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15 March , 2008


 2nd February 2004 

Right-wing leaders plaguing the planet have failed to cotton onto one essential aspect of multicultural, secular societies: Public Holidays for Everyone for All Religious Festivals. It’s a fabulous reason to have Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists living harmoniously under the skies of India – despite the attempts of the Shiv Sena leaders to raise the Trishul, and banish all non-Hindu vermin (I am quoting directly, so lay your offence at another door). 

So far, I have been a direct beneficiary: Last Monday was Republic Day, today is Eid-ul-Bakir. Next week is Mahashivratri ( a particularly auspicious day in the Hindu calendar), and coming up at the start of March is Muharram (Shi’ite Muslim remembrance day) and Holi (Northern India’s start of Spring). Either way, I have no excuse to attend work with dogged regularity. 

Republic Day  

Republic Day festivities were ripe with television commentators gurgling with the names of all the home-grown weaponry being marched down Rajpath, in streaming processions of khaki-clad men and machines, demonstrating India’s might to the world. Between the Israelis, who rely on the Indian government to buy half of their annual arms sales on a regular basis, and the several million people who turn out each year, decked with plastic flags that are sold at each set of traffic lights in the city for one week prior to the festivities, the lads-in-green had quite a crowd of onlookers.

As people munched their way through buttery sweet potatoes, barbecuing at strategic locations, army captains stiffly saluted the Indian president, who looked rather like a bedraggled Persian Prince undone by too much opium; the crowds roared with delight. All this as India and Pakistan forge a new peace treaty, and the trains left from Delhi for Lahore for the first time since the 2001 attacks on the Indian Parliament. A dove in one hand, and a curled fist in the other. 

The great advantage of most of Delhi finding itself herded into chicken coops to watch the big boys play, was that there was no traffic. Anyone headed for Republican Parties littering town was in for a speed treat. On the only hot sunny day of the year so far, I found myself clad in the tri-colours of the India flag at a lunch party. No cheesy wotsits or Marks & Spencers spring rolls in sight here – just a huge tandoor, fresh nans being whacked onto the sides and melting straight into the mouths of hungry Bengali film-makers, French photo-journalists and Punjabi jewellery designers, devouring freshly tandoored fish and chilled Indian wine alongside.  

Missing London?

People keep asking me if I miss London. I honestly must confess that the only thing I occasionally yearn for is some really good wine, which although obtainable, usually involves a few wallets of rupees and furtive trips to basement cellars in raincoats, where any woman will be mistaken for a prostitute (I am reliably informed, however, that the US Embassy has a stockpiled cellar of good Californian loot, dirt cheap…) Usually, though, the thing that makes one ache for home, when abroad for any length of time, is home-cooked food. But as I can find Punjabi food at every street corner, and at home when I get back from work, there is really very little to miss. And food is really the petrol that keeps this city going. From searing aloo tikkis, on the giant hot tawas that sprout on each street entrance, juice bars which mix cocktails of pomegranate, apple, red carrot or coconut, to the sweetened milky tea, served in the dinkiest tiny cups or glasses, that keeps most of Delhi on a permanent sugar high, you can never plan really to diet here. Even when you have already eaten, twice.. 

Dinner parties – Delhi style  

Thursday night was another dinner party, the host being a gracious Sikh chap called H, who has the most stylish house that I have yet seen in Delhi, this being an interior design heaven. Amongst the Mexican (or Goan, in the spirit of Republican Day patriotism) yellows and pastels of the veranda, replete with pot plants falling over each other, wooden rocking chairs and voluminous candles, we sat around a log fire, shivering in flimsy shawls, handing each other giant plates of griddled spiced lamb chops, hot off the barbecue; an almost entirely Sikh crowd, most of the invitees were mildly amused to find that I was a vegetarian, and even when they understood that my refusal amounted to more than cursory politeness, they still offered me the chicken skewers –“it’s not meat”. It reminded me of Athens, when you ask for vegetarian moussaka, and receive a plate of steaming mince and aubergine, with the sentiment “It’s Greece, re, what do you expect?” –(same reaction from an old friend last night at Defence Colony’s famous Colonel’s Kebabs, when I ventured towards the tawa mushroom instead of boti kebabs after copious martinis at Aghni – he whispered vehemently in my ear “Shush, someone might hear…”)  

That same dinner party was an eclectic mix of people, and I found myself seated next to the biggest pro-Bush supporter of them all. An Indian from California, he had a million reasons why Bush had saved the planet, and America, from a lesser fate. And after a short while, I realised that I had better just smile and change the subject, if I didn’t want to upset this delightful soiree.  So I did.

Until on Saturday night, when out at Shalom, Delhi’s most happening bar du moment, I met another Indian American couple. Recently married, and here from New York, the husband works with the American Department of Human Rights and Labour (It isn’t an oxymoron, apparently). We found ourselves in intense discussion about the nature of communal tension In India; his answer to the troubles, in short, was “Liberalise the economy”. As if centuries of history and evil distortions of power play by India’s religious and political leaders could be resolved by handing Enron free rein into the Indian marketplace…. 

And speaking of communal hype, none of it was in evidence today, the Muslim celebration of Eid, when traditionally goats are slaughtered for North India’s best biryani. I decided to check out the action for myself, since I had the day off work… 

South Delhi  

Having lodged myself firmly in South Delhi since I arrived, I very seldom leave. Most of the old or new friends I have made, bars or restaurants I wish to visit, and all the glittering shopping, can be found within the confines of the leafy colonies of the city’s south. And living the South Delhi-thang is tantamount to living in any city, anywhere in the world, with the added bonus of stunning brocade saris at designer prices, and an Indian flavour to all urban essentials. So when I ventured north of Connaught Place (lovingly referred to by all Delhi-ites as CP, and stubbornly renamed by the Government  a few years back as Indira Chowk, and Rajiv Chowk – those beloved prime ministerial yokes), to the Old Delhi district of Chandni Chowk, I was in for a dusty, hair-raising change of scene. 

Old Delhi 

Jama Masjid is India’s largest mosque, and it throngs with people day and night. The building is quite typically beautiful, but it is the street life outside which is the real feast for the tourist eye, ear and throat: Buildings are a crumbling mix of breathtaking heritage lattice work, painted in once-glorious whites, greens and blues, to the downright decrepit. Mangy dogs mingle with sacred Hindu cows, and even camels can be seen scratching their backs against iron lamp poles.

There were also large numbers of goats, painted red or pink behind the ears, marked out for the sacrificial festivities.  They bleated away trustingly, oblivious to their fate of being served by men in white shalwar kameez, who ladled banana leaf bowls full of biryani out of enormous brass tumblers; phirni, the delicious ground rice and nut dessert, filled earthen matkis all around the mosque and was devoured by wide-eyed children, delighted to have the day off school.  S

till, I had forgotten that I would feel quite so conspicuous, even though I was fully covered up, even having taken the precaution of scarfing up my hair Kashmiri-style; I soon realised the best way to get about was to hop onto a cycle rickshaw, cover up the best part of my face and body with my shawl and then make like I knew where I was going. Every step one takes in the winding, crazed alleys is like slicing with death.

Pedestrians are considered bottom of the food chain when it comes to traffic rules, so cycle rickshaws give you a strategically higher chance of survival. My driver, though, kept being sworn at in coarse Punjabi by most of the others, so I think he was driving too slowly. The nervous anxiety I have suffered every time I have stepped into a car for the past two years in England is fast dissolving. Nerve is a necessary characteristic whenever one leaves the home in Delhi.  When Sisganj gurdwara emerged from the den of lanes, I jumped at the sight of an oasis amidst the chaos, and found myself enchanted by classical kirtan.

The gurdwara was the site where Guru Tegh Bahudar (the Sikh’s 8th Guru) was martyred to protect the Hindu populations being slain at the hands of Emperor Akhbar. Despite the violence of its history, it is one of the most peaceful places in Delhi. No one bothers you, the classical shabads fill your mind and ears, and women can sit unharassed. In short, it was a welcome haven. 

But, back to the streets, as all paths eventually lead here, I found myself in familiar proximity with basic existential necessities: More food.  Paranthe Vali Gali (parantha street) exists for the sole purpose of eating any possible variety of the North Indian fried stuffed bread – mooli, potato, cauliflower, paneer, fenugreek – you name it. Washed down with sweet cardamom treat for a mere Rs11 (about 13p), I was in seventh heaven. 

Women’s rights  

I suppose I should mention my work amongst all this gluttony. It’s great. No court means no worries about midweek drinking. It also means less stress, no carrying files and no early morning trains to Scunthorpe or such glamorous places. And the particular project on which I am working – namely a public consultation paper about the need for sex discrimination laws in India, is both challenging, and an eye-opener into some of the rather less than salubrious practices in this ancient land.

Just to give a flavour of the battle that women’s rights activists in India face, here is a quotation from an Indian High Court judge, a venerable J.D.Kapoor, in his seminal book: “Laws and Flaws in Marriages”. In the chapter entitled, “Challenges to Marriage”, Justice Kapoor comments   Women of superior intellectual ability are generally torn between their femininity and their intellectually. They are obsessed with the development of their career to such an extent that they are forever absorbed with the self. It is mostly those women who hold managerial or professional jobs who suffer from this syndrome as they tend to lack the willingness to compromise. For them, even rearing children or raising a family is not a social obligation. A situation in which a women considers herself intellectually superior is sometimes fraught with danger as there is always a likelihood of such a woman being fascinated by a person who is more capable than her husband… Though it is said that motherhood is an urge for which a woman will suffer any humiliation, some women in modern society are possessed by the notion that he early birth of children cuts short their youth and spoils their figures”. #

He also offers helpful, and explicit, insights into the woman’s role during the more intimate aspects of marriage… 

As time shoots past in India, I fear my time is running out too fast. There is too much life to live in every day here; despite the poverty, despite the horrific scenes one can witness in daily life for all minorities, women, religious or tribal, India still offers rejuvenation for lively and tired eyes alike. The colour and the beauty rub against dust and ancient ruins; spirituality is the norm: Even in the workplace, humanity matters. Most of all, in a world where indifference, mortgages and long working hours can push our lives into humdrum, in India, the pulse simply cannot sleep. 

A week In Delhi. Sat Sri Akal.

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