Friday, August 13, 2004


Some of your e-mails have kindly enquired about my Delhi existence: where am I staying, what I am doing? You know that I travel by bus every day. You know that I’m volunteering with a not-for-profit. What the hell?

I work on attachment with Butterflies, a Non-Governmental Organisation that has been running projects with street and working children in Delhi since 1989. ‘Street’ children are those that live and/or work on the street, ‘working’ children those that work and stay with their families or whatever. Butterflies is a super organisation with wonderful, committed staff and excellent programmes that make a real difference to these children, such as the Street Educators, night shelters, educational programmes, media (radio – the BBC [‘Butterflies Broadcasting Children’] and a newspaper).

One of these is the Children’s Development Bank, or CDB. Now, you may ask why street children need a bank. Haven't they got enough problems? The reason is that street and working children have a problem with storing anything of value – especially money. Commercial banks don’t want to know (account rules, not of legal age, insufficient ID), and the children end up leaving any money they save (usually not much) with friends or shopkeepers. It often gets ripped off or not returned. Having a place where one can safely store what little one has of monetary value is pretty important.

I’ve volunteered to do some marketing work for them for my 3 months in Delhi, ranging from the Marketing Audit that I’ve just completed, to a Marketing Strategy, to a plan. They’ve expanded the programme this year outside Delhi to 4 other places in India (Bihar, Chennai, Jammu & Kashmir, Kolkata) and 3 outside (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal). It’s a pretty exciting and stimulating place to be, and there’s plenty to do!!! We both get something out of it – I get three months more experience for my CV, they get me (other than overheads) gratis.

Every morning, therefore, I haul my laptop and equipment knapsack to the bus stop and, like the veriest commuter, I wait for a bus – you already know this bit – and take the 520 ‘Wild Thang’ from Sansad Marg to Yusuf Serai Market in Green Park Extension, just after Tughlaq Road, Sardarjung’s Madarsa, the I.N.A. Market, Dilli Haat, the A.I.I.M.S. And I do the reverse in the evening, other than the rare occasions where I accompany my colleague, Dr. Dilli, to one of the Butterflies contact points or something else happens. I fall off at Yusuf Serai, try to steady myself while avoiding swerving motorbikes, autorickshaws, bicycles going every which way, and then dice with death with the brave expedition trying to cross the humming Aurobindo Road, dodging and dipping and weaving to avoid rushes of mad traffic.

On the other side, I pick my way through the obstacle course known as roadside activity (including some illegally encroaching motorbike workshops, of course), turn down Temple Lane (it has two temples – always a pair of shoes outside, especially in the morning during prayers), try and avoid motorbikes and bicycles (and the passage is teeming with people, food frying, paper sellers, businesses already starting their long day), hang a right at the end, left by the ticking-wallah, swerve to avoid fruit and vegetable carts, pass the press-wallah on the corner, then to Butterflies, the top floors of a typical Green Park Extension villa. You can usually hear it from the end of the road - the kids in the Crisis Centre raise hell early!

So that’s the work bit. The home bit is that, well, I’m living at the YMCA. Please – no music, no singing. It happened like this. Dr. Dilli kindly looked around for a 1 bedroom apartment in Green Park Ex, only to find that the expensive villas around are either big family homes or 2 bedroom flats, for the most part. So I was faced with living in a 1 bedroom out in Vasant Vihar or somewhere like that, right on the outskirts, mall country, and being far away from the sightseeing and work, and spending Rs. 40 on the autorickshaw each way per day; or, living in a 2 bedroom flat, needing to clean and keep it and cook and, even more importantly, I also would need to furnish the damn thing and clear the furniture when I left. But no transport costs. That there were no 3 month lets, only 1 year ones, so I would have to take a lease and then give notice two months later, closed the argument: I decided to go for a guest house.

I’ve ended up at the Y, which Butterflies and I know well from the Planning and Training Meetings. It’s fine, in a grimy, dilapidated kind of way. It’s clean, but you wouldn’t stay here for the décor (“oh, look, Dudley!!! Isn’t that faaaabulous – so rare nowadays!!! Chipped, stained, Formica!!!”). The service is lousy to fair, but the price is right – Rs. 1080 a night, £13.50, including breakfast and dinner!!! And it has a balcony, aircon, TV, en suite bathroom, desk, bed, a swimming pool, all the comforts…

Of course, it also has a few quirks as well. It’s a very cooling place, most important in Delhi – cold, rubbery toast for breakfast; nice cool-to-lukewarm water to wash in…although the last is a bit unfair: I turned on the water heater to heat the water, then turned on the hot – warm – water to find…my foot getting wet!!! The damn plumber had installed the tap so that the dribble of hot water ran directly onto the sink surround, which was then dripping on my sock…I’ve since rigged up a warm water receptacle to gather my warm water over 10 minutes, after which I shave in 2.4 seconds…

The bathroom has some more interesting features. The windows are home to a colony of pigeons that breed and coo outside at all hours of the day and night. These sounds alternate with the loud gurgling and squirting sounds produced by the shower drain. Another advantage is the inch or inch-and-a-half narrow space between my bathroom and the bathroom next door, which means I can hear my neighbour’s morning sounds. All quite fun. The balcony door had been ripped off by the previous occupant, and it only took me a week to get it replaced (thank goodness no rain!)…but the Y’s a bit like that, combining the best traditions of the worst possible service with the most staff employed…

However, the people are nice. I enjoy chatting with Mr. Singh on the desk, I love the Sikh gentleman on the front door who summons your taxi for you and has a curly whirly mustache resplendent on his wide, lined face, and the guys in the dining room are a friendly lot, even if they’re on autopilot and can’t remember what they’re supposed to be doing from one night to the next. At least I had a companion sitting across from me at dinner table – a dead fly!!! “You’re quiet tonight, dear,” I thought…

And it’s mysterious and exciting, unlike all those international 5 star hotels with their boring predictable service that I used to stay in when I worked in banking…for example, tonight I received a phone call, “your laundry sir, is ready!” Ten-hut!!! “Room 303? Fine, sir!” Righty-ho. Over an hour later, where has it gone? Has a member of the Y’s staff got lost? Did the lift get stuck? Will I see someone else tomorrow at breakfast with a vintage classic traditional 1998 Montreal Jazz Festival t-shirt? I am floored by the possibilities…

Last weekend was another short weekend, and so I have only one real Delhi monument to report on, but what a monument!!! It was probably the most impressive and most important thing I’ve seen in Delhi so far – Humayun’s Tomb. Or rather, Humayun’s Tomb complex because, besides the Big Mausoleum, there are several buildings and extensive gardens spread out over a large area, and there are 100s of people buried there.

It is an important place for understanding Moghul and Indian history, a historical crossroads where a lot of events and people meet: Humayun was the second Moghul emperor in 1530 after Babur, deposed by Sher Shah in 1539 (he of Shergarh), then came back in 1555 (which must be a first…and last!). The next year the poor bastard tripped, fell and expired at the Sher Mandal at the Purana Qila, and Humayun’s Tomb was built in 1569 by his widow, Haji Begum at a cost of Rs. 1.5m…Humayun’s bad luck didn’t even stop after his death, as his remains did the rounds of the Purana Qila, to a temporary tomb when Delhi was invaded in 1556, then came back somewhat inappropriately to the bad luck charm Sher Mandal, and finally got buried at his new tomb.

And most of the later Moghul emperors, princes, princesses, and their attendants were buried there…all the graves uninscribed, their final resting places like those of ghosts…it is said that a subsidiary chamber holds Haji and Hamida Banu Begum, Akbar’s mother (Akbar was Humayun’s successor). The headless body of Dara Shikoh, whose bodyless head was left on the Khuni Darwaza (from last week), was buried there, the unfortunate son of Shahjahan who was murdered by the ruthless Aurangzeb…and a string of later Mughal emperors such as Jahandar Shah, Farukkhsiyar and Alamgir I. Finally, the last Mughal took refuge there in 1857, where he was captured during the uprising that year.

The Tomb itself is fantastic, not surprising as it was the model for the subsequent Taj Mahal. It is also the best kept monument I’ve seen so far in India – its status as a World Heritage Site means that it’s had a lot of attention and been restored and relandscaped in the past few years – there are even boards in the entranceways which…amazingly, provide some information (rendering redundant the usual entrance touts who want you to hire them to walk around with you to provide the same information for Rs. 50).

The site also contains the tomb and mosque of Isa Khan, octagonal like the Lodi tombs in the Lodi Gardens, Bu Halima’s garden and tomb, rather strange and flat like a stage, the Arab-Serai Mandi, the Afsarwala Mosque and Tomb, and Barber’s Tomb and the Nila Gumbad. But the piece de resistance is undoubtedly Humayun’s Tomb. Its main features are a radially symmetrical plan; a garden setting; and a bulbous, curling double dome on an elongated drum, all of them with strong Timurid associations for the Moghuls, who were proud of their dynastic descent from Timur. Six pointed stars, or Stars of David, adorn the central elevations of each side of the Tomb – apparently regarded by the Muslims as an ornamental cosmic symbol.

The tomb was a mix of influences, introducing Persian features to subcontinental architecture, but also drawing on the red sandstone and white marble of 14th century Delhi sultanates – first seen in 1311. It rises from a flat, rectangular platform, around which marches rounded arches ending in a point. So it is made even more glorious by not sitting on the ground, but already levitating above (not quite floating like the Taj Mahal!). Sandstone is the main stone used, with marble for the panels and trims.

Chimneys and pavilions swirl to the sky on the roof of the structure, but the dominating feature here is the dome, a double dome like at St. Paul’s – first major full dome ever seen in India (Hindu monuments were typically flat topped or end in a peak). Before this,most tombs had half-domes, and the Lodi ones were the first to describe a full semi-circle. To have a look click here.

Humayun, as you might guess, didn’t have a happy time…after he took over: he suppressed a number of rebellions, secured his crown, and then fell to Sher Khan, an Afghan in 1539…Humayun scarpered, spent 15 years in exile, then returned in 1555 with an army borrowed from the Persians to take out Sher Shah. Apparently in exchange for the Persian hospitality he gave the Shah the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which I guess would dispose you to lend someone an army or so! While he was away, he probably did Indian history his biggest favour by siring Akbar, one of the more celebrated of Mughal emperors.

Tired of walking around among more dead people after my 3 hours at Humayun’s Tomb, I decided to head for Nizamuddin Dargah, across the road in Nizamuddin West, but I found myself short of rupees – and the amount I had was about one Foreign Tourist’s entry charges, so I might squeeze down the narrow, crowded, atmospheric lanes of Nizamuddin for nothing. So I decided to leave it until next weekend, Independence Day weekend. The papers were already leading up to it with heavy promises of terrorist violence and dire safety warnings (“stay inside all day, even if you are staying at the YMCA!”), so it promises to be an interesting full weekend in more ways than one…


Blogger Big Mama said...

Re Y...But does the roof leak ? Enjoyed commentary and photos.

August 13, 2004 1:54 PM  
Blogger mrs_jazz said...

India is certainly a contradiction
of beauty or how we define it. The
photographs are a good example.

August 15, 2004 6:46 PM  

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