Moments in Amritsar
There comes this striking moment of familiarity in a new city when, quite suddenly, you recognise how the tiniest streets all fit together and you know that they all lead to the special hole in the wall where the gulab jamun desserts are the hottest and spongiest in town. By chance, the next karahi pan holds the crispiest, curliest jalebis, dripping syrup over your clothes as they are lifted straight out of the fire.
You are struck by this moment of familiarity when you realise you are confident enough to take a cycle rickshaw even for a short trip because you know how to explain exactly where you are going and you don’t feel like a visible stranger any more. You know to mimic the exact language used by local residents to flag down their transport so that you are no longer marked out as a novice from the moment you open your mouth.
You know the spaces where that longed-for moment of silence may fall, and you know it can only last for less than a few minutes, but knowing where to find it at a crucial moment may just help you to preserve temper and sanity as you float into the ancient sound of a bulbul, hovering behind the eighteenth century buildings of Company Bagh. You can creep into the silence of a British General’s home and shudder as history hangs itself off a balcony before you, the clatter of teacups chiming somewhere in the air.
The city has led you through tiny backstreets to a trestle table filled with anthologies of Urdu ghazals alongside the exploits of Maharaja Ranjit Singh when Punjab was five times its current size, other lifetimes crumbling into yellow pages which smell of mothballs deep in the Hall Bazaar. By now, you also know which tailor can whip you up in less than three hours that wide silk trouser – the Patiala salwar – which likens the inhabitants of this old dry port to their Central Asian neighbours on the Silk Route, as they wrap their hair in floral kerchiefs and stand in low, wooden doorways for hours, faces beaten by ferocious summer sun. The woollen shawl with which you wrap yourself is the result of hours of bargaining, sourcing everything locally to let you blend with the men and women whose trademark wrappings fly off them as they whizz through the bitter winter winds on the back of Royal Enfields and scooters, the womenfolk side straddling to avoid the impression of vulgarity. This is a small town kind of city, after all, the kind where neighbours gather to distribute sweets for good news like births and weddings whilst discussing the shopkeeper’s wife, and knitting lurid sweaters for their grandchildren between the dancing rings on their toes.
You know that the old streets near Sultanwind market – somewhere between Lahore Gate and Gandhi Gate within the old walled city – are the dustiest you could find, squeezing your already wheezing lungs some more but you try to breathe calmly in the knowledge that if you make it back safely to Lawrence road, the fruit shop seller will give you fresh coconuts that clean your airwaves or fresh mossami and amla juice to lighten your digestion after 5 pounds of butter in roadside kulchas and morning paranthas which your newly acquired aunt gives you every day out of affection and concern. You know not to bother to attempt to drink a lassi, having learned that its weight will slothen you, and you know to ask the weathered street hawkers not to put an extra spoon of butter in your Dal Makhani, which is already cooked with the love of a dairy. Instead, you will embrace that milk goddess in the phirni behind the truckers’ shop, delectable and creamy bearing almonds and pistachio so finely ground that they melt into the earthen dish in which the cream is set at dawn.
You no longer wake up at 4am to the dawn call of shabads (hymns) that are boomed out of loudspeakers across this devout city where religion neither reduces nor encroaches upon the “maza”, the pleasure that is Amristar life. You have learned too that not every person in a turban is trustworthy, despite what your parents told you when you were small, but that most people here seem to be kind and blessed with a bountiful hospitality that prevents them wanting to be unkind. You have seen, too, in the middle of the Sikhs’ holiest quarter that there lies, unobtrusively, a city mosque where young boys rock back and forwards to learn by rote their own holy book. And when you went looking for it, everyone around you pointed it out to you kindly, making sure you found your way there. Memories of the past have died with the elders, cremated with the madness which once prevailed in so many people who claimed to love God.
Finally, late at night, you sit still because the serenity and spirit of the Golden Temple affects believers and non believers both. In the sanctuary of this city lies a sanctuary that belongs to all.
There comes this moment of familiarity in a city when, quite suddenly, you recognise how the streets all fit together, and inevitably that will be the moment that arrives just before you the moment you are about to depart.
December 8th 2010.