I went out to buy some milk this evening, taking the shortcut down the alley past the Hindu Temple. A pandit (priest wearing the Nehru jacket) was chanting prayers while he anointed a couple’s new scooter with sandalwood paste. Using his index finger, he painted a swastika design below the headlamp, putting a dot in each of the four quadrants. Actually, he missed one out until the man with the goatee beard drew his attention to the omission.
All the time, the bike was running in neutral, balanced on its stand, with the back wheel slowly revolving and the headlight on. The pandit wrapped a garland of marigolds around the wing mirrors. I have often wondered why I see motorbikes with dead flowers attached to their handlebars. Now I know.
The ceremony ended when the couple gave the pandit a box of sweets (special laddoo from Bikanerwala). He removed a pinch from the golf ball-sized sweet and applied it to the centre of the swastika. Maybe it will make the scooter run sweetly.
What do you do with the rest of a laddoo after using part of it to anoint a Honda? You give it to the foreigner who has been watching the proceedings, of course. And it was very good. I put milk jug between my knees and put my hands together in Namaste. Then I added a little prayer, “I hope the scooter will never break down, never have an accident and retain its second hand value.” I thanked them for the sweet.
If an Indian ever gives you something and you say how beautiful or tasty it was, they will immediately press you to take another. I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for supper, so I declined a second sweet, but the pandit gave me a tilak of my own between the eyebrows. That will activate my third eye.
Recently, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, there was a three-day extravaganza rejoicing in the “spirit and eloquence, the beauty and versatility of Urdu”. The festival celebrated everything Urdu – art, poetry, drama, music, cinema and literature.
The ancient name for Urdu is Rekhta (which means scattered and mixed). Most people who speak Hindi can understand Urdu, as it is based on Sanskrit, with Arabic and Persian cultural influences. Hindi is written in a different script, Devanagari, whereas Urdu is written (right to left) in Nasta’liq. It is a delightful language on the ear; some say that even if you are arguing with someone, it sounds like you are complimenting them. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word, but it sounded charming.
I was only able to attend on Saturday afternoon, so I picked a musical event called Hum Bulbulein Hain Iski: Songs of the Progressives starting at 3:30pm. That gave me plenty of time to have lunch at the Food Court and to meander around the other events in the gardens.
There was a wonderful variety of food available. Although I have enjoyed hot, fruity, spiced milk in the past, I decided it was too hot (29C) to drink it. I had a special pista kulfi ice-cream on a stick instead. The tandoori chicken looked tempting, especially as the birds are all free-range and much tastier than UK supermarket fare.
I was also interested in the breaded cutlets, the mutton mince, “blue biryani”, stuffed parathas and bhel puri.
But I chose to have brain cutlets (Parsi style). Goat brains, lightly chopped, spiced with chilli, coriander leaves, ginger, turmeric, peppercorns and garlic, made into patties, dipped in beaten egg, rolled in semolina flour, then fried in ghee until golden brown. Absolutely delicious.
Many of the trees had bells and packages hanging from their lower branches. I understand that people ask God for something, tie a gift onto a tree, and when their wish is granted, they take down the gift. There’s probably nothing perishable in the package. Hindus ring bells in temples to alert God to their presence, but almost all Urdu speakers are Muslim. Life is complicated in India, I get confused in my dotage.
I managed to get a good seat in the shade to listen to Danish Hussain, the Bollywood film star of Dhobi Ghat and, more recently, Alif, telling amusing stories on stage. The audience really appreciated it and even though I couldn’t understand it, his delivery, diction and timing were excellent. He had them eating out of his hand.
Vidya Shah is a famous singer, writer and social activist in the area of agricultural workers’ rights and making family planning more accessible. In my medical work I have come across two of the agencies with which she is associated, the “Naz Foundation” and “Breakthrough”. A trio of musicians (tabla, harmonium and sarod) accompanied her classical singing.
Afterwards, I felt a bit peckish, so I sneaked back to the food court for some dessert – my favourite Daulat-ki-Chaat, of course. But I should have known better. It is always best enjoyed in the cool of the morning, after the dew has settled on its surface, helping it to firm up. My serving was rather flabby.
The Statesman is holding the 51st Classic Car Rally in Delhi this weekend. In the words of the advertising poster,
“Let these beauties charm you one more time,
For, these are classic and sublime.”
I happened to be walking past Modern School, just off Connaught Place early this afternoon when a poster grabbed my attention. I was hoping that there would be 100 vehicles lined up, ready to be inspected and registered in the rally. There were just two.
One was a beauty, a 1934 Lagonda with sweeping running boards and painted British racing green. The engine compartment was not as polished and gleaming as it would have been at a rally in UK, but I didn’t care. It had been imported to India after manufacture and had never left.
The other was a Standard (which looked like a Triumph to me from a distance, with the front superstructure hinged frontwards like a Herald). It had a soft top which had been specially designed for the Indian summer. The owner was a very proud 83 year old. He had done Naval Training in 1951 at Dartmouth in Devon and was a real Anglophile down to his tweed flat cap.
I chatted to the organisers who were vetting the vehicles. One had a plummy, cut-glass English accent, which matched his cardigan perfectly. I suppose it goes with the position.
Modern School is surrounded by playing fields and a shady, well-kept garden. Why on earth it should have a tank and a jet fighter in the grounds, I have no idea.
It was pitch black when we emerged from Chawri Bazar metro station at 6:15am on a Sunday morning. There are no street lights in the Walled City of Shahjahanabad. But people were awake, huddling around braziers to get some warmth into their bodies before starting the day’s toil. I led my intrepid colleagues down the dark alleys. They had confidence in my inner compass to guide us to the meeting place, because I had been here before. But that was in daylight. So I followed my nose. This wasn’t easy either, considering the stench of the open drains.
It was even too early to buy chai. We stepped over sleeping bodies and dogs, tiptoed around pools of strange liquid, piles of festering rubbish and squeezed past parked trucks. We had arranged to meet the organisers of “Delhi by Bike” at 6:45am at the Delite Cinema (sadly now crumbling into disrepair). Priyanka greeted us and we chose our bikes. They were heavy mountain bikes with chunky tyres – perfect for the flat, partly-paved streets of Old Delhi.
At 7am we cycled Indian file (I couldn’t resist writing that) into the labyrinth of lanes and alleys. The sunrise had tinged the smoggy sky with pink, so we could see where we were going, without using lights. Almost immediately, we turned off the beaten track onto a winding path – what we in Leicester would call a “jitty”. We had to dismount several times to go down some steps. I desperately wanted to stop and take photographs of the old buildings and havelis, but every time I slowed down and looked around, the cyclist behind me nearly crashed.
We rejoined the main drag and I recognised where we were. We cycled past the marigold sellers outside the Fathepuri Mosque (Masjid) on the corner of Khari Baoli and Chandni Chowk, and stopped at the spice market. Men were stooped over carrying large sacks of dried chillies and fragrant seeds down a narrow, dark passageway. (I don’t think the men were bent over because of a heavy load; it was just that the sacks were so bulky that they were best carried on the upper back, rather than the shoulders.)
We followed them and turned to the left, climbing half a dozen flights of stairs to emerge onto a flat roof. To the west was a jumble of shacks in a huge courtyard, where spice merchants stored their goods. To the east, the sun was streaming through the smoke of early morning fires in Chandni Chowk and flooding golden light into the masjid. Photographers’ Heaven.
I walked around the roof, taking pictures of the ramshackle buildings, people doing their laundry, taking a bath, boiling up milky tea in blackened cooking pots, reducing masala to a thick sauce in a shallow pan, or simply checking their messages on WhatsApp.
The chilli dust in the air had scoured my nasal sinuses, but this meant the fine, pungeant powder had a clear passage down to my bronchioles. The dust made us all wheeze, cough and splutter. We needed our whistles wetting. It wasn’t even 8 o’clock and we still hadn’t had chai.
We cycled north, took a side road past the Lieutenant Governor’s official residence, and parked up outside a popular chai stall, built into the wall of a Hindu temple. The temple had toilets, so we took off our shoes, walked across the concourse and then realised that we would need our shoes again if we were going to use the toilets. The facilities were basic. I went around the corner to wash my hands and saw a massive bowl of cow shit by the sink. Holy crap.
The tea was disappointing, but I gorged on shortbread biscuits with chocolate chips and namkeen from the chai wallah. Cycling boosts your appetite. We cycled south, past the railway station, through the gangs of daily wage labourers waiting to be employed, down by the town hall to reach Chandni Chowk.
It is difficult to believe that this boulevard got its name from the reflection of moonlight from a central canal illuminating the facades of aristocratic houses. Sigh. Even before 9am, it was bustling with activity verging on mayhem.
We crossed the street and pedalled down Parantha Gali and through the lanes to the Jama Masjid, Delhi’s largest mosque, constructed in 1648. We went on to eat breakfast of mutton curry and Khameer naan bread at Karim’s backstreet restaurant. You might scoff (we certainly did) at having this for breakfast, but it was melt-in-the-mouth delicious. We ate some sweet thick slabs of bread before cycling back to the Turkamen Gate and the Delite Cinema, marking the end of our tour. By now, the streets were filling up with people, donkeys, horses, goats, rickshaws, food carts, scooters and motorbikes. The golden hours of cycling had vanished and it wasn’t even 11am.
We were exhilarated. Our route had taken us back and forth across the Old City. It had whetted my appetite for more exploration and I was already making plans to return with a better camera and longer lens. Cycling is great, but unless you are wearing a GoPro camera on your helmet, you can’t take photos while riding.
The noise was deafening. Even though firecrackers have been banned because of the poor air quality in Delhi, this didn’t stop a score from lighting up the sky. First of all, I went up to the roof, but I quickly saw that I needed to be on the street to get in on the action. I am posting this blog within an hour of it happening.
It was chilly, so I pulled on my winter jacket, grabbed my camera and ran down the stairs. The wedding carriage was just pulling into the local housing estate where the banqueting tent was situated. The groom and half a dozen children were riding in the carriage at the end of the parade. Men and women were walking in separate groups, each with their own set of drummers and trumpet players.
While I was snapping away, the brother of the groom pulled me into a group of male dancers. I threw a few shapes but my camera was bouncing on my chest and nearly hit me in the face. I ducked out, and went over to take pictures of the ladies in their finery. They were dancing too, but in a more refined way, less alcohol-fuelled than the men.
The bride’s brother took my camera and I was dragooned into dancing. The fast drumming was hypnotic and I let myself go, shimmying for all I was worth. That’s the thing about being a white man in India, no one cares if you make a fool of yourself. Everyone thinks that people dance that way in England, at weddings. Maybe they do.
The photographs the BB took are blurry and full of grain. He did his best. I am posting them because they look authentic and I look happy. He begged me to go to the wedding tent and eat, but I said that I had already had supper. Someone pulled on his arm to ask a question and while his attention was distracted, I managed to slip away.
On the way out of the estate, I saw an ice cream vendor. After midnight, in the street, among the cows. India, man.
“Lal Quila” means Red Fort, because of the magnificent red sandstone walls. When it was constructed in the early 17th Century, it was known as the “Lal Mubarak”, or Blessed Fort. The Moghuls ruled their diminishing Indian Empire from the Fort for two hundred years before the disaster of the Mutiny in 1857 (known here as the Second War of Independence).
It is a marvel of Moghul architecture. Sadly, when the British troops took over the fort following the siege of Delhi, it was ransacked. Semi-precious stones were prised from their marble settings. Beautiful buildings were torn down to make way for army barracks.
Parts of the Fort are in a sorry state of disrepair. But the quality of the workmanship in the carving of windows and walls of red sandstone is superb.
During May and June, temperatures soar in Delhi. The Moghuls used water and white marble to stay cool. This is a beautiful pavilion with a water feature on the back wall, channelling the flow to the edge of the plinth and into a shallow canal. Lighted candles would have been placed in the alcoves behind the flow of water after dark.
The inlay work (pietra dura) depicting flowers is wonderful. Much of this has been renovated sensitively. The third image below is the underside of an arch. It probably has not been touched for 200 years so it looks a bit forlorn. The cornflower blue still stands out.
The barracks are ugly, but still in use during special occasions when the military presence in the capital is beefed up, at Independence Day, for example. Families must have been billeted here because there are the remains of a school. The walls of the classroom still have remnants of nursery rhymes and the alphabet.
The Lahori Gate leads onto a covered bazaar, where one can buy trinkets, slippers and “antiques”. When British troops entered the fort at the end of September 1857, some mutineers took pot shots at them from balconies above the shops. The British dealt harshly with rebel sepoys who had “taken the salt” (pledged loyalty to the East India Company). On the spot where the mutineers had hacked to death European women and children who had been imprisoned in the fort, Moghul princes were hanged in reprisal.
The Fort originally had a moat, with water diverted from the River Yamuna. There is even a small “river gate” which now opens onto a garden as the course of the river has changed. There is a step well or baoli to provide water for the defenders of the Fort during a siege. There is also a lovely classical bungalow (similar to the Lutyens buildings in New Delhi).
The walls of the Fort have had some tasteful renovation. The crenellations have loopholes allowing defenders to shoot down on attackers at different angles. Some loopholes are covered by a stone cap, presumably to provide additional protection. The merlons are scalloped more for decoration than to protect the defenders.
The neighbouring Salimbagh Fort (which is actually a hundred years older than the Red Fort) has more solid walls. It is a huge mound of earth (which used to be on an island in the Yamuna), clad with stone. It was a high-security prison during the Second World War, housing captured commanders of the Indian National Army.
After the Mutiny, the British built a railway into Old Delhi from the east, passing Salimbagh and cutting a corner off the Red Fort. A footbridge over the tracks has crenellated walls of iron plate. It needs to be painted regularly. I wonder if this man is slapping on “red lead” paint (lead tetroxide and calcium plumbate) to protect the steelwork from corrosion.