catch our train back to Pune. 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, Shekhar is not going to be happy……But Ladi is delighted with himself and promising to visit us in Pune, Holland, wherever we are to be found. I’m meanwhile wondering if he switched it.