This was years and years and years ago. I am not sure where we were going-probably either Kathmandu to visit my mother’s relatives or to Varanasi for a Kalachakra teaching. I have a vivid memory of coming out of a station in Delhi and then all of us, my parents and brother and me, piling onto a horse cart with all our luggage, our bags and tea thermoses and even a rather large and unwieldy travelling kumbali (blanket). It was probably not my first time in a horse buggy, but for some reason that ride stayed with me—the startled eyes focused by blinkers, the clip clop of the horse’s shoes striking the curving paved road as we came out of an underpass, the whip lash across heaving shoulders even though the poor animal was straining with all his strength.
The horse buggies are nowhere to be seen now. These days the transportation of choice is the metro, a silent sparkling thing that puts the screeching boxcars of the New York subway to shame. The authorities are serious about keeping the metro safe, secure and spit-free; there are metal detectors, men with rifles and signs everywhere that anyone caught spitting has to pay a Rs. 200 fine. Although honestly, something I have long thought more noxious than spitting? Ball scratching. Where’s the fine for that? Here’s a sign I would like to see: No private scratching in public!
So anyway, Delhi. Delhi Delhi Delhi. I have passed through Delhi many times over the years, most recently two years ago, but I haven’t really ever seen Delhi. I do the obligatory trip to Connaught Place and Janpath and otherwise stay tucked away in the narrow gullys and stacked hotels in the Tibetan colony (kaloni!) of Majnukatilla on the outskirts of the city. If I go out at all, I am always anxious that my bag or my wallet is going to be lifted. Cities have a way of putting you on the defensive. Delhi, too large and sprawling and hot, always defeats me. But this time actually I managed to see a couple of other places that were new, to me at any rate.
First I hung out in a Khan Market café for a couple of hours with a friend from school. Called the Café Turtle, a coffee shop on top of a bookstore, the place could have been any coffee shop in Cambridge. Either Cambridge. The café was green and lime yellow, with small round marble-topped tables and photographs of Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gilliespie and B.B. King on the wall. Our hangout included lots of laptop time, a special bookstore purchase, haircuts and lunch. After this, before returning home, I thought I should go to India Gate because it was shamefully nearby and I had never yet been.
India Gate was kind of magnificent. It’s very tall, quite simple and quite imposing. Designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens, it is a memorial to India’s war dead. It’s always such a sad thing looking at memorials, essentially graves. I have never seen the Vietnam War Memorial in real life but even just looking at photos of that memorial brings a lump to my throat. Maya Lin knew what she was about. Lutyens had names of the fallen soldiers inscribed all over the massive marble facades of the Gate. Most of the names were too high up but from what I could read, I saw a lot of Singhs and Khans.
Here’s the inscription on the gate:
To the dead of the Indian armies who fell and are honored in France and Flanders Mesopotamia and Persia East Africa Gallipoli and elsewhere in the near and the far east and in sacred memory also of those whose names are here recorded and who fell in India on the North West Frontier and during the Third Afghan War
I thought of all of our dead, who never had a chance to be honored. Or even acknowledged.
Then I walked along the Rajpath from India Gate to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the President’s House, also designed by Lutyens. (Right before India’s independence.) The long straight road with a walkway of red earth and a green lawn on each side reminded me a lot of the mall in Washington (although not so much all the corn cobs and the ice cream sticks littering the grass).
The Rashtrapati Bhavan, when I got there (in what definitely felt longer than the 15 minutes that the ice cream vendor claimed), was still disappointingly far in the distance behind iron gates. I got a good look at its garden though, with two hedge carved elephants that I thought at first were misshapen camels or dinosaurs.
Between India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan, a small funny thing happened. As I didn’t have my camera with me, I let myself be corralled by one of the boys trying to sell tourists photos of them with their fingertips holding the top of India Gate. I want a photo of just the Gate, without me, I said. Rs. 30. Then I had to wait while the boy went off to print the photo from a printer conveniently located under a tree some 15 feet away. Who knows how the cables worked.
When the kid came back, he suggested that I go sit in the park with him. I guess it was an obligatory pick-up on his part as a) I was female b) I was a tourist and c) I was alone. Since there were swarms and swarms of people all around us, and he was as short as me and looked about 16, I humored him.
We walked to the park and sat down. I wanted to hear his story, but first things first.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“20,” he said. “How old are you?”
“28,” I said. “I am your older sister (didi).”
His eyes went wide and shifty. Then he pointed to the sun, hanging perfectly high in the sky, and said, “If you want to see Rashtrapati Bhavan, you better go before it gets too dark.”