Friday, July 23, 2004

Monsoon Mystery

It may have seemed strange to return to India during the monsoon – I mean, why come at the rainiest time of the year? – but one morning at the beginning of July I returned to Delhi, this time during the daylight. A lot of flights arrive in the morning, and at that time the airport appears calmer, quieter, easier – less crowded than when flights arrive at night or, perhaps, everyone at dawn seems to need quiet. I was through immigration relatively quickly to my two waiting bags, and then out to Arrivals to meet my driver, who will be holding up my name on a plaque.

Except he’s not. There. I wonder if he is one of the recumbent figures scattered around the lounge, and so shuffle about with my trolley and 3 bags, a seedy, unshaven slob peering oddly at several half-asleep people. I give up after awhile and buy a prepaid taxi ticket to Green Park, then go outside to get the taxi and find…my driver, who will be holding up my name on a plaque. Never mind. I swap my prepaid taxi chitty for most of my money back, go off with my driver, and leave the resultant shooting war with the prepaid despatcher!

Arriving during the day, you see a lot more en route from the airport. We swept out of the airport roads, then proceeded through Vasant Kunj, a southern suburb, past dusty signs on empty fields proclaiming imminent shopping malls to come, through various streets, crossings, roads, down Nelson Mandela Marg, turning at the Outer Ring Marg (no longer in any sense now the Outer Ring), then up Aurobindo Marg to Green Park, all the while traversing busy roads rich with riots of signs, people, activity.

After checking in and unpacking, I went out on a mind-bending, bleary-eyed walk around the area, close to where I will be working come Monday, then went back to the hotel to rest. I then sat down to start this journal.

When I planned to come to India, a journal was high on my list of things to do. I had kept a diary of my travels around Europe over 2 decades ago and, despite it providing slim pickings for a bestseller, it was interesting to return to occasionally. This would be different, however. For one thing, I was in India for 3 months, then travelling for 2 months afterwards: a longer period, including a substantial time in one place. Secondly, I was putting this on the web as a blog, so sharing it with former colleagues, friends and family. A final factor was that in travelling around Europe, I was in essence discovering things for myself that were a part, however distant, of my own heritage. In India, I had chosen a place which was about as far from that as possible.

Simply, I had come to India to see the country and meet the people, and satisfy my need to do and see some different things. I also wanted to volunteer for a not-for-profit organisation, hence an attachment here to do some marketing work for a project dealing with street and working children. So I was inviting, expecting, and even welcoming, the cross-cultural exchanges and encounters that I would have, in the hope that I would emerge enriched and renewed. I will thus observe and report what I find with that viewpoint in mind, already gained from my brief encounters to date, through a prism of respect and affection for country and people.

Near to the hotel on the map was an enormous complex called the Hauz Khas, next to a Deer Park. I thought that a Sunday stroll would be a good way to acclimatise myself, so I set out early and found the park after a short, hot walk.

The Hauz Khas, or ‘Royal Tank’, started life in the 14th century, built by the Emperor Al Auddin Khalji for the second city of Delhi, Siri. It was originally known as the Hauz-I-Alai after its creator. It was essentially a reservoir. After it got silted up, it was repaired about 50 years later by the Emperor Firoz-Shah Tughlaq (1351-88). He expanded it by erecting buildings on the east and south sides, the entire complex becoming known as the Hauz Khas. These buildings gave the location a second function as a Muslim college or madarsa, at the centre of which was Firoz-Shah Tughlaq’s tomb. And you will see some pictures of the Hauz Khas if you click here.

I found the entrance to the Deer Park pretty easily, and just meandered through the park en route to the Hauz Khas village, which was full of furniture stores, clothes shops, design stores, art galleries, etc. At the end of the village the road turned hard left, and ahead was the Hauz Khas. The area was quiet and few people were about. There was no ticket booth, no museum shop, no guards, nothing. A woman and children were sitting in one open air building; children and teenagers were playing among the ruins, teetering over empty space leading to the vast ‘tank’ below, nowadays bone dry, earth for trees and vegetation and, like most of us, awaiting the monsoon.

Ironically, in the 14th century, teenagers were probably still walking through these halls, participating in the small group discussions that characterised medieval Islamic education, while sitting on floors said to be “covered with carpets from Shiraz and Damascus”. The long pillared halls were probably lecture rooms, small cells probably assigned to holy men. There were stairs that led upwards and downwards to nowhere; concealed openings in the walls between chambers; doorways that led to no room. It was almost mazelike, but had obviously had a grand plan when constructed by Firoz-Shah Tughlaq. His tomb was a simple affair in which children played hide and seek in the concealed entrances and exits, the ceiling decorated and obviously beautiful at one point, with only decorative carved designs above the doorways.

I went down one of the stairways to nowhere to have a look at the tank itself – down some steps and then jumped off a balcony – and to take pictures looking upwards at the ruins. I then sat down for a rest, interrupted someone who walked up to me, grabbed my Delhi guide out of my hand, flicked through it, then returned it to me and walked on.

I paced onward into the forests to find a way out, or up, but decided to return to the complex, and try some long, steep stone steps that climbed the outside of the buildings. The right side of each step had crumbled to pebbles or dust, so that you had to hug the building and wedge your foot onto what you hoped was the most solid part; someone conveniently started to walk down while I was walking up. We passed each other and I lent them a hand as they strode downwards. I made it up to the top without mishap, retraced my steps to the entrance to the complex, walked another way through the Village, and then, sweaty and tired, walked through the forest to the Rose Garden and back.

The Hauz Khas, a magnificent set of archaeological ruins, is now a madrasa without students, other than the children playing in the classrooms, nooks and crannies of the complex, and a reservoir without water. It desperately needed some rain.

The monsoon – and by this I mean the popular meaning of the rains, rather than the meteorological one of the winds – seems to be important to India for two reasons. One is that the intense heat of summer is relieved by the cooling rains. In addition, the monsoon has in previous years been so predictable that it was expected to start and end on specific dates, so it could be relied on when sowing crops.

Well, no longer. The talk of the town is that the monsoon is late or, even worse, not coming at all. Using the anthropomorphised terms employed in the newspapers, it’s ‘playing hooky’, ‘playing truant’ or ‘playing hide and seek’. However, the lighthearted phrases don’t really convey the gravity of the situation.

If you read the dire warnings and disastrous predictions that are the daily staple of the newspapers, Delhi is a city on the point of crisis in virtually every area of life. Well, possibly Delhi paper clips are up to standard, and perhaps the supply of roadside chaat is the envy of the globe, but everything else is apparently just about to implode - again, according to the newspapers. Piped water supply cannot be supplied regularly to about ½ the city. There is a shortfall of 200m gallons per day. The land mafia make things worse, the illegal housing developments and street living conditions just heap more stresses on the city…you get the idea.

Now, there’s no doubt that Delhi seems to have a lot of problems, some very big and seemingly irresolvable, but I seem to recall similar apocalypses being predicted for such minor world cities as New York (remember the Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead”?), London, Mexico City, and not just in the recent past.

The seek-it-here, seek-it-there game goes on every year, according to one of my new colleagues. Of course, it is here, but has stopped in the north east, Bengal and Bihar and Assam, and dumped billions of gallons of water on it. Bihar is one of the poorest states, and the TV pictures are terrible: persons huddling on the roofs of their homes while water surges all around them. Some have not eaten for 3 or 4 days. These are the worst floods in 20 years. And, in case you’re not depressed enough, there is increased risk of waterborne diseases (cholera, etc.) as a result.

But the monsoon has avoided the north or north west. It seemed to start on 5 July, but petered out soon after. It’s hard to envisage how violent wind and rain can ‘peter’ out, but it has.

The days now are hot and steamy. The light and heat are intense. Sweat washes about your brow, face, neck, and leaves your clothes and anything that touches them soaking wet. Wipe your brow and a cupful of liquid appears in your hand. So with my usual brilliant timing, the monsoon has waited for me to come to Delhi!!!

Everyone is fed up with the heat and humidity. After some optimistic talk about would it be today, tomorrow, by the end of the week, the feeling is that it will not now appear, that we will have a drought just as in 2002. The week for sowing is about the middle of July, which is imminent, and still dry as dust in one part of the north, flood disaster in the other!

By the way, a phrase that I’ve often heard, but rarely gets challenged, is that indigenous peoples do not feel cold or hot because they’re “used to it” or “acclimatised to it”. While you probably become better at coping strategies, that’s essentially incorrect. Everyone here is finding it hot, stiflingly hot, and the other day when the power went off in the office, we were all sweating in minutes without the air conditioning. It was 42 degrees C today, and it looks to continue at that high through the weekend.

A few days later and, just when you thought it was, er, safe to go back in the water, things are thankfully worse: illegal water tapping has arrived. The Times of India has a regular column on the water crisis, today recording the statistic that about 40% of the water supplied in Delhi gets lost in leaks/thefts by dishonest/unsavoury people, or unauthorised colonies/encroachments encouraged by the land mafia (how the hell does The Times know? Are they doing interviews in the street? “Any reason you’ve got 5 tons of earthmoving equipment with you? I don’t suppose you’re digging up the water supply, are you?” Do you suppose they’ve got CCTV in the trees above water taps?).

However, despite no water, no monsoon, land mafia and water thieves, cholera and typhoid, the good old Times doesn’t want you to slit your throat, in case you don’t buy a paper in the morning, so it ludicrously balances all the bad news with a second, lifestyle section that today features “man crashes car during sex”, “salman, sex, shah rukh, success” and “shop til you drop: therapy, Amisha Patel style”. None of this makes me feel cooler. In fact, only swapping my arthritic ceiling fans with Amisha Patel’s undoubtedly finer CoolJetAire Freez-o-rama Deluxe has the remotest chance…


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Wonderful. Love L

July 25, 2004 4:48 PM  
Blogger The Therapist said...

Man, I hope you brought a tonne of talc or the biggest stick of roll-on antiperspirant you could find.

July 25, 2004 7:31 PM  
Blogger Hels said...

Love the pictures. Wish I had something so interesting and different to write about. Take care.
Hels x

July 28, 2004 4:49 PM  

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