DELHI DIARY – 13TH JANUARY 2004
Last night’s badami doodh was circulating over my hips, as I awoke to the sound of steam engines whistling their way through Nizamudim, the swish South Delhi housing colony where I have taken up residence. A stream of light peered in, telling me I needed to get out of this sedentary existence, fostered by Delhi’s pollution and maniac drivers. Lodhi Gardens beckoned me – a 10-minute ride by auto-rickshaw away, it is the calm exercise park of South Delhi.
Catching an auto in the fog
As I flagged down an auto, my mother’s repeated warnings about wandering alone in Delhi parks resounded in my ears. I confess that I wondered whether a 7am power walk would not be inviting trouble, amongst the bamboo forests and hidden couple corners, where on Sunday nights, Delhi’s frustrated youth creep out to spend a few pleasured moments behind peepul trees, under surreptitious shawls, where the 20 other people in their small flats will not disturb them. So what if it’s in public, it’s better than the privacy the joint family grandmother affords…
The early risers
I need not have concerned myself. As I marched through the bamboo forests, towards the Mughal tombs which arose like a cliché out of the mist – or should that be fog – an array of exercise freaks speed walked their way past: Women sporting shocking pink salwar kameez, Nike trainers and woolly hats sprinted past me, some alone and others panting to keep up with their equally Nike-d husbands, bobbly hats, balaclavas, gloves and shawls (not Nike of course, because they haven’t yet cottoned on to this mass market, unless Giorgio Armani and Zegna who are both doing lines in Indian men’s designer clothing wear, to be found in upmarket hotels and boutiques only).
This being Delhi, the bellowing voices of Punjabi laughter could be heard as Sikh men of all ages sported varying degrees of turban on their morning exercise circuit. The turban in Delhi is a fascinating garment. It ranges from a simple patka – found mostly on young boys, and those hammering cricket balls on a Sunday afternoon, to a baseball cap (for those fitness or trendy moments), to a half-way house wrap, usually black or navy, which ties the hair back in a tidy fashion where a turban would be too bulky, to the full scale flying saucer effect, which has usually landed in a riot of oranges, reds and blues. There are also plenty of the neat, starched, professional look, which handsome young men sport on their way to work, but gorgeous men make less interesting reading….
Sikhs, it is fair to say, are both compulsive dancers and compulsive socialisers. To make the dull chore of burning fat more exciting, some of the Lodhi Gardens regulars turn up in groups, weaving in and out of the 2km circuit, discussing everything from Salman Rushdie’s unfortunate stay in Mumbai over the weekend, where local groups demanded that his face be blackened, to the price of imp0rted Mercedes and whether Blair will be in power at the end of the week. Brazil’s Lula also seems to be a favourite morning topic, and as the World Social Forum debate hots up, opinions are sure to become even more divided.
Different from Hyde Park?
Now, I love London’s Hyde Park, although not in January’s biting winds and driving rain. The spring blossoms usually begin in mid February as the snowdrops emerge. But on my many strolls there, I have never seen green parakeets whooshing towards me out of the bamboo trees, nor have I ever heard the startling chorus of mynah birds and bulbuls, as they attempt to be heard over Delhi’s choking traffic and chortling crows. And all these wonders, as pigeons coo airily amongst the arches of ancient tombs, all the while nibbling at the stonework and making work for the stonemasons.
As I crossed the Yamuna tributary by way of a 400-year old bridge from Akbar’s time, I was greeted by a medley of snorting, uncontrollable laughter. Veering ever closer to this potential outbreak from the local institution (I am not joking, this was news here last month), I walked straight into a group of about 30 men and women running about, flapping their hands over their ears and forcing laughter for 10 seconds at a time. Before long, I was giggling into my polar sweatshirt, and the whole vicinity was hooting uproariously. “Laughter is the best medicine”, I heard a small, scarfed-up man whisper amongst the trees, and realised I had just become the newest member of one of the many Laughter Clubs that meet all over Delhi every morning to begin the day on a positive note. I heartily recommend it to anyone who yearns for an extra half hour in bed of a morning – I believe someone started it in Clapham Common last year, but its success was doomed after locals complained that their sleep was being disturbed.
The morning commute
After a hair-raising auto ride back to my house, as fog limited vision to less than 10 metres (and that was without the glazed cracked screen, through which my driver professed to see perfectly), I decided I could not risk life and limb twice in a day, and elected to walk the 20 minutes to the Lawyers Collective office…. I could describe Humayan’s tomb, the model upon which the Taj Mahal was built, which dominates my walk to work, and so could provide me with limitless inspiration for the day.
But, to do that, I would be omitting to mention the throat-wrenching, chest-draining pollution fumes, which any regular streetwalker in Delhi must endure, and particularly across the main stretch of Mathura Road, a busy highway which I must traverse to reach Jangpura (site of the office, and the unfortunate early accommodation incident). Cycle rickshaws hurled themselves in my direction, as they narrowly missed a smartly dressed businessman scootering to work on his latest Tata model. I narrowly avoided slipping on a papaya skin, as the Government pigs had not yet started their day’s work – “delays regretted, but unavoidable, due to industrial action about the sty-like working conditions”.
Eyes streaming, I began my day’s work, loaded up on ginger tea and freshly ground dalia (Indian porridge). Traffic jams faded into the background. I had to worry about writing a paper on the current Hot Topic of Globalisation and Sweatshops for the WSF conference in Mumbai this weekend, already being described on NDTV as the “mother of all protests”….
A day of failed Internet access later, I decided to celebrate Lodhi in style. Apparently it is a Punjabi Sikh festival celebrated with some panache here in Northern India, although I have seldom heard its name mentioned in the UK. Still, as it is meant to be feting the moving of the sun into the Northern climes, folk in London probably feel the celebration a touch premature. Me personally, in temperatures sinking down to just above freezing in Punjab at this time of year, and just about 5 degrees last night in Delhi, I considered the celebration just a tad early too. I also wondered about why the coming of the end of winter was enjoyed today, when Holi, the start of Spring festival, is not until March. Perhaps I was missing something…. Well, why worry about the reason for a party, because after all, Punjabis tend to find any excuse to get riotous with music and food. It seemed the whole of Delhi was swimming in Saron di Saag, Makhin di Roti and Gajar Kheer last night. Wafts of Amritsari macchi drifted across street corners, mixing in with popcorn, rewri (a chewy almond-like nougat) and the sound of the dhol drum.
Habitat centre is Delhi’s answer to the ICA in London – all contemporary art exhibitions, Mexican film clubs, avant-garde puppet theatre, and for One Night Only – the legendary Madan Gopal Singh, singing at the Sanjhi Lodhi. Hundreds of Delhi-ites turned out, wrapped in shawls, huddling over charcoal braziers and bonfires, clutching badami doodh or whiskey, to clap, sing and appreciate the Sikh Sufi singer. I was entranced.
Think Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, singing Pablo Neruda’s compositions translated into Punjabi ghazal. Think Sufi mystic, chanting ancient wisdom in a language I could barely understand but which was so sonorous, so uplifting and so divine, that I could barely believe that I was privileged enough to attend such a performance. All generations mingled, rooted to the spot, despite roving TV and press cameramen, and hot plates of popcorn, kebabs and lasooni fish tikka melting their way round the audience. The concert was due to last one hour only, since a lavish buffet had been arranged afterwards. But at the end of each performance, most people stayed in their seats, unable to let this voice magician leave the stage. In the end, we were treated to over 2 ½ hours of Sikh Sufi spells. Ghazals interwove pleas for religious tolerance, which swept across nursery rhymes and finally, to the barely concealed delight of this knowledgeable audience, a “boodha Bhangra” (old man’s bhangra), which was as surreal an experience as sublime: The sarangi/guitar players moved the rhythm to a reggae, slow beat, and Madan Ji’s voice powered over, singing about a woman by the banks of a river in Punjab amongst the tall Rose wood trees, who was waiting for her lover to join her. His eyes closed, rapturous with melody and, spurred on by his fans, he recited French philosophy amongst the tabla’s heartbeat.
Just another day in Delhi.
Sat Sri Akal.