Saturday, 16 April 2011

India - The first smriti

April 9-12

Hello everyone!

I’ve spent the last few days in India’s capital city, Delhi. As usual when approaching a big Indian city, I was apprehensive upon my arrival. Especially as people were rating Delhi on the same level as Chennai. My hatred of the latter is well-documented.

After sleeping just about the whole way on the bus from Pushkar thanks to a bhang lassi, I was dumped onto a side street at 7.30am. bit different from the rest of the places thus far – I’m dabbling in couchsurfing (of sorts) for the first time. The girls I was with in Mumbai recommend I stay with a gentleman called Bashir – indeed Rowan, the Welsh girl, was there when I arrived. It took a while, but I eventually located the suburban area in the south of Delhi where he is based, and settled on the floor of a university student’s – Muiz’s – flat, five minutes from the main building.

I’ve spent most of my time in their building. The reasons are twofold. First is the free Wi-Fi, which itself has proven to be rare in India, meaning that I can finally use internet on my laptop. That explains the sudden saturation of videos and photo albums on Facebook. The other reason is that there is no rush – I will spend a fair amount of time here, and with company later on in my trip. So I’ve been more than content to chill with the men who work, live and play in the building, drinking chai and having conversations about sex. Amongst other things. But it was a regular topic.

All of these guys – Shawkot, Mushtaq, Mubashir and Bashir himself – all hail from Kashmir. The main room is also their workshop, office, prayer room – a lot actually. I call it the everything room. Their business is selling shawls, carpets and the like, all produced using fine Kashmiri material. Shawkot also has a Tibetan art collection which he regularly exhibits in Europe. I have learnt much from all of them in the everything room. Well, it’s everything with one glaring exception.

Food is eaten in a different room. And wow, food is eaten. Anyone worried that my old Eurotrip habits may kick in will be happy to know that I have probably eaten my body weight in the past four days. Breakfast – minimum four pieces of toast at around 10am. ‘Light’ lunch – half a field of rice, Ireland’s potato quota, dal and a vegetable dish – at around 2pm. Dinner, at around 9pm, is the same but with larger portions and an extra dish. I’ve gone out exploring each afternoon simply to burn off some of the carbs, and to have a semblance of an appetite in the evening.

I’ll come to where I’ve been shortly, but I need to make two more culinary-related caveats. One: I’m staying for free – that’s how couchsurfing works – but as part of the deal you must be present for dinner, which is accompanied by conversation and cricket. Yes, cricket is still happening. Two: Mubashir gave me a chilli. He even ate one himself to prove it wasn’t hot. I almost died. I love my hot, spicy stuff, but this was banging against the ceiling of any threshold.

As I said, I have done stuff each day, albeit not at my normal breakneck speed. I’m leaving the major sights for my return next week, meaning I’ve visited places not often on a tourist’s agenda. One such place was the Lakshmi Narayan temple, which it took me a while to get to. My rickshaw driver threw a strop as I bargained him down to Rs40 form an astronomical Rs200, so he purposely drove really slowly. The temple was nice, though a bit modern, but in the gardens to the rear I was swamped by kids wanting a picture.

Speaking of gardens, I also visited Lodi Gardens. Again, nice place, but there is a disturbing undercurrent here. Like much of Asia, young couples aren’t given any privacy at home. What many do in Delhi is perform their intimate activities in one of the city’s largest public places. You think I’m kidding? I saw a couple getting frisky – they were at least at foreplay stage – behind a tree. OK, they’re using a tree. But a trunk doesn’t give you 360’ privacy, and the people sat on the other side had a very good view. I didn’t stick around for the final act in this particular show, so no photos!

My mood was in sharp contrast to theirs, as I’d just come from a smriti. A smriti is a special Hindu memorial, and I had seen two major ones that afternoon – one for Mahatma Gandhi, and one for Indira Gandhi. Both are still revered. MG is to this day known as the ‘Father of the Nation’, and Indira is eternally popular for her policies. So seeing the exact spots where they were assassinated – MG by a stranger in 1948, and Indira by two of her own bodyguards in 1984 – was very sobering. Especially as the Indira Gandhi smitri also houses the bloodied sari she wore on that fateful day.

Delhi isn’t all about creation and extermination, though. It boasts some of the best shopping in Idnai, especially in markets such as Chandni Chowk. I don’t normally buy for myself when I travel, but if you are going to buy a quality tailored suit on the cheap anywhere in the world, it is here. Whilst browsing, I also managed to persuade a shopowner to let me try on an outfit for a groom at an Indian wedding. After talking to him over chai, he told me he sells it fixed price for Rs6,000. About £85. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted. That and the Bollywood suit would have been wonderfully extravagant additions to my wardrobe.

I also went to a man who can’t talk to get a barber’s shave. Growing up! That was an experience though. Lots of grunting. And no the kind heard in Lodi Gardens.

It’s probably because of where I’m staying – I can’t imagine how much worse the traffic was before the new metro came to the party – and who I have spent time with, but I have enjoyed my first time in Delhi. The men are heroes, the food great, and the places I have visited have exceeded expectations. My favourite was an old Islamic temple complex called Qutb Minar, the main even being the tallest stone structure in India at 238ft. In spite of this, it does mention it is five feet shorter than another famous landmark. It’s one I’m visiting in a couple of days, actually. It’s white…

Yeah, that one. The Taj. And right now I’m in the airport at 1.15am, waiting to collect the special girl I’m seeing it with. Very. Very. Excited.

Love you all


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